FULLY HUMAN AND FULLY DIVINE:
TEMPERAMENT AND THE SAINTS OF CARMEL
This article is a compilation by six nuns from
the Carmel of Dysart, who recently gave presentations on the temperaments
of the Carmelite saints, which is all the more engaging and enriching
as these saints were so different from each other in personality.
As the article illustrates, the seeds of personality are already
evident in childhood, are cultivated throughout life, and ultimately
come to fruition in holiness - for, as the article concludes, it
is through surrender to God that transformation will come.
CARMELITES OF DYSART
The temperament God gave
When Edinburgh University Catholic Chaplaincy requested some input
from the sisters for their retreat day here in Dysart, they mentioned
that the topic they were studying was 'The temperament God gave
me'. This gave us the idea of giving short talks on the temperaments
and personalities of some of our Carmelite saints. Different sisters
prepared these talks, and the following article draws on them with
gratitude. This is merely an introduction to a topic which hopefully
others will take up in greater depth.
In 1950, a national health survey in Scotland assessed the personalities
of twelve hundred school children aged fifteen. In 2012, over six
hundred of these people, by now seventy-seven, were tracked down
and once again assessed. Two traits - stability of mood and conscientiousness
- showed signs of having lasted a lifetime, but other traits had
changed. Generally, it seemed the changes had taken place gradually,
not overly affected specifically by major events.
With that in mind, we turn to five Carmelite canonised saints.
Sts Teresa and John of the Cross of the sixteenth century, Sts Thérèse
of Lisieux and Elizabeth of the Trinity of the late nineteenth century,
and St Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein) of the twentieth. Two of these
had minimal formal education and died young. Two were intellectual
giants and highly educated. And St Teresa led the way for them all
in the Carmelite Order, each of them finding their particular path
All five suffered the loss of a parent at an early age. Can we
say that this early introduction to profound suffering marked each
one with an early maturation, a deepened capacity to reflect, a
compassion that widened young hearts as they absorbed the loss experienced
by their remaining parent as well as their own loss? Perhaps, unbeknown
to them, God began to fill the void and they allowed this to develop.
So, while the national survey indicated that major events did not
specifically change people, I think the roots of life choices can
often be traced to such events; and these life choices, in turn,
marked our saints powerfully.
Teresa of Avila - a vivacious extrovert
St Teresa of Avila, our foundress, who lived five centuries ago
in Spain, was a vivacious extrovert who loved people and wanted
to be liked. She devoured the books her mother savoured, as they
fed her romantic nature. She was grief-stricken when her mother
died when she was fourteen. She then turned more to Our Lady as
her mother, a devotion that eventually led to her putting Mary at
the heart of her Order. She did not enter a convent very happily.
She had sicknesses that may have been, at least in part, psychological,
brought on by the stress of not living wholeheartedly her commitment.
She was being torn apart, pulled this way and that. Eventually she
experienced what she called her second conversion, when she saw
a graphic image of 'the much wounded Christ' (L 9:1), and determined
to follow him totally and give herself wholly to him. Now, she said,
she no longer trusted in herself, but in him (cf. L 9:3). And that
is why, this time, her resolution became effective: the centre of
her trust had changed.
Those same gifts that had been problematic for her, keeping her
tied up with people and their opinion of her, were now turned to
the service of the Lord. Her great charm enabled her to found many
monasteries and overcome huge difficulties, and her love for people
now became a great desire to bring Jesus to everyone, through her
prayer. Even her prayer reflected her expansive temperament as she
saw God as a friend and related to him in an intimate communion.
Although she had visions and other extraordinary experiences, Teresa
always came back to saying to her daughters in Carmel that such
things were not important: that what was important was loving each
other, serving each other, being humble in the sense of living in
truth - the truth that we are totally dependent on God - and being
detached from what others think of us. Her love for people also
led her to say that she wanted all her sisters to be friends with
one another - very unusual in that era - and she described prayer
as friendly conversation with the one who we know loves us (cf.
Teresa always remained the person that she was, with a capacity
for enjoyment, and she ensured that recreation was an important
part of the day for her nuns. Also in keeping with her temperament,
she continued to involve herself in people's lives, especially that
of one of the friars, Jerome Gracián, young enough to be
her son. She worried about his health, his strength, the bad weather
he had to endure, and she generally mothered and fussed about him.
Her temperament continued to influence her behaviour. But Christ
was her 'first, fast, last friend', as Hopkins expresses it in one
of his poems. And this 'undaunted daughter of desires' could come
to say, and live, her words: 'God alone suffices'.
John of the Cross - a gentle introvert
By a different route, forged by a different temperament, John of
the Cross, like Teresa, came to union with God - to where there
was nada, nada, nada, except God. A gentle introvert, John lost
his father when a very young child. His mother, cut off from his
father's financially secure family, now suffered near-destitution.
His response to the experience of extreme poverty can be glimpsed
in his writings and exhortations. Was this the basis of his famous
teaching, which he wrote on his sketch of Mount Carmel: 'To come
to where you do not possess, you have to go where you do not possess';
'To come to be what you are not, you have to go by a way in which
you are not.' John's experience led him to an inner freedom - from
everything. This working towards freedom permeates his works; his
asceticism was for freedom to love. And having nothing, he possessed
all things, and could write:
The heavens are mine and mine is the earth
The Angels are mine - and the Mother of God.
And all things are mine, and God Himself is mine.
And all are for me because Christ is mine and all for me. (cf.
John loved to pray in places of natural beauty. He would also take
the brethren outdoors so that they could relax and enjoy the wonders
of God's creation. Not only did he find God in nature, but he also
found all the beauty of creation in God.
In his life, there is no sudden conversion or outward change in
behaviour, but the inner resolve and choices for love must have
been great during very dark experiences. He spent months, for example,
in the horror of a dank prison, yet during that time wrote the 'Spiritual
Canticle', full of light and beauty. He was by nature calm and reflective,
rooted in deep inner springs. At all the stages in his life, from
childhood through adolescence to maturity, one can discern his courage,
his compassion, and his ability to cope with opposition from others.
All were aware of his deep spirit of prayer and inspired by it.
Wherever he served as Prior, John was loved as a father by his
community. He learned to know himself and was able to understand
and be compassionate as he guided others on the path to holiness.
It is said that his face used to radiate joy and peace. His equanimity
was undisturbed by the bad treatment he received from less sainted
friars, and he calmly advised in a letter: 'where there is no love,
put love, and you will draw forth love' (Lt 26). He lived what he
wrote, his temperament secure in God.
Thérèse of Lisieux - born to love
Martin was born in 1873 into a very fervent religious family, and
from an early age learnt to love Jesus. At age three she was described
as very precocious. She was full of mischief, very lovable, very
emotional, but she was also self-willed and proud, prone to impatience
and tantrums if she did not get her own way. Her mother described
her as extremely stubborn - nothing would make her change her mind.
Although she was loved by everyone and adored by her father, she
was not spoilt. Thérèse was four and a half when her
mother died and the family moved house. Her whole world changed
- and so did her temperament. Now she was shy and over-sensitive
and very easily moved to tears, and she did not enjoy socialising.
All this reached a climax when she was ten years old and had a serious
illness that was thought to be psychological, from which she was
cured by Our Lady's smile.
Her continuing melancholy and ill health brought about an end to
her formal schooling when she was thirteen, and she then had a governess
for lessons. From around this time she was also plagued by scruples
about her thoughts and actions that she considered to be sinful.
In Carmel she received help and guidance from her older sisters
and from wise confessors, but the scruples only really ended when
the word of a priest enabled her to set sail on a sea of confidence.
On Christmas Eve just before her fourteenth birthday, Thérèse
received a special grace, and this proved to be a total conversion.
Her tears dried up, and childish ways and reactions were replaced
by maturity on every level. She became lively, happy, with a good
sense of humour, and very much at ease in company again. With her
natural temperament restored, and with the grace of God, the stubbornness
of her earlier years became the fortitude that brought her to Carmel
at an early age, overcoming various obstacles. In the years to come,
she was not healed of her oversensitivity or her great dependence
on her sisters and authority figures, but her choices enabled her
to rise above the enslaving elements and gave her an inner freedom
in her dealings with others and in all her relationships. Her writings
spell out to us the struggles she went through in her determination
to love truly, and her greatness lies here. Gradually she came to
see her vocation as love in the heart of the Church. Love for others
reflected her love for God.
Elizabeth of the Trinity - a passionate nature
with her temperament, will be either an angel or a devil,' declared
a priest friend of the family of our most recently canonised saint,
Elizabeth of the Trinity. Elizabeth Catez was born into a military
family in July 1880, so she was a contemporary of Thérèse.
She lost her father at the early age of seven. She had good parents
who taught her to love God and try to please him. But she had an
extremely ardent and passionate nature and could fly into the most
terrible and violent rages. Her early photographs show a stubborn
and self-willed expression. There is a delightful letter written
to her mother at the age of eight in which she expresses her determination
to be a good girl. It was a struggle, but the big change came at
the age of ten when she made her First Communion, and she would
say, of this exchange with Jesus: 'we gave ourselves to each other
completely' (L 178).
There is a dramatic softening of her expression in photographs
taken after this. With determined efforts to control her temper,
she gradually became a calm and sweet-tempered girl. She had been
told that her name meant 'house of God', and this made a big impression
on her - the grace of her life was to live and proclaim that God
dwells within us. Her ardent passionate nature became single-mindedly
focused on loving her God within. While Thérèse chronicled
her own journey in love largely through her relationships with her
sisters in community, Elizabeth reveals, through her letters and
retreat notes, that her prayer and intercession were bound up with
living with the Trinity dwelling within her. She desired to be a
'Praise of Glory', to radiate God - to be 'a living smile that radiates
[Jesus] and gives Him' (L 252).
Edith Stein - interiority and strength
Closest to us historically
is Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta, who died in Auschwitz in 1942.
She spans the roles of Jewish woman, non-believer, Christian, scholar,
teacher, philosopher, Carmelite, martyr and saint. Her father died
of sunstroke when Edith was under two years of age. Edith confesses
that she was a headstrong child. At times merry and saucy, she was
at other times wilful. In fact, she became infuriated when she could
not have her own way. Her mother took charge of the family lumber
business, and the elder sisters took turns caring for Edith and
her sister Erna who was also quite small. At times her sister Else
resorted to locking a naughty Edith in a dark place. Edith writes
that, when lying in her tantrum on the floor, she would deliberately
make herself rigid, and once locked in, did not submit to her fate
but lay screaming and kicking the door until she was liberated,
usually by her mother. She was a precocious child who absorbed everything.
Edith writes of herself as a seven-year-old experiencing a secret,
inner life that she was unable to express. Reason had taken hold
and her disposition changed. Temper tantrums stopped, for she felt
shame on seeing others lose their tempers. This inner life, which
she kept quietly hidden, is what she developed so beautifully in
her vocation as a contemplative. She could not readily talk about
this interiority, even when she was older; she was known to be reserved.
As an intellectual, philosopher and phenomenologist, she had a
critical, even caustic, bent. After her conversion and her growth
into Christ, this was replaced by the spiritual maternity she was
to consider woman's greatest gift, whether married or single. Her
colleagues and students describe her as gentle, patient, modest,
loving, humble, happy, lovable, serene, balanced, charitable and
holy. She taught that Christ is the perfect model of all personality,
and on this model she was formed.
In Carmel she gave herself to the humble daily tasks, she who had
walked in the highest circles of academia, and the above qualities
were evident to her sisters in Carmel. When the SS came for her,
she said calmly to her sister: 'Come, Rosa, we are going for our
people.' Edith remained true to her roots and her faith, a strong-minded
person rounded by the love of Jesus and his cross, in which she
found the source of all good.
The landscape of God's garden
Each of our saints recognised
the value and capacity of prayer to change the world - to release
love into the world - and saw it as a sharing with Jesus who 'came
that we may have life, and have it to the full' (cf. Jn 10:10).
That is his desire, his longing for us, and each one of us can have
life to the full if we embrace our particular set of gifts with
their light and shadow, their potential for good or bad. 'I set
before you life or death
; choose life then', advises the book
of Deuteronomy (Dt 30:19).
The personalities of each of these saints would have developed
very differently, had they not consistently chosen to love. To do
this ourselves, we need to be honest, truthful, determined, and
to work sincerely on our flaws. But it is only in surrender to God
that transformation will come. The saints we have looked at are
very different from one another, and together they help provide
a little of the landscape of God's garden. What matters is to be
fully the person he has created us to be. As St Irenaeus says: 'The
glory of God is the person fully alive'; and again: 'The Christian
is called to be fully human and fully divine'.