Rowan Williams describes Ruth Burrows as “one of the most challenging and deep exponents in our time of the Carmelite tradition –and indeed of the fundamental Gospel perspective.” After having his life changed by her Guidelines on Mystical Prayer 40 years ago, he pleaded with her to write another book.
Sister Wendy–the beloved BBC art nun–was a huge fan of Ruth’s as well, ranking her writings alongside the mystical greats Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux.
What makes this contemporary nun receive such rave reviews?
One might argue that what makes Ruth so extraordinary is how normal she is.
- She struggled with deep depression:
“It is impossible to understand my life unless it is seen all the time against the background of black depression. I was left shrieking with loneliness and pain.”
- God has always seemed absent her whole life
“My own lot seemed utterly bitter. Nothing, nothing, nothing, bleak, cheerless, lonely. And yet I found myself turning in the darkness to him.”
- When she entered the convent, she felt like a sham
“I lacked a natural religious sense and feared I was an agnostic if not an atheist at heart.“
- She was utterly aware of her failings
“I seemed to have just the same bad propensities as when I entered. I was ambitious. I wanted to be Number One always. My thoughts were often critical and unkind. Such things were incompatible with progress in the spiritual life, I thought. As far as I was aware, there was not a spark of love for God in my heart. I was weary and sick of spiritual things.”
Yet what sets Ruth apart is her refusal to evade this painful inner reality.
On the contrary: following in the tradition of Therese of Lisieux, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross, Ruth realized that her powerlessness was a gift.
That precisely there, in our weakness and our poverty, lie our greatest riches.
For it is not in our spiritual insights, our daily meditations, or even our mystical encounters that divine union is found.
It is in being like Jesus: powerless, emptied out, allowing the Father to love him in the most mysterious of ways.
“There is a ruling insight that covers and controls my life… It runs through everything I have written: God offers himself in total love to each one of us. Our part is to open our hearts to receive the gift.“
This is the heart of Christianity. That we allow ourselves to be loved.
And to do so, we have to let go of our egos, our expectations, our hopes for a “beautifully spiritual” life.
Sooner or later we must take the narrow path and leave behind all our spiritual riches. We have to go to God with empty hands. We have to let him be wholly and totally God. How hard this is. We want to feel good, want to feel we have something to offer him of our own. We want to be spiritually beautiful, to have an interesting, beautiful spiritual life. In his mercy he deprived me of all this from the beginning.
We must let go of everything so that we have space to receive God’s Self, who is always poised, mid-air, waiting for room to give.
For contrary to much spiritual writing, the mystical life is not about ascending to glorious heights, but descending into our imperfections and poverty with an audacious, empty-handed trust.
That is how we make space for divine union.
Join the world-renowned author, speaker, and retreat leader Ronald Rolheiser as he guides us through Ruth’s mysticism, and what it looks like for us to make room for the divine.