Ruth Burrows, also known as Sister Rachel is a Carmelite nun and author of ten books, including the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2012 lent book, Love Unknown. Her 70 years in the monastery has taught her much about the nature of God, prayer and faith.
1. What is day to day life like for you?
I get up rather early and I prepare for the mass. Then we have our liturgy at 6am and morning prayer. Then we have an hour of our own silent prayer. Then we have a very short liturgy and the mass at 8am.
We have some breakfast then we all do work. I go to the Sacristy and work there tidying everything. I do some letter writing and general housework. We’ve got a very flourishing greeting card industry where several sisters work. We try to earn some money.
Then we have dinner and midday is interspersed with work and times of prayer both communal and private. It’s a very well balanced day and we have an hour together in the evening recreating, just chatting or play reading.
2. How long have you been living there in Quidenham, Norwich?
I’ve been in this monastery about 70 years. Rather a long time.
3. What does it mean to be a Carmelite nun?
I would say for me it’s a way of life where I myself can best give myself wholly to God, who I understand as the very meaning of life. I devote myself to God, to Christ, to Jesus and for the world.
Prayer and holiness of life is a powerful apostolate. I don’t think it’s a vocation for many but I think it is, in the Catholic church, a recognised vocation for a few to live in this sort of way.
4. What led to the Archbishop of Canterbury naming Love Unknown as his Lent Book for 2012?
I think the Archbishop has been interested in my writings for quite a long time. He read them when he was quite a young man. He kindly wrote an introduction to a reprint. It came through to my publisher, apparently the archbishop has this book every year.
5. What is the book about?
It’s just trying to get across what I would say is a very deep truth that the whole Christian tradition [is saying]. We are destined for God.
Nothing else can really satisfy us and we cannot of ourselves attain that destiny. It’s a gift and the means are given to us. Like everything else in our life, we’re geared to seeking achievement by our own efforts. If we want something we have to work for it. Jesus message asks for radical self denial. That doesn’t mean we’re always going against what we like but it means fundamentally we recognize our contingency that we are helpless to attain God and that in this area, we have to be like a child, so dependent and so certain we will be given everything we need to attain him.
Being content to be a child of God. Not childish, but that attitude that expects everything from its loving parent and yet we’ve got to try very hard and rid ourselves of obstacles and whenever we meet our selfishness, we’ve got to say no to that.
6. Do you wrestle with doubt?
I wouldn’t say I wrestled. To me, the very fact that it is faith means our natural faculties are going to feel thrown. I would say more the imagination can’t cope. I would put it like that. I don’t think I’d ever say I wrestled with doubt.
It’s a great challenge to face, that belief without seeing, without signs and wonders and without proof from scientific facts.
At times we all long for those sort of certainties we can get through the senses, but I’m willing to do without them. I see them as a great challenge to trust more.
So I don’t wrestle with doubt, but I understand people who do. I’ve no scorn for it. I think it’s inevitable in the life of faith and in our particular society. I hope that any struggles or pain I have through that sort of struggle helps people out there to cope who are struggling with faith.
7. You’ve written about ‘mystical prayer’, what does it mean?
I use the word [mystical] differently from the current use. It tends to be used commonly meaning some out of this world experience that’s esoteric. That’s what most people think of it and one can read biographies in which this happens to prayerful people but it also happens to non-prayerful people.
I use it very strictly in this way. Those areas when only God can do it for us, I’d call it mystical. It’s supernatural. It needn’t be felt, it needn’t be experienced. Our experience of it could well be non-experience, because it’s God.
We have to deny ourselves. I think there’s a mysterious area in the dark where God does it. We may not be directly aware of it but we know it by the fact that we go on, we don’t give up. In the dark we can trust.
All this is mystical and I would say the sacraments are very mystical. They are God acting directly through Christ. And we receive. That is the point, receiving and it may be in the dark. I am not one who would boost experiences. I’m not saying they don’t happen but I think we shouldn’t put too much weight on them.
8. Who was To Believe in Jesus written for?
Ordinary people. It was the third book I wrote and I felt I wanted to put in very simple language, ordinary jargon what I’ve said in the previous one which was guidelines for mystical prayer. I had all sorts of people in my own family I wanted to tell them what really mattered, the heart of it all.
9. What’s the best Christian book you’ve read?
I’d say Julian of Norwich [Revelations of Divine Love]. I think she really knows God, really knew Jesus Christ. It wasn’t just theory. I think she knew God and close to her is St Theresa of Lisieux The Story of a Soul. I have to say the genre is rather off putting, I know many people would not find her way of writing 19th century French [easy to read and she] writes rather childishly at times, but what she’s saying has been very important to me.
10. What has God been teaching you recently?
I see more and more the truth of what it means to be totally poor and let God be God. Don’t try and be God yourself and take over and control things in any way. Just let go.
May 16th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes