Humans are not nothing. But fundamentally we are made from nothing, and deep down, we know it. At least some of us do.
Ruth Burrows knows that humans are poised between God and the nothing out of which we were made, the nothing that is always with us in the form of weakness, precarity, vulnerability, and, in short, essential poverty. “Human poverty” is the phrase Burrows prefers for this state: not financial poverty, that is, but the poor state of being limited and endangered creatures. And since our universal experience of being creatures is of being fallen creatures, we have no direct access to what an experience of finitude would be if it were not an experience of fallen finitude.
Burrows is an acutely sensitive experiencer of this condition, and has written about it for years. If you don’t know the writings of Ruth Burrows, now is an auspicious time to get acquainted: there is a brand new, handy collection of her Essential Writings (Orbis, 2019) in the Modern Spiritual Masters series. “Ruth Burrows” is the pen name of Sister Rachel (Gregory), a Carmelite in the monastery at Quidenham in the county of Norfolk, England. Rowan Williams describes her as “one of the most challenging and deep exponents in our time of the Carmelite tradition –and indeed of the fundamental Gospel perspective.” And Sister Wendy (late, lamented BBC art nun!) ranks her writings alongside Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux.
In a number of recent publications, Michelle Jones has been exploring Burrows’ spiritual writings from a theological angle. Her 2018 article “The Riches of our Human Poverty: Insights into the Mystery of the Trinity from Ruth Burrows” (The Way 57:3 (July 2018), 49-56) caught my eye. It draws out from Burrows’ writings her insight into the correlation between the poverty of human existence and the fullness of Trinitarian grace.
Here is the key insight: “Human poverty is a deep mystery that plunges us into Trinitarian depths” (Burrows, Love Unknown, 2011, p. 11).
Burrows’s understanding of the mystery of the Trinity originates in her lived experience –in particular her vivid experience of ‘human poverty,’ by which she does not mean material poverty, but rather the fundamental contingency and vulnerability of the human condition. For her it is our own essential nothingness that is a gateway into the life of the Trinity. (p. 49)
Biographically speaking, Burrows was “vividly aware since her earliest childhood of the terrifying reality of humanity’s inescapable contingency and the fundamental chasm between God and humankind” (50). She experienced this as the anxiety and self-loathing that are common enough in our world, but she was always one of those highly sensitive people who felt it more deeply. And she began to analyze it spiritually. This is where a Trinitarian dynamic begins to register in her thought:
Burrows has embraced the truth that her own nothingness is a pure capacity for the Holy Spirit to articulate Jesus’ ‘Yes’ to the Father in her. So, in one of those paradoxes of which God seems so fond, the desert of Burrows’s interior life has blossomed into a vivid illustration of the fundamental gospel message that we cannot save ourselves; but as dependent, loved children, we are scooped up into the divine life (50).
Burrows struggled for years in the monastery with the besetting feeling of an empty spiritual life: either no feeling at all, which is distressing enough, or the feeling of desolation and abandonment. Her testimony is not about breaking through that to a higher level of spiritual joy and comfort … at least not directly. The breakthrough, such as it was, was oblique. Her fundamental insight seems to be that there is already something happening in the weakness and emptiness she feels when approaching God, or when hoping to receive any comfort from God. That something, rightly understood, is an experiential echo of Jesus’ absolute reliance on the Father.
I don’t know what Burrows has to say about the eternal relation of Father and Son with the Spirit in life of the blessed Trinity above all worlds; I’ve only read a little bit of Burrows over the years, and have read more for reflection than for analytic comprehensiveness. Perhaps she doesn’t write about theology proper, since her vocation lies on the more experiential side of spiritual guidance. I hope she would affirm divine blessedness, and recognize that the Son’s openness to the Father is a perfectly realized event of absolute unity. From that paternal fountain of blessedness comes the mission of the Son who, always perfectly receiving from the Father, comes to us as a fellow-human participating in our finitude in a fallen world. As Jones puts it (this time in her book The Gospel Mysticism of Ruth Burrows Going to God with Empty Hands (ICS Publications, 2018)), according to Burrows “Jesus lived out his perfect receptivity to the Father’s love by embracing unto death the sheer poverty of the human condition” (28).
A Christian, praying in great weakness from a frail humanity, is aligning with the incarnate Son who aligned himself with us. He lived out in our common humanity the Trinitarian receptivity of Son to Father, showing how it could be done in human nature. When we experience the besetting failures and weaknesses of human life, and confess that we are utterly enmeshed in them, it is possible to perceive in those very weaknesses the kind of dependence Jesus had toward the Father.
“Our daily experience of imperfection,” as Jones paraphrases Burrows’ message, “can take us into the life of the Trinity.” Or, in Burrows’ own words,
There is One who always did his Father’s will; who offers the Father perfect love and worship. And this One is the Father’s gift to us. From the shelter of the Son’s heart we go on trying, with him, to do always what pleases the Father; but at the same time never wanting to feel we are becoming holy and good, without spot or wrinkle. Never are we more truly in Christ Jesus than when, deeply conscious of our sinfulness, we peacefully rest in the heart of our Redeemer. (Living Love, 22-23)
This sentence seems to capture it all: “from the shelter of the Son’s heart we go on trying, with him, to do always what pleases the Father.” By itself, the phrase “trying…to do…what pleases the Father” could be merely the voice of the law. And indeed, one does get the sense that Burrows’ particular message about resting in Christ is a message that only has its powerful, catalytic effect for people who have long been attempting to please God by their religious duties. As a Protestant evangelical reader, I often find myself wondering how Burrows can be presenting, as a spiritual breakthrough, what I generally take to be the very first steps of the life in Christ: trust in salvation by grace (alone, may I add?). On the other hand, what a wonderful thing it is to hear this message of recumbence on Jesus as savior, shared as a hard-won and new-treasured thing, and spoken with an overwhelming awareness of the relief and excitement that comes from it.
And the rest of the sentence, wrapped around “go on trying to do what pleases the Father,” holds the grace: we do this “from the shelter of the Son’s heart,” and we do it “with him.” What the Son’s heart shelters us from, apparently, is crass righteousness by works. We strive to please God without thinking that we are establishing a track record, or a full account, or worrying that we are failing to do so. “From the shelter of the Son’s heart, we go on…”
This recognition of grace, of deep need and present supply, is what led Jones to title her 2018 book The Gospel Mysticism of Ruth Burrows. What Burrows is bearing experiential witness to, in her own spiritual idiom, is simply the gospel.
Again drawing out the Trinitarian reference, Jones quotes Stephen Sundborg, SJ, who wrote in his dissertation on Burrows,
Her discovery and surrender to Jesus changes her trust in God by making it the trust of Jesus in the Father. The trust is still utter but it is no longer blind or without support because it is a participation in the trust of Jesus who alone knows and reveals the Father. (29)
Jones concludes her article, “The Riches of our Human Poverty: Insights into the Mystery of the Trinity from Ruth Burrows,” with this summary of the insights we can gain from this modern spiritual writer:
For Burrows, we have been created to share in the life of the Trinity, and Jesus is our way into this communion of love. The Spirit can utter Jesus’ definitive self-emptying ‘Yes’ to the Father’s love within us in so far as we lay aside our attempts to be spiritually impressive and to purchase divine favour through our own merits. So our manifold experiences of fragility and inadequacy –so naturally abhorrent, but so rich in divine potential– must be resolutely embraced and surrendered to God in empty-handed trust. As we try to let God love us within the raw reality of who we are, we may not feel that we are sharing, through the Spirit, in Jesus’ intimate communion with the Father; we may not feel that our poverty is plunging us into the Trinitarian depths. But Ruth Burrows assures us that this is the glorious truth –if only we have the eyes to see (56).