Brian Heffernan
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Contemplatives in an expressive culture
Prayer and the turn to self, 1970–2020
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This chapter explores the outcome of renewal: the construction of a new identity as contemplatives in an expressive culture. Human values such as community spirit and spontaneity were highly esteemed, and the new concept of spirituality was discursive rather than ritual or devotional, requiring narrative expression of experiences and feelings. Life as a Carmelite required the performance of a new persona: that of the mature, free but conscientious religious. The new Carmelite identity pivoted around prayer, and, although many sisters experimented with novel, extemporaneous forms, mental prayer according to a now non-dolorist reading of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross remained core. Discourse about Carmelite prayer focused particularly on an apophatic interpretation of John’s dark night of the soul. This also shows the limits of the turn to self and the expressive revolution for Carmelite life: new acquaintance with John of the Cross gave the sisters a sense of the inadequacy of experience. The reinvention of Carmelite identity and spirituality entailed shifts in memory, as dolorism and victim spirituality were expunged from the new narrative, in line with the ‘othering’ of the traditional in media representations. But legacies of the past continued to obtrude on the present, particularly around the beatification and canonisation of Edith Stein in the 1980s and 1990s. The chapter also looks at the evolving Carmelite presence in society amid the closure of convents, and addresses heritagisation, post-Christian nostalgia and oblivion.

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