February 2013

A life devoted to deep listening

Good Samaritan Sister Carmel Posa is rejoicing that a cochlear implant is restoring her hearing which was damaged by Meniere’s Disease – a development which is of no small significance to a woman who has devoted her life to deep listening.

BY Debra Vermeer

“It’s wonderful,” she says. “It’s amazing what technology can do these days. I’m hoping that when my brain learns to ‘re-hear’ all the sounds, it will be of great benefit to me and may even help with the Meniere’s Disease.”

Of course, as a woman of the Benedictine tradition, Carmel’s listening throughout her life has been both with her ears and with the “ear of her heart”, as St Benedict describes it in his Rule (RB, Prologue).

It has taken her on a search for an ever-deepening relationship with God and a sharing of that relationship with others, as a Good Samaritan Sister.

“The first word of the Rule is ‘Listen’, and I think that is what’s at the heart of it,” she says.

“That’s what obedience is – listening to one another in love.

“And that’s what sustains me, the fact that I haven’t heard it all and I never will and so I have to keep listening if this life is going to have any sustaining power.

“Then that leads to your life changing because when you listen you hear things about yourself, about the world, about other people and that changes you. It makes you a new human being and that’s what I think people find attractive in Benedictine spirituality. They like who they’re becoming when they discover this pathway to God.”

Carmel’s own pathway to God has been characterised by that listening heart and a desire to share with others her deepening relationship with God.

Growing up in South Australia, Carmel attended Marymount College, a Good Samaritan school and lived on the same street as the Sisters. After leaving school, she earned a Science Degree and a Postgraduate Diploma in Nutrition and Dietetics.

“I worked as a dietician for about five years and then decided that I needed something deeper in my life, and I needed to do it with other people, so I joined the Good Samaritans and I stayed,” she says.

“The decision to enter the Good Samaritans had been growing for quite some time, I think, even unconsciously in me. I think I was looking for something to fill a hole that I had found in myself and I was filling it up with all sorts of things, including a desire to enrich my prayer life.

“I joined little groups to try and fill that hole, and eventually thought, no, I can’t do this by myself, I need to look for something that will sustain me in what I was finding was life giving, and that was a rich prayer life and a desire for God.”

Carmel headed off to Sydney to the novitiate for two-and-a-half years before embarking on her first ministry of teaching.

“I loved it,” she says. “My first placement was at Marymount [College in Adelaide], back on the same street where I used to live. I loved the atmosphere of a school, I loved teaching, and I loved the people that I was teaching who had a hunger for knowledge and were great fun to be with. It was also very fulfilling.”

A desire to deepen her knowledge as a religious education teacher led to Carmel undertaking a Theology Degree at Flinders University and towards the end of that degree her superior suggested she take up a Masters Degree in Monastic Studies at St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

“That was a wonderful experience. They were incredible winters. I learned what the word ‘cold’ really means,” she laughs.

“But it was a very happy time for me as well. I met Benedictines from all over the world. I learnt more and more about our charism as Benedictines and what that means for the world, and I think I really found a huge love, an even deeper love for the search for God through that experience.”

Having earned her Masters Degree, Carmel returned home to teaching for a short period before taking up a position at Notre Dame University in Perth. She spent 13 years teaching theology, first on the Fremantle campus and then on the Broome campus.

“That position gave me the opportunity to pursue that academic path and the sharing of the search for God through academia with people who had a longing in their hearts as well,” Carmel says.

While working in Broome, Carmel was also completing her PhD through the Melbourne College of Divinity (MCD). Her topic was the theology and spirituality of the writings of the twelfth century monastic Heloise of the Paraclete.

“It was a bit unusual, I guess, that I studied a Medieval woman while living in sub-tropical Australia,” she laughs.

“Doing my PhD on a woman monastic from the twelfth century gave me a great love of the promotion of women in history, particularly within the Church, and their search for God, and so I made friends with lots of Benedictine women from the past whose search for God I felt I could be part of too.

“If you look in Church history books, you find very few women, and so I really wanted to be a part of that recovery of women’s voices in Church history. And the woman I studied for my PhD I felt had been sorely neglected in terms of her significance and her relevance for today, so I wanted to work on her writings and how they are key to us understanding our spiritual journey today.”

Throughout her time at Notre Dame, Carmel had developed a strong relationship with the Benedictine community at New Norcia, where she was involved with giving retreats.

In 2011, she was part of a small group who, together with the new Abbott of New Norcia John Herbert OSB, resolved to establish what is now the Institute for Benedictine Studies at New Norcia.

“The Good Samaritan charism is not to walk by people in need,” Carmel says. “And we’ve found over the years that the people coming here and doing the retreats had a need that seemed to run very deep in them.

“And so in responding to that need, we thought we’d explore this setting up of an Institute that could help fill this need for people, this hunger for the deeper spiritual aspects of life and the search for God.

“That’s what they come here for, and so the Institute is trying to expand its offerings to help people discover God in their lives and to help them open their hearts to their own hunger.”

In its first year of operation, The Institute for Benedictine Studies ran retreats and study programs and hosted an international scholar for its Annual Institute Day. This year, they have also begun to offer tertiary courses accredited through the Melbourne College of Divinity.

“When people come they don’t actually know what their hunger is for, but what Benedict does is to help them identify that, because Benedictine spirituality is so eminently human,” Carmel says.

“It’s not spectacular, but it’s grounded in our human experience and is so psychologically sound in terms of true human development. It is a development that isn’t purely self-focused, but other-focused and that’s what I think people respond to.

“Because it’s in this face-to-face intersection with the people you live with, the people you come across in life that you find God. Prayer is central to that of course, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s with other people that it all becomes real.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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