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Carmel in the World

Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm.

During my visits to the Carmelite Family throughout the world, I have come across many different customs and ways of understanding what it means to be a Carmelite but everywhere I have found the same Carmelite values. These values are well expressed in the Constitutions of the friars:

"To live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ
and to serve him faithfully
with a pure heart
and a clear conscience":
these words, inspired by St. Paul,
are the basis for all the elements of our charism;
they are the foundation upon which Albert constructed our way of life.
Carmelites live their life of allegiance to Christ
through a commitment to seek the face of the living God
(the contemplative dimension of life),
through fraternity,
and through service
in the midst of the people. (14)

There are many things to be pleased about as we look around the Order. Of course problems exist everywhere but on the whole and within our particular limitations we are dedicated to the "obsequium Jesu Christi". There has been in recent years an upsurge of interest in spirituality, especially our own Carmelite tradition. Much work and study has gone in to our history and many of the publications which have come from the Carmelite Institute in Rome and other institutes will be invaluable sources for further study. The Order has taken seriously Fr. Kilian Healy's plea for further study on the Rule and now we have several excellent books which have given us new ways of looking at this ancient document which has been rediscovered as a primary source of inspiration for all Carmelites. There has also been some solid research on our saints and mystics. Much more needs to be done but what has been accomplished so far is notable. The General Council wants to encourage higher studies and following the decision of the General Chapter 1995, we have appointed a Delegate for Culture.

The General Council wants to specially promote the study of mariology among us so we can deepen this very important aspect of our charism. There is a particular interest in the Order at present in biblical studies and that is wonderful to see because as was expressed in the final document of the General Chapter 1995, "To be zealous for the Word of God, to pray it, live it and proclaim it, is the priority for the Order for the next six years." (4.4)

As an integral part of this renewed interest in our spirituality has been a refounding of the ancient practice of Lectio Divina. In many communities throughout the world it is normal practice to have a time when all the members gather to read the Word of God together, meditate on it, respond to the Word in prayer and share a silent resting in this Word together. This practice cannot but help communities be united and even more apostolically fruitful. I want to strongly encourage this practice. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves however that Lectio is not simply talking about Scripture but soaking ourselves in the Word so that we become little by little transformed by this Word who is Christ.

We have taken risks and planted Carmel in other lands. We are well established in Brazil of course but also other parts of Latin America are showing signs of growth. We hope to make a foundation in Trinidad in the near future. In Africa we are also well established in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We have recently established ourselves in Mozambique and we hope to make a foundations also in Kenya, Tanzania and Burkina Faso.

Asia is where the greatest growth has taken place in recent years. Indonesia especially is witnessing a time when many vocations are presenting themselves. India also is growing rapidly and is now beginning to look outside Kerala for apostolic possibilities. The Philippines hopes to be an independent Province by the year 2000.

In Eastern Europe there is a certain the growth taking place. We have celebrated 650 years of Carmelite presence in the Czech lands and 600 years in Poland. We have received a good number of vocations from Rumania and these are being nurtured by the Italian Province which hopes to make a foundation there as soon as circumstances permit. The plan is for various branches of the Carmelite Family to make foundations in the same area and to bear witness together to our fundamental Carmelite values. The Polish Province has a community in the Ukraine and perhaps one day we will go into Russia also.

The Church is missionary by nature and so must our Order be. The Provinces which have a missionary outreach outside their territory can bear witness to the new life which this can bring to the whole Province. I would urge those Provinces which do not as yet have some missionary outreach to seriously consider this possibility. Of course in many areas there is an acute shortage of vocations which is more or less severe according to the particular country. There are some signs of a possible resurgence of interest in the Religious Life but it does not look as if the vocations will come in the numbers they used to in days gone by. This fact necessitates some serious thought and planning for the future so that Provinces can adapt to changed circumstances. We can complain about the shortage of vocations or we can view this fact as a grace from God and an opportunity for an exercise of "creative fidelity". Creativity can also be exercised in how we approach mission. Perhaps the General Council can help here by co-ordinating a missionary project in the sense of bringing together two of more Provinces which can work together for a single project. I would remind you that God is never outdone in generosity. Perhaps we are like the poor widow of the Gospel who put into the Temple coffers all she had to live on. We will find that if we give, there will be gifts for us, a full measure, pressed down, shaken together shall be poured into our laps.

We have been called by the Church to take our part in the era of new evangelisation. Western Europe and the USA are just as much mission territory as anywhere else since we are living in a post-Christian age. The new evangelisation is new in its ardour, its methods and its expressions. What does this mean for us? We need to recommit ourselves to our Carmelite vocation and to find new ways to express the fundamental values of our life, ways which will communicate effectively to people of the third millennium.

Contemplation is an essential part of our charism. Art. 17 of the Constitutions of the friars tells us that contemplation is an attitude of openness to God whose presence we discover everywhere. Our preaching or teaching or whatever work with which we are involved does not bring Christ to people but hopefully helps them to discover His presence in their lives or be more aware of it. Christ is already present in each situation and individual before we arrive. Above all our daily lives, our presence, should reveal something of God. Can we really discover the presence of God everywhere even in difficulties? This is the faith of Our Lady in the Magnificat who praises God for throwing down the proud, feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty when most people would see the opposite as true. A contemplative is able to see beyond the externals to the reality beneath. A constant attitude of openness to God is of course not easy because the presence of God calls into question how we live and constantly calls us to conversion which means change and we are not always very keen to change. Daily we need to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ and to urge all our brothers to do the same so that we become a living page of the Gospel for our neighbours to read. In this way we will take our part in the new evangelisation so much desired by the Pope.

There are some wonderful things going on in the Order - things to be proud of. Our Carmelite values are being spread to other lands and most especially among lay people in the established Provinces. We have now some excellent tools to help us continue our work, notably our new Constitutions and the many scholarly works which the Order has produced. However there are some areas in which all of us could improve.

It is the task of the Prior General "to ensure effectively the common good of the whole Order; to work strenuously so that the authentic spirit of Carmel, especially with respect to the life of prayer, may be truly present in every Province, and increase day by day; to promote tirelessly the growth and development of the Order and the apostolic and academic vitality of the religious." (Constit. 275)

Despite the renewed interest in spirituality which finds expression in the new Constitutions, I wonder whether it has really filtered down to the community level and whether it is really expressed in practice. In general during my visits I have found that we are excellent pastors giving wonderful service in our parishes, schools, retreat centres etc. We are most certainly hard workers but at times our work is at the expense of our community and prayer life. According to art. 64 of the Constitutions, prayer is the irremovable centre of our lives and actually makes possible authentic community and a apostolic service. We need to work on all sorts of aspects of our life but I have been underlining the contemplative dimension of our charism wherever I have gone not because I do not see the other elements of our life as extremely important but simply that, in line with the Constitutions, I believe this aspect to be fundamental and indeed to be the source of our fraternal life and apostolic work.

As I visit the Provinces, I find that community prayer ranges from nothing at all to the full Office and daily Eucharist in common. Constitution no. 69 reminds us:

"As in the primitive Church, as religious we are called
to celebrate together the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours.
Liturgical prayer is the highest form
of communal encounter with God,
and brings about what it celebrates.
Personal prayer is intimately linked with liturgical prayer;
one flows from the other."

I am not so much concerned with the amount of Divine Office we say together as with the quality of our prayer. This lies not in our words or even our holy thoughts but in our intention. God reads our hearts and of course it is perfectly possible for the lips to say "yes" and for the heart to say "no". It is not those who say, "Lord, Lord" who will enter the Kingdom of heaven but those who do the will of the Father. According to art. 17 of our Constitutions:

"contemplation is the inner journey of Carmelites,
arising out of the free initiative of God,
who touches and transforms us,
leading us towards unity of love with him,
raising us up so that we may enjoy this gratuitous love
and live in his loving presence.
It is a transforming experience
of the overpowering love of God. This love empties us
of our limited and imperfect human ways of
thinking, loving, and behaving,
transforming them into divine ways."

Is that really our desire? Is it what we really intend or is it just beautiful words? For example do the members of our Provinces and Commissariats go on an annual retreat? (Do we?) If they do, is it for a more intimate encounter with the One whom we know loves us or to get good ideas for future homilies. Remember also the injunction in the Constitutions regarding the need to dedicate an adequate time each day to silent prayer (art. 80). My impression is that many of us are too busy for this practice. While of course it is laudable to serve the Lord in all our many apostolic activities, we need to continually remember who is the source of all apostolic fruitfulness. It is understandable that we often prefer activity to prayer because it tends to be more gratifying but activity without prayer will sooner or later become empty. Liturgical and personal prayer is an absolute essential in order that the salt retain its flavour.

Community life is another difficult issue in Religious Life as a whole. While there is a deep thirst for community in our world, real community is not easy to live. It makes great demands on us but also gives us a great deal in return. There are many ways to live community but whatever way we live it, community should provide an atmosphere in which each member can feel accepted and grow as a human being and as a member of the Order. Fraternity is an essential aspect of our Carmelite vocation. Living this value helps each individual to grow as a human being, a Christian and a Carmelite and also bears witness to our world that real community is possible despite human differences. Community makes demands on us but we receive much in return.

A charism is a gift given by God for the Church and the world. The Carmelite charism has a very rich and long history. We are the inheritors of a great tradition. We are responsible for enriching this tradition by the witness of our own lives and for passing on this charism, which we have received as stewards, to others.

As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."