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The Carmelite Tradition and Centering Prayer Christian Meditation 2

by Ernest E. Larkin, O.Carm.

The Carmelite Tradition

We are now ready to look at the Carmelite tradition for its evaluation of these two new methods of prayer. The sources we shall examine are The Rule of St. Albert, The Institution of the First Monks, the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, and the Touraine reform. I shall identify each of these sources as we address them.

We begin our inquiry with the earliest document of the Carmelite Order, The Rule of St Albert, composed between l206 and l214. It was originally a letter from the patriarch of Jerusalem that presented a “formula vitae” or life pattern for the hermits; it was revised into a full-fledged rule by Innocent IV in 1247. This latter is the “primitive rule” in Teresa of Avila’s understanding and the ideal to which she recalled the Order.

The Rule describes a life rather than particular practices of prayer. This is brought out by the Dutch artist Arie Trum in the beautiful symbol designed to express the rule entitled “No Image Satisfies.” The entire text of the rule is written out in cruciform with a golden circle in the center. The Rule leads one into the circle. The circle is empty and it is the place of encounter with God. This empty space represents “purity of heart,” which is the condition for full “allegiance to Jesus Christ.” (Rule, prologue) Emptiness and fullness are the core of the Carmelite rule.

The Rule itself is eminently Scriptural, being a collage of explicit and implicit citations. The word of God forms the Carmelite and it is mediated through the liturgy (daily Mass), the psalms (originally read privately, later in the Divine Office), public bible reading at meetings and in the refectory, and above all through lectio divina prescribed in the famous chapter VII (n.10 in the new listing): “Let all remain in their cells, or near them, meditating day and night on the law of the Lord and keeping vigil in prayer, unless occupied with other lawful duties.” This is the defining chapter of the Rule, though the communitarian aspects emphasized in studies today are likewise foundational. The community is the place where personal transformation takes place and ministry originates.

What is the meaning of “meditating” and “keeping vigil in prayer” in this primary text of the Rule? The model will be the monastic practice of the time, which came from the Desert Fathers and Mothers through John Cassian and the ancient rules of Pachomius, Basil, and the Master. The monastic practice of the time included many forms of praying, such as Our Father’s, the psalms, the Jesus prayer, as well as different ways of reflecting on the word of God. One special way of meditating or pondering the word of God was repeating phrases of Scripture, often aloud. Cassian develops this method and suggests the words, “God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me”.5 This use of a mantra fits the prayer of the heart, which is Thomas Merton’s characterization of meditation in the Desert tradition.6 This prayer was not intellectual analysis or active use of the imagination. Prayer of the heart consisted in entering deeply into one’s self to seek purity of heart, i.e., utter detachment and surrender to the indwelling God. The way to the heart was the word of God. Biblical phrases were repeated and pondered as in the Jesus prayer, which is a perfect example of the method followed. The goal was both transformation and continuous, loving conversation with God according to the exhortation of chapter XIV (now nn.18-19), which says: “May you possess the sword of the spirit, which is God’s word, abundantly in your mouth and in your hearts. Just so whatever you do, let it be done in the Lord’s word.”

This way of meditation was the “hagah” tradition of the Old Testament, which consisted in reciting passages from Sacred Scripture aloud from memory and repeating short phrases of the psalms to root the thought in the mind and heart.7 The continuous repetition was called “murmuring.” Kees Waaijman describes the practice in an Old Testament context:
One ‘murmured’ the Torah, ‘ruminating’ it until the text had completely become one’s own, and began to ‘sigh from within’ as the cooing of a dove. One made the Torah his own bodily, emotionally, cognitively, memorizing it so that he ultimately became one with Torah.

The whole person was involved — the voice, the imagination, the feelings, the mind and heart — and the whole person was to be “clothed” with the word of God. A new person emerged.

The method of meditating, therefore, was not objectified thinking, but pondering the word of God in one’s heart, with one’s whole interior being in non-discursive attention. Even the mouth and the tongue participated, so that the pondering was physical as well as interior. This was one reason for placing the solitary cells at a distance from each other in order not to disturb the neighbors by noisey prayer.9 The end in view, however, was both public praise and the transformation of the person, letting the word of God penetrate one’s very being for a new, personal identity after the Scriptural model.

How close all this is to the mantra of John Main and to a lesser extent to the sacred word of Thomas Keating. The Carmelite is called to the prayer of the heart, a prayer thoroughly contemplative in method and goal. The prayer is holistic as well, involving body and soul. John Main’s “selfless attention” and Thomas Keating’s “consent” to the divine presence are expressed in the ancient practice. All these forms are ways into the golden circle of Arie Trum, where self-emptying makes room for the living God.

The Institution of the First Monks

The same perspectives of the Rule are found in the second document under inquiry, The Institution of the First Monks, a treatise on Carmelite life written by Philip Ribot in Catalonia in 1370 A.D. The work is a symbolic history of Elijah that is to function as a spiritual directory for the Carmelites who were now living in new circumstances in Europe away from Mount Carmel. Originally the book purported to be history, then it was interpreted to be a record of myths and legends, and today it is regarded as symbolic history, a serious effort to interpret Carmelite life through the life of Elijah. The mystical character of the Order is affirmed in the strongest terms with the same perspectives on emptiness and fullness found in the golden circle of Arie Trum.
The key passage is a commentary on the command to Elijah to “go eastward and hide in the brook Carith,” where he would “drink of the torrent.” (I Kings 17:2-4). The spiritual or mystical interpretation of these words is as follows:
These words to Elijah...reveal the twofold aim of religious life and the path
God wants us to follow to perfection:

1)    ‘To offer to God a heart holy and pure from all stain of sin’.
* this is attained by our efforts, with the help of God’s grace;
* signified in the words ‘hide in Carith’, i.e. in perfect love.

2)    ‘To taste in our hearts and experience in our minds, not only after death but even in this life, something of the power of the divine presence and the bliss of eternal glory;. *this is a pure gift of God;
*signified in the words ‘ you shall drink of the torrent’

In an unpublished paper delivered at a study week at the Washington Theological
Union in September, l996, Hein Blommestijn used John Cassian to analyze this passage and to show that the twofold purpose is one movement of the Spirit with a proximate objective (skopos) and an ultimate goal (telos).

The skopos is to present to God a pure heart; the telos to experience God. Like the farmer’s planting and cultivating his field with a view to the harvest, the work of purification is done in view of the experience of God. The first step occurs when one leaves one’s own center and enters the empty circle; there God meets the person in a mystical encounter. The work is all God’s. I enter the center and I become a new person, the result of what God is doing in me. The self-emptying and the encounter continue progressively throughout life. They are one movement with two stages, not first a life of asceticism and then another of mysticism. “Before Elijah could take a single step,” the Institution says, “God had already set him in motion.” (Chandler, 5)

The theology of Christian Meditation parallels this perspective of Philip Ribot. The mantra is an exercise in self-emptying. The mantra is the prayer, as Main repeats, and it is an exercise in selfless attention, the experience of poverty before God. At the same time it is an invitation for God to come and this is the contemplation hoped for in the practice. John Cassian extends the role of the mantra beyond formal prayer into continuous prayer. It will effect purification and union, he says: Never cease to recite it in whatever task or service or journey you find yourself... This heartfelt thought will prove to be a formula of salvation for you. Not only will it protect you against all develish attack, but it will purify you from the stain of all earthly sin and will lead you on to the contemplation of the unseen and the heavenly and to that fiery urgency of prayer which is indescribable and which is experienced by very few.11

Centering prayer too has the same tasks of purification and union. Early on its practice reveals and confronts the false self, the wounded believer who is the victim of false emotional patterns of happiness that stand in opposition to the call of grace. These false systems are largely unconscious; centering prayer uncovers them, helps one recognize them as one’s own, then effects their release, much as in the teaching of St John of the Cross about the dark night of the senses. The emphasis on receptive consent in centering prayer hastens the unloading of the unconscious, to use Keating’s phrase, and therefore addresses the work of purification with more intensity.12 In both Christian Meditation and centering prayer the organic connection between self-emptying and fulness, kenosis and pleroma, is basic to the practice.

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."