The Fundamental Elements of Carmelite Spirituality
Throughout the centuries various ways of following Christ have been tried and tested. Some of these ways have endured to our present day and still have the power to attract many people and help them to live a deeper life of allegiance to Jesus Christ. One of these ways is the Carmelite way.
A vocation is a very personal call from God. Each of us has our own particular vocation to become what God knows we can be. An important part of our vocation is our attraction to a particular way of following Christ.
Some people are attracted to the Jesuit, or Franciscan or Dominican way but we feel deep within us an attraction to the Carmelite way. No particular spirituality is better than another. They all are intended to help us live the Gospel in the fullest possible way Our way is the Carmelite way because that is the path to which God has called us.
So what is this Carmelite way? First of all, as with every Christian spirituality, we are called to be followers of Christ. We keep our eyes fixed on him; he is our leader, our teacher, our brother, our Saviour, our Lord. We seek to assimilate his message and to live the Gospel in daily life. The Carmelite way of doing this is to commit ourselves to search for the face of the Living God, which is the contemplative dimension of life, to fraternity and to the service of others. These values are intimately related to one another and are united by means of the experience of the desert. Like Elijah, we must pass by way of the desert in order to reach Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. In the desert, the living flame of love bums within us, burning away all that is not God, and preparing us to meet God in the sound of a gentle breeze. We are not alone on this journey Accompanying us always is Our Lady, our sister and our mother, who gently teaches us how to listen to the still small voice of God and to consent to God’s presence and action in our life. Carmel has always been Marian and will always be so. We express our devotion to Our Lady in different ways according to our different cultures but all of us seek to live our devotion by becoming like her.
The first hermits on Mount Carmel gathered as a community in order to seek God’s will together. This first group has blossomed into the world-wide Carmelite family. Being members of one family is a very important element of our Carmelite vocation. We do not follow Christ as isolated individuals but as sisters and brothers. There are obviously different ways of living this value of fraternity according to our particular calling. However the essential element is that we are aware that we are bound to one another as brothers and sisters. The heart of the Christian vocation is to become like Christ and to love as God loves. We can all be very good at loving our neighbour in theory; it is really loving real people which causes problems. On our journey through the desert and up the slopes of Mount Carmel, we walk with other people who share our fundamental values and who are trying to follow Christ as we are. I think of our relationship with other people as God’s gift to us. It is like the statue of the Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica. This started out as a block of marble and only Michelangelo could see what this block of marble would become. He started work on it using hammer and chisel. God is the great artist. God can see what we can become and so works on us. The tools which God uses are very often other people and especially those with whom we come into contact every day They are the ones who rub away our rough corners.
We are unique individuals but we share a common heritage. We are bound together as brothers and sisters. We seek the face of God together and we find God in and through one another. Our love for God is proved by the way we treat one another. Our normal tendency is to restrict our love in some way but as we seek God together, we gradually learn to love from the Source of all love. As we let go of our narrow vision of who deserves to be loved, we learn to look at people as God looks at them. We learn compassion and respect for others and they begin to be set free by our love.
Being united as an international family is in itself a prophetic way of living. One of the essential elements of the Carmelite way of life is a commitment to serve others. There are innumerable ways of doing this in daily life. All Christian service is somehow directed towards the coming of God’s Kingdom. We seek to live the values of the Kingdom here and now and with our strong Elijan tradition, we are aware that we do so in a prophetic way A prophet is one who proclaims the Word of God in particular situations. We can do this in very humble and unobtrusive ways as well as in very important works. Elijah was impelled to prophetic action because of his experience of God. The core of the Carmelite way of life is the contemplative dimension. Being a contemplative does not necessarily mean spending many hours in prayer each day, although a commitment to spending time alone with God is essential. The test of whether our experience of God is authentic is how we live in daily life – how we treat other people - whether we seek to serve others or not.
The best exponents of Carmelite spirituality, although not the only ones, I believe are Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross. They inherited a great contemplative tradition and brought this tradition a stage further. Mostly through them, Carmel is known as a contemplative fraternity. They can be rather frightening but we also have the teaching of Thérèse that we cannot accomplish anything on our own and should not try to do so but that it is God’s good pleasure to lift us up to holiness. All we have to do is trust God and cooperate with God’s work in whatever way we can.
Titus Brandsma said that the Carmelite vocation is to become another Mary and I think that this sums up our contemplative vocation best of all. She had the most intimate relationship with Christ. She let go of her own will, her own ideas and plans so that the will of God could be accomplished in her. Protestants have difficulty with the way Catholics treat Our Lady and they point out how little she appears in the Gospels but this is precisely the way of a contemplative who becomes filled with God and points always towards God and away from herself.
Being a contemplative does not mean having extraordinary experiences in prayer. This happens to a very, very small number of people. Most contemplatives follow Christ through the desert in the night and rarely glimpse what is happening to them but God is at work in the darkness, forming and shaping them into a new creation. Article 17 of the Constitutions of the friars tells us that contemplation begins when we entrust ourselves to God whatever way God chooses to come to us. God often comes to us in totally unexpected ways. Mary received the Word of God through the message of an angel but she was also open to hearing God’s voice at the foot of the cross. Elijah met God not in the earthquake or the fire or the mighty wind but in the sound of a gentle breeze. We must seek to be attentive for the voice of God in our daily lives.
Contemplation has little to do with strange phenomena. Contemplation is a process in which we entrust ourselves to God. Contemplation creates the space for God to transform us from within so that our human, limited and imperfect ways of thinking, loving and acting are emptied and transformed into divine ways. But what is wrong with our human ways of thinking, loving and acting? They are limited and are often distorted and manipulated by motives of which we are totally unaware. We have in recent years rediscovered Lectio Divina as a very appropriate way for Carmelites to pray In the traditional way of practising Lectio, there are four elements - reading the Word of God (lectio), thinking about how this Word can be applied in daily life (meditatio); responding to this Word from our hearts (oratio) and finally letting go of our own agenda and resting in the Word of God. The first three parts are very important and an excellent way of prayer but they use the human, limited and imperfect ways of thinking and loving. Human beings have a wonderful facility to divorce the spiritual realm from daily life. In church we can be as holy as the angels but when we step outside we can be little devils. Sometimes what we do or say in prayer can have little impact on how we actually live but we will convince ourselves that we are right. This is why we need contemplation. It is not a reward for great virtue but is what makes it possible to be virtuous.
In our day we are witnessing an upsurge of interest in contemplation especially among lay people. People are searching for more; they are searching for depth; they are searching for something which will respond to their deeply-felt hunger; they are searching for God.
If contemplation is really for everyone and is not reserved for enclosed nuns and monks or those with a great deal of leisure time, it must be possible in the midst of our very busy lives. According to the Constitutions of the friars, contemplation actually determines the quality of our ministry and our community life. It is all very well talking about the need for contemplation but what can we do about it practically in the midst of our busy lives? The first and most important thing to remember is that contemplation is God’s work but normally God asks for our consent to his action in our lives. So, responding to the grace of God, we consent to enter this process which will change us; we consent to be led into the desert which occurs in and through our daily lives. It is not necessary to know a lot about spirituality or to have read many books; what is necessary is to recognise that there is room for change in our lives and be open to God’s purifying action in and through the events of daily life. We can prepare the way for the Lord like John the Baptist by examining our lives and seeing if there is anything which is incompatible with our vocation. We can then use the normal remedies which we are offered through the Church.
According to the traditional phases of Lectio Divina, contemplatio is where we let go of our limited ways of knowing and loving for a short period and allow God to act in us without interference. So we are invited to simply rest in God beyond words, beyond thoughts, beyond our activity When or if this silence becomes contemplation in the strict sense of the word is best left in God’s hands. However in the silence we slowly learn a new language which transcends our poor limited human words and then silence becomes far more eloquent than many words.
What happens when we let go of our pious words and thoughts? We find ourselves thinking of what is for lunch or having an internal argument with someone who has wronged us in the past. When we become aware of this, we may very well feel that silent prayer is not for us, that we cannot do it and that we had better stick to meditation where we have something to occupy our busy minds. I suggest that this reaction, while understandable, is mistaken. What really matters in our prayer is not our words or thoughts, important though these are, but our desire. What do you really desire? As you know it is very possible for the lips to say one thing and for the heart to say the opposite. God reads the heart; God knows the desire of our heart even though our minds may seem to be far away Obviously when we become aware that we are distracted, we can choose to continue thinking about the distraction but that would be changing our intention to simply be in God’s presence. It is better just to renew our intention to be in God’s presence and to be open to God’s action and we can do so in many ways, for example by the use of a simple word or even an interior glance towards God. It may be that the use of many words or even holy thoughts is not helpful at this time. We have all had the experience in a human relationship where silence speaks far more eloquently than many words. Even very busy people can maintain intimate human relationships and so in the midst of our busy lives we are invited into an intimate relationship with God. Indeed with this relationship at the centre of our lives, all our activity will become much more fruitful.
If we accept God’s invitation to begin this interior journey we will of course meet with difficulties on the way because we will be brought face to face with ourselves. We will see ever more clearly the motives for our actions. We will see that sometimes even our best actions have selfish motives. This is very difficult to accept and this is why the spiritual journey is so difficult and why many would seem. to turn back to a less challenging place. If however we but knew the gift God was offering us, we would continue our journey despite the painful revelations about ourselves which we were offered. On this journey we become less proud, less sure of our own virtue but more reliant on the mercy of God and more aware that all human beings are our brothers and sisters.
Clearly there are many aspects to our Carmelite vocation but I am convinced that the contemplative aspect is crucial because if we take it seriously the other aspects will also become much more fruitful. Carmel is synonymous with prayer and contemplation. We fulfil our vocation not by doing many things for God but allowing God to transform us. Our human ways of thinking, loving and acting will be changed into divine ways. We will see reality as if through the eyes of God and therefore love the whole of reality as if with the heart of God.
From Carmel in the World 2000. Volume XXXIX, Number 3.