The General Chapter 1995 seems a distant memory now but it will continue to affect us for many years to come. The final document from that Chapter contains many of the insights which emerged during the meeting. Also the Constitutions which we approved at the Chapter are the fruit of many years of reflection within the Order as a whole. They describe very well what our vocation is and they encourage us to live it in ever greater depth.
The General Chapter asked the newly elected General Council to produce a global plan for its work over the following six years. This was done and was discussed at the Council of Provinces 1997, held in Lisieux. In this document, the Council declared its wish to continue the work of the previous General Council regarding the Carmelite Family and working with the Discalced Carmelites. There are now several letters written jointly by the two Superiors General to both Orders. We wish to encourage the various ways in which the two Orders are working together in many parts of the world.
In the plan of the General Council we speak of the need for each one of us to pray ardently and work unceasingly so that new vocations will come to us. The best thing we can do is to live our own vocation to the full. We also wish to work for a new missionary spirit in the Order and we have been very pleased with the new foundations which have been made and will be made during the six years since the General Chapter 1995. There are huge areas of the world which wait to hear the Gospel of Christ. Our Carmelite charism has a great deal to offer the world and we are responsible for making it available to others. The Church is missionary by nature and we must be prepared to play our part in this essential work of the Church.
Underpinning all the work of the General Council is a desire to encourage a renewal of the contemplative aspect of our charism. We are the inheritors of a great tradition which stretches back about 800 years. The Carmelite charism is a gift from the Holy Spirit to the Church for the world. We do not own the charism but by our lives we are meant to enhance it, enrich it and pass it on to others.
We have been called to live the Gospel according to the Carmelite way and we are most faithful to the Gospel when we are faithful to our Carmelite tradition. Our Rule is imbued with the Word of God. The two figures who inspire us most of all after Christ Himself are two biblical figures - the prophet Elijah and Mary, the mother of Jesus. So the Word of God is central to our way of life. It is where we find our inspiration. It is the life-giving word of life for us. St. Jerome said that the one who ignores the Scriptures ignores Christ. Lectio Divina has been rediscovered within the Carmelite Family as an efficacious way of prayer, the purpose of which is to lead us into an intimate relationship with God. Lectio cannot be limited to reading the Word of God or thinking about it or discussing its meaning, although all these are important. There is a time when words fail and only silence is an appropriate response to God's Word. It is wonderful when a community reads the Word of God together and discusses the implications of this Word for personal and community growth. It is also important to let go of our own thoughts, ideas and opinions and simply listen to God in a deep silence. Listening to God in silence together is a powerful means of growing in our community relationships.
A religious vocation is also a gift from God to particular individuals. I believe that a true vocation is when an individual discovers gradually the Carmelite within him or her. For this to take place the individual must encounter the Carmelite charism particularly in Carmelites. The charism is one way of following Christ; it is our way. Like other Christians we have been called to follow Christ and bear witness to him by living the Gospel in daily life. The Gospel is of course so rich that no-one or no group could ever exhaust it by any particular way of life. The Gospel has inspired and continues to inspire very many initiatives including the Carmelite way. It seems that a normal life span for a religious congregation is about 200 years. Why some continue for much longer is hard to say but it surely has something to do with the particular charism expressing something essential to the Gospel. Some congregations were founded to do a particular work and when the need for this work diminished so did the need for the congregation. There is of course no particular Carmelite work but we express our Carmelite vocation in various fields of activity. So long as we live the vocation given us by God the Carmelite Family will continue in existence.
As Carmelites we are heirs to a long contemplative tradition which we cannot ignore if we are to be faithful to the vocation given us by God. We cannot leave contemplation to the enclosed communities while we concentrate on ministry which is also an important part of our vocation. Contemplation, community and service in the midst of the people are three vital elements of our charism which cannot be separated. According to our Constitutions, they are united by the experience of the desert.
We are usually committed to ministry and are good at it. We serve the people well in our parishes, schools, retreat centres etc and we can get affirmation from our work. Also we tend to be committed, at least in theory to community. However there comes a time when we meet with difficulties in our ministry and/or in community. Without the contemplative dimension of our charism, we tend to meet these difficulties on a purely human level and react very humanly by fighting back or withdrawing according to our temperament. St. Therese of Lisieux looked at the difficulties of life as opportunities to exercise her vocation to be love. She was able to do this because she was a contemplative. She was not contemplative simply because she lived in an enclosed monastery but because she truly heard the Word of God in the depths of her heart and allowed this Word to transform her life totally. She continued to follow this life project even when she met with all sorts of difficulties because through her silent listening to the Word of God, she was able to see beyond the obvious and see God's hand at work in the midst of the situation in which she found herself.
Contemplation allows us to live community at a deeper level because we will understand that despite the difficulties of living together and all sorts of interpersonal problems, we are all one in Christ. Authentic contemplation also leads to prophetic action as we are able to discern the true needs of people and serve them with a pure heart. The ability to let go of our own thoughts, ideas and opinions and listen to God in the silence of our hearts leads inevitably to listening to people with the heart and not only with our physical ears. We also will be drawn to listening to the poor because through our contemplation we can see beyond externals.
Service and community require a great deal of effort from us. The same is true for the contemplative aspect of our vocation. We will not be contemplatives unless we pray. This takes time and a great deal of effort because listening does not come naturally to us. Prayer is the face to face encounter with the Living God. It is the relationship with God which will lead to union with God if we consent. We have so many ways of avoiding this encounter because it does involve the need to change and we tend not to like that. So we use all of our ingenuity to avoid the need to change. We can be so busy with ministry that we have no time for prayer or we can keep prayer at a very superficial level.
A Dutch artist has made a very beautiful version of the Rule. At the centre of the Rule there is a golden circle with an empty centre. This empty centre is meant to signify the human yearning for God. There is an empty space in our lives that can only be filled by God because the space is infinite. We usually try all sorts of ways to fill this space, ways which cannot ever satisfy us. Our vocation enables us to speak to this deep human need. From our experience we can help people see that God alone can satisfy the human heart but we must be able to speak from our own experience.
In recent years Carmelites have woken up to the importance of the Prophet Elijah for our lives and ministry. This has been an excellent development and reflection on him has helped us see the importance of combining contemplation and prophetic action. Also for centuries we have been known as Mary's Order. Some of our writers said that the reason we were founded was to continue the love which Jesus had for his mother during his earthly life. The scapular has of course summed up Carmelite devotion to Our Lady. She is for us both mother and sister. She is the mother of the divine life within us, teaching us by example the vital importance of listening to the Word of God and thus allowing it to take root in our lives. She was not only a hearer of the Word but also she put the Word into practice. As our sister she accompanies us on our journey of faith. She shared our human life and experienced joy and sorrow in abundant measure. The first title of Our Lady within the Carmelite Order was protectress. In faith we know that we are not alone but that we have the assistance of the communion of saints. By wearing the scapular and trying to live what this rich symbol signifies, we accept that we are under the protection of Our Lady and we must try to remember that in the busy reality of daily life.
Titus Brandsma wrote that the vocation of the Carmelite is to be another Mary. She was the God-bearer for the world. Her "yes" gave God space to come into the world in a new way. At her word God became incarnate. If, like her, we truly consent to the presence and action of God in our lives, the divine life will grow within us. This is the purifying and transforming process which is an essential part of the Christian life. We will then become God-bearers for our world and of course this will lead to some kind of prophetic action which need not be dramatic to the eyes of human beings but will be according to the heart of God. Expressing our devotion in ways which speak to the whole person is important but we also must not forget the necessity of living the reality which the devotion implies. We should show our love for Our Lady in various ways but we must include the practical imitation of her virtues.
Throughout the centuries the same Carmelite charism has been lived in many ways. What does our Carmelite vocation look like in our own particular culture and time and what will it look like in the future? All of us are responsible for giving an answer to that question in the way we choose to live our calling.