Reflections on the Vows in Carmelite Life: A Call to Transformation
Our 1995 Constitutions of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel begin by stating that
Through Jesus Christ, Son of the Father and “firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15), we live in union with God and with our neighbours in a new way.
The Constitutions describe the Carmelite vocation as a sharing “in the mission of the Incarnate Word in this world” and they present our “gift and mission” as Carmelites in a Christ- and Gospel-centred way of life based on the power of the Holy Spirit and dedicated, in allegiance to Christ, both to fraternal living-together and apostolic service:
Living in allegiance to Jesus Christ (Prologue to the Rule), and embracing his Gospel as the supreme norm of our lives (PC 2), by the power of his Spirit who distributes his gifts to each according to his will (1 Cor 12:11), we seek to live together in mutual service of one another and of all people. (CON 2)
In the Rule of Life that was written for the first Carmelites by their local bishop, St Albert of Jerusalem, the guiding thrust of our vocation is presented in terms of living “in allegiance to Christ, according to the spirit of the Order” (CON 11). We are called to a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ (in obsequio Jesu Christi vivere), accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and living a life of loyal service to him (see 2 Cor 10:5).
The total dedication and allegiance of one’s life to Christ was understood as establishing a covenant bond between the Carmelite and Christ: Carmelites are “to live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve him unswervingly with a pure heart and a clear conscience” (Rule, Prologue, see 2 Cor 10:5; 1 Tim 1:5).
Inspired, nourished and sustained by the table of the Word and the table of the Eucharist, “source and culmination of their lives (Rule, Ch. 10),” the Constitutions (n. 20) comment that we are
led, day by day, to know and experience the mystery of Jesus Christ (Phil 3:8). Inspired by the Spirit and rooted in Christ Jesus, abiding in him by day and by night (Rule, Ch. 7), Carmelites allow every choice and every action to be guided by his Word (Rule, Ch. 14).
Following Christ’s example of Obedience, Poverty and Chastity
Our committed allegiance to Jesus as Carmelites is a response to “an invitation and a great gift from God ... following Christ’s example” (CON 5). As we grow towards allowing every choice and action to be guided by Jesus, and as we seek to become more and more closely united with him, sharing his life and coming to know him more and more, we recognise his invitation and gift to share the same life style that he himself lived, including his commitment to obedience and to a life of poverty:
Inherent in this vocation is the full acceptance of the conditions which Christ sets for those who wish to follow him in this kind of life. It involves acceptance of God’s will, as sharing in Christ’s obedience. It also includes the life of poverty and community of goods, as an expression of our unity with Christ and of mutual gospel-inspired union with our brothers. (CON 4)
Following the Obedient Christ
The Constitutions present the consecrated life as a “radical following” of “the obedient, poor and chaste Christ” and a “radical form of witness to the following of Christ” (CON 43). The consecrated life is “a gift from God” (CON 44), something based on, and enabled by, the chastity, poverty and obedience of Christ. It is a life “configured to the life of Christ” (CON 44),
The brothers are “to hold their prior humbly in honour, thinking not so much of him as of Christ who placed him over [them]” (Rule, Ch. 8) and the prior is to guide them “to mature and responsible obedience to Christ, through dialogue and timely discernment” (CON 48). Through the service of the prior, each individual is to grow and be transformed towards an ever more faithful obedience to God’s will, not only in terms of their own personal lives, but also in terms of the way the group as a whole carries out the will of God in its apostolic service of all God’s people.
According to Venerable Giovanni Domenico Lucchesi, O Carm (1652-1670), renowned for his “everyday holiness” and for the spiritual direction he gave, “Your only concern should be to please God and to do his Will in the way and manner which it pleases Him to show you through his representative. As for the rest, leave that to Him; that is his affair and not ours.”
Following the Poor Christ
As Carmelites (CON 52), we “wish to embrace willingly the gift of the evangelical counsel of poverty, by our vow to hold all things in common, and by declaring that no object belongs to any of us personally (Rule, Ch. 9).”
Through our commitment to “hold all things in common,” each individual is to grow and be transformed towards a recognition of the fact that God has no favourites and that, before God, we are all equally poor and needy, but that, by sharing all that we have, no one need be left in need.
According to Blessed John Soreth (1394-1471) who was Prior General of the Carmelites from 1451 to 1471,
Members of this Order are bound to poverty and the abdication of property. They may posses in common, but under no consideration privately. [Expos. paraen. (1625) 87, 105, 167]
Following the Chaste Christ
Consecrated Celibacy is designed to transform us and to make it possible for us to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and to love every other human being as God loves them:
Christ Jesus, the chaste man, dedicated himself wholly to the cause of the Kingdom. He loved everyone, especially the “little ones” and the poor. ... As we follow Jesus in his chastity, our celibacy also takes on the quality of a full and total love for God and for every human being (Mk 12:29-31). (CON 60-61)
Our Constitutions recognise the liberating presence of Jesus our Lord in our gift of consecrated chastity:
Through the power of such chaste and undivided love, our interpersonal relationships grow in truth and in transparency. In a world often torn by struggle and division, the one who is new and chaste in the Spirit is the epiphany and radiance of the liberating presence of our Lord. (CON 61)
The Institute of the First Monks, probably written by the Catalan Carmelite, Felip Ribot, about 1390, says that the reason Carmelites describes themselves as the “brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary (of Mount Carmel)” is that they follow her example. She was “the first among women to live in perpetual virginity for God” and that she did so “after the example of Elijah” who is closely associated with Mount Carmel.
An Ongoing Journey
The Constitutions recognise, however, that “to follow Christ is to undertake an ongoing journey” (CON 168) and article 15 of our Rule describes human life as a time of trial (tentatio), a time when the devil, our enemy, is prowling around looking for prey to devour (see 1 Pet 5:8), a time when our total adherence to Christ is tested (see 2 Tim 3:12). In this time of trial, it is Jesus Christ, our Lord, who defends and protects those dedicated to his service, and the Rule recommends that we rely on Christ to protect us by clothing ourselves in God’s armour and by using the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God to engage in battle with, and even to overcome, the powers of evil.