Carmel in the World Magazine
Carmel in the World
2013. Volume LII, Number 2
- The Sun also Rises
- Letter to the Prior General & Carmelite Order from Pope Francis
- Fr Emanuele Boaga, O.Carm – An Appreciation
- A Legendary Carmelite Martyr
- “Living Charism and Mission for Carmel. A Word of Hope and Salvation” (below)
- Carmel Around the World
“Living Charism and Mission for the Carmel. A Word of Hope and Salvation”
P. Michael Plattig, O.Carm.
The theme of this General Chapter and thus of my talk has been taken from Chapter 24 of our Constitutions, where it says under the heading of “Service in the midst of the people”:
“It is also an expression of “the choice to share in the lives of “the little ones” (“minores”) of history, so that we may speak a word of hope and of salvation from their midst – more by our life than by our words”. This option flows naturally from our profession of poverty in a mendicant fraternity, and is in keeping with our allegiance to Christ Jesus, lived out also through allegiance to the poor and to those in whom the face of our Lord is reflected in a preferential way.”
I would like to examine the principles of charism and mission of Carmel on the basis of key words from Chapter 24 of the Constitutions.
My talk is intended to give food for thought and to exchange experiences. I will try and provide proper theological and historical foundations, but I am also aware of the fact that my views are subjective and obviously limited, considering the different situations of the Church and the Carmelites throughout the world.
Chapter 24 refers to living in the midst of people several times, in particular to living in the midst of the poor and suffering. Such a life is an expression of our profession of poverty and our allegiance to a mendicant fraternity.
Since his accession to office, Pope Francis has pointed out repeatedly that the Church should again seek out the fringes of society and should engage itself in the problems of the people there. This call has been inspired not only by his South American origin, but also by his impression that the Church has been too much concerned about itself in recent years and that small matters and theological trifles have been treated as central subjects.
The path of engagement described in our Constitutions gives us the same message as applies to the Church: Don’t focus on yourself too much or too often, but open your eyes to the needs of the people. As regards the issue of our charism in particular, there is always a risk that we focus too much on our own problems and lose ourselves in a type of introspection.
Earlier this year, a group of solemnly professed young European Carmelites met in Salamanca, Spain. In “Anchored in Hope”, the remarkable final document of their meeting, they wrote: “Operari sequitur esse states ‘Our work follows from who we are.’ Our identity will always condition what we do. Who are we? What can we, as Carmelites, offer to others?”
This principle is both clear and sound. The fundamental question, however, is what we mean by ‘identity’ and how this identity is expressed and develops.
When identity is understood to mean a condition of action, we run the risk of never getting around to any action, as we will be continuously concerned about our identity.
The causal connection between identity and action leads nowhere. We should start from a fragmented identity that is not a well-defined and complete whole. This is actually quite biblical, as the completion of the kingdom of God is still to come. “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:20). And Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen: “This is the great work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath. (…) Without temptations no-one can be saved” (Anthony 4 and 5).
The task to become like Christ and, of course, to become a Carmelite, is one that will not find its completion during our lives, so we should assume a dynamic interaction between identity and action, in which our actions help to define our identity and vice versa. Our Constitutions point out this path particularly in Chapter 24, where testimony of life in the midst of the people is promoted.
The Carmelite Rule draws its inspiration from the desert monks, hermits; later we became part of the movement of the mendicant orders. We therefore belong to the monastic communities that, unlike many congregations of the modern era, do not define themselves by their actions and were not founded in response to a particular problem.
We are generalists. This gives us a lot of freedom, but also puts us under an obligation to try and distinguish ourselves time and time again, that is, to define what it means to live as Carmelites in the places where we live. Our understanding of ourselves, our identity, must therefore always enter into a dialogue with reality, with the context in which we live, because we do not live as hermits anymore nor in closed monastic communities, but ‘in the midst of the people’, as the Constitutions emphasize.
Titus Brandsma explained this relation as follows:
“God is recognizable in our being; we can see him and live in his vision. And this vision will not miss its influence on our behaviour. God will reveal Himself in our deeds. (…) A good deed does not suffice anymore; it must spring from a consciousness that our union with God obligates us to it. This consciousness must become the underlying motive for good deeds. On the other hand, faith in God alone does not suffice either; it must be a living faith reflected in good works and showing its value in these works.”
Something similar applies to our communities. Here, too, it won’t work for us to build a – preferably good – community and then to wonder what we should do next. Our actions and our task in a certain place should be an integral part of the process of community building, because a community cannot be developed successfully unless it is developed in the context of its situation, in the midst of the people. Moreover, we do not build communities primarily for ourselves, but for our service to the people in the Church of Jesus Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant theologian and martyr from the Nazi era, introduced a distinction relevant to Christian communities in his essay Gemeinsames Leben (Life Together):
“There is probably no Christian to whom God has not given the uplifting and blissful experience of genuine Christian community at least once in her or his life. But in this world such experiences remain nothing but a gracious extra beyond the daily bread of Christian community life. We have no claim to such experiences, and we do not live with other Christians for the sake of gaining such experiences. It is not the experience of Christian community, but firm and certain faith within Christian community that holds us together. We hold fast in faith to God’s greatest gift, that God has acted for us all and wants to act for us all. This makes us joyful and happy, but it also makes us ready to forget all such experiences if at times God does not grant them. We are bound together by faith, not by experience.”
The bond with one another is based on a common faith and not on any experience of community, as the latter is something that, like the experience of God, cannot be produced and is a gracious gift. It is possible to create a “feeling of belonging to a group” and, as for experiencing God, there are conditions and techniques that may produce such a sense of belonging. John of the Cross considers such an interest in ‘something tasty’ childish:
“They are like children who are prompted to act not by reason but by pleasure. All their time is spent looking for satisfaction and spiritual consolation; … God very rightly and discreetly and lovingly denies this satisfaction to these beginners, for if He did not, they would fall into innumerable evils because of their spiritual gluttony and craving for sweetness. Wherefore it is important for these beginners to enter the dark night and be purged of this childishness.”
(John of the Cross: Dark Night, I,6,6).
In our tradition, it is considered a fundamental task to mature in one’s faith, in spiritual life, to free oneself from such childishness – or better, to be freed from it.
“Isaias explains this clearly: ‘Whom shall God teach His knowledge? And to whom shall He explain His message? To them that are weaned, he says, from the milk, and to them who are drawn away from the breasts’ (Is. 28:9). This passage indicates that the preparation for this divine influx is not the former milk of spiritual sweetness, nor aid from the breast of the discursive meditations of the sensory faculties which the soul enjoyed, but the privation of the one and a withdrawal from the other.
“In order to hear God, a person should stand firm and be detached in his sense life and affections, as the prophet himself declares: I will stand upon my watch (with detached appetite) and will fix my foot (I will not meditate with the sensory faculties) in order to contemplate (understand) what God says to me (Hb. 2:1).
“We conclude that self-knowledge flows first from this dry night, and that from this knowledge as from its source proceeds the other knowledge of God. Hence St Augustine said to God: Let me know myself Lord, and I will know You.”
(Soliloq., lib. 2, C. i – PL 32,885. John of the Cross, Dark Night, I,12,5).
The development of independence and individuality, practiced in solitude with and for God, is particularly important in the tradition of our Order.
Along with the eremitical tradition it is this conviction which underlies Chapter 6 of the Carmelite Rule that reads: “Next, each one of you is to have a separate cell...” It is the monks’ own cell as a sphere of retreat, of solitude and the dialogue with God to which the Carmelite Rule attaches decisive importance. As Chapter 10 of the Rule stresses, every Carmelite is supposed to be found in his cell at any time, unless he is busy completing a task in accordance with the Rule. The most important site of spiritual life in Carmel is the cell, it becomes the place of self-knowledge and the knowledge of God and thus the realm of spiritual development or transformation.
There should be a fertile tension between individuality and community, and individuality as well as community should be understood as concepts that need to be redefined time and time again, keeping us, both as individuals and as communities, going on the path of transformation in imitation of Christ.
There is a further theme I would like to address. The movement to the fringes of society – as called for by Pope Francis and our Constitutions – should not have as a result that the people in the centre of the Church, who are committed and spiritually interested, are left starving. This seems to me to be a real danger – after all, they are already starving.
Do people who want more than ‘fast-food spirituality’, who are really searching, still get sufficient food in our communities, in our Church, or are we – often unnecessarily – losing many of these people to sects or esotericism?
And what about the quality of our preaching? Leading a convincing life is, of course, of overriding importance, as the Constitutions say. However, we cannot do without the word of salvation; we have a message of salvation to bring and we do need words to that end.
Because of our rich tradition of spiritually experienced authors, we Carmelites in particular are expected to develop a spiritually sophisticated preaching. Teresa of Avila had a very hard time finding suitable confessors for herself and her convents, because she had to work with spiritually illiterate people as well as uneducated clerics. John of the Cross complained extensively about the ignorance of spiritual counsellors, who suffered from both ignorance and arrogance – a dangerous combination.
Have things really changed? I doubt it. Of course, the general educational level of preachers has improved, but does it show in the form or contents of their sermons? Moreover, a person’s intellectual level is no indication of his or her spiritual level. In theology, one sometimes even gets the impression that a rise of intellectual pretensions goes hand in hand with a fall of the spiritual level.
The spiritual authors of our tradition have emphasized again and again that one does not need to have experienced or lived through everything in person in order to be able to be a good preacher or counsellor, because if such a thing were necessary, one would use oneself as a standard for preaching and salvation. It remains God’s word and God’s salutary devotion that have to be proclaimed. However, I can learn things about them. I can study aspects that spiritual life or a spiritual experience has, or may have, and by doing so I can become more composed and, with regard to knowledge, more experienced and thus more able of counselling people adequately.
We are not a large Order numerically, and we do not have a well-defined task, as explained above, but it appears to me that our tradition comprises a certain urgent call, that is, a call to care for those who are spiritually searching, to care for those who are looking for more than just doing a couple of pious exercises a week – a call that we have been sent to those for whom God and the relationship with God have become the living foundation of their lives, instead of just some pious leisure activity.
These people often cannot find any food in parishes. They need spiritual food with a lasting effect, but get ‘fast-food’. And they get a vague religious feeling, whereas they are seeking the experience of God.
Were we, in particular, not called to provide such longer lasting and more nutritious, and therefore also more demanding and sometimes inconvenient, spiritual food? Were we not called to seek out those people, often on the fringes of our communities, parishes and of our Church, who do not hunger for bread, but hunger for a nutritious word of salvation?
This requires sensible discernment and spiritual and theological reflection on our actions. The end of Chapter 24 of our Rule reads: “Use discernment, however, the guide of the virtues. Instead of ‘discernment’ some translations use the term ‘common sense’. Common sense here is too narrow, a translation that does not reflect the comprehensive meaning of “discernere” or “discretio”.
With these words, Albert of Jerusalem concludes his rule for the hermits on Mount Carmel. In the last sentence, he stresses the importance of discernment. From the context, it is clear that this does not refer to distinguishing between different spirits in the sense of the monks’ age-old struggle against demons. Instead, what is meant here is establishing the right balance.
This interpretation of discernment which we encounter in the Rule, that is, the equation of discernment with discovering the proper balance, is mainly derived from Johannes Cassian’s Collationes. Coll. II.2 says:
“Discretion, which passing by excess on either side, teaches a monk always to walk along the royal road, and does not suffer him to be puffed up on the right hand of virtue, i.e., from excess of zeal to transgress the bound of due moderation in foolish presumption, nor allows him to be enamoured of slackness and turn aside to the vices on the left hand, i.e., under pretext of controlling the body, to grow slack with the opposite spirit of lukewarmness.”
Finding the right balance requires prudence. Thus, in the Middle Ages, discernment was increasingly identified with the virtues of prudence and temperance.
The Rule of Albert of Jerusalem is an integral part of this monastic-ascetic tradition and is meant to teach the brothers how to strike the right balance in their actions in all aspects of their lives, from devotional practices to human relationships.
However, this, too, always involves the question of where the right balance is, the question as to where something has come from and where it is guiding us to and whether this goal corresponds with what I want and with what God wants for me. The prudent choice of the right balance, the revelation of one’s experience in everyday life: these are the fundamental virtues which the Carmelite Rule has formulated and which have continued to unfold and be interpreted in keeping with the times, repeatedly throughout the history of Carmel. This discernment also concerns the contents of our preaching. For us Carmelites, the point of reference is 1 Kings 17:1: “As the LORD, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand,…”.
Where and how is the living God mentioned in our preaching, in our pastoral care? Which forms of piety do we practice ourselves or do we promote, and do they leave any room for the living God and his personal face?
Let me elucidate this by citing from an unofficial protocol of a meeting of the Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean Religious (CLAR) and Pope Francis. The Pope pointed to certain pantheistic trends that are also seen in the Church. For example, a Superior General recommended her sisters not to pray in the mornings anymore, but to take spiritual baths instead. To a certain extent, this illustrates what I mean by ‘discernment’: God as the living dialogue partner in prayer is, at best, lowered to the position of ‘pool manager’ of my spiritual feelings.
I am not talking about the cementation or incrustation of forms, to which the Pope also referred in this meeting, as they lead to the end of one’s relationship with God just as much as pantheism does. What is important to me is the critical examination, the theological reflection on the question whether the living God is truly the central figure or we obscure his face, when we develop or use forms. This is closely connected with an appeal found in the work of John of the Cross:
“5. Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behaviour but also of offending Him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty.
“God could respond as follows: If I have already told you all things in My Word, My Son, and if I have no other word, what answer or revelation can I now make that would surpass this? Fasten your eyes on Him alone, because in Him I have spoken and revealed all, and in Him you shall discover even more than you ask for and desire. You are making an appeal for locutions and revelations that are incomplete, but if you turn your eyes to Him you will find them complete. For He is My entire locution and response, vision and revelation, which I have already spoken, answered, manifested, and revealed to you, by giving Him to you as a brother, companion, master, ransom, and reward. Since that day when I descended upon Him with My Spirit on Mount Tabor proclaiming: This is my Beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased, hear Him (Mt. 17:5). … Hear Him because I have no more faith to reveal nor truths to manifest. …
“6. If you desire Me to answer with a word of comfort, behold My Son, subject to Me and to others out of love for Me, and you will see how much He answers. If you desire Me to declare some secret truths or events to you, fix your eyes on Him, and you will discern hidden in Him the most secret mysteries, and wisdom, and the wonders of God, as My Apostle proclaims: In the Son of God are hidden all the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God (Col. 2:3). These treasures of wisdom and knowledge will be far more sublime, delightful, and advantageous than what you want to know.”
(Ascent of Mount Carmel II, 22,5-6).
What role then does Jesus Christ play? Or, speaking in terms of our Rule and Constitutions, what role does “our allegiance to Christ Jesus” play in our pastoral care?
The Second Vatican Council, the fiftieth anniversary of which we are celebrating this year, emphasized in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: “The treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word” (SC 51).
God’s word, that is, the Holy Scripture, should have a central place in our works. Shortly after the Council, brothers started to engage themselves in the exegesis of the Scripture, without getting lost in eccentric historical-critical discussions; instead they attempted, and still attempt, to communicate scholarly views in such a way that the living character of the Scripture became, and becomes, apparent again to many people.
I would like to mention here a book by Carlos Mesters, the German title of which is Vom Leben zur Bibel und von der Bibel zum Leben, meaning, From Life to the Bible and from the Bible to Life. In it, Mesters describes a movement which is a paradigm of dealing with the Scripture. The reality of people’s lives should be put into a dialogue with the Scripture, and the Scripture should be explained in the light of the reality of people’s lives. In this way, the Bible will become God’s living word even today. It will not be a pious transfer of moralizing content or dogmatic doctrines illustrated with examples from the Bible that will be put in the forefront, but the original word of salvation from the Scripture.
Here the theme of this General Chapter, “A Word of Hope and Salvation”, refers us to the original source of these words, that is, to the Holy Scripture.
Words of hope and salvation are always spoken in the context of a certain reality. How people interpret salvation, or being saved or whole, varies. As in the past, to many people across the world, salvation primarily means the securing of their lives or their survival, often simply meaning access to clean water and sufficient food. Those speaking of salvation in such situations cannot ignore these basic needs. People need food before one can talk about other things.
Or as our Prior General, Fernando, wrote some weeks ago in the occasion of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel:
“At this time of profound economic crisis, of unceasing violence, of flagrant inequalities, …. I believe that we too, as people devoted to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, are called to bring freedom to those who suffer the purgatories of our times – hunger, unemployment, war, terrorism, drugs, depression, loneliness, poor education, exploitation and abuse ….. Our devotion to Mary makes us more sensitive to the needs of the least of our brothers and sisters, to the most forgotten, and it makes us more human, more compassionate and understanding, more in solidarity with others. Compassion is perhaps the greatest test of the authenticity of our devotion to Mary which can never be limited, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us (on its fiftieth anniversary) to a sterile or transitory affection or a certain vain credulity (LG 67).”
In other situations, salvation means getting access to education and training. And in rich states and societies, health is developing into a concept that promises salvation. In modern industrial societies, health is made a god, and people make generous sacrifices to it, putting in great efforts. Paul the Apostle made a similar observation when comparing runners at a stadium. He commented on what athletes wouldn’t do to reach the victory platform, if only once. Although athletes had to put in a great effort then too, nowadays they often end their careers with their physical health ruined.
The connection found by Paul has a further aspect that may be helpful to understand the theme of this Chapter. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians we read:
“I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it. Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.
“Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:23-27 – New American Standard Bible 1995).
Paul emphasizes that he is doing all of this in order to become a fellow partaker of the salvation promised by the gospel, and this means to the preacher, to the Carmelite brother, that he should exercise self-control.
From the experience of one’s own need of salvation and based on one’s own engagement in God’s word, words of hope and salvation may arise. Here, too, paying attention to the personal situation of people as well as trusting composure are required, because God is the only one who can speak the word of salvation, and a personal effort is required to receive this word of hope and salvation.
Finding the right balance in the sense of the abovementioned discernment of spirits is required here, too, and this balance should be established time and time again.
The Carmelite – ruminating on God’s word in scripture – was led into an inner land, an interior desert, where God accompanies the soul into more life. Ruminatio is the original form of meditation, a somewhat different way of meditation than today’s concept. It was not a question of a period of time dedicated explicitly to personal prayer, but more of an attitude by which a person ruminated on everything that had occurred, particularly “the signs of the times,” in regard to the Lord. Meditation was more or less an atmosphere of peaceful reflection, which provided a fertile terrain for true prayer; it was a type of recollection that prepared a person for prayer. The Carmelite tradition teaches the grace of valuing the present moment and of being content, giving everything a proper value at the right time. There is need of a conviction that the Lord deals with a person not only in the high reaches of contemplation, but also that the personal history of the individual becomes an instrument of salvation and of divine mercy.
Even more basic than formal prayers, the Carmelite charism implies a way of life permeated by the living presence of Christ in the sense of vacare Deo. This attitude means to put all of one’s time and talents at the disposition of the Lord, to allow one’s heart to be captured by him and to belong to him, and to enjoy being together with him. We are not called to do special things for salvation, but we are called to do the necessary things for salvation in a special way.
Faith, because God is God
The religious state used to be called ‘state of perfection’, and people entered an Order because they wanted to be admitted to Heaven and thought that they would stand a better chance of achieving this goal from within an Order. Nowadays we like to think that we have risen above such a motive, but there are also very modern and topical motives to use faith and spirituality as means to an end.
Businesses have discovered that employees work more efficiently when their spiritual needs are met. Religious people would be ill less often, more satisfied and more composed, among other things. Often such claims are results of expensive studies and surveys, but they are rather meagre results in my opinion. According to these studies, those who believe in God are healthier, more balanced, more stable, etc.
With the help of backdoor scientific methods, faith and also – from a Christian point of view – the relationship with God are used as means to an end. What would someone in a relationship say, if his or her partner said: “I love you, because it improves my health!!”
And does this imply that those who are ill are unbelieving? What does being saved, being whole, actually mean? Many holy individuals were ill, tormented by physical and/or psychological disorders, yet they were whole and lived from a living relationship with God. To believe in God, because God is God, is the only possible rationale for faith, or as the Prophet Elijah put it: “As the LORD, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand!”
The only rationale for faith is that God lives; anything else is at best a by-product of the path of faith. The challenge repeatedly described in the mysticism of Carmel is the cleansing from all instrumentalization of faith, allowing oneself to be transformed, the abandonment of all experiences, and the ending of consolation.
Do we seek consolation from God or the God of consolation???
What remains in the end is faith, pure faith, because God lives!!!
Titus Brandsma complained in his time about the disappearance of love from faith, because people would have no need of it anymore. I think that his analysis of his time has lost none of its topicality:
“We live in a world in which love is condemned: it is called weakness, something to be overcome. Some say: never mind love, develop your strengths; let everyone be as strong as possible; let the weak perish. They say that the Christian religion, with its preaching of love, has seen better days and should be substituted for by old Teutonic force. Yes, some proclaim these doctrines, and they find people who willingly adopt them. Love is unknown: “Love is not loved,” said St Francis of Assisi in his day; and some centuries later, in Florence, the ecstatic St Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi rang the bells of her Carmelite monastery to let the world know how beautiful love is. Although neo-paganism no longer wants love, history teaches us that, in spite of everything, we will conquer this neo-paganism with love. We shall not give up on love. Love will gain back for us the hearts of these pagans. Nature is stronger than theory: let theory condemn and reject love and call it weakness; the living witness of love will always renew the power which will conquer and capture the hearts of men.”
This is why a sensible and theologically well-considered discernment of spirits is badly needed. Our brothers should read and study the works of the mystics – some contemplation or meditation only, albeit in a community, will not be enough for Carmel. We need a well-considered theology and knowledge of the spiritual experiences of our tradition and of the spiritual treasures of the Church, in order to be able to speak true words of salvation in our own special way, there where we are called to and to the people whom we will meet there.
We Carmelites owe the Church the proclamation of God who redeems and liberates us, who wants to live in a relationship with us, a relationship of love and confidence, of reverence and of respect for the freedom of the other. Such a relationship will automatically lead to appropriate behaviour, but all Christian behaviour will remain dull and partly forced ethics without this living relationship.
The spiritual path and life in a relationship with God do not only lead to certain doings, but also mean that a person develops, that he or she is transformed. This includes experiences of crisis and abandonment, experiences of Dark Night.
We owe the Church testimony that a word of hope and salvation is always also a call to get going, to develop, to mature in faith. Salvation never happens without us; grace requires nature, and God works his salvation through and especially with people.
I would like to conclude with some hopeful words from Titus Brandsma: “God is so close to us. All things existing exist because of his work and in his presence... We should sense his presence and learn from our ancestors how they associated with him intimately, talked with him and listened to him. Life will look very different then.”
 Titus Brandsma. Godsbegrip. In: Mystiek Leven. Editor: Bruno Borchert. Gottmer. Nijmegen 1985. 107.
 Bonhoeffer D., Gemeinsames Leben, Munich 201985, 30.
 Titus Brandsma, Sermon; Payne S., The Carmelite Tradition, Spirituality in History, Collegeville (Minnesota) 2011, 145.
 Titus Brandsma. Fragmenten. In: Mystiek Leven. Editor: Bruno Borchert. Gottmer. Nijmegen 1985. 159.