The Carmelite Order & The Laity

Patrick Burke, O.Carm.

The Second Vatican Council called the Church to new life in the Spirit who gives life to, unifies and moves the whole body. “Christ fills the Church, which is his body and his fullness, with his divine gifts so that it may increase and attain to all the fullness of God” (LG 7). All the baptised, centred in Christ and strengthened by God’s word and sacrament, form one community of faith, hope and love.

Within this ecclesial setting, the Carmelite Family offers a specified spirituality to help God’s people meet the demands of a gospel way of life in the midst of our modern secularist world. The Carmelite tradition has served the Church and the people with charisms centred on prayer, community and service. Its prophetic and Marian heritage has inspired its members throughout the centuries in the persons of Elijah and the Blessed Virgin Mary, enkindling new life and inspiration in every age.

The Church recognises that “by reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (LG 31). Called by God and being led by the spirit of the Gospel, they may contribute to the sanctification of the world by fulfilling their own particular duties, manifesting Christ to others. The faithful Christian, then, has a vocation, arising from this secular character, to deal with worldly matters and to order them according to God’s law. The individuals live their lives in their secular occupations and professions and in the ordinary conditions of the family and society. In so far as they can and united with like people, the laity work so that “the institutions and conditions of the world may be conformed to the norms of justice, favouring rather than hindering the practice of virtue” (LG 31).

The Church sees the individual Christian as the Church, and not just belonging to the Church. The mission of all Christians is to “Go, make disciples of all nations,” which is realised in the family, at work, and in worship. The neighbour, business, sickness, children — all demand the giving of self, as the Eucharistic Christ.

The lay Christian is one who lives their secular identity as a member of the Church. As such, each one cannot be really a passive member. Pope John Paul II on his visit to Columbia in July 1986, summed up the role of the lay person: “You lay people, loyal to your secular identity, must stay in the world as in your own environment and there realise an active and evangelical presence — a dynamic and transforming presence — as the leaven in the dough, as the salt giving the Christian sense to the light of work, as the light in the midst of the darkness of indifference.”

Guided by the Holy Spirit, Church authority from Apostolic times fostered the spread of various forms of religious life lived in solitude or community, in imitation of Christ through the gospel counsels. Different religious families in time came into existence, in which certain aspects and gifts of the Spirit are cultivated for the good of the Church and a help towards holiness for their members (LG 43). Some lay people, attracted by the specific charisms or gifts of a religious family became more associated with it and in some instances took vows according to the characteristic way of life of the religious family, living however in the ordinary circumstances of secular family and social life.

The distinguishing element of each religious family is its spirituality, lived out of the same charisms, inspiration and values. The Church in approving a religious family encourages it to foster among the laity the characteristics of the spiritual life proper to the family. In modem times, the laity can follow the Rule of the Order or religious family, but in keeping with their lay status and circumstances of life.

The Carmelite spirituality is based on a commitment “To live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience,” inspired by St. Paul’s words and proposed by St. Albert as the foundation on which their way of life is constructed. (Con 14). Carmelites are committed to seek the face of the living God (prayer dimension), through fraternity (community) and through service in the midst of the people, totally dedicated to a prayerful attention to the Word, celebrating and praising the Lord with zeal. The Rule speaks of a community whose members are open to the indwelling of the Spirit and formed by the Spirit’s values.

From its beginning, the Carmelite Order, living and functioning in the service of the Church, made its own the Church’s devotion to Our Lady, conscious of a special charism of bonding to her as “Mother and Splendour of Carmel”. In imitation of Mary, they strove to make God present in their world by deepening their union with God through prayer. In leaving Mount Carmel, the early Carmelites took with them the prophetic spirit and inspiration of the Prophet Elijah. From him the Carmelites throughout the centuries more easily understood and internalised, lived out and proclaimed the truth that makes us free (Con 25).

Lay people are attracted to the Carmelite Order by its spirituality. For them too, the contemplative dimension of Carmelite prayer expresses an attitude of openness to God whose presence Carmelites discover everywhere. It constitutes the inner journey, a journey in the desert to meet God, to be overpowered by his love. This love empties us of our limited and imperfect ways of thinking, loving and acting; and transforms them into God’s way.

For the lay person the contemplative attitude towards the world around us makes us discover God present in our daily experiences and makes us find him especially in one another. In this way the Lay Carmelites are led to value the mystery of the persons around them with whom they share their life. On the basis of what they experience in Carmel, they seek dialogue, reconciliation and healing in their relationships. Lay Carmelites are being constantly formed by the Word through lectio divina in which they ponder the law of the Lord (Rule 7).

In the tradition of Carmel, they seek the face of God in the heart of the world. They are open to others, capable of listening, and of being questioned by our culture and environment; and offering ourselves to collaborate with those who commit themselves to the search for the kingdom of God. Contemplation, community and service thus constitute the Lay Carmelite calling and their particular way of serving God and his Church in their world.

The Carmelites seek to serve the living God in the worship of our lips and of our lives. The lay persons associated with the Order in any way express our Carmelite calling in the concrete living of our place in the world. They live our Baptismal and Confirmation vocation supported and inspired by the Carmelite spirit and ideal, by the example, encouragement and help of our brothers and sisters of Carmel. They embrace as far as their lay state and the duties of their state in life allow the central ideas of the Rule. They give some time daily to the lectio divina, to pondering the Scripture in their hearts. They see the Mass as the centre of Carmelite life, its ‘source and summit’ (LG 11). They say if possible some of the Liturgy of the Hours. They value their group meetings and give them a high priority.

Despite this practical formulation of the Lay Carmelites’ way of life, there is a real need for a theological exposition of the wide spectrum of lay commitment and a corresponding but deeper presentation of their Carmelite spirituality. It must be “a specific process whereby a person becomes identified with the living programme centred on Christ as for any Christian but animated by the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary and by the inspiration of Elijah, all in accordance with the particular charisms of the Carmelite Order.”

Because of the presence of Lay Carmelites in the situations of ordinary life which are not served by the Friars or Sisters, truly great incentives for the Church have been instituted in the public service, reflecting the creativity of individuals responding to their Carmelite charisms and the variety of personal gifts with which they are endowed. This phenomenon draws attention to the need for a basic and comprehensive formation programme for all aspirants to the lay associations of the Order. The additional programmes must recognise too the presence of the variety of gifts in the Carmelite Family and provide for it accordingly. It this respect the role of women in the Carmelite Family is essential.

The work of the Friars and Sisters in the fields of new evangelisation should be partnered and recognised as such in the wider Carmelite Family. Local efforts at establishing the Carmelites in missionary areas should be tied to the local efforts elsewhere in fostering the ties of the Carmelite Family.

The vicissitudes of Carmelite history are always a hopeful assurance of God’s presence and of the work of the Order in the service of the Kingdom. The building up of the Carmelite Family is itself a commitment to evangelisation. But this presumes a better understanding of the criteria appropriate to people in our society today which itself must recognise the primary desire for a better prayer life. What prayer life? Union in the Spirit appropriate to their spiritual make-up.


Abbreviations used:
LG = Lumen gentium. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 1965.




For more information . . .
If you would like to learn more about the Lay Carmel/Third Order in the Irish Province, or would like to know where the nearest Chapter is to you, please enquire at any of our friaries or houses throughout the country.

See also:

Other International Third Order/Lay Carmelite Sites: