Carmel in the World
2006. Volume XLV, Number 3

  • Life in Carmel only gets better
  • The Rule of Saint Albert
  • Looking behind to look ahead: Finding a future from the early Carmelites
  • The Rule of Albert: A Plane for Life (below)
  • Lay Carmelite Congress Photos
  • Venture from Cocoon to Flight
  • A Lay Carmelite’s Perspective on the Rule of St Albert
  • Psalm 132: A Covenant Forever
  • Working with Youth: The Elian Volunteers Witnessing to the Faith
  • Carmel around the World

The Rule of Albert: A Plan for Life

Sr. Libby Dahlstrom, O.Carm.

Toward the end of the twelfth century, a small group of lay hermits began to live in a small cluster on Mount Carmel in Palestine. These first Carmelites formed a rather loosely structured community of hermits, each living in cave-like edifices on the mountain, seeking to live in complete allegiance to Jesus Christ through a life of deep personal prayer in silence and solitude. These caves were situated around a central oratory where they gathered regularly for Mass. After some years, probably somewhere between 1206 and 1214, they agreed to ask Albert, the Patriarch of Jerusalem at the time, to write a Rule of Life for them. This Albert did, basing his document on the “avowed purpose” of the hermits; In other words, he did not just make up the ideas himself that he wrote in his “formula for life’ Rather, he wrote of what they were already living as well as their ideal of life as they presented it to them.
This document, the “Rule of Carmel,” has provided the foundation for Carmelite life for eight centuries now. It is legitimate to ask if a document written in early thirteenth century for a group of hermits living in the wilderness of Mt. Carmel in Palestine can possibly have any real personal meaning for us who live in the twenty-first century. The world, after all, is so different now than it was back then, and certainly the conditions of life are different. This is the question I will try to answer. My ruminations on this topic arise out of the 40 years’ experience of my own vocation as a member of a Congregation of active religious Carmelite sisters, my reflections on ideas given by some of the Order’s experts, conversations with other Carmelites, both religious and lay, and observations of how other Carmelites live out their vocation, again, both religious and lay. Since this article is being written for publication in a magazine specifically for Lay Carmelites, it is my hope that these thoughts will have some practical application to the lives of any Lay Carmelites who may read them. I hope that these reflections will also serve to spur the reader to reflect in more depth on the points I will bring out as well as the many other points for reflection that are part of our Rule that are not included in this article.
Many and varied are the ways in which our saintly forefathers laid down how everyone, whatever his station or the kind of religious observance he has chosen, should live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ — how, pure in heart and stout in conscience, he must be unswerving in the service of his Master. (Ch. 2)
This is the crux of our lives: to live in allegiance to Jesus Christ — pure in heart, stout in conscience, unswerving in service. This is the primary vocation of every baptized Christian, so it obviously should be the main focus of our lives as Carmelites. In his short document, Albert describes particular elements of how Carmelites are to live out their allegiance to Jesus Christ.
The rest of this article will deal with a few of the specific ideas of the Rule of Albert which will hopefully have some practical meaning in the everyday lives of twenty-first Century Carmelites.
“Each of you is to stay in his own cell or nearby, pondering the Lord’s law day and night and keeping watch at his prayer unless attending to some other duty.” (Ch. 10)
The word “cell” is a somewhat archaic term. Not many twenty-first century Carmelites refer to their bedrooms/living spaces as cells” anymore, and the idea of staying in or near one ‘s bedroom for most of one’s waking hours to read and ponder and pray seems like an unrealistic pipe dream. Maybe that was possible in a literal way for the early hermit Carmelites of the late 12th and early thirteenth centuries living in the caves on Mt. Carmel, but not here, not now at least, not in the literal sense. The great temptation is simply to disregard this chapter because it can seem impossible to fulfill.
One of the definitions of “cell” in the dictionary is that it is a “small hollow, cavity, or compartment.” If the definition is extended into the symbolic world, the “cell” can be seen as the deepest interior (hollow or cavity) of our being. This interior inner space can only be truly filled by God, and is, in fact, continually inhabited by God. In this sense, we carry our cell with us always because it is our own deepest center. Wherever we are, therefore, we can enter this cell and there meet God.
Or, in another way of thinking, wherever we are at any given moment can be thought of as our cell. For example, my ministry involves a lot of cross-country driving, and my car becomes my traveling “cell” wherein I can ponder and pray. The important thing is not in finding the correct physical location where we can pray and ponder. Rather, it is in seeking the God who always dwells within our deepest center; wherever we are, that is important.
This is not to downplay the importance of some time set aside in our daily lives for a period of quiet prayer, whether that be in our own bedrooms/living spaces, or a quiet chapel or church, or outside in the beauty of God’s creation. Our continual faithfulness to those specified times of personal prayer in our daily lives gradually builds in us an ever deepening receptivity to God’s dwelling all through the day.
This dynamic can be understood better when compared to the vocation of marriage. Though I have never been married, I have witnessed enough good marriages to know this truth. Think of two people who have been married a long number of years. As each goes through their day, somehow in the deep recesses of their hearts they are always WITH each other and AWARE of each other, even when physically separated by their individual tasks of the day and busy with many diverse activities and not consciously thinking about each other. They’re raising children and in some cases grandchildren, they’re earning a living to provide sustenance, they’re carpooling children hither and yon, they’re involved in corporate meetings, they’re nursing sick children or elderly parents, they’re cooking meals, and the list goes on and on. But a couple who truly lives the sacrament of marriage through faithful commitment over the long haul will, in some real though inexplicable way, be connected to each other underneath all the surface activities of their daily lives.
The flip side of this, however, is that these couples also know that they must, with some regularity, put aside the activities that usually occupy their time, and be occupied only with each other for a while. Whatever they call this (1 know of at least one couple that actually schedules a “date” every month - they hire a babysitter and go out for dinner, just the two of them) and however they work it out, if a couple does not have some regular quality time together; eventually their marriage will deteriorate. On the other hand, the more faithful they are to spending this quality time together, the more they will be connected to each other under the surface of their days’ diverse activities.
The parallel is clear: we are called by God to a deep intimacy. God dwells in our deepest center, our inner “cell,” always and absolutely unconditionally loving us. We are always IN God’s Presence and God is always present within us, and this connectedness to God is intrinsic to who we are. As presented in the little book, Living in the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence relates how he found God present in his life at all times, whether he was in the chapel, or in the kitchen amidst the pots and pans. But to get to this point, just like in a good marriage, we need to spend “quality time” with God on a daily basis in order to allow God to build in us the receptive and contemplative attitude wherein we can be attuned to the Love offered us all through our day in the midst of all the diverse activities that make up our day. The quality time is the period we set aside for personal prayer, a time when we stop all the activities that pull at us and consciously turn our attention within, where God is dwelling. Just like in a good marriage, without our faithfulness to this quality time with God, that is, our designated prayer time, our relationship with God will eventually deteriorate, or at best will stay superficial.
“An oratory should be built as conveniently as possible among the cells, where, if it can be done without difficulty, you are to gather each morning to hear Mass.” (Ch. 14)
This chapter illustrates one of the great paradoxes of the Carmelite journey. We are called to deep personal prayer and intimacy with God in our “cell” as discussed above re: Ch. 10, and now, in Ch. 14, we are called to “gather together” on a daily basis.
Two opposite poles are joined together in Carmel: each one’s personal transformation in the deep silent intimacy of our interior being through silently pondering and praying over the Word of God in solitude, and the parallel reality and necessity of gathering in community. One supports the other and neither one can grow to its fullness without the other. The short phrase used so often to describe the early Carmelites points to this paradox: “hermits in Community.” It is difficult to hold both of the poles in creative tension in our lives, but it is an ongoing task intrinsic to our vocation to live both aspects of this paradox authentically. We are often tempted to neglect one or the other. Albert spells out some specific guidelines for community living in other chapters of his formula for life in Carmel but the scope of this article does not allow for more detail here.
This chapter, along with Ch. 11, brings out another important value intrinsic to the Carmelite vocation: liturgical prayer. In the quotation above about the oratory, the early Carmelites gathered there for Mass each day. The Paschal Mystery, which is re-presented through the celebration of Mass, challenges us daily to participate in the dying and rising of Christ, which will in turn deepen our capacity for the inner transformation in love that God is desiring to accomplish in us. Again we see the absolute centrality in Carmelite life of complete allegiance to Christ and how it plays out in our lives by our commitment to daily Mass.
“Those who know how to say the canonical hours with those in orders should do so, in the way those holy forefathers of ours laid down, and according to the Church’s approved custom.”
The term “canonical hours” refers to what used to be called the “Divine Office” and what is today most often called the “Liturgy of the Hours.” This prayer is the Church’s official way of consecrating the entire day to the praise and worship of God. In centuries and decades past, it was only the clergy that prayed the Office, but we see here in our Rule, that all Carmelites were to join “those in orders” in praying the Hours. In the cloistered Carmels, the nuns pray all the Hours, but those in active ministry usually pray only the major Hours: Morning Prayer (which used to be called “Lauds”) and Evening Prayer (formerly called “Vespers”). Many are also able to pray some of the other Hours, especially Night Prayer (“Compline”) and Office of Readings (“Matins”). We consciously join our prayer to the official Liturgy of the Church on a daily basis when we fulfill our commitment as Carmelites to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.
“Here then are a few points I have written down to provide you with a standard of conduct to live up to; but our Lord, at his second coming, will reward anyone who does more than his is obliged to do. See that the bounds of common sense are not exceeded, however, for common sense is the guide of the virtues.” (Ch. 24)
What a healthy outlook we have been given in the wisdom contained in our Carmelite plan of life. Fanaticism has no place in our authentic growth and transformation. We are reminded in the last sentence that we are to be guided by common sense, grounded in the real world. After presenting to us all through the document the ideals to which we are called by our vocation, we are in the last words assured that God operates in our lives in the context of common sense. It is a reassuring philosophy, one that entices us onward in this journey, guided by a plan of life that both pulls us toward the ideal and yet solidly establishes us in common sense reality.
In summary, then, regarding the underlying question of this article: can a thirteenth century document have real meaning for the twenty-first century? The answer is a clear and resounding “yes.” The Rule of Albert continues to guide the members of the Carmelite family toward a deeper living out of the Carmelite vocation. There is universal appeal in its simplicity that transcends the ages and draws us into an authentic understanding of what it means to be a Carmelite, and each time it is read and pondered there will be aspects that will touch us in new and different ways. It provides us all with a viable plan for life, both individually and communally, for living in allegiance to Jesus Christ as Carmelites.

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