Carmel in the World
2008. Volume XLVII, Number 2

  • A Rich Bounty: A few words from the Editor
  • Carmelite Spirituality in the Nineteenth Century
  • Nine themes in Carmelite Spirituality (below)
  • The Suffering Face of Jesus
  • Carmelites and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939
  • Carmel and Music V: Sir John Tavener’s “Little Requiem for Father Malachy Lynch”
  • Archbishop Oscar Romero: Saint for the Twenty-first Century?
  • Aspiratory Prayer in the Carmelite Tradition
  • Carmel around the World

Nine Themes in Carmelite Spirituality

Patrick Thomas McMahon, O.Carm.

Ever since I served the Most Pure Heart of Mary Province as the Delegate to the Lay Carmelites, from 1996 until 2002, I have had a deep interest in the Lay Cannel and how it can best be grounded in an authentic Carmelite heritage. When one looks at various websites sponsored by some Lay Carmelites (O.Carm.) and Secular Carmelites (Discalced Carmelites) one notices various misconceptions about our Carmelite tradition. Sometimes I have seen things posted on the Internet by various groups that are even foreign to the faith of our Catholic Church. There are parameters to our Catholic faith, and there are parameters to our Carmelite tradition. Carmel is not all things to all people. Carmel has unique gifts for the Church, gifts that are defined by eight centuries of tradition. Carmel’s initial document, that is our charter from the Church and which defines who we are, is a document called The Rule of St. Albert. It was given to the Latin Hermits on Mount Cannel by Saint Albert of Vercelli, Patriarch of Jerusalem, eight centuries ago. The Fiery Arrow is another early document that bespeaks our Carmelite tradition and how it grew in its first century. The Institute of the First Monks, the works of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, of St. Therese and Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, and so many others have clarified what is particular to our Carmelite Tradition.
When I was Provincial Delegate to the Lay Carmelites I inherited from my predecessors a custom of preparing an annual tape to be sent to each of the communities. The very first year that I was in the ministry of Provincial Delegate I made a recording entitled “Nine Themes in Carmelite Spirituality.” Over the years the Lay Carmelite Office in Darien has continued to reproduce and sell that tape for hundreds of Lay Carmelites and Lay Carmelite Communities. I am flattered that the tape has enjoyed such prominence. I am planning on recording a new edition of that tape in the near future. I am also preparing a book that will allow me to expand on each of the themes in more detail. But recently several Lay Carmelites have asked me if I would not give them the text of that tape to study. I have decided to do that by submitting it as an article to Carmel in the World. Over the years since I made the tape, I have rethought some of the ideas in the light of scholarship that has been done and this article reflects some of the changes in my own understanding of our tradition.
There is a need to clarify Carmelite life and spirituality and I originally proposed from our heritage nine characte­ristics that define us. I would stay with those nine, though the last theme I would slightly rephrase. I had originally said that the Carmelite tradition is first: Christocentric; second: Eucharistic; third: Scriptural; fourth: in harmony with the teaching office of the Pope and Bishops; fifth: theologically in the classic Catholic tradition; sixth: Marian, in the context of our Christological focus; seventh: Elijan; eighth: communitarian, not individualistic; and ninth: lay, not clerical or monastic. I have never been happy with the characterization of the Carmelite Tradition being “lay” because that does not capture quite precisely the idea I am trying to communicate. It is a very complex idea, which you will see when we talk about that characteristic. I think I would be more comfortable today saying that Carmel is inclusive in that it does not draw definitive dividing lines or distinctions between the vocation and spirituality of its lay and religious members.
I want to go through these nine characteristics in some detail. You may want to discuss these ideas yourselves in your community meetings as a guide to grow and develop more authentically in our Carmelite Tradition.

Carmel is Christocentric
The first characteristic of Carmel is that we are Christocentric. Carmel is first and foremost about following Jesus Christ. The Rule of St. Albert outlines the purpose of our vocation. It says: “Many and varied are the ways in which our saintly predecessors laid down, how everyone, whatever one’s station in life, or kind of religious observance one has chosen, should live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ, how pure in heart, stout in conscience, we should be unswerving in the service of our Master”. Carmelites live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ whom the Carmelite rule calls: “our only Saviour.” I will mention Mary at a later point. But let me say now that while Carmel is a Marian Order it is not so in the same sense that St. Louis Grigon de Montfort advocated for his Institute. We Carmelites never take our eyes off Jesus Christ. The first Carmelites came to the Holy Land drawn by the places where Our Lord had lived. They wanted to read the Gospels, live the Gospels, in that land. They wanted to see what his eyes had seen, and to set their feet in the paths where he had walked. I think the Holy Land still is, and always will be, a very special place for Carmelites. Carmelites are profoundly incarnational in our approach to Jesus Christ. St. Teresa tells us in The Interior Castle, book 6, chapter 7: that even at the heights of the spiritual life we cannot leave behind us our focus on the humanity of Jesus Christ. Carmelite spirituality stresses the humanity of Jesus Christ. The humanity of Christ is often misunderstood today. Many good people buy into the Monophysite Heresy which perceived Jesus so divine that his human nature has been eclipsed by his divinity. Yet this is not the faith of our Church. The faith of our Catholic Church celebrates two natures in the one person, Jesus Christ. Jesus has a divine nature exactly the same as the Father’s, and a human nature exactly the same as ours. These two natures each remain intact, and distinct. One does not absorb or eclipse the other in any way. St. Teresa advises us that the humanity of Christ should be a constant source for our meditation. We should focus on his fears in the garden as he struggled to be faithful to his Father’s will. We should focus on his bewilderment that he had been obedient to his Father’s will, but his faithfulness led not to glory but to shame – or so it would have seemed on that Good Friday. We should focus on his sense of abandonment by his friends. We should focus on the trial of faith he underwent in his passion. We need to know that as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that he was tempted in every way that we are, and we need to know as Paul tells us in the Letter to the Philippians that he did not consider his equality with God something to cling to, but he emptied himself taking on himself the nature of a slave being born in human estate. To understand our vocation as Carmelites we need to identify with Jesus as he goes into the desert for forty days to discover his father’s plan for him. We need to go with him up the mountain to spend the night in prayer. We need to go with him to the lonely place where we, like he did, can search our lives to see if we are still on track with God the Father’s will. The sacred humanity of Christ, sinless as it was, but beset by every other human condition and was even tempted, tempted far greater than we are, to sin. The humanity of Christ is our life’s breath for in his sacred humanity is the path to our salvation. As the Fathers of the Church teach us, God became human so that we might become divine. In the humanity of Christ we see our invitation to share in his divinity. This is the end, the purpose of Carmel, like the end of the Christian life in general. It is transformation into Christ so that we may share in the divinity of him who humbled himself to share in our humanity. That is why the Rule of St. Albert calls him: “Our Only Saviour”. We never take our eyes off him. We never set our feet on any path but his. We walk after him in the company of Mary, his mother, and with the other disciples, but we run after him and him alone. Like the Syro-Phoenician Woman, we grasp at the hem of his garment for our salvation.

Carmel is Eucharistic
The second characteristic I’d like to talk about is that Carmel is Eucharistic. Carmelite life has always been centred around the Eucharistic celebration. The first hermits on Mount Carmel gathered daily for the Eucharist. The Eucharist was their one, daily community exercise. That first generation of Carmelites prayed the Psalms alone in their cells. They ate their meals alone in their cells. The one time each day they came together was for Mass. We think of monks and nuns and friars as always having had daily Mass as part of their lives. But this is not so. Many Orders such as the Benedictines initially only celebrated mass on Sundays and major feasts and introduced the practice of a daily mass later in their history. But the Carmelites chose to be together for daily Mass from their first days on Mt. Carmel. Now, notice that they were together for Mass every day, but unfortunately, in those days, people usually received the Eucharist rarely. And the first Carmelites most likely did not receive Holy Communion each day. Indeed they probably only received it several times a year as that was the custom of the time. It was only at the beginning of the last century that Pope St. Pius X authorized daily Communion. We are certainly glad of that practice because we know how important receiving the Eucharist has always been for Carmelites. We see it in St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, the Little Flower, St. Edith Stein, Blessed Titus Brandsma. They all write about the importance of receiving the Eucharist.
In our Carmelite tradition the emphasis has always been on participating in the Eucharistic liturgy, that is in the Mass. While Carmelites believe that Christ’s presence continues in the Eucharist, reserved after Mass in the tabernacle, Eucharistic worship outside of Mass has never been a central part of Carmelite spirituality. We know that those hermits on Mount Carmel did not go to the chapel and pray to the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass time. Their Rule explicitly commanded them to stay in their cells and to meditate there, in their cell, day and night, on the law of the Lord. In Carmelite convents and monasteries in Europe before Vatican II, it was most often impossible for the friars or the cloistered nuns to even see the Blessed Sacrament on the altar of the Church because their choir was most often located on the far side of a wall behind the altar. Among the Franciscans and the Dominicans the custom arose of communities dedicated to perpetual adoration. Thus we have Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, or Dominican Nuns of Perpetual Adoration. But this custom never arose in Carmel, primarily because the Carmelite has always prayed in the solitude of his or her cell and not in the oratory. Perhaps I should put the idea this way: the principal oratory of the Carmelite is his or her cell, not the community chapel. The Carmelite certainly can participate in all the rites and ceremonies of the Church including Perpetual Adoration. But this devotion is not of itself part of our Carmelite tradition. The Carmelite finds his or her Eucharistic centre to be the celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Mass. And if called by the Church, one wonderful ministry that the Lay Carmelite can offer his or her parish is to be willing to bring the Eucharist from the Mass to shut-ins to enable them to receive the Lord more often. Bringing the Eucharist to the sick we also come to them with the Word of God in Sacred Scripture which is another characteristic of our Carmelite life and spirituality.

Carmel is spiritual
We are a community centred on the word of God. The prayer book of the Carmelite is the Bible. Lectio Divina is a prayer form that the whole Order is rediscovering. Lectio Divina means the “Sacred Reading,” the prayerful, prayer filled, attentive reading of the word of God. This takes place certainly in the liturgy, both in the Liturgy of the Hours and the Liturgy of the Word at Mass. But as we go about our day we continue to feed off the liturgy and in particular to feed off the scripture which we pray both in the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass.
Our vocation is outlined in our Rule, The Rule of St. Albert, and that is a text which echoes and re-echoes the Sacred Scripture. It is a pastiche of texts that are drawn from the Bible. The Rule of St. Albert is a brief text. It’s about three pages typewritten and yet in those three pages there are at least forty-two direct references to scripture and an uncountable number of indirect references. This Rule of St. Albert encourages, in fact it demands, that we be a people of the Word. It says in one of my favourite quotes: “The sword of the spirit, the Word of God must abound in your mouths and hearts. Let all that you do have the Lord’s Word for accompaniment”.
What is the heart of Carmelite life? Traditionally, following St. Teresa of Avila, we’ve always said that it is the part of The Rule of St. Albert that says: “Each one of you is to stay in your own cell or nearby, pondering the Lord’s law (that is the Lord’s Word), day and night, and keeping watch at your prayer unless attending to some other duty”. How do we Carmelites pray? Well, The Rule of St. Albert tells us those who know their letters and how to read, that they should read the Psalms appointed for each of the Hours of the Divine Office according to what “our holy predecessors laid down, in the approved custom of the Church appoints for that hour.” In the revision of the Rule by Pope Innocent IV in 1247 this was changed to the recitation not only of the psalms but of the entire Divine Office. In other words, the reading of The Psalms and, in particular, the Divine Office, is at the very heart of our Carmelite prayer Life and all Carmelites should begin to use The Liturgy of the Hours.
The early Carmelites had a life that was impregnated with the Word of God. They interrupted their day seven times to pray the Psalms. After the revision of the Rule in 1247 they listened to the Sacred Scripture as they ate their meals. They listened to the readings for Mass each day, and throughout the day and into the night whenever they were not busy at some other task they pondered this Word of God. They reflected on it. They searched out its meanings. Furthermore, subsequent Carmelite spiritual authors were totally dependent on the Word of God. We can look at these documents, The Fiery Arrow or The Institute of the First Monks. We can look at the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross. We can look at the writings of St. Therese, who practically knew the Gospels by heart, or Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, whose writings are drawn from St. Paul’s epistles. And we can see just how this entire Carmelite tradition has been shaped by knowledge of and an immersion into the Word of God. And so the Carmelite today must be a person who is impregnated with the Word of God. This is perhaps why Carmel has never much been given to devotional prayer. The sort of devotions that characterized some other Orders, especially those from the 18th and 19th centuries never took hold in Carmel. The prayer life of Carmel has always been simple: The Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, and meditation on the sacred text of Scripture.
Over the past two years I have given parish missions or other renewal programs in various churches around the United States. And in each of about ten Churches I asked the congregation to stand. Then, when they were all standing, I told those who had read the Scripture in the last twenty-four hours that they should be seated. Then I asked those who had read the scripture in the last forty-eight hours please be seated; after that, the last seventy-two hours, and finally those who had read the scriptures any time in the previous week. At this point in seven out of the ten congregations, more than fifty percent were still standing. That is to say, more than fifty percent had not looked at the scripture in the last week. In the remaining three congregations, almost half sat down on the first cut. Almost half had read the scriptures in the last 24 hours! Those three audiences were Lay Carmelite communities. I often tell Lay Carmelite communities that I do not want to see them with shiny and new bibles. Bibles are meant to be worn out.

This article will be continued in the next issue of Carmel in the World

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