Carmel in the World
2008. Volume XLVII, Number 3

  • Much to think about: A few words from the Editor
  • Nine themes in Carmelite Spirituality (below)
  • Carmelite Echoes in the Lourdes Grotto
  • Why our Church was closed
  • The Latin Patriarch and the challenges facing his flock
  • Carmel around the World

Nine Themes in Carmelite Spirituality (Part II)

Patrick Thomas McMahon, O.Carm.

Carmel is Marian
The next characteristic I would like to speak about is that Carmel is Marian. We belong to Mary. But if you notice, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is always depicted as holding the Child Jesus. Carmelites love Mary and honor her as the one who introduces us to Jesus. Strangely Mary is never mentioned in The Rule of St. Albert, the document that initially defines Carmel and its spirituality. In fact, Mary is mentioned relatively rarely in the ancient documents of the Order until the Book of the Institution of the First Monks which was composed in the final quarter of the fourteenth century.[1] Furthermore, Mary is mentioned surprisingly rarely in the writings of St. Teresa or St. John of the Cross. Even St. Thérèse of Lisieux or Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity or St. Edith Stein mention her but rarely. Yet she is always present in the Carmelite tradition and her presence, though somewhat inconspicuous, is fundamental. When Mary is present in the Carmelite writings she is almost invariably eclipsed by her Son. It is a reminder that even though we cannot see the moon when the sun is shinning, the moon is always there, and it draws its light from the sun. In the same way, Carmelites remember that while our sight is focused on Jesus, Mary is still there. Like the moon she sheds not light of her own, but reflects the Light from her Divine Son.
One significant Carmelite author who does focus on the Blessed Virgin Mary is Michael of St. Augustine, a Carmelite friar of the seventeenth century Touraine Reform in France. In many ways Michael of St. Augustine’s writings anticipate the doctrines of St. Louis Grignon de Montfort. Devotees of St. Louis de Montfort tell us that in his writings he offers a Marian Spirituality, that is, a spirituality in which Mary plays the pivotal role in defining the relationship of the believer to her Son and to the Trinity. Michael of St. Augustine could be said to do the same. Yet a careful reading of their writings shows us that neither Montfort nor Michael of St. Augustine proposes a spirituality that does not begin and end in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, the Marian emphasis of Michael of St. Augustine is quite unique to him among Carmelite spiritual writers. For the other authors in our tradition, Carmel offers a Christocentric spirituality in which Mary plays a key, but supportive, role. The Carmelite celebrates his or her devotion to Mary primarily by means of imitation of the Blessed Virgin. That is why we often reflect in our meditation on the mystery of salvation from Mary’s point of view We don’t reflect on Mary. We reflect on Jesus as Mary saw him. We often, but not always, approach the Incarnation, for example, from Mary’s perspective. What is it like for an angel to come to Mary? In what ways does God’s angel come to me? What did it mean for Mary to say yes to God’s request? What does it mean for me to say yes to God’s request? How did Mary feel about carrying Jesus within her for nine months? In what ways do I carry Jesus in me? In what ways do I give birth to Jesus? In what ways do I nurse Jesus? In what ways do I educate Jesus? In what ways do I feed the Child Jesus? Or, how did Mary feel when she saw Her son naked and bleeding and dying on the cross? How do I feel when I see Jesus naked and bleeding and dying on a cross? When and where do I see Jesus dying on the cross? What was it like when the risen Lord came to his mother? Where and in what ways does the risen Lord come to me? The possibilities for prayerfully seeing Christ through the eyes of his mother are endless, and the Carmelite often turns toward them. For the Carmelite, Mary is always offering Jesus to us—Jesus, whom our Rule calls our only Savior. The Carmelite knows and always remembers that Jesus is our only hope, our only mediator of salvation, our only intercessor with God the Father. The Carmelite always looks at Mary smiling as she puts your hand into the hand of her Son. And as she sees your gaze turn from her to him and the love that you have for him come alive in your heart as it has in hers ever since that moment when the angel gave his greeting.
For us Carmelites, the principle sign of our devotion to Mary is imitation. And the outward manifestation of our Carmelite devotion to her is the Brown Scapular. Unfortunately in the years since the Fatima apparitions, the connection between the brown scapular and the Carmelite Order has been broken. And many people who wear the scapular do not even know that this badge of devotion is the gift to the Church of our Carmelite family. We need to wear the scapular. We also need to learn what the Church and what the Order is teaching about the scapular. Much has changed in this regard. Very much has changed in this regard in the last four decades and we have a need to reeducate ourselves on this beautiful symbol. It must be a priority for the Order to continue to develop new catechetical materials on the scapular.
Many Carmelites find Mary and prayers and devotions such as the Rosary tremendous helps in their spiritual life. And the Order encourages us in this devotion. These devotional prayers never replace the Prayer of the Church, that is, the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, though the individual Lay Carmelite may decide from time to time even with some frequency to substitute the Rosary for the private recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. The Lay Carmelite community, like the friars and the nuns when they gather in prayer, always focuses on the Liturgy of the Hours which it prays as part of the official prayer of the Church. This praying the Liturgy of the Hours is one of the signs of the unity of the Carmelite with the universal Church. It is our goal and our hope and our ambition that the Liturgy of the Hours will be part of the prayer life for each and every Carmelite in their private life and also part of the meeting of each and every Lay Carmelite community. Similarly, while Carmelites are always prepared to honor the Mother of God we do so as we normally do all our prayer in the solitude of our cells. Carmelites may occasionally go on a pilgrimage but it is not our spirituality to go running from site to site in search of miracles and signs. We have the only sign that we need and that is the sign of Jonah. We find our joy in contemplating the mystery that just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights so was the Son of Man in the belly of the earth, in the grave, until he was raised. And while the opportunity to visit Lourdes or Fatima or other approved shrines can be a source of tremendous grace, the Carmelite doesn’t feel the need or the inspiration to chase Mary from site to site of approved or alleged apparitions. Furthermore we always follow the authority of the Church which alone approves or can disapprove of an apparition. If you want to honor Mary then listen to her son and put his teaching into practice in your lives.

Carmel is Elijan
That means we look to the prophet Elijah, the great prophet who lived on Mt. Carmel eight centuries before Jesus, and we find great inspiration in him. Carmelites from the very beginning of the Order have looked to Elijah for inspiration. They saw in the prophet everything that they wanted to be. He was a man of deep contemplation, one who sought solitude in the wadi Carith or in the cave at Mount Horeb. All Carmelites need to know the Elijah stories that we find at the end of the First Book of Kings, and in the beginning of the Second Book of Kings in the Bible. We see in these stories that Elijah was a restless man. He was filled with energy for God like we want to be, and he was anxious to spend that energy on God’s kingdom. But he was always searching to know what God asked of him. He is the model, along with Mary, for each of us Carmelites. Elijah was a fearless prophet who stood strong and tall against the injustice of his day. He defended the farmer and the peasant against the mighty kings and lords. And that is why the Order of Carmel today has stood with the Church in making the preferential option for the poor. Carmel chooses to stand up for the cause of the poor. We stand with the teachings of Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and now Pope Benedict XVI and with their teaching about the rights of immigrants and the rights of workers and the rights of women and the rights of all human persons for housing, health care, and education. Carmel stands for nothing more than what the popes have stood for in their brilliant encyclical letters when they call for rights of the poor to be protected. The trouble is that many Catholics do not know what the Church teaches in the areas of social justice. Let me say that, tragically, our Bishops and our priests often have not done their job in this area. Too often the laity intimidate them from speaking the truth. Too often some clergy preach only that part of the Church’s magisterium that their congregations already agree with. But we Carmelites cannot depend on others for our knowledge of the Church’s teaching. Carmelites have an obligation to learn the social gospel of the Catholic Church and to put it into practice. I am going to be very blunt on this point. If our politics aren’t formed by our Christian and Catholic faith then we’re not good Christians, good Catholics or good Carmelites. Some Catholics think that all they have to do is vote for the candidates that are opposed to abortion, but while the protection of human life from the moment of natural conception until the moment of natural death will always be the chief priority, the social teaching of the Catholic Church is far broader than that one issue. We must know our faith. We must be familiar with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Papal Encyclicals. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Papal Encyclicals belong in our hands as we vote, even as they belong in our hands for every decision we make in our lives. Some might say “Render to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but I can tell you what is not Caesar’s business and where in my life I don’t have to be obedient to Caesar. But you tell me where you don’t have to be obedient to God. You tell me what in life is not God’s concern, what is not subject to God’s authority. The whole world belongs to God. And our whole life belongs to God. And every decision we make must be according to the will of God. The Carmelite, like Elijah, is enflamed with the spirit of God and stands for truth in the face of every obstacle. The Carmelite, like Elijah stands up for the poor, for the victims of injustice, for those who have no voice of their own with which to cry out to heaven.

Carmel is about Community
The next characteristic I want to talk about is the fact that Carmel is communitarian. One of the most frightening phenomena of the 20th century has been the breakdown of community at almost every level of society. Pope John Paul repeatedly wrote and spoke on this subject. And he was particularly critical of North American Society on this account, and not without reason. Both the United States and Canadian peoples tend to be individualists. We are very strong on individual rights. And we are suspicious of any grouping that demands a loyalty over our own personal interests. Two hundred years ago when the Frenchman Alex de Tocqueville visited the United States he characterized the then new nation as a nation of individualists. He saw this as one of the great strengths of American society. But it is also one of the great weaknesses. Indeed individualism has become a cancer that has eaten our cultural soul from within. Look at the problem. People are now longer interested in the common wheal. They’re interested only in their own personal good. The most frightening breakdown of community has been the collapse of the family. Most families no longer eat a meal together daily. And where there is no supper table there is no longer any family. People take their food from the common table and move it to the television, to their own room, to the computer, to the patio. They read the paper or a book while eating. One person eats now; another in a half hour; the third ate an hour ago. We have televisions in different rooms. We have our dens to escape to. We have our own workshop or sewing room. And while it is good for each of us to have our own space, it eats away our soul for us to have no common time and no common space whatsoever with our families. Carmel must be committed to restoring community on every level, in our families, in our Lay Carmelite groups, and in our parishes. Our parishes, are they communities? Maybe the liturgies are lively, or our social outreach is strong, but do people know each other? Do they have a sense of belonging to one another? Can they turn to one another for help, or advice or encouragement? For many, the Church is simply a place where you go; it no longer is a group of people to whom you belong. And that is not the Church founded by Jesus Christ. There are those for whom the Church is a private affair, their time alone with the Lord. They come early and they silently kneel. They bury their face in their hands during the liturgy. They remain afterwards gazing at the tabernacle. And they leave without ever having spoken a word to anyone. They think they’ve encountered Jesus in the Eucharist, but unless they have met their sister and their brother in charity they have replaced the Eucharistic Lord with a Jesus of their own imagination. Until we understand that the Church itself is the Body of Christ, we will not authentically encounter Jesus in the Eucharist. Lay Carmelites must be an invigorating force for community within their parishes even as the friars and nuns are called by their vocation to be a witness to the value of community in the larger Church.
As a priest, I am frightened by how few people really know Jesus. So many have invented a fantasy figure of their own devotion whom they call Jesus, but they couldn’t find “The Sermon on the Mount” if they had a reserved seat for it. The Jesus whom they have invented is simply an imaginary figure who reinforces their own opinions and whom they can conveniently tuck away when it is time to get on with the tough decisions of daily life. As Catholic Christians we know that there is an essential connection between Jesus in the community of the faithful and Jesus present in the Eucharistic banquet; between Jesus present in the least of his brothers and sisters, and Jesus speaking in the scriptures. It is one Christ. As Catholic Christians our life takes its meaning not from our individualism but from our belonging to a community of people who together belong to the Lord. There is no salvation for those who remain individuals. Salvation comes, we Catholics believe, from being in the bark of Christ in the community of the faithful. So Carmel is essentially communitarian. Carmelites, because of our origin as hermits, value silence and solitude, but we do not value individualism. Our roots are among a community of hermits. Notice: a community of hermits. We too, while we are happy and content to be alone much of the time, we come together to pray, we come together to encourage one another, and we come together to help each other follow Jesus because no one can follow Jesus alone. Carmel is communitarian. We are about communities. Part of our mission is to form communities. And Lay Carmelites must be rooted in their communities, faithful to their communities, praying with their communities, in touch with each other, supportive of one another. When Lay Carmelites move somewhere where there is no Lay Carmelite community they need to start one. We need to find other good Catholic men and women and invite them into community, into the community of Carmel.
Scott Peck, the pop psychiatrist, writes and writes well that: “The future of the world is community”. And he’s right. It is our future, our only future. It was the plan of Jesus when he established the Church, and it was the plan of those first hermits on Mt. Carmel, and it is our plan today. We must be a community of Carmelites. We have no future if we’re not a community and there is no future if we do not learn how to be a community.

Carmel has its roots in the Laity
My final point in the tape that I made twelve years ago for the American Lay Carmelites was that Carmel is essentially a lay organization. I must admit that I have never been happy with that formulation because it is not quite accurate. In this regard, it is easier to say what we are not rather than what we are. We are not, at least if we are faithful to our roots, either a clerical or monastic society. We began as laymen who embraced the eremitical life. Our spirituality is one that reflects our origins among the laity. The first Carmelites were laymen. There may have been a priest or two among them, we do not know for certain. But we do know that the hermits who gathered in the wadi en ‘esiah in the first decade of the thirteenth century were not monks but lay hermits, ordinary men who had grown somewhat disillusioned with their world and what little it really had to offer them. They were people like ourselves who wanted to find some meaning to their lives, a meaning that only God could give, a meaning that was defined not by the world around them but by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At an earlier time in the history of the Church in the fourth or the fifth centuries—these hermits would have become monks. Monks in those first centuries were groups of lay men or lay women who withdrew from the rush and clamor of the society around them to devote themselves to prayerful rumination on the scriptures in an attempt to lead a more intense Christian life. Over the centuries, however, monasticism had developed from its simple foundations in the deserts of Egypt and Syria into a complex organizational structure, closely tied into the hierarchy of the Church and earthly kingdoms of the day. The simplicity of the hermitage had been exchanged for the magnificent architecture and elaborate ritual of the great abbeys, and the monastic life was limited almost exclusively to the children of the land-owning nobility who supported the monasteries. The vision that had impelled men like Antony Abbot or John Cassian to the desert to live in solitude and simplicity, mediating day and night on the Word of God had to find new ground in which to grow. In the 12th and 13th centuries many laymen wishing to follow Christ more intensely, began to live in simple fraternities of hermits in the countryside of Europe. One such group, drawn from Europeans who had come with the Crusaders to the Holy Land, settled on the slopes of Mount Carmel. Their spirituality was monastic in as that they were driven by the same spiritual hungers that had called the desert monks of old, but they were ordinary laymen who had sought their bishop’s blessing on their living a hermetical life that empowered them to follow Christ in listening to his word. They did not aspire, initially, to be either religious or priests. But after 20 years or so of the simple hermetic life some of the hermits began being ordained, probably so that they could occasionally preach, or hear confessions of the pilgrims who came to Mount Carmel on their way to Jerusalem.
Once those hermits began establishing hermitages in Europe it became more important for them to be ordained. And so about 50 years after they were started the Carmelites developed into a clerical community, but they never lost their affiliation with the laity. While I was Provincial Delegate, I had the opportunity to attend the Lay Carmelite congress in Fatima, Portugal. Each evening many of us went down to the Basilica for the procession at the shrine that marks the site where the apparitions took place. I noticed that whereas all the clergy who were present marched together as a group of priests and deacons around the statue of Our Lady, the Carmelites, both priests and brothers, walked with the laity. No one told us that we had to do this; it just seemed to be the natural thing for us to do. We were comfortable with our Lay Carmelites brothers and sisters and wanted to be with them. Carmel has never lost that affiliation with the laity. In Carmel the priest-brothers have always worn the same habit as the lay brothers. For many centuries the priests were not called “Father” but both priests and brothers used the same title “Fra,” a title which simply means brother. In some places today, such as France and Brazil, Carmelite priests are called “Brother.” Through our history, ordained brothers and lay brothers have lived in the same communities, prayed at the same time and in the same place, worked side by side, and shared a common life. The life of the Carmelites is reminiscent of the great quote from St. Augustine which I will paraphrase as “With you, I am a Christian, for you, I am a priest”. The Carmelites and the Franciscans, unlike the Dominicans, have always distinguished very little between the priest friars and the lay friars, and have always maintained a strong connection with the laity. I say this as a way of beginning a warning:
Lay Carmelites should not try to be a “friar in the world” or a nun in the world.” Your vocation as a Lay Carmelite is to be just that, a Lay Carmelite in the world. You need to dress like a lay person. You need to eat or to fast like a lay person. You need a home appropriate to a lay person. You need to pray appropriately as a lay person does. You need to be what the Church has called you to be, a Christian lay person who witnesses to the values of the gospels in daily life. Your clothes should be appropriately modest, both in design and in cost. Your food should be moderate in cost but healthy. Your home should be without excess in a world where so many of God’s children lack basic necessities. And your prayer should be the prayer of the Church. The Eucharistic banquet and the Liturgy of the Hours should enjoy the pride of place in your prayer life that they enjoy in the prayer life of the Church.
Sometimes, when I was Provincial Delegate, the question would come to us in Darien about Lay Carmelites taking a new name at the time of reception or profession. Lay Carmelites are free to “take a name” if they wish but always consider that the only name by which God knows you is the name given to you in Baptism, and so there is no name more appropriate to any one of us than our Baptismal name. I would not want to do away with the option of taking a new name for the friars and nuns because sometimes parents do thoughtless, even cruel, things. And if the religious members of the family can “take a name” then I suppose the lay members of the family should be able to also, even though they would not use that name in public. Most of the friars and nuns and sisters today, however, keep their Baptismal names. Rather than taking a new name, I would encourage you in following the Discalced custom and take a title something you can meditate on, some aspect of our Blessed Lord’s life or in the life of his Mother. However the practice that some communities once had of calling each other “Brother” or “Sister” should be discontinued where it is not already ceased. As you are lay you should not use titles commonly reserved for those in religious life. And incidentally through most of the Order the friars, nuns and sisters call each other by their names and not their titles. Even our Father General is usually known among the friars by his given name. We are a family after all. Most of the friars prefer to be called by their names, even by the laity. Carmel has never been a very formal place. Our spirituality is one of letting go not of adding on, so let go of the little customs and focus on the only thing that matters, the love of God for you revealed in Christ Jesus who became human for your sake, and who offered his life on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins. Get rid of everything else that is not this. Everything else is simply garbage. You can’t be a contemplative and you can’t be a Carmelite if you are holding on to anything else but Jesus Christ.

Some final thoughts
I am very concerned about the rapid growth of Lay Carmel. Recently one of my Discalced confreres said: “the good news is that we are growing very fast and the bad news is that we are growing very fast”. We are growing faster perhaps than we can shape the Lay Carmel in harmony with the larger Order. We do not want ideas and practices that are not consistent with our 800 year old tradition to worm their way into Carmel. We want to work together to keep that tradition pure so that Carmel can continue to offer the Church what it has always offered, a spirituality of following Jesus Christ in solitude and silence, in charity for our neighbor, and nourished by contemplative prayer and the support of our brothers and sisters. I know that this concern is shared by all the friars of both observances, the O.Carms and the Discalced. I have not only studied the traditions extensively and not only do I teach the tradition to our students in formation as well as sabbatical students, but I spend a great amount of time working with the friars and nuns of the Discalced observance as we work together to preserve and propagate this tradition. Carmel is not “make it up as you go along”. Carmel is a well defined, spiritual tradition in the Church and we must work to keep it pure. If it does not speak to you, do not try to change it, but leave it and find a group of Catholics who better reflect where the Holy Spirit is leading you. If this sounds blunt, know that it is the same advice I would give a vocation to the friars or the nuns who want to make Carmel over into something different than it has been for its eight centuries. We come to Carmel to be shaped by it, not to shape it into something of our own liking. Carmel has proved itself to be of great value to the Church through these eight centuries. We have provided three doctors of the Church, Teresa, John of the Cross, and now, Thérèse of the Child Jesus. We have provided countless saints and blesseds. Pope John Paul has canonized and beatified many saints from our family, Blessed Titus Brandsma, Saint Edith Stein, Raphael Kalinowski, Teresa of the Andes, Elizabeth of the Trinity, the Martyrs of Compiegne. Pope Benedict is continuing the flood of Carmelites being raised to the altars. I could go on and on and on. The Carmelite path is tried and true. Carmel is giving you the call, Come and follow Jesus Christ with us. Turn to Teresa and John, Thérèse and Edith and Titus to learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. You don’t need to be a priest or a friar or a nun. You don’t need to wear a habit or a veil. You don’t need to live in a monastery. You don’t need anything but to follow Jesus Christ like those first hermits on Mt. Carmel eight centuries ago, like the great saints of the order, like the thousands of men and women around the world today who live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ.

[1]        I don’t mean by this to overlook John Baconthorpe’s Commentary on the Rule in which he explains the Rule outlining for the Carmelite a way of life in which we can incorporate in our lives all the virtues lived by Mary in hers.

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