Carmel in the World
2009. Volume XLVIII, Number 1

  • More from Carmel’s Store of Treasures: A few words from the Editor
  • My Semester with the Carmelites
  • Eamonn Carroll and the National Shrine
  • Brother Leo
  • Carmelite Heritage speaks across the Cultures (below)
  • Needed: A Revival of Spirituality
  • Special Report on the Australian Brushfires
  • Carmel Around the World

Carmelite Heritage Speaks Across the Cultures

By Insun Joanne Lee – a distance learning student in the Carmelite Studies program of the Carmelite Institute (Washington).

The Carmelite way of life is first and foremost about prayer. Albert’s Way, as the Rule is sometimes called, is eminently a way of prayer. It does not simply ask us to pray, but rather it leads our lives to become prayer. In The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa does not just teach us how to pray, but shows us how to live a life of friendship and intimacy with the Lord that is far more than saying prayers. In the same way, the writings of St. John of the Cross are centered on how to arrive at union with God, not through prayer in the more narrow senses, but through various phases of life – “ascent” and “the experience of the nights”, “climbing the mountain of the Lord.” As the Carmelite matures in the spiritual life, prayer becomes not merely an activity in life, but the essence of who he or she is.
The Rule’s demand of the separate cell, the injunction to stay in one’s cell in solitude, its insistence on silence, the common life and the counsels, the law of work, the ascetical practices and liturgical worship, and the incessant pondering of the law of the Lord: all provide the basic framework for a life that is maturing into prayer. Availing oneself of these basic structures outlined in the Rule one finds that ultimately prayer becomes spontaneous; it continues; it encounters and liberates the deepest impulses of our nature and the hidden glorification of objects. It puts an end of Glory’s exile from the soul. This is because when the Spirit dwells in a person, from the moment in which that person not longer simply prays but has become prayer, the Spirit never leaves him/her, for the Spirit himself never ceases to pray in him/her. Whether the person is asleep or awake, prayer never from then on departs from his soul. Whether he is eating or drinking or sleeping or whatever else he is doing, even in deepest sleep, the fragrance of prayer rises without effort in his heart. Prayer never again deserts him. At every moment of his life, even when it appears to stop, it is secretly at work in him continuously. One of the ancient Monastic Fathers, Issac of Nineveh, one of the so called “Christ-bearers,” says that “prayer is the silence of the pure, for their thoughts are divine motions. The movements of the heart and the intellect that have been purified are the voices frill of sweetness with which such people never cease to sing in secret to the hidden God.”
Monastic spirituality and culture, the source of this rich Carmelite Spirituality developed in the ancient cultures of Egypt and the Near East. It spread to Europe where it matured. How does this mystery of the transformative nature of prayer correspond to the experiences of Christians in the cultures of Africa and Latin America?

The Rule of Saint Albert and the Challenge of African Cultures
The main text in Carmelite spirituality, the Rule of Saint Albert, speaks of both solitude and community. Traditional African mentality would not have associated prayer with solitude. Solitude and silence present cultural difficulties among Africans who culturally are communitarian, exube­rant and out-going. The isolation and seclusion spoken of in the Rule could easily be interpreted as a punishment among highly socialized peoples. In the African cultural past, public criminals and offenders were outcast and the solitary life was never embraced by choice. Furthermore, not being able to greet or talk to another person may mean that there is something wrong between those two people. Furthermore, prayer in traditional African Religion is always a communitarian act, not a solitary and private activity. That leaves Carmelites in the various African cultures with the problem of how to interpret Chapter 7 of the Rule (“Each one of you is to stay in your own cell or nearby, pondering the Lord’s law day and nights and keeping watch at his prayers unless attending to some other duty”) in a way that would be meaningful to the African mentality used neither to solitary confinement in cells, nor understanding of prayer as a thing done in private.[1]
Yet the heart of Albert's Rule goes far deeper than in Chapter 7. It is necessary to see that different cultures will draw out and emphasize different aspects of the common text. As with human communication, the language may be the shared but the accent can be quite different.
For Carmelites of many cultures today the vital logos of the Rule is to be located not in Chapter 7, but in the faithful allegiance to, and dedicated following of Jesus Christ, after the manner of the early Christian Community in Jerusalem spoken of in the Albert’s prologue, now known as Chapter 2. This call to allegiance to Jesus Christ involves us in developing a strong interior life through a process of conversion, nourished by the Word of God, fraternal commu­nion and service. It is necessary to make a useful distinction between the real values enshrined in our text and the structures that embody them, though conditioned by history, culture and locality. While the values are universal and perennial and this is what makes the Rule a classic text, the structures themselves may need updating and further enculturation to enable them carry the precious heritage and values to the hearts of all peoples and widely varying cultures. The concern of Carmelites in Africa is as much an issue of how to interpret the Rule faithfully and creatively as it is about how to concretely live out its values in such a way that these values truly transform us from deep within: since, “it is not only the content of a spirituality which is important, but also the way it is given shape in life.”[2] From an African perspective, therefore, the interpretation of Chapter 7 of the Rule can be done more from a symbolic and spiritual point of view, than from a literal one.

The Challenges to Carmel in Latin America:
The Carmelite Rule finds a different set of challenges in taking root in the cultures of Latin America. The great challenge facing Latin American society is the massive injustice created by economic globalization. Meeting this challenge, the Church emphasizes “solidarity” as the way towards social peace and economic development, as well as the means of defense of traditional social values and the preservation of the diversity of cultures among the different peoples. In addition to the challenge facing society there are many challenges facing the Church in Latin America. Above all there is the tension of preserving unity amidst widespread cultural diversity and pluralism. Furthermore, different cultures and classes have conflicting expectations from and for models of the Church. The Church’s commitment to a preferential option for the poor presents yet another set of challenges. The implications and precise meanings of Libera­tion Theology and Spirituality present yet further challenges. And not least, there is the new evangelization with its challenge of bringing the bible back to the people, with its various plans for recovering and solidifying Catholic identity; and with the challenge of involving the laity, men and women, in mission of evangelization.[3]

Jesus as Liberator
The first norm of the Rule, which is the ultimate norm of all consecrated life – indeed of the life of all the baptized – encourages Carmelites to a following of Jesus as liberator, which leads them to serve him by continuing his liberating practice. In the situation of exile and oppression in which the majority of believers in Latin America live, Christ appears as the liberator from all personal and social sin; as the one who places himself at the side of those excluded by the systems of economic and political power; as the one who denies and combats the divisions created by human beings and contends with the evils which worsen their situation by proposing a new order which has as its centre, love of God and neighbor.
The way Jesus Christ took on his evangelizing mission helps to see how his disciples ought to carry out this duty today in the Latin American context. It is precisely here that those who wish to follow him should live “in allegiance to Jesus Christ.” This demands a sharing of the life and fate of Jesus which gives a new meaning to the cross and to suffering, which leads to being identified with those who are crucified in the world, with those who suffer violence, are impoverished, who have their human dignity taken away and are stripped of their rights. Living authentically “in allegiance to Jesus Christ” implies working for a world open to God in love, peace and fraternity.[4]
In re-reading this first norm of the Rule, the allegiance to Jesus Christ, Carmelites in Latin America feel the need to follow the Jesus of history not only in their interior life, but also in the actual situation of the conflicts within the societies in which they live. An understanding of the meaning and approach of the new evangelization guides them in harmonizing their interior life with the socio-political realities of the world around them. It is always a contemplative following, since following Jesus is a gift and prayer-contemplation leads us to welcome him in a deep and personal experience but living “in allegiance to Jesus Christ” demands carrying the cross with the certainty of resurrection and in an effort to identify ourselves in our own lives with his life and his fate.

Invitation to Contemplative Life
The Rule invites its adherents to live in contemplative listening to the Word of God. This has posed for Latin American Carmelites the question of how to live the Word of God in their social and ecclesial situations and how to make the Word itself live in those same situations.
The precept of the Rule to mediate day and night on the law of the Loud and to watch in prayer has become for Carmelites in Latin America the foundation for being witnesses and servants of the Word and, at the same time, for giving witness to the presence of God in the heart of the world. Here they find a challenge to live committed contemplation, which means, being contemplatives in prayer and in the work of evangelization.
In contemplation the Spirit reveals evangelizing ways for us in which to walk so that we may live out our Carmelite contemplative prayer in such a way that it animates and purifies our lives. The work of evangelization is founded in a complex web of yearnings, hopes, fatigue, disillusion, conflict, disillusion, inconsistency, weakness, egoism, and search for personal prestige – yet from all these factors, both noble and broken, we can build a prayerful dialogue with the Lord. This radically truthful dialogue with God is also helpful for discerning in prayer the will of God in the light of his Word and the signs of times and places in which his plan has located him. Furthermore, it helps community prayer in which the experience of God is shared and faults are acknowledged and a permanent dynamism of conversion is maintained.
The rediscovering of Christian contemplation is along the lines of our great mystics who never reduced contemplation to the intellectual sphere but guided it evangelically to real and effective service of neighbor, knowing with Saint Teresa that “works are what the Lord wants.” The ideal is for prayer to be the motive for daily life and work; to go on growing in an attitude of thanksgiving and gratefulness to the Lord; maturing in faith, persevering in active hope, continually deepening in love that is genuine and effective.[5]

In the Latin American situation, the ascetic element of Christian spirituality is considered to be connected more with how we live life than with specific ascetical practices, which remain both appropriate and necessary. Asceticism needs to be lived as part of following Jesus. In this way asceticism favors the growth of faith, hope and love. The commitment to evangelization and the evangelical option for the poor help us to discover and take on a particular form of self-denial and asceticism: the acceptance on one s own limitations and personal inconsistencies and the readiness to receive, with an attitude of peace and spiritual maturity, the correction and criticism others make.
Faithful to the essentials of the Gospel, the Rule of Saint Albert cannot forget to remind the listener what sums up the law and the prophets: love of God and neighbor. This love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor. Christian spirituality has always spoken of the centrality of love. The teachings of Jesus and all of the New Testament are the foundation of this conviction. In reading the evangelical exhortations of the Rule to live the essence of Christian life, Carmel in Latin America has held it necessary to be open to the social dimension to Christian love which leaves no other conclusion than it is impossible to truly love your brother or sister, and as a result to love God himself, without being committed at a personal level to service to the most dispossessed and humiliated members of society. This does not preclude participation in organizational response to the needs of the marginal, but neither does it allow that our love for the poor should be expressed without personal contact.

Rule leads to Spirituality
For Carmelites in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America, and in the developed world of North America and Europe, the fundamental values of the Rule continue to be valid but they need to be incarnated and lived within the framework of the signs of times and places which differ from culture to culture. A re-reading of the Rule made with this attitude is making it possible to unite our experience as Carmelites today with that of our forefathers who, guided by the spirit, lived and transmitted to us a charism and spirituality that is as vital in today’s many cultures as it was for that single group of hermits on Mount Carmel.

[1]    “The Carmelite Rule in Dialogue with the African Continent,” Fr. Emmanuel Nnadozie, p. 4.
[2]    Ibid p. 5.
[3]    Rereading the Rule Today in the Latin American Context, Stella Mans, Haifa, October 4-14 1999 p. 3-4.
[4]    Ibid p. 5.
[5]    The Carmelite Rule in Dialogue with the African Continent, Fr. Emmanuel Nnadozie, p. 6.

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