Carmel in the World
2012. Volume LI, Number 1

  • Reminders that we stand on the Shoulders of Giants
  • Milestones on the Road to Eternity – In Remembrance of Joachim Smet, O.Carm.
  • Carmelite Liturgy and Spirituality
  • Liturgical Prayer and Personal Prayer
  • New Bubbling in the Fountain of Elijah – The Christocentrism of the Carmelite Rule  (below)
  • Carmel Around the World

The Christocentrism of the Carmelite Charism

An Essay by Donald Buggert, O.Carm., S.T.D.

According to the Prologue of the Rule of St. Albert, Carmelites, as all Christians, are called to be disciples of Christ, “to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.” The Rule spells out the specificity of the Carmelite mode of this Christian discipleship. The Rule, therefore, is thoroughly Christocentric. In every age and every place where Carmel has taken root, Carmelites have had to dialogue from the perspective of that age and place with the Christocentricity of their Rule to reconstruct the meaning of walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ for their specific times and cultures. Such an ongoing dialogue, which constitutes the effective history or tradition of Carmel, of necessity has given and will continue to give rise not only to a multiplicity but also a “conflict of interpretations.”
This paper first explores the Christocentricity of the Rule of St. Albert as this Christocentricity is understood within the Rule itself as contextualized by its twelfth and thirteenth century ecclesial-historical contexts, especially medieval feudalism and the Crusades. Through prayer, penance and fasting, and especially through meditating upon the law of the Lord and the recitation of the psalms, the first hermits of Carmel were to be transformed into Christ. In turn, through their spiritual combat and transformation into Christ, they were to contribute in their own way to regaining for Christ the land which he had acquired through his own cross. This Christocentrism is highly kenotic,[1] patterned on the self-emptying of Jesus coming to completion in his own suffering and death. Associated with this Crusade-influenced Christocentric spirituality is the importance of the original Jerusalem community of the Acts, which serves as a model for the first hermits on Mount Carmel.
This Christocentrism of the Rule finds two paramount expositors in Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. For both mystics, the humanity of Jesus is central to their understanding of transformation into Christ and hence to their understanding of the journey of the person to God. For both writers, this Christocentrism is focused in the role of the humanity of Jesus in prayer, even in the highest stages of contemplative prayer. Christian life in all stages is incarnational in structure with Christ as model, mediator and goal. For both John and Teresa this Christocentric mysticism is kenotic and directed not only to God but to the healing of the world.
Just as Teresa and John retrieved the Christocentrism of the Rule for their day, so also Carmelites today must do the same. Two contemporary Christological approaches are offered to facilitate this retrieval: the anthropological Christology of Karl Rahner, and Christologies “from below” based upon the “historical Jesus.” In each case but in somewhat different ways the humanity of Jesus and its importance for Christian life is stressed. Both Christological approaches present challenges to contemporary Carmelites to understand anew the meaning of walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Both approaches call forth a kenotic following of Jesus.
The Order of Carmel has its origins in a group of Western lay hermits who journeyed to the Holy Land and settled near the spring of Elijah on Mount Carmel. Between the years 1206 and 1214 these hermits approached Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem and Papal Legate for the province of Jerusalem, with a request for a “Formula of Life,” which would come to be known as Albert’s Rule. As I hope to show, this Rule is thoroughly Christocentric. This Christocentricity has continually informed the spiritual heritage of Carmel, seen for example in the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.
In this paper I wish to do three things:
  1. Explore the Christocentricity of Albert’s Rule;
  2. Show how that Christocentricity is witnessed in the Carmelite Tradition in the persons of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross; and
  3. Re-articulate this Christocentricity for Carmel today in light of contemporary Christological thinking.

1.         The Christocentricity of Albert’s Rule

Albert’s Rule is notorious for its brevity. Yet it contains twelve direct and at least eight indirect references to Christ. Various theories regarding the “centre” or “heart” of the Rule have been proposed, for example, its eremitical-contemplative or its communal dimension. Without wishing to enter into this debate, I would propose that anterior to any other interpretation of the Rule is the centrality of Christ and walking in his footsteps, discipleship.
In responding to the request of the hermits of Carmel for a formula of life, Albert, in the Prologue itself, as one might expect, lays down the fundamental project of every Carmelite, namely, “to walk in the footsteps of Christ.” In the Rule he then delineates the specific ways in which these hermits were to live out the universal Christian vocation of “a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ”. This Christocentric project is certainly not unique to those original Carmelites or their followers. Yet it is this project which must inform the precise modality of Christian living spelled out in the eighteen chapters and even the Epilogue of the Rule. In all aspects of their lives, the hermits are to “in obsequio Jesu Christi vivere.[2] This obsequium becomes their “supreme and fundamental norm.”
St. Albert immediately seizes on the essential: Carmelites, lay or religious, are not in the first place bound to a well-described, scheduled way of life, but they are bound to a person: Christ Jesus. In fact, the Rule is pervaded by this presence of the person of Christ both in word and in sacrament.
Whatever else Carmelites may or may not be, they must in the first instance be Christians, followers of Christ. Walking in the footsteps of Christ becomes, therefore, the underlying hermeneutic of the Rule and not just an incidental adjunct. As hermeneutic it not only informs the whole of the Rule; it also provides its interpretive key. Furthermore, precisely as interpretative key, walking in the footsteps of Christ must function along the lines of a hermeneutic of suspicion, that is, a hermeneutic which stands in judgment of and corrects every past and present interpretation of the Rule and provides direction for its ongoing rearticulation.
I have claimed that the underlying project and hence hermeneutic of Albert’s Rule is expressed in the Prologue itself, namely, walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ (in obsequio Jesu Christi vivere). As underlying hermeneutic, one would expect that this Christocentric project informs the whole of the Rule. And indeed it does. To appreciate the Christocentricity of the Rule one must first step back behind the text to its author and ecclesial context.
Prior to Albert’s appointment as bishop of Bobbio in 1184, he had been a Canon Regular of the Holy Cross in Mortara. His formation as a Canon Regular entailed the constant reading of the sacred scriptures and devotion to the Cross of Christ. Furthermore, as Patriarch of Jerusalem and Papal Legate to the Holy Land, the patrimony of Christ, he had a special commitment to the obsequium of the Cross of Christ. With this background, therefore, the Christocentricity of the Rule should come as no surprise.
As for the ecclesial context, at the end of the twelfth century there arose in Europe new spiritual movements which, in critique of the opulence of the clergy and monks, returned to the scriptures, and hence to the centrality of imitating Christ and the Apostolic way of life of the Jerusalem community. One form of this evangelical awakening was a movement of lay, wandering hermits dedicated to penance, evangelical poverty and the visiting of holy places.
Moreover this same period witnessed the Crusades, which undertook the task of recovering the “Land of Christ.” However, after the defeat of Hattin in 1187, and with the election of Innocent III in 1189, the theological reason for visiting the “Land of the Lord” prevailed over all other motives (such as military and commercial). Of all the holy places which the wandering hermits of Europe visited, the “Land of Christ” became the most popular. There they could literally walk “in the footsteps of Jesus” and, through penance, imitate his suffering and death. “By renouncing all earthly goods in voluntary poverty, they sought to renew Christian life by the following of Christ through imitating the ‘way of life’ of the Apostles.” Furthermore, as Cicconetti notes:
The very fact of being in the Holy Land comprised in itself a decision to fight for Jesus Christ, not necessarily in the military sense, but in personal service, in spiritual warfare. In fact, the Holy Land was considered the “patrimony of Jesus Christ,” his heritage or kingdom. One who dwelt there was by a special title his liege-man, a vassal in the following of Christ to whom he owed fidelity and faithful service.
One such group of Western evangelical, lay hermits who returned to the land of Christ and the primitive apostolic life to help reclaim the patrimony of Christ were the hermits of Carmel who requested Albert for a “formula of life,” which itself would respond to but also further delineate a life-style (propositum) which they already lived, that is, a life dedicated to the following of Christ, especially the Christ of the Cross, and lived in imitation of the primitive Jerusalem community. As Cicconetti notes and as will become clear below: “The thoughts of the Hermits (of Mount Carmel) focused on the Holy Land completely. From this posture which regarded the Holy Land as the sacred patrimony of Christ, one must view the rule and spirituality of Carmel.”
Given the above context for Albert’s “formula,” two questions can now be addressed. First, what was the meaning of the phrase in the Prologue: “walking in the footsteps of Jesus”? Second, how is this fundamental project delineated in the Rule in such a way that it “informs” the whole?

Walking in the footsteps of Jesus

As Cicconetti notes, the phrase “in obsequio Jesu Christi,” drawn from 2 Corinthians 10:5, takes on somewhat different meanings in differing situations. Valabek summarizes the Pauline meaning of this obsequium. A disciple of Christ is a doulos, a slave or servant who totally hands over one’s self, one’s thoughts, will, wishes to Christ, who becomes the most important person in one’s life. In turn the disciple shares in the very life of Christ and becomes a new self, created in God’s way.
This Pauline notion of obsequium took on specific connotations in feudal times. What images or overtones did this Pauline expression evoke in the Hermits of Carmel during this feudal period?
The basic feudal meaning of “in obsequio” was that of service, the service which a vassal rendered to a sovereign. Cicconetti notes:
Following of or allegiance to another (obsequium) implied duties on the part of master and subject. Those living in the patrimony of a feudal lord promised good and faithful service, assistance in time of war and participation in resolution of problems or questions. In return, the lord promised protection . . . to his subjects.
This secular meaning of “in obsequio” was transferred in the religious realm to service owed to God or (especially) Christ. In the XII and XIII centuries, relationship with Christ was judged in similar terms; traditional feudal values of service . . . , of fidelity . . . , of allegiance or following (obsequium), of being bound to . . ., of dedication . . . , governed a man’s responsibilities to Christ with a pervading influence that coloured every aspect of daily life.
All Christians were bound to this obsequium Christi. But during the period of the Crusades, the concept took on even greater specificity. Christ had been expelled from his own patrimony and had suffered an injustice. Hence, popes evoked the concept to induce Christians to support the liberation of the Holy Land. Hence, the obsequium Jesu Christi had a very pregnant sense for Crusaders and others, such as the hermits on Mount Carmel, who pilgrimaged to or resided in the land of Christ. All such Christians became Christ’s special subjects, were especially dedicated to his service (obsequium) and were to be completely faithful to him.
Of course the patrimony of Christ was to be regained not only through military efforts. Since the fall of Jerusalem was attributed to the infidelity and sins of Christians, true interior conversion to Christ and spiritual arms (prayer, penance, fasting) were more important than the earthly weapons of the Crusader. The soldier of Christ had to arm himself with the disarming attitude of Christ. This was a spirituality founded on the passion of Christ and realized only by taking up the Cross, through which Christ himself had acquired the land. The obsequium Jesu Christi was, therefore, very much a following of the crucified Christ.
In the case of the hermits of Carmel, therefore, their particular allegiance (obsequium) to Christ was very much defined by the then current theology of re-conquering the land of Christ through spiritual combat in imitation of the suffering and Crucified Christ. They were to embrace poverty, penance, silence, solitude, prayer and fasting, “to follow Christ’s law, be available to do all things in his name, to vest themselves in spiritual armour” to disarm the forces of evil and above all to meditate upon the law of the Lord. In all of this, but especially through meditating upon the law of the Lord and the recitation of the psalms, they were to be transformed into Christ. It is this specific form of “walking in the footsteps of Jesus” which is signalled in the Prologue and further specified in their “formula of life.”

How the Obsequium Informs the Rule
I do not intend to analyze or comment upon each reference to Christ in the Rule. I merely wish first to make some general observations and then show how the very structuring of the Rule is Christocentric.
From the above, one can see how the basic project of walking in the footsteps of Jesus, signalled in the Prologue, is then articulated in the Rule itself: faithful following of Christ through obedience to his representative, the prior (Chapters I, XVII, XVIII), solitude (Chapter III), meditating upon the law of Lord, vigilance in prayer, reciting psalms (Chapters VII, VIII, X), poverty (Chapter IX), penance as fasting and abstinence (Chapters XII, XIII), vesting in spiritual armour for spiritual warfare (Chapter XIV), doing all in the Word of the Lord (Chapter XIV), willingness to undergo persecution (Chapter XIV), silence (Chapter XVI). In all of this Christ is present to the hermit community as model, teacher, saviour and eschatological judge (Chapter XVIII and Epilogue). Within this Christocentric perspective, Elijah and Mary, present only implicitly in the Rule, become subordinate models or symbols who serve to concretize the obsequium Jesu Christi.
Even more important than seeing how the various elements of the obsequium Jesu Christi are taken up in the chapters of the Rule is the Christocentric structuring of the Rule. And here we discover the role which the ideal Christian community of the Acts played for those first Carmelites in their walking in the footsteps of Jesus.
We saw above that the hermits on Carmel were part of a larger spiritual movement which espoused a return to the scriptures and the life of the Jerusalem Community. Their walking in the footsteps of Jesus was not to be done in a solitary way but as a community. “Re-echoing the insights of Luke, Albert enjoins on the hermits a following of Christ by following the ideals and values of the apostolic Christian community.” Hence it is no surprise that Chapters VII-XI of the Rule parallel Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35 (fidelity to the Word, perseverance in prayer, sharing in goods, fraternal unity, the centrality of daily worship). Within the Rule, daily Eucharist is structurally central, i.e., it lies at the very centre of the text (Chapter X). This textual centrality reflects the spatial centrality of the Eucharistic oratory in the midst of the cells. This textual and spatial centrality in turn indicate the theological centre of the Rule, which is the Eucharist.
This structural approach to the Rule, with the Eucharist as its textual centre, reveals that the centre of this hermit community is, as it was for the Jerusalem Community, Christ. The Rule now appears visually as an arc. At the two ends of the arc are the following of Christ (Prologue) and the awaiting of the return of the Lord (Epilogue). At its apex is the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. “Between these three reference points all the rest of the Rule rotates, either as a consequent actualization or as a dynamic referent.” Structurally the Rule is saying that the whole Christocentric project of the Rule, namely to walk in the footsteps of Jesus (Prologue) in anticipation of his return (Epilogue), is focused upon, celebrated in and subsumed into the Eucharist (Chapter X), in which Christ himself is sacramentally present to the community and which itself anticipates his return.
In concluding this first part dealing with the Christocentricity of the Rule and by way of introducing the second part of this paper, I cite the words of Father Bruno Secondin, O.Carm.:
In the Rule, then, we find a Christology which esteems discipleship and revolves around a “life in Christ,” prayerful listening to the Word, celebration of the Mystery, a vision of meditation as a way of imprinting Christ into one’s life . . . , and the awaiting of his return. The same way-of-life . . . as a dedication to the Lord in the Holy Land . . . is now transformed into an open journey to be under-taken in any place or time.

To be continued in later editions.

[1]       Editor’s note: Kenotic – from kenosis, the self-emptying patterned by Jesus who “did not regard equality with God as something to which to cling but emptied himself and took on the nature of a slave, being born in human likeness…” Philippians 2:7.
[2]       Editor’s note: ‘To live in allegiance to Jesus Christ’. This is sometimes translated “to walk in the footsteps of Christ” because the noun, obsequio, while strictly meaning allegiance has as its root the verb sequi, to follow. Thus implied is the idea of following Christ, or walking in his footsteps.

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