Carmel in the World
2020. Volume LIX, Number 1

  • Editorial
  • Final Message of the General Chapter of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel 2019
  • Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to Participants in the General Chapter of the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel
  • The Carmelite Way of Life (below)
  • Edith Stein and John Henry Newman
  • Devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel: A brief history of the Carmelite Third Order Secular of Puerto Rico
  • Carmelites in the world: A profile of Johan Bergström-Allen
  • Carmel Rose – A Poem
  • The Rule of Carmel – A Life-Structure for Today’s Pilgrim
  • The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Carmelite Rule
  • The Commentary on the Rule by John Baconthorpe (ca. 1290-ca. 1348)
  • Blessed Titus Brandsma on the Educational Journey of Beauty
  • Actively Contemplative as Laity in the Church

The Carmelite Way of Life

Rianne Jongstra is a Lay Carmelite of the Dutch Province and works as a pastoral minister in a nursing home. This talk was delivered at the Abbey of Berne in the Netherlands.

Many religious Orders took their name and foundation from a person. Take for instance the Franciscans, Benedictines and Dominicans. But not the Carmelites. Their name is derived from a mountain in Israel: around the year 1000, there were hermits living on Mount Carmel and who originally came from Europe. Together with the Crusaders they came to the Holy Land as pilgrims, and, to complete their pilgrimage, they stayed remained as hermits. They took their refuge on Mount Carmel, in the north of Israel, near the spring of Elijah, the great prophet of the Old Testament. The solitude was a favourite place for contemplation. Like Elijah, they sought the Face of the living God, to live a life of silence and mortification, day and night meditating on the Word of the Lord. This group of hermits – actually they were lay hermits – settled there and developed their own lifestyle that was intended to consider life as a pilgrimage in the spirit, in search of God. It was a new, contemporary concept: the Carmelites chose their own way of life in the midst of the existing monastic orders and the laity in general. In short, they followed a semi-religious lifestyle.
Around the year 1210 they asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Albert, to confirm their eremitical lifestyle. They presented to him a design which described their way of life. But Albert did something peculiar with this. Albert developed their eremitical way of life into a well-formulated form of life which meant that they would transform their eremitical life of solitude, prayer, fasting and abstinence, into a life in community where, aside from this sober life, other elements were introduced such as communal property, communal celebration of the Eucharist and the weekly chapter or community meeting, and all this under the authority of a prior. Albert gave these God-seekers a lifestyle where they could find, in community, their own individual way to God. A way of life where they could recognize each other’s own longing for God: an entity which formed the Centre around which they could build their community.
However, this community of hermits was unable to last for very long as the political situation in the Holy Land had become very unstable. The Muslims in Palestine showed a fierce resistance against the Crusaders and their dream of liberating the Holy Land came to an end. The Carmelites were eventually forced to withdraw and, about the year 1250, they returned to Europe.
Meanwhile, the situation there had changed also. Not only had urbanization increased, the religious situation had also changed. The rise of the Mendicant Orders in Europe contributed to the fact that there was a great interest in the Carmelite spirituality among those who were searching for God. They, like the Franciscans among others, originated from the religious renewal movement of that time, and the Carmelites felt attracted to the austerity of the mendicants. Gradually, while they were living now in cities rather than the solitude of Mount Carmel, they adopted the lifestyle of the Mendicant Orders. These were Orders that chose a democratic way of life, close to the people. In this way they acquired rights such as having churches and cemeteries, hearing Confessions, permission to celebrate the Eucharist in public. Eventually, in 1247, the Carmelites received from Pope Innocence IV approval as a religious Order and, in 1298, they acquired the status of a Mendicant Order. From that time on the Carmelite Order shared in the vitality of the religious renewal movement of the Franciscans and Dominicans. Within a short time the Order flourished tremendously and, a century later, there were monasteries in almost every Western European country.
Simultaneously with the historic development, an interior development took place. Let us look again at the first lay hermits. It was a group of hermits living in the silence and solitude of the mountains, living a life of continuous prayer and mortification. It may sound to us as radical but at that time it was not so exceptional that people wanted to follow the ideal of the first monks of Christianity. Neither was it unusual that one wanted to follow Elijah as an example of what it is to be a hermit. But gradually the Carmelites added another aspect of Elijah to their life. Elijah was a God-seeker. He struggled with God when he saw how his people, God’s people, suffered under situations of injustice and destitution. He showed his solidarity with them and took up their cause in the realization that God was on the side of those who suffer injustice. And so he struggled and fought and eventually had to flee. He fled to the desert and there he had a break-down. He was in despair and didn’t want to go any further. Exhausted, it was God who kept him alive. After a long struggle within himself he finally encountered God. But it was a different God than he had imagined. Not in a storm or earthquake. No, God was different from what Elijah had envisioned him to be. God met him in a breeze, a gentle breeze, a symbol of the vulnerable and the wounded, of the people that suffer. In this, in the brokenness, he experienced God as a source of creative life. It was an actual experience. And, precisely because of that, Elijah is, for Carmelites, a source of imitation: Mount Carmel is for them a place where they could meet God. Not as a concept, but as a real experience of an encounter with the Living, with the Other. Carmel was the end of their pilgrimage to the Holy Land, literally but also figuratively: there they found what they were actually looking for and wanted, that is the encounter with the Living God. That was really their intention. You can imagine how different it was for the Carmelites to be expelled from their own place, Mount Carmel, and to end up in the opposite situation of European cities. Not only physically but also mentally, they were uprooted. ‘How can you remain a Carmelite without Mount Carmel?’, they wondered. ‘How can we consider our life as a journey in search of God, if we can no longer drink from the spring of Elijah?’
In the long run they discovered that their struggle with the original ideal became a spiritual way in itself. They realized that ‘Carmel’ is also possible outside Mount Carmel. Everywhere Carmel can become a reality as a standing before the Face of the Unspeakable, a being touched by the Mystery of all Life. At the same time, they came to the realization that man’s search for God is not separate from the context in which he lives. The journey in search of God exposes also the human in its heights and depths. Carmel is then also a looking in the face of the neighbour who is your brother or sister and for whom you, with the zeal of Elijah, struggle for peace and justice. Thus, something developed that would remain dear to Carmel: to discover God in the other, to discover the other in God. These are two aspects of the one Love that moves us.
The existing Rule of life offered enough room for the imitation of Christ, like the first lay hermits near the spring of Elijah had done, but now to be practiced as a spiritual way. Anywhere, any place can be a Carmel where you see your own way of life as a spiritual way. That way has to do with a certain Christian and biblical positioning in life and dealing with yourself and the things around you where the ultimate goal remains an encounter with God, but with the understanding that nobody can fully claim this for himself. It remains for everybody a trying and looking for the best way that suits them, with their own tempo depending on their own possibilities and also, of course, limitations. Anyone can, with common sense and without exaggerations, go his or her own spiritual way.
The Rule of Carmel allows room for this. It describes the Carmelite way of life as a spiritual way with about four steps to making the spirituality of Carmel gradually one’s own. We will describe them here in broad outlines, to make the spirituality of Carmel more visible and, hopefully, a bit more concrete.
The first chapter of the Rule describes the basic provisions. The community, in which the prior is the first among the brothers, manifests itself in gatherings such as eating together, listening together to scripture, celebrating the Eucharist. Within this community every brother has his own cell, his own living quarters, separated from the others, where he works in silence and where he is supposed to live in such a way that it becomes a place where God lives. And everybody’s age and health is taken into account. In the weekly chapter, everybody’s wellbeing is given attention, so that each one can really be himself.
In the second part, Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, goes a step further. When the mode of life is well established it is important also that one can make this way of life one’s own. Prayer life and meditation of Holy Scripture in the silence of the cell enables a person to open their eyes to God’s gracious reality. Sharing their own self with the community offers the possibility of becoming a brother to the other. Working in silence to earn one’s daily living is also a possibility. Besides a continuous life in prayer and community are the so called ‘exercises’ which open the human heart in order to become receptive for the Other.
In the third part Albert shows how the inner receptiveness of the human is covered with God’s grace. The Rule of Carmel calls this ‘putting on the armour of God’. Meanwhile, we know that the Rule was written in the Middle Ages and so the Rule uses the image of a knight who puts on his armour to show that it is God himself who works in us in order to establish his kingdom on earth. Here the human potentials are bent to become susceptible to God’s virtues. Which virtues of God are mentioned by the Rule?
  • The divine chastity protects the vulnerability of the human, which makes me modest in the face of the fragility of the other, which brings to light my true self, inalienable and pure.
  • The holy meditations express God’s compassion for the human, for me, in his Name: be there! When I allow this to enter into the depth of my heart, then my meditations and actions are always more marked by my being entrusted to God, then they are internally directed towards the preservation of life.
  • God’s Justice finds its expression in just relationships. We can only be good if our actions are rooted in love: love for God, love for our neighbour and love for one’s self. All three belong essentially together. Loving God teaches me that love is unconditional. Loving my neighbour teaches me that this love is mutual, physical and concrete. Loving myself tells me that in all my loving I may remain rooted in God’s love. Through these three dimensions everyone lives her or his own life in a loving way.
  • Finally, the helmet of salvation keeps my faith and hope alive, even when I see that this is undermined time and again. This whole process is eventually directed towards accepting God’s Word in order that it may permeate us completely and so that we can live according to his intention. Contemplation is seeing ourselves and the other as we really are, rooted in God’s love.
The Rule of Carmel is actually a description of a spiritual way which leads from the outside to the inside. The Carmelite Rule teaches us to practice the basic components of life in such a way that they will form the mystical space in which God can give himself. But at this stage it is only starting. How can I protect myself against the anti-climax of the reality of everyday life? How can I maintain contemplation, being so vulnerable for the superficiality and the routine which characterizes my life so often? Albert talks about this in the Rule. The most appropriate way of maintaining contemplation and to give it sustainability, is to work in silence. Now, working is more than just doing ‘some work’. It is a way, a manner of looking at the why of the things I do. Do I work in such a way that I close myself in and pursue only my own plan and purpose, or do I work in a manner where I let my way be directed by the God who loves me? These questions are not easy, because they cause me to question what my deepest motivations are. And do we really always know why we are doing what we do? Can anyone be so unselfish that they don’t care about the purpose of why they are doing something? Who can say? Perhaps it becomes clearer if we formulate it the other way around. Does anybody become a Carmelite friar or sister simply by sitting inside the walls of the monastery? I don’t think so. The real living and working of a Carmelite friar or sister takes place in the unseen soul, where the deepest desire and hope is directed at a living for God who comes to meet us. This happens in silence. All activities, such as reading scripture and prayer, are submerged in silence. But at the same time something else happens. Someone who keeps silence becomes silence in order to be able to open up to the One who wants to make us feel his silent presence. When looked at this way, working in silence fits the spiritual way which the Rule describes. Silence leads us through the concrete way of life, via the interiorization, towards a growing susceptibility for the Eternal. It is silence that helps us to maintain contemplation. It is silence which silences every image, every expectation, every desire of the soul in order that the other as other may be there and the Word can dwell in us permanently.
The Carmelite Rule is not fixed to a certain place because it is most of all a spiritual way. A way of continuous transformation in God’s Love. Carmel can become a reality wherever people let themselves be touched by the Mystery of Life.
In this way Carmelites could exchange their lonely eremitical life for a life in the city, where in their heart they could remain hermits as they intended and in relation to the context in which they live. Thus, the place where they live becomes holy ground, because anyone, wherever they live, can stand before the Face of God.
The tradition of Carmel has produced a number of men and women who, even today, are still sources of inspiration for those who want to deepen their spiritual life and give it meaning. For example, Teresa of Avila, who, together with John of the Cross, the other great Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, has had a big influence on the spiritual life. Teresa of Avila is someone who stands for the inner path, for the way of inner prayer. What strikes me in Teresa is that the more she drew closer to God and to herself, the more she became closer to the world outside her. An encounter with God in my inner self is an encounter with God in every fellow man and woman whom I meet in whatever circumstances. For Teresa, action and contemplation are intrinsically bound up together. ‘God dwells also in the midst of pots and pans’, is a typical expression of Teresa’s. She felt that prayer and engagement needed each other. Prayer is, for Teresa, not a pious luxury or an other-worldly happening. For her it is the source of all activity, while a life in prayer is unthinkable without a life in solidarity and involvement in keeping with the Gospel. Both aspects are, for her, two sides of the same coin, that is to say, the way to the inside, to the encounter with God. John of the Cross, too, is not devoid of any realism. Only through a continuous reflection on the life and spirit of Jesus is one able to come to a discernment of the spirit and to discover what real holiness is. The way to God, according to John of the Cross, leads along the way of the imitation of Jesus in his humanity.
Even today, these Carmelites are important sources of inspiration. So too people like Thérèse of Lisieux, John of St Samson and Titus Brandsma are people who stood in the tradition of Carmel and, with their mystical experience of the encounter with God, looked at the world around them and, where needed, they lodged a complaint against injustice.
As you probably know, this was for Titus Brandsma eventually his undoing. With inner conviction he charged the Nazi ideology with what he called ‘Modern paganism’. When he openly committed himself to encouraging Catholic newspapers in Holland not to publish articles of the national socialists, this became the last straw for the occupying Nazi forces. He was arrested and interrogated, eventually put on transit to Dachau where he was murdered on July 26, 1942. There are testimonies about him that say that he was somebody who had, for many a fellow prisoner, a comforting and encouraging word, because, as he said: ‘Suffering is not so bad as long as we are loved’. It gave him the inner quiet which he found in his deepest inner self where he experienced that his being stood before the Face of God who he felt supported him, even in his deepest suffering. And because of this he was also able to see the suffering around him, the terror that sacrificed people indiscriminately for the sake of an ideology. That was for him what being a Carmelite meant. That was for him following in the footsteps of the Lord, serving Him with a pure heart and well-aware, as it is written in the Carmel Rule.
Today the Carmelite spiritual tradition of seeking God is very much alive. As ever the Carmelite Rule forms the basic support system and, as ever, Carmel is an Order ‘sans façade’, as she was once called. Carmel is still a place where people meet each other in their desire for God, a house where people are offered the space to go their own spiritual way.
Yet here also the spirit of the times has left its marks. The bringing down of the ‘pillarization’ in society as well as secularization have taken much away. But it has thrown her back also on her real being: she is an Order of God-seekers, of people who want to live before God’s Face in the place where they live. Every place can be a Carmel, where living in community, praying the psalms, reading scriptures, keeping the silence, etc., may lead us towards openness for the other and finally to be found by the Other.

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