Carmelite Spirituality – Community Life

Patrick Burke, O.Carm. Carmelite Family: Number 14, Summer 2002.

By its very nature, community life must promote human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral growth of all religious, so that they may be fully integrated into the community and into its mission, according to personal qualities and aptitudes. Thus, the expression of unity is to be sought in organic diversity -not in shapeless uniformity. Discernment at all levels must precede both the appropriate distribution of work and the community’s choice of particular activities.
(Constitutions 33)

So far, in relation to community, we have said that it is founded in the Holy Trinity; it is the place where fraternity finds its most complete expression. It is open to others and its purpose is principally to be a service to the Church.
That brings us to this latest reflection which begins at the end of Constitutions 32: By attending to these things – our communities will be authentic expressions of faith, hope and charity and will become places conducive to full human development.
This sets the scene for what follows by opening up the topic of full human development Experience shows how community life, without the conditions listed in previous constitutions, is capable of damaging, or diminishing its members. The reverse is the desire and the ideal: that the members of the community, by reason of their participation in the life of the community and in the attention the members of the community show towards them would grow as human beings. This human growth includes growth in faith, hope and charity as its principle elements. It also includes intellectual growth, affective growth and growth in the development and use of each one’s gifts. The saying of St Irenaeus comes to mind: The glory of God is the human person fully alive. The constitutions connect this with the idea of the person’s integration into the community. This calls for more than mere presence. It recalls the doctrine of St Paul who talks about the integrity of the one body, in which every organ contributes to the life of the whole, every organ has to be cared for, valued and respected for its own distinctive contribution. This life is different from the life of a hotel, where people share the one space but very often without engaging with one another, at least to any meaningful degree. This life is described as a life of organic diversity, which is to be preferred to one of shapeless uniformity. There is an implicit plea for beauty in this, where the elements flourish, complement one another and shine forth in their truest colour and shape which enhances the whole and each element of it.
A further element that distinguishes this kind of community is the possession of a mission, that all the members share the one mission, even though they may approach the mission from different points of view, and make distinctive contributions to its furtherance. The quality of the members’ community life furthers the mission and the furtherance of the mission in turn redounds upon the community and its members.
To hold all of these elements together in proper fruitfulness and balance, discernment is needed. Just as in the Carmelite Rule, when all the elements have been put in place, the legislator Albert calls for discernment, which is the guardian of all the virtues. Discernment is required so that the decisions may be for the good of those concerned. In other words, that they may be in accordance with the will of God, and that they be examined and taken with the help of the Holy Spirit. Such discernment is a skill that has to be learned. It is also the result of Baptism. All too often we impoverish our lives by not adverting to the presence of and need for this discernment in our lives. There is personal individual discernment involved, as well as community discernment. Community discernment calls for prayer and open conversation, aimed at arriving at the best possible decision, the one that will foster the human development of the members, strengthen and deepen the bonds of community and add impetus and direction to the mission. It is based on the recognition that we are servants of something greater than ourselves and that the contribution of each one is important but limited. It is in the putting together of all the resources of the community that the community flourishes in its service of the Church and of the Kingdom.