Carmelite Spirituality

The following article is a reflection by the late Father Patrick Burke, O Carm., (reproduced from Lay Carmelite Newsletter, 1999)

“To live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience”: these words, inspired by St Paul, are the basis for all the elements of our charism; they are the foundation upon which Albert constructed our way of life.

Carmelites live their life of allegiance to Christ through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through fraternity and through service in the midst of the people."
(Constitutions 14)

Commentary

The Carmelite tradition appeals to those who want to find and meet God more in their lives, those who recognise the evils in our modern world yet hear the beat of hearts that long for God. This yearning in itself is already the opening of oneself to God. In all of us, there is at one level the urge “to put our house in order”, to rid ourselves of all that prevents us from coming to God; while at a higher level this longing consists in opening ourselves to experience God’s presence in our lives, letting God free us if our hearts are to be touched by him.

The Carmelite life, as expressed in the Rule of St Albert and interpreted by the Constitutions issued by the General Chapter 1995 for the members of the Order in our time, stresses the importance of an intense devotion to the person of Jesus. While the first Carmelites committed themselves to an eremitical life and hermit occupation with God alone, the traditional spirituality of religious groups, monks and canons at the time was the imitation of the Apostolic Life, inspired by the Gospels. A strong reaction by the populace to the political and social situation in Europe and the enrichment of noble families at the expense of the lower classes was to highlight and follow the way of life which Jesus¸ the Son of God¸ had chosen, to redeem and sanctify us by living in obedience, poor and chaste and by dying on the Cross.

Carmelite writers have pointed out that it was in this milieu of changing times that the Carmelite Order had its origin. St Albert in quoting St Paul (2 Corinthians 10:5) used the Latin word ‘obsequium’ translated ‘allegiance’ which in the 13th century was widely used to denote feudal and military service, loyalty and dedication. Medieval readers of the Rule would have had such an understanding of commitment to Jesus Christ. It was in this spirit that the first Crusaders in the Holy Land promoted greater devotion to the humanity of Christ. They were witnesses of the places associated with his earthly life. On returning to Europe they supported the movement among the laity to imitate the Lord, to follow in poverty the Poor Man who was stripped for our sakes, and had no place to lay his head. St Francis and his followers are examples of the people’s response.

For the Carmelites coming to Europe as refugees from the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land, their eremitical life had this purpose – to live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ in the then accepted sense of that word, and pure of heart and stout in conscience be unswerving in the service of the Master. The Order’s historical evolution gave the inspiration and emphasis which now characterises “being devoted in Christ” as the way of life set out in the Rule and Constitutions. ‘The Rule begins in Christ and ends in Christ’ (R Hendriks, O Carm). The first Carmelites wished simply to serve in Christ in living their life near the spring of Mount Carmel, fasting and keeping vigil, pondering on the Word of the Lord, and to imitate Christ in his prayer and keep watch with him in the garden. St Teresa of Avila, who at her first foundation chose to be known as Teresa of Jesus, saw Jesus always as ‘the way, the truth and the life’. Her interior life grew with her growth in the consciousness of his presence in her life. For her Sisters she wrote in The Interior Castle: “The further a soul advances, the more it is accompanied by the good Jesus . . . When His Majesty desires, we cannot do otherwise than walk always with him”.

Throughout the years Carmelites have always accepted the “desert experience” as a crucial factor in their spiritual life. This experience is ‘a Carmelite commitment to make the crucified Christ, stripped and emptied, the very foundation of their lives.’ (Constitutions 15). The desert aspect comes from the deprivation, isolation, the abandonment etc. which every follower of Jesus encounters in normal everyday situations in our world. The channelling of our energies towards Christ in faith and an association with the Crucified Jesus’ victory over evil help to lead us to union with God. The Rule sees in the expressions “purity of heart” and “emptying for God” the total openness to God and gradual self-emptying that transforms our attitude towards the world as we begin to see with the eyes of God.

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