A way of prayer that has shaped me ~ Carmelite Spirituality.

What shapes you? I am fascinated by the ‘things’ and attitudes that shape people and their view of the world. We can name people in our own personal histories who have influenced us in such a way that our life changes because of our engagement with them. Our responses to events also shape future attitudes. This might sound a bit psychological, but it is good to have a knowledge of self that acknowledges those things that influence us.  A major influence in my life is a spirituality that is centuries old, with origins in the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. I received much of my faith formation under the influence of the Carmelite Order. In many ways Carmel has been the major influence in my life.

1.    What is Spirituality?
There are many ways of accessing an understanding of spirituality. The one I find helpful comes from my own love of music. Spirituality is like a melody, it is the tune we use to accompany us in the great symphony of life. Spirituality is the way in which we celebrate our relationship with God. I guess you could say that spirituality is the way we use to approach God. As with prayer, spirituality is not about ritual but relationship.

Religious life is shaped by charisms and traditions, defining attitudes that shape their vocation and response to God. A Christian spiritual tradition is a proclamation of the Gospel through the language and images of a particular group of people. Their telling of the story is shaped over time as they attempt to respond to the challenges of the Gospel to the needs of their own time and place. They eventually find their own way of giving an account of the Paschal Mystery – the suffering, dying and rising of Christ, present in their own lives. Spirituality is the language of our relationship with, and our experience of, God.

2.    Carmelite Spirituality
The root of Carmelite spirituality is the desire to be in union with God. It is an acknowledgement that by nature we are a people who long for love in its purest expression. It is a spirituality in which we consciously seek to live in the ever present reality that God is always near to us. We are a people living in the presence of God. This takes a lot of sorting out on a very basic level, do we then believe that God is standing over us? Judging us? That would be a very narrow and confining view of living in God’s presence. That would become a relationship based on fear rather than its opposite, love. In the Carmelite tradition, to be in the presence of God is to be held in God’s gaze. It is an encounter with profound love. In the presence of God we are at home, or at least that is our goal.

There is a beautiful story about Jean Vianney, the Curé of Ars. Daily he would see an old peasant man spending hours in the church staring at the tabernacle. One day the priest said to the old man, ‘what do you do all day in the church?’ the man replied, ‘well Father, I gaze at him and He gazes at me.’ Being in this gaze is transforming, as mature love will always change us and bring about growth.

3.    Dreams and dreamers
One of the elements of humanity is the gift of imagination. We all use this on a daily basis. I know that I am a bit of a dreamer, my dreams I imagine are unremarkable. I have dreamt of the ideal home – which in my case would be a small cottage, surrounded by tree covered mountains with the sound of water nearby and half a mile from the nearest building which would preferably be a pub. In the past I used to imagine the ideal life partner, usually when I was experiencing the stirrings of attraction and love for some unfortunate young woman. The first Carmelites were dreamers on a grand scale. The Carmelite order has no founder. It is a group of people gathered around an idea, a sense of a transforming love that is God. This idea is textured by the experience of God’s love in their own experience and in the experiences of those who have heard and responded to God’s call in difficult times and challenging circumstances. Primary examples of this radical response to God’s call come from sacred scripture – Elijah the prophet and Mary the Mother of Jesus

3.1    Elijah the Prophet
Prophets are people who live in the real world and dream dreams. This gives them an extraordinary freedom to see the world as God desires it to be. We find the story of Elijah in the first book of Kings in the Old Testament. Elijah sees himself as a man alone. He is the solitary prophet of God in a chaotic and secular world. It was Elijah who won back the imagination and hearts of God’s people on Mount Carmel. He was a passionate man. I love the image of passion when we speak of faith. It makes faith a carnal reality in life. One of the most striking things about Elijah is his vulnerability. One of my favourite passages about Elijah relates to his sense of failure. In 1Kings 19, Elijah wants to give up. He is in crisis. He curls up in the dust and wants to die, he has had enough, God seems far away and he is overwhelmed by his sense of helplessness. He has lost faith in himself and has reached the point of overwhelming tiredness. Sound familiar?

Elijah has this sense of loneliness and desperation that believes that he is alone, that no one cares. But he is not alone. God is with him. Yes, it can appear one sided, but God had not given up on Elijah, nor does God give up on us. What follows in this story of Elijah is a profound experience of God, and again Elijah is surprised by God’s response to his needs. On Horeb Elijah senses are assailed with powerful manifestations of the raw power of nature. The wind, fire and earthquake are the traditional images of God’s power, but Elijah has a deep, insightful encounter with God. This theophany is one of gentleness. God enters into Elijah’s understanding and experience in the sound of sheer silence.

3.2    Mary the Mother of Jesus
Mary is also fundamental to an understanding of Carmelite spirituality. The first established hermits on Mount Carmel gathered around a chapel dedicated to the Mother of God. In the feudal mentality of medieval Europe, Mary was the Lady of the Place - protector, friend, mother and sister. Saint Therese of Lisieux describes Mary as ‘more Mother than Queen.’

Mary is an icon of the desire for union with God. She bore the Incarnate Word of God in her womb, but long before that event her life was rooted in God. In the Orthodox Church any icon portraying the Annunciation, shows Mary weaving. A symbol that she was weaving the Word of God into the fabric of her life. Mary’s union with God directs her. Her first act on hearing the news of her conception is to visit her cousin Elisabeth who is also with child. It is a selfless act that is typical of this young woman. The rest of her life seems silent, reflective and pondering, but always pointing to her Son. ‘Do whatever he tells you is her instruction at Cana. We can sum up Mary’s witness as total availability to God, an absolute submission to God’s will for her. She knows pain, she stood at the foot of the cross trying to make sense of a senseless act. She also knows the sublime joy of the Resurrection. In her life the Holy Spirit was her breath. God was so much a part of her that he became flesh in her womb.

It is around this life giving Mother of God we gather as disciples. Hopefully, coming to know her Son more deeply and proclaiming Him in all we do.

4.    Community and Service
From humble beginnings the Carmelite sense of God, prayer and discipleship have grown. To the hermits seeking life away from the violence that had escalated in the land made holy by the footsteps of Christ, Mount Carmel was a haven of peace. This small band of brothers spent much time in solitude, pondering the Word of God. This pondering led them beyond their hermitages to a life journeying together. The love of solitude now tempered with the basic human desire to be known and cared for by others and in turn to know and care for them. Community became a fundamental expression of Carmelite life and prayer. Much of the Carmelite rule is given over to the importance of solitude. The reason for this is so that we can live community authentically. Self knowledge and acceptance are vital components of our human flourishing.

I must confess that the life of a hermit appeals to me. I probably lack the courage to move forward in this and I would have reservations about how I would grow and develop as a person. St Paul tells us that we are ‘God’s works of art.’ We probably don’t regard ourselves as created masterpieces. We are more likely to agree that we are works in progress, and in this community, human relationships, help to complete what God has begun. If we are works of art, then others wield hammers and chisels to help shape who we are.  As a Carmelite priest friend once said to me, ‘Damian, if you were a hermit, whose feet would you wash?’

Service and the cherishing of others is another key factor in Carmel. The early Christian communities were remarkable because people saw the love and regard they had for one another. Community (family, friendships, parish) places us in the context of serving and loving others. And this is seen as a loving of God. It is not about perfection. Living with others is hard. It requires compassion, tolerance, openness, space. It also means that individuals are loved individually and not just as part of a group. Each person has something to offer, each person has space to communicate who they are, what they are passionate about, what makes them alive … what makes them sad, hurt, lonely, angry and isolated. In this way the Gospel is lived, the words of Jesus are enlivened and incarnated in the real lives of human beings.

5.    Some Carmelite Pray-ers
Carmel has attracted many remarkable people. For centuries Carmel has been seen as the praying heart of the Church. Pope John Paul II described Carmel as the place ‘where prayer becomes life and life becomes prayer.’ Each century has brought forth some notable Carmelite pray-ers. More of them another time, but I will end with some of their own words.

“Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel and I am your servant and have done all these things by your command. Answer me Lord! Answer me, that this people may know that, you Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to their senses.”

Elijah the Prophet (850 B.C.)

“O my God and my Mercy! What shall I do so as not to undo the great things You have done for me? Your works are holy, they are just, they are priceless and done with great wisdom, since You, Lord, are wisdom itself. If my intellect busies itself with this wisdom, my will complains. It wouldn’t want anything to hinder it from loving You, because my intellect cannot reach the sublime grandeurs of its God. And my will desires to enjoy Him, but it doesn’t see how it can since it is placed in a prison as painful as is  this mortality. Everything hinders my will, although it was helped by consideration of Your grandeurs, by which my countless miseries are better revealed.”

“Let nothing trouble you, let nothing scare you. All is fleeting, God alone is unchanging. Patience everything attains. Who possesses God nothing wants. God alone suffices.”

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

“One dark night,
Fired with love’s urgent longings
-    Ah, the sheer grace! –
I went out unseen,
My house being now all stilled;

In darkness, and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised,
-    Ah the sheer grace! –
In darkness and concealment,
My house being now all stilled;

On that glad night,
In secret, for no one saw me,
Nor did I look at anything,
With no other light or guide
Than the one that burned in my heart;

This guided me
More surely than the light of noon
To where He waited for me
-    Him I knew so well –
In a place where no one else appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
The Lover with His beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her Lover.

Upon my flowering breast
Which I kept wholly for Him alone,
There He lay sleeping,
And I caressing Him
There in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret
Parting his hair,
He wounded my neck
With His gentle hand,
Suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
Laying my face on my Beloved;
All things ceased; I went out from myself,
Leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies.”

“Mine are the heavens
and mine is the earth.
Mine are the nations,
the just are mine and mine the sinners.
The angels are mine,
and the Mother of God, and all things are mine;
and God himself is mine and for me,
because Christ is mine and all for me.
What do you ask, then, and seek, my soul?
Yours is all of this, and all is for you.
Do not engage yourself in something less,
nor pay heed to the crumbs which fall from your Father's table.
Go forth and exult in your Glory!
Hide yourself in It and rejoice,
and you will obtain the deepest desires of your heart”

St John of the Cross (1542-1591)

“Lord, I have need of brothers and sisters. Give me brothers and sisters to adore You.”

Blessed Mary of Jesus Crucified (1846-1878)

“My desires caused me a veritable martyrdom, and I opened the Epistles of Saint Paul to find some kind of answer. Chapters twelve and thirteen of the First Epistle to the Corinthians fell under my eyes. I read there, in the first of these chapters, that all cannot be apostles, prophets, doctors, and so on, that the Church is composed of different members, and that the eye cannot be the hand at one and the same time. The answer was clear, but it did not fulfil my desires and gave me no peace. Without becoming discouraged, I continued my reading, and this sentence consoled me: ‘Yet strive after the better gifts, and I point out to you a yet more excellent way.’ And the Apostle explains how all the most perfect gifts are nothing without love. That charity is the excellent way that leads most surely to God.

I finally had rest. Considering the mystical body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by Saint Paul, or rather I desired to see myself in them all. Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church had a body composed of different members, the most necessary and most noble of all could not be lacking to it, and so I understood it was love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places … in a word, that it was eternal!

Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: ‘O Jesus, my love ..my vocation, at last I have found it … my vocation is Love!’

Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place: in the heart of the Church, my mother, I shall be love. Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realized.”

St Therese of the Child Jesus (1873-1897)