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The Carmelite Tradition of Prayer

blessed virgin mary carmelite contemplation crusades desert hermits discalced elijah the prophet john of the cross prayer saint albert of jerusalem saint john the baptist shoeless spirituality teresa of ávila Jul 06, 2022
My Interior Castle by Donald Wallenfang
The Carmelite Tradition of Prayer

Excerpts taken from Donald Wallenfang and Megan Wallenfang, Shoeless: Carmelite Spirituality in a Disquieted World (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publications, 2021).

The History and Charism of Carmelite Spirituality

Elijah, the Zealous Prophet

  1. The feeding of the widow and her son, and the resuscitation of the widow’s son (1 Kings 17:7–24); the showdown with the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:1–46); and the flight to Mount Horeb where Elijah encounters the living God and appoints his successor, Elisha (1 Kings 19:1–21)
  2. Mount Horeb: קַנּא קִנֵּאתִי לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵי צְבָאוֹת Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum. “I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts” (1 Kings 19:14)

Mary, the Mother of God, and Saint John the Baptist

  1. Blessed Virgin Mary – contemplative par excellence; Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51)
  2. Saint John the Baptist – return of Elijah’s persona to prepare the way of the Lord; “he must increase; I must decrease” – a legacy of self-denial and self-forgetfulness that is the hallmark of Carmelite spirituality
  3. “With Mary, the Word becomes flesh, and with John, a way is prepared for the Word to be heard in the wilderness of humanity” (Shoeless, 5).

The Desert Hermits and the Rise of Monasticism (the cenobitic life)

  1. Pachomius of Egypt (292–348) and Basil of Caesarea (330–379)
  2. Spiritual athletes of the early Church – asceticism (askein “work, exercise”) – perfecting the art of spiritual combat in secret – renunciation and desert wilderness
  3. The evangelical counsels – poverty, chastity, obedience
  4. Benedict of Nursia (480–543) – father of Western monasticism – ora et labora – dividing time evenly between prayer, manual labor, and sleep

The Birth of the Carmelites

  1. Just before the year 1200, the Brothers of the Most Blessed Virgin of Mount Carmel were established on the western slopes of Mount Carmel, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. As tradition has it, the first Carmelites were laymen of the Latin military of the Third Crusade (1189–1192). Less certain are the identities of those men who founded the monastic community, but legend names the original founder and first superior as the French layman, Berthold of Calabria. He is credited with directing the building of the first monastery and church in honor of the prophet Elijah. One testimony has it that Berthold was a soldier of the Crusader army and that he made a vow in battle under the walls of Antioch. He promised God that if he was delivered from the encroaching Turkish army, under the command of the ruler, Zengi, he would found a monastery in the Holy Land. Berthold was spared in battle and followed through with his promise.
  2. Tradition goes on to name Berthold’s successor as Brother Brocard (died in 1231). Instead of adopting the Rule of Saint Augustine or the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Carmelite Brothers petitioned the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Albert Avogadro, to compose for them their own unique rule or formula vitae, that is, “form of life.” This Albert did sometime between 1206–1214. The Rule of Saint Albert was approved by Pope Honorius III in 1226. It is important to note that Albert was previously bishop of Vercelli and assumed the appointment as Patriarch of Jerusalem with its high probability of persecution and the likely prospect of martyrdom. Indeed, Albert was martyred while taking part in a procession on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in 1214. The Carmelite charism is imbued with the vocation to martyrdom, through a daily life of sacrificial prayer, mortification and self-denial, sharing in the redemptive power and witness of Christ crucified.
  3. In contrast to the mendicant way of life, the original Carmelite community intended to return to the eremitic cast as set forth by the early Desert Fathers and Mothers. It was to be an Order dedicated to “meditating day and night on the Law of the Lord and watching in prayer” (Rule of Saint Albert). They understood themselves to be desert hermits, promising obedience, chastity and poverty, holding all things in common. They were to give themselves over to silence and solitude for the salvation of souls, with each one assigned to a separate cell where he was to remain in or near for the greater part of the day. Not just out of fear of being sullied by worldly vice did these hermits withdraw from society in seclusion, but for the sake of their brethren: “to relate with God as with a friend…to walk in the presence of the living God (see 1 Kings 18:14)…to know God that he may be known.” It was a life given over to penance and to vicarious prayer on behalf of the world. As much abandonment, so much redemption (Shoeless, 8–9).

Carmelite Migration and Reform

  1. In 1238, political unrest and the threat of invasion forced the Carmelite community to migrate northwest to the island of Cyprus. Between 1241–1250, the Carmelites expanded to Sicily, England, Provence, and then throughout Europe during the latter half of the thirteenth century. It was at this time that the Carmelite Order faced an identity crisis. Would they remain faithful to their original charism of solitude, contemplation, and eremitic life, or would they be constrained to adapt to the missionary lifestyle of the mendicants? Practical pressures mounted, and, on the whole, the Carmelites were obliged to assume new apostolates and a more fluid vocational self-understanding. Subsequently, the Carmelite rule was mitigated, or revised, according to the particular needs of their new social settings. As mendicants, they would need to seek support in habitable places, near or within the expanding urban centers rather than reside exclusively in solitary locales. With a new mendicant way of life came new challenges for a communal charism inspired by the audacious model of the early desert hermits. The tale of frustration and dismay of this historical evolution from paradisiacal Mount Carmel to obsequious praedium urbanum (“city land”) is told by Carmelite Nicholas Gallicus in his Ignea Sagitta (“The Flaming Arrow,” ca. 1270). These challenges faced men and women alike as both the first institution of Carmelite nuns and the first Order of tertiaries were founded in 1452 under the leadership of Carmelite prior general, John Soreth. Expanding the Carmelite Order to include Second and Third-Order members made a positive impact on the Carmelite family, as would be evidenced in the years to follow.
  2. Two centuries later, compromise with the ways of the world only would escalate. Midway through the sixteenth century, a humble Spanish Carmelite nun, named Teresa of Jesus, grew convicted about how it became difficult to tell the difference between the monastery and the marketplace. Materialism, concern about proper manners and social etiquette, and excessive visitation overran the monastery, making it seem, at times, like just another center of religious coquetry. Thus began Teresa’s courageous reform movement within the Carmelite community in attempt to recuperate and restore the eremitic spirit of the penitential Desert Fathers and Mothers. In 1562, by divine grace and providence, Teresa of Jesus founded the first reformed monastery of the Carmelite Order, now known as the Order of Discalced Carmelites (OCD). In 1580, the OCD became a separate province and in 1593, it became an independent Order by papal act. Teresa’s reform was inspired by Saint Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and the yearning to return to the primitive Rule of St. Albert.
  3. Just a glance at Teresa’s Constitutions for the Discalced Carmelites indicates the austerity, asceticism and radical poverty demanded by the strict enclosure:
  4. “Meat must never be eaten unless out of necessity as the rule prescribes. The habit should be made of coarse cloth or black, rough wool, and only as much wool as is necessary should be used…attending always to the necessary rather than the superfluous…Straw-filled sacks will be used for mattresses…Colored clothing or bedding must never be used, not even something as small as a ribbon…The Sisters must keep their hair cut so as not to have to waste time in combing it. Never should a mirror be used or any adornments; there should be complete self-forgetfulness.”
  5. This short sample from the Constitutions is enough to give a sense of the striking starkness of the strict enclosure “in order to observe the rule with greater perfection.” Highest degrees of penance, mortification and detachment were to serve the itinerary of spiritual perfection and undivided union of the contemplative soul with God. Going about daily living with bare feet and fervent self-denial would characterize the reformed movement of the Teresian Carmel.
  6. Today there are three main branches of the Carmelite family: the Order of Carmelites of the Ancient Observance (O. Carm.), including the tertiary Order, the Third Order of Carmelites (T. O. Carm.); the Order of Discalced Carmelites (OCD), including the tertiary Order, the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites (OCDS); and the tertiary Order of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI), a religious institute for men in the Syro-Malabar church, founded in 1831, Kerala, India. The CMI community is more mendicant in nature as it is involved in active evangelization and social work. It evolved largely as a result of the positive process of inculturation within the particular cultural milieu of India. In sum, the Carmelites are a diversified family sharing a common heritage and the primary vocation to contemplative prayer (Shoeless, 9–11).
  7. Carmelite charism: the soul in relation to God, fraternity, allegiance to Christ, love and the spousal meaning of the body, humility, responsibility (“to stand proxy for sinners”), “the science of the Cross,” silence, solitude and contemplation
  8. It is “in the hermitage of the heart where the living God is encountered” (Steven Payne, OCD).

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