by Andrew Gniadek
All translations are my own.
Carmelite spirituality is often a confusing topic because most lay-people do not know where to begin or the meaning of “Carmelite.” Even if someone knows the Carmelites, the person usually thinks of a Carmelite monk or a Carmelite nun living in a monastery cloistered from the world and not interacting with others outside the monastery grounds. While Carmelites generally seek solitude and silence with God to develop what is called “contemplative life” or a growing union with God dwelling within through prayer, Carmelites also teach, serve the poor, and these days even create YouTube videos. Carmelite spirituality speaks to our hearts; the tradition and doctrine of the Carmelites has influenced the spiritual lives of many known and unknown persons over the centuries.
What is a Carmelite
The Carmelite Order traces its roots back to the Holy Land during the Crusades and spiritually traces its roots all the way to the Old Testament and the prophet Elias. Carmelites are in a way each a προφήτης (those who stand before others affirming God)1 and they do this through this loving union and their actions based on what God calls them to in the moment; a third order Carmelite mother will live out to completion her state in life as wife and mother while a religious will live in the cloister and spend hours in prayer for the sake of the world. Both Carmelites pray and act in their own circumstances in accord with God’s will present to the circumstances and people where they are in their state of life and empowered by their time in prayerful solitude and silence with the one they love above all else: God Himself.
This prophetic spiritual tradition informs Carmelite life with Elias as the father of the Carmelite order; Mary, under the title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, is the mother of the order as exemplar of what all persons affiliated with the order should aspire to be as well as protector and patroness of the order. The Carmelite order is a Marian order and Carmelites look at her as Patroness. Mary, as Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, permeates the order from its very founding as the “Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mt. Carmel” to the present day of working for Mary in bringing her to others by conforming more and more to her as the exemplar Carmelite. From images of Mary and her Immaculate Heart to invocations such as “Beauty of Carmel,” “Queen of Carmelites,” and “Queen, Glory of Carmel,” Carmelites are through-and-through Marian.
The Carmelite order and its spirituality can seem hard to pin down, descriptive rather than definitive, and in some ways ineffable. To add to the confusion, is there a dichotomy between calced Carmelite spirituality and discalced Carmelite spirituality? What historically and spiritually makes Carmel distinct from another order such as Dominicans, Benedictines, or Franciscans?
Carmelite spirituality is first and foremost personal; the human person, through his or her self-determination, co-operates or not with God’s Will in his or her life and grows in love with God through solitude, silence, prayer, and building virtue. The Carmelites were founded on the liberty to act in accord with the needs of the moment in the spirit of Elias and Mary; Elias who explodes into Scripture standing in opposition to Achaab the wicked king of Israel and disappears in a fiery chariot and Mary who always responded to the needs of the moment in liberty at the Annunciation, the Wedding at Cana, or the Visitation. The liberty of the human person and the choice of loving union with God lies at the very center of this spirituality. See the interview on Carmelite Spirituality below for more details:
Dr. Larry Chapp from Gaudium et Spes 22 Interviews Andrew Gniadek about Carmelite Spirituality
Elias as the father of Carmelites
Elias as a person in the Old Testament, a central prophet and hermit, provides the foundation for answering both the historical and spiritual aspect of this question. Elias bursts into Scripture in 1 Kings 17 when Achaab, and his wife Jezabel, were evildoers worse than all the other kings of Israel before him (c.f. 1 Kings 16:33 ) and says to Achaab:
ζῇ κύριος ὁ θεὸς τῶν δυνάμεων ὁ θεὸς Ισραηλ ᾧ παρέστην ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ (The Living Lord, the God of works of power, the God of Israel, who I stand by face to face)
Elias’s entrance into Scripture with this line puts him in opposition to Achaab and his queen since Achaab enslaved himself to Baal, erecting altars and a temple and planting sacred wood for Baal’s sake. The evil in Israel was out of control and God sent Elias as a prophet to let Achaab know who really is in charge of Israel despite Achaab’s worship of a false god. In this one line, which Carmelites have meditated on for centuries, we see God as living, lord of works of power, of Israel, who Elias is constantly present with and God is present to, face to face. Achaab stands with Baal in opposition to Elias who stands in God’s presence.
Elias as prophet is not simply telling the future, which is a common mistake about the word. A prophet in the Carmelite tradition moves through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to where the greatest need is based on what God wants. Elias exemplifies this prophetic dynamism since he lacks legislation and regulation to inhibit or stop his ability to respond in freedom. God directs and he follows those directions. Later in the chapter, Elias challenges Achaab and the prophets of Baal to a sacrifice-competition on Mt. Carmel. Elias watches the prophets of Baal all day dance, chant, and cut themselves trying to have Baal consume their sacrifice. After nothing happens, Elias calls out to God who consumes his sacrifice in a blaze of fire. The prophetic relationship of Elias and God comes from his zeal and love for God, and God co-operates with Elias to show Israel that He, not Baal, is the living God, the God of works of power and Israel.
Elias as a hermit shows us that to be so present and close to someone, face to face, requires building trust, co-operation, and a union of the will through love. Elias walked the way of the true mystical life. Elias’s love of God brought him closer and closer to God; seeing Elias’s love, God moved closer and close to him. Presence, relation, union, participation, and love all play a role in the eremitical life of a Carmelite.
Mary as Mother and Patroness of Carmelites
St. Therese of Lisieux famously struggled with what she wanted to be in her life for God; should she be a missionary, a teacher, a martyr? She wanted to be everything. Eventually, God showed her that he wanted her to be love. She remarked that God’s garden (i.e., “Carmel” which means garden of God) needs flowers of various kinds because a garden of just one type of flower would not be beautiful; God wants this diversity of human persons in His garden for His delight and joy. Therefore, our τέλος as human persons lies in doing God’s will and being the human person He wants us to be.
Mary was the only human person to always do God’s will and be exactly who God wanted her to be. Mary, under the title Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, is the beating heart of the Carmelite order. While Elias is the father of the order, Mary is the mother and the one who is patroness and protector. Mary’s beauty and purity are meant to shine from those who are affiliated to her Order based on their state in life. Every Carmelite needs to look at Mary, under the title of our Lady of Mt. Carmel, as the exemplar of the Order, regardless of whatever level of affliation the person may have with the order.
Mary as exemplar of beauty derives from her complete integrity, clarity, and harmony with herself and with her relationship to God. Mary, being-in-relation as a human person, captures how high a human person can aspire to in this life and the next in loving God. Mary is often referred to as the splendor of Carmel. Mary knew her vocation in life being without sin and in complete co-operation with God’s will; she alway knew what she needed to do and how to respond in the present moment out of love. Listen to the podcast episode below to dive deeper into Mary’s virtue and receptivity.
Being a Carmelite then starts with figuring out your vocation in life: what is God’s will for you and how well are you being the person that God wants you to be?
The meaning of Carmelite
The word “Carmelite” is analogical because there are differences between different members of the order. There are six levels of affiliation with the Carmelite order: (1) the religious in the Carmelite Order and collective institutes; (2) the secular/lay “third order” of Carmelites; (3) people who are a member of a public association or confraternities of Our Lady of Mount Carmel; (4) people who are invested in the Brown Scapular, have some association with the Carmelite Order, and practice Carmelite spirituality; (5) people who wear the Brown Scapular, practice Carmelite spirituality, and have no formal association with the Carmelite Order; and (6) people who practice the Marian characteristics of Carmelite Spirituality and express this commitment or devotion through outward forms that do not include the Brown Scapular.
If someone says “I am a Carmelite,” you first should see what kind of clothes the person is wearing (a monk or nun will be wearing some kind of habit), that is your first clue; if you are dealing with a lay person, the person could be anything from a third order in either branch of the Carmelite family to someone who practices the Marian characteristics of Carmelite spirituality.
If this is not already unwieldy and confusing, do not be afraid or turn back; beginners on this journey often immediately feel that way. The beauty of Carmel is the sharing of this vast heritage and charism from monks and nuns in the cloister to a devotee of Mary who as lay person is praying the Rosary or other Marian devotions on a daily basis seeing Mary as a patroness who offers protection against the evils of this life. Each person in Carmel seeks the answer to the question, “Who ought I be for God?”
Prayer and finding who God wants you to be
The only way to even begin to answer this question is prayer; prayer is a central part of the Carmelite order. In the Rule of St. Albert, written by the then Patriarch of Jerusalem, states that solitary prayer on God’s law is primary unless some other need or duty arises. The early Carmelites in a way understood this better than we can in our contemporary life because they could physically distance themselves on Mount Carmel or into the other sister communities that were founded around the Holy Land at the beginning of the order in the 12th century; today we have phones and computers and needs that the early Carmelites on Mount Carmel did not have at that time. Our advantage today is the wealth of information and ways to connect with others to form community and learn from each other and be grounded more in truth about who we are and who we can be.
Early Carmelites also were in an environment that was more conducive to understanding the nature of the interior life and God dwelling within us; today the interior life is often conflated with the psychological life and reduced to simply how something feels rather than what something is. On the other hand, our knowledge of the psychological order provides a benefit for us to dive deeper and make distinctions in the interior life to see its greater depth and beauty. Whether in the Holy Land and Europe in the 12th-13th century, the 14th century, the 15th century, the 17th century, the 19th century, the 20th century, or in the 21st century, the crucible of each person’s eternal destiny lies in this indwelling of God and His presence to each of us by various modes.
St. John of the Cross distinguished between these three modes of God’s presence to a human person: presence by immensity, presence by grace, and presence by union.
First, presence by immensity: in order for us to exist, God must maintain that existence. A person need only recognize that he or she cannot keep him or herself in existence and neither can his or her parents, and back and back one goes, until one reaches something that is existence and needs nothing to sustain its existence. Therefore, God maintains our existence by His immensity at every moment of our lives.
Second, presence by grace: we all are given access to the supernatural order and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love through the sacrament of Baptism. Baptism changes a person from existing merely in the natural order to existing in the supernatural order.
Third, presence by union: as a baptized person grows in virtues, especially courage, humility, and obedience, and learns how to recollect oneself and speak to Jesus who dwells within us, that relationship with God grows over time. As a person cooperates with God’s grace, the person becomes more pleasing to God, thereby removing what is contrary to God, and growing in union with Him. At first, presence by union is a lot of effort on the person’s part; God wants to test the soul to see whether this effort is really genuine. An analogous example to the start of your Carmelite prayer life is the beginning of any human relationship: neither party to the relationship wants to be hurt or dive in too quickly. Both parties want to see actions that show the person is a loving person not simply in a warm-feelings way but in a real, authentic, self-gift way. Over time, the person becomes more co-operative with God and the union ultimately reaches what is called “spiritual marriage” which according to St. John of the Cross makes the person seem like he or she is God yet is clearly distinct from God because the union is so close, clearly analogous to a sacramental marriage.
In the beginning of your journey through Carmelite spirituality, meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary or lectio divina are helpful practices to start to “see” God dwelling within you. St. Teresa of Avila used what was called “the prayer of recollection” which, as she eloquently stated, essentially consists of spending time in solitude and silence with the person you love, which in this case is God. If a person simply sits quietly for 15-30 minutes and focuses on Jesus, not as an image in the imagination, but beyond the image, Jesus the person who we cannot physically see but is dwelling in us, if we stare at the physical nothingness in front of us with our eyes closed in faith, the light of faith will allow us to “see” beyond that nothing to Jesus there with us. This is the knowledge of the glory of God, which St. Paul writes in Scripture saying:
ὅτι ὁ Θεὸς ὁ εἰπών Ἐκ σκότους φῶς λάμψει ὅς ἔλαμψεν ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ἡμῶν πρὸς φοτισμὸν τῆς γνώσεως τῆς δόξης τοῦ Θεοῦ ἐν προσώπῳ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (For God, having said, Out of darkness, a light shall shine, who shone in our hearts for the illumination of the knowledge of the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ.) 2 Cor 4:6
Jesus Christ, the person, will shine in our hearts as we continue to spend time in love with him in prayer and our journey towards union with Him in this life promising that:
Ἐγώ είμι τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου; ὁ ἀκολουθῶν ἐμοὶ οὐ μὴ περιπταήσῃ ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ, ἀλλ΄ ἕξει τὸ φῶς τῆς ζωῆς (I am the light of the world. The one following me in no way shall walk in darkness but will have the light of life.) Jn 8: 12
If a person seeks Jesus Christ in this manner, this person following Him shall in no way walk in darkness but shall have the light of life. The Carmelite seeks this personal union with Jesus Christ, the God-Man, to ascend through the proximate means of faith up Mt. Carmel towards He who loves us more than anyone else ever could. See the podcast episode below discussing Christ’s revelation and our call to share divine life with Him.
The word “spirituality” and Mt. Carmel
The word “spirituality” carries connotations that cause confusion. Spirituality sometimes means feelings associated with spiritual things; these feelings can be joy, sorrow, fear, or hope. Our feelings are contingent and sensory; a human person sometimes feels joy or hope while other times a human person feels sorrow or fear, and even may feel fear at one time and joy at another in relation to the same thing at different times. Practioners of any spirituality, especially Carmelite spirituality, are suspectible to reducing spirit to a sense of feelings about how God feels about you or how you view your progress by your feelings in the midst of life. Daily life makes the problem more complex as you come into contact with things through your exterior senses and these details seem to clutter the path to union with God. Bishop Sheen once remarked that some words a person should never memorize since the reality those words symbolize brings darkness into the soul. In a way, we become what we relate to and internalize. A small reflection on a request in prayer, prayer request forms or cards, prayers, popular devotions, among other externals in the spiritual life, brings attention to the depths of darkness in the world and this tension all human persons have between our intentions about who we want to be contrasted with who we really are; human persons claim inspiration in action, but in moments of inspiration in action compromise their principles; we are content with certain finite things, yet long for everything since no amount of finite things leaves us fulfilled. A person has feelings about what he or she may need, but sometimes the person notices that what is felt as a need is actually just a want. These wants are conscious or unconscious; a person is consciously aware of wanting a new car, but unconscious of the want for acceptance by others. Often a person ignores removing these conscious or unconscious wants, or attachments, and this neglect leads to at best minor issues and imperfections and at worst personal disaster.
Spirituality, then, exists neither in our contingent feelings nor in our attachments and affections, but instead in what we ought to want and really need. This singular need is God who is Ἀγάπη (Love). Love exists at the innermost depths of Carmelite spirituality as the τέλος, which is the loving union between the person and the Person of Jesus Christ. With the person of Jesus Christ as our star of wonder, we break our disordered attachments to finite things, lose our affection for these things, and become ordered to achieving a healthy and loving relationship with Jesus Christ person-to-Person. Ἀγάπη defines this personal relationship as a gift from God for the person to love supernaturally in likeness to God’s Love and through this gift the person gives to those nearby in their needs based on what daily life presents to the person and gives back to God what He has given to the person. Now, the person moves from “how do I achieve my want” or “what do I want” to “what does God want of me” and “what does this other person need” and “how do I self-gift this person for him or her sake out of love of God.” The spiritual person experiences death to self and a resurrection to a life of love and service to God and those nearby. The overflow of love in this spiritual person affects everything around him or her: families, churches, schools, universities, ministries, souls in general, and any other aspect of life involving this person. The cascade of love emanates forth as a fruit of these movements of love borne of solitude and silence in prayer with He who loves us.
How to learn more
The first step for anyone on this path is mortification. Mortification, or death to self, occurs in a loving way more and more frequently with greater intensity based on the needs of the person and the state of life. Our Blessed Lord tells us about this cascade of love and mortification in John 12:24:
ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ἐὰν μὴ ὁ κόκκος τοῦ σίτου πεσὼν είς τὴν γῆν ἀποθάνῃ αὐτὸς μόνος μένει ἐὰν δὲ ἀποθάνῃ πολὺν καρπὸν φέρει (Truly, truly, I say to you, if the grain of wheat having fallen into the ground should not die, it stays desolate. However, if it should die, it publicly bears much fruit.)
To die to self requires identifying your attachments and learning more about our Lord Jesus Christ. For this reason, Midnight Carmelite dives deeper into detail about mortification, philosophy, union with God, Scripture in the original Greek, and so much more. Use the player below to listen to some episodes and hit subscribe to stay up to date on the latest information!
This definition is my own. ↩︎