This talk, presented by Paul Cahill O.Carm. to the Provincial Staff on the 21st of March 2019, was originally prepared for the staff of Whitefriars College.
What makes a ministry ‘Carmelite’?
Some years ago, an Australian Carmelite Priest, Paul Chandler, who has a Doctorate in medieval history and is currently Spiritual Director at the Diocesan seminary in Brisbane was preparing for a presentation he was going to make to the staff of Whitefriars College (a Carmelite secondary school) on Carmelite spirituality.
By way of background and context, the relevance of Paul’s expertise in medieval history is that the Carmelites were formed in the Middle Ages and an appreciation of this context in which the Carmelites developed from the beginning is important in understanding what Carmelite spirituality is and involves. Originally, as many of you know, the Carmelites were a motley group of lay pilgrim hermits (not priests nor official religious brothers) from Europe who, while still living in their individual hermit huts at the base of Mount Carmel (hence the name ‘Carmelites’) in northern Israel at the end of the 12th century, did so in a common area and shared a common Chapel which they built. Already from the beginning, therefore, something about ‘community’ was important to the Carmelites.
As a result of Christians being driven out of the Holy Land by the Moslems who defeated them in the Crusades, the early Carmelites went back to Europe from whence they came early in the 13th century and modified their hermit life. Once back in Europe, the Carmelites became part of a new movement in religious life at that time, becoming what are known as “mendicants” or “friars”. As ‘mendicants’ or ‘friars’, they lived in community, but in the middle of the people in the towns and villages that were developing at that time, relying on them for their support (an essential element of being a ‘mendicant’) – and serving them as teachers and preachers and reaching out to people in need. These early Carmelite friars, however, kept alive in their spirit something of what they were focussed on when they were hermits, which was really central to their identity and which distinguished them from other groups of friars – like Franciscans or Dominicans or Augustinians. This distinctive and essential Carmelite feature was what we might call “contemplation”. It involved prayer and silence and solitude and being alone with God but, it was more than the sum of those elements which are parts of “contemplation”. Essentially, “contemplation” is a way of seeing life and reality, a way of seeing oneself in relation to the reality of all of life and the universe – a way of being in the universe which affects how one lives and what one does. From these very early medieval days of the Carmelites, therefore, “contemplation” has had its implications for us in relation to the communities we live and work in and the individuals and communities we serve.
Anyway, back to Paul Chandler coming to talk to Whitefriars staff about Carmelite spirituality. Part of his preparation involved a preliminary meeting with some staff in which he asked them what, if anything, they thought made Whitefriars a ‘Carmelite’ school – and, by implication, what they understood of Carmelite spirituality. Here’s his recollection of some of what they said:
One person said that discipline at Whitefriars had a maternal quality, which he thought contrasted with the paternal discipline in other boys’ schools where he had taught. The statue of the Virgin Mary with a teenage Jesus at the entrance of the school, he suggested, was a symbol of something very real in the school’s ethos.
Another, who had taught in schools run by the Christian Brothers and the Salesians, commented on yard duty: in a Christian Brothers’ school, he said, yard duty was about controlling student behaviour; with the Salesians about preventing trouble; with the Carmelites about being a friendly presence to the boys.
Another spoke about how the school was run not so much by a vertical chain of command but by real collaboration, and that even the youngest students were genuinely invited to participate in the task of forming a community in which each person could feel respected and cared for. From their very first days in Year Seven they were challenged to be brothers to one another and to take responsibility for the development of a caring community.
Another said that once you accept that every student has a spiritual journey to make during the course of his life, certain approaches to education become possible and others impossible. There was a real effort to accept and respect each student as a unique individual with a unique potential which was only beginning to unfold.
… It was clear that these teachers had an intense appreciation for the Carmelite ethos of the school, and had absorbed many of the fundamental ways in which Carmelites generally try to see the world. They were perhaps not expressing them in exactly the same terms the friars use in their talk, or in the same language that is found in the Constitutions of the Order, but the fundamental themes were there, clearly identified and perceptively expressed. And they wanted to make the point to me that these values, which they had experienced in action in the school, were precious to them. They wanted to find ways to keep them alive permanently, even if the day should come when they would have to preserve this tradition on their own.
What these teachers said indicates something very important in response to the question of what is this Carmelite spirit and how does/can it impact on a school (or any other institution/structure/ministry). Essentially, this spirit, I believe, is something that is principally/fundamentally experienced (rather than a theoretical concept to be intellectually analysed)!
I take great heart from Paul’s affirmation that, even though the teachers he spoke to didn’t use particularly religious language in describing their experience of working in a Carmelite school, what they said was consistent with Carmelite spirituality. Spirituality is something that transcends religion. Spirituality is something we all have – it’s a way of seeing the world, reality, life and the universe and a way of being in the world and a way of relating to reality, life and the universe.
Whilst Carmelite spirituality can be spoken of in religious terms – and usually is in the official documents of the Order – it doesn’t have to be – as Paul’s affirmation of what the teachers quoted above said – and, for the most part, I’m not going to refer to it in this paper in religious terms. I am going to suggest that we can describe our experience of seeing the world and being in the world as Carmelite if it has certain characteristics, whether or not we use religious language and refer to particularly religious experience in doing so.
I think it is important then, that we reflect on our experience of working in a Carmelite ministry – whether it’s a school or something else. And although I’m going to go on and talk from a historical and theoretical perspective about how ‘Carmelite’ might be understood, this is useless unless somehow it resonates with one’s experience in the context of something that claims to be Carmelite and is felt in that context.
In a talk given in 2017, an American Carmelite, Don Buggert, spoke to the topic of the challenge of Pope Francis to Carmelites in North America. He wasn’t speaking about some specific address Pope Francis had made to the Carmelites of North America, but what the Carmelites of North America could take from the overall thrust/direction/vision/message of Pope Francis for the Church in general and for the world at large. I think, therefore that what Don Buggert suggests for the Carmelites of North America can be applied universally to anyone involved in Carmelite life/ministry.
Don Buggert suggests that Pope Francis’ challenge, which the Carmelites (and those involved in Carmelite ministries) take up is to be truly prophetic – after the manner of Jesus and the Prophet Elijah who, along with Mary, Mother of Jesus is one of an iconic inspirational figures for Carmelites. Being truly prophetic means witnessing to the belief that the kingdom of God – or the “reign” of God - is found/experienced – not in power, wealth, domination, riches, fame etc. – but in service, humility, community, sensitivity, forgiveness, compassion, peace and justice - especially for those who are weak, poor, marginalised. However, Buggert suggests that to be truly prophetic does not compete with or eliminate being truly contemplative – which, as already noted, Carmelites understand as being the basis of Carmelite spirituality. Hence contemplation (sometimes called Prayer, but I think it’s broader than that, although it includes Prayer) is one of the foundational tenets, along with community and service, of Whitefriars … and any other ministry in the Carmelite spirit and tradition. Being prophetic, Buggert suggests – and I take up and promote this view – presumes being contemplative and, in fact, is a dimension of the contemplative, just as the contemplative is a dimension of the prophetic. And so, the challenge of Pope Francis to us is to be prophetic contemplatives, as was our inspiring model, Elijah, and our even more inspiring model, Jesus of Nazareth, to whom we are to live in allegiance, according to the Prologue of the Carmelite Rule.
It is in Carmelite DNA to be prophetic contemplatives because, once the Carmelites went to Europe early in the 13th century and became mendicants, as we have already noted, they were contemplatives in action, contemplatives in service, contemplatives devoted not to separation from the world and people and their concerns, but contemplatives with a heart for people, contemplatives in relationship with people, contemplatives devoted to bringing about the reign of God – a reign of justice, peace, mercy, compassion, tenderness, love, acceptance and welcome.
It is important to understand the contemplative spirit not as a rarefied, other worldly, mysterious, particularly religious, remote and rare phenomenon, but something that is integrated into our experience of life – a way of seeing and a way of being. This is why I think it important that we can identify within our experience of being in a Carmelite ministry the experience of being contemplative – as those teachers to whom I referred at the beginning of this talk did – even though they didn’t use the term. Their experience of a maternal-type care, of collegiality, of respect for the individual and welcoming of difference, of friendliness, of being drawn into and helping create a caring community, of wanting to draw out the potential of individuals from what was within them and help them to maximize that was all part of a prophetic-contemplative experience – as well as an experience of service in action and of community.
Buggert reminds us that the contemplative prophet experiences the divine presence/the essence of life (what is true/real) and thus can strike out at those things that bespeak divine absence(what is false and unreal). In our experience of being accepted/welcomed and in accepting/welcoming others, Carmelites believe we experience divine presence/this essence of life - and proclaim this presence by our actions, even if there are no words – or even if the experience is not interpreted in a religious way. Similarly with openness, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, trust, encouragement, support, just action. The experience of these things and the practice of these things is contemplative. It’s just the way we see and do things; the way we are! We all are – or can be – contemplative prophets – believe it or not!
Drawing on some specific Carmelite religious language, we can note that not only does Elijah say that he stands in the sight of the living God (I Kings 18:15), but also “with zeal I am zealous for the Lord God of hosts” (I Kings 19:10) – the official motto of the Order (cf. the Shield). As a Prophet, Elijah does not flee the world. Rather he gets into action to try to change it because he was first a contemplative – he had experienced the divine/the real/the true – just as we all can do and have done in our own experience of life (whether we recognize it or talk about it in this way or not). Living out of this experience is fundamental to any claim of a school or anything else to be Carmelite, let alone Catholic or Christian.
I have spoken at some length about contemplation, not only because I think it is the basic “tenet” of the three phenomena which are fundamental to the Carmelite spirit – contemplation, community and service/action – and which are reflected in any of the Order’s Mission, Vision & Values statements (and which are reflected in the Province’s logo) – but because it is the one tenet which can be most easily misunderstood – and therefore the hardest to appreciate.
I’ve already spoken about how the reality of contemplation is something experienced in the reality of our lives. As I have already said, there can be a tendency on the part of some to see contemplation as something set apart, other worldly, for the few and chosen – or as withdrawing from the fray, stepping aside to rest, taking a welcome break. An author called Paula D’Arcy says that “God comes to us disguised as our lives”. This picks up something of what I’m trying to say about recognizing how we’re being contemplative in the way we experience our lives and the life of our ministry – just as I believe those teachers referred to at the start of this talk were. Being contemplative is a way of seeing and a way of being and a way of doing – welcoming, open, reflective, trusting, friendly, forgiving, sensitive, compassionate, gentle, humble, generous, kind, merciful, seeking justice, speaking truth, living in peace and hope and fundamental joy: being happy and positive. Being contemplative is allowing ourselves to be loved and to look at the world with eyes of love.
This is what the Carmelite spirit emphasises, encouraging us to develop that spirit in ourselves and to help our students (or those with whom we engage in another Carmelite ministry) encourage it in themselves.
I’d like now to refer to a 2017 lecture by an Irish Carmelite, Simon Nolan, on Titus Brandsma (Dutch Carmelite killed by the Nazis in Dauchau concentration camp in 1942; author, educator, journalist, fearless Nazis critic). Along with many others who have done so and continue to do so, Nolan was reflecting on what enabled Titus to live as he did and ultimately to die as he did – peacefully, selflessly, joyfully. Nolan refers to a lecture Brandsma gave in 1932 which seems to articulate something of how he saw things and how he lived. Brandsma said: We must see God first of all as the deepest ground of our being … We must be found in continuous contemplation of God and adore him not only in our own being, but just as much in all that exists, first of all, in our fellow human beings, but also in nature, in the universe, as he is omnipresent and permeating everything with the work of his hands.
Now whilst this is overtly religious language, I’m suggesting that the essence of what Brandsma is saying doesn’t have to be expressed religiously. In the Christian spirit – but highlighted in the Carmelite spirit – we are all called to be contemplatives by appreciating that we are loved and lovable, by allowing ourselves to be loved and by looking at the world – fellow human beings, nature, the universe – with eyes of love. This is what we are called to cultivate and nurture in our students. This is the spirit that I believe those teachers quoted at the start of this talk had experienced in themselves and in the milieu of the College.
Brandsma was grounded in this prophetic contemplative spirit. It was in this spirit and out of this spirit that he was able to stand up against Nazi ideology. It is what sustained him in prison, what strengthened him for life in captivity, what enabled him to love and not hate his captors, what enabled him to not give up on his principles, what informed the tenderness with which he treated the nurse who administered the final injection. It was this contemplative spirit that gave him inner strength, resilience, determination, drive, energy, fortitude, bravery and hope and joy. It was this spirit that was at the basis of the sort of person he was – not just in his persecution but throughout his life as an esteemed educator, journalist, Carmelite, priest, leader and administrator. I encourage you to recognize that spirit in yourselves and affirm it in your students (or those to whom you minister) and encourage them to cultivate it.
A former Prior General of the Carmelites, Joseph Chalmers, a Scotsman who visited Australia at least twice during his time as world-wide leader between 1995 and 2007, said that being a Carmelite involved the individual discovering gradually the Carmelite within him or her. I would apply this same analogy to being a contemplative. It is something that is embedded in our experience, again as I believe those teachers I’ve now referred to many times sensed, even though they would probably never have described themselves that way. It involves a sensitivity to who we are, that we are loved and loveable, that we allow ourselves to be loved. It means that we are at peace with ourselves, happy within ourselves, gentle with ourselves. Cultivating and encouraging this spirit in those whom we serve in ministry will lead to them being peaceful, gentle, contented but strong people.
A Dutch artist, named Arie Trum, made a very beautiful version of the Carmelite Rule. At the centre of the Rule, as depicted symbolically by Trum, is a golden circle with an empty centre. This empty entre is meant to signify the human yearning for God/meaning/truth/reality. There is an empty space in our lives/hearts that can only be filled by God (or however we describe the search for meaning/truth/reality) because the space is infinite. It is something beyond ourselves which must ultimately fill that space. We usually try all sorts of ways to fill this space, ways which cannot ever satisfy us.
Contemplatives recognize this deep human need in their own experience and, from that experience, can help others appreciate in their experience that real peace and happiness and fulfilment is found within them in the experience of being loved and of loving.
As I mentioned a little while ago, I have spoken at length about contemplation because I believe it is the basic Carmelite tenet out of which the others – community and service – emerge. However, I would like to speak about these other two tenets, albeit more briefly.
As I’ve mentioned, community and service, in the Carmelite understanding, have their basis in contemplation. By being contemplative people, we appreciate the intrinsic value of others in spite of challenges we might have in dealing with their unique personalities, faults and frailties. If we’re able to let go of our own thoughts and preoccupations in listening to our own deepest yearnings and being at home with ourselves in contemplation, we find ourselves able to listen to others with our hearts and not just with our ears. By listening in this way, we’re able to see beyond externals and appreciate others more deeply. For the Carmelites and for those who might live or act in the Carmelite spirit, contemplation determines the way in which we relate to others and hence the ways in which we form a community with them. A contemplative attitude allows us to discover what we might call the presence of God – or in non religious terms, that which is real or of the essence - in others. We can thus appreciate the mystery at the heart of those with whom we interact in a community. If we have a contemplative attitude, we are more able to be open and true, welcoming and tolerant; forgiving, generous and kind, merciful and just with others and at peace with them. If we are to form a community or be part of a community and enrich it by our presence, we need to accept that we are all different and accept one another in all our diversity and try to see in this human reality something of the mystery of God or the mystery of being. A contemplative attitude helps us to look at life and look at people in this way and thus contribute more positively to our community.
Someone once said that to “be present, pay attention, make connections, speak your truth and release the outcome … is a contemplative way of life”. If we have such a reflective approach to life, then we will also be positively contributing to our community and we will be offering a real service to those who join us in a community.
In thinking about what the tenet of “service”/”action”, the third essential element of Carmelite spirituality , might mean, it is instructive to reflect on “service” in the life and ministry of Jesus, whose way of life and being must serve as a model for us. In a recent study called Jesus: An Historical Approximation by a Spaniard named José Antonio Pagola, Jesus is presented in a very interesting way as a person whose whole life was lived out of a conviction about and a commitment to bringing about the reign of God in human history. Simply put, this means putting one’s life on the line for the sake of a just and peaceful society, a society of mercy and compassion, a society of forgiveness and love, a society in which the dignity and equality of all is respected and practised. Jesus was a prophet of this “city” of God, encouraging others – in the first place his small band of disciples/followers – to share in this way of life, to interiorize its values and to be “prophetic” by living out these values, inviting others to join them in doing so and proclaiming in word and deed that this was what true human living was meant to be.
Jesus saw himself – his self-identity was - ”as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). He didn’t see himself as a rabbi, he didn’t see himself as a political revolutionary, he didn’t see himself as a religious zealot, he didn’t see himself as a hermit, he didn’t see himself as an “alpha male” leading a pack. In devoting himself, though, to the “reign of God” or building up the “city” of God, he does so as a “contemplative”. He does withdraw often, as the scriptures tell us, to be by himself, to “centre” himself in the presence of God, to reconnect and be in touch with what gives his life meaning and purpose and direction – and this enables him to act in a contemplative way. He reaches out warmly, generously, selflessly to people. He welcomes them into his company and shares food with him. In doing so, he heals them in body (miracle stories) and, more importantly, in spirit. He gives them a sense of dignity, self worth, self belief (the woman at the well, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the beggars, the blind, the lame, the deaf, the mentally and physically afflicted). He regards them as his equals – his brothers and sisters. He lives with them and moves among them humbly.
Summing up, then, our reflections on the fundamental constitutive elements/tenets of Carmelite spirituality – Contemplation (Prayer), Community and Service/Action – we note …
Those in the scripture stories who follow Jesus are called to live radically – without the security of home, job and social approbation – in order to be one with Jesus in being prophets of the “reign of God”. We can’t live so radically, of course (even though there is a place for it and there are plenty of examples of it among the followers of Jesus throughout history), but nonetheless we are called to have something of the trust in God that this radical lifestyle involves. Again, living in trust means living with a basic sense of inner peace, contentment, calm, security, acceptance, openness, welcome of others, joy - that setbacks, disappointments, failures, rejection don’t dislodge, even though they might understandably shake it up. This is contemplative living. It is a way of living that creates community and is reinforced and built up by community. It’s a way of living that the small group who accompanied Jesus developed and which was a hallmark of the early followers of the way of Jesus after his death and resurrection as they endured the rejection, ostracization and persecution that came their way. In supporting one another, the followers of Jesus were serving one another in a material as well as a spiritual sense (cf. The Acts of the Apostles). They were also seeking to be of service to others in the society around them, sharing what they had with them, reaching out in acceptance of them, respect for them, promoting justice for them, bringing them into a wholesome and uplifting sense of what life could be for them. As Pagola puts it, “for those who seek God’s reign, life is sustained by mutual acceptance and the Father’s care”.
Pagola also reminds us that: There was another trait that Jesus wanted to nourish in his group: joy. These men and women had left everything because they had found “the hidden treasure” or the “precious pearl”. … Jesus taught them to celebrate the recovery of so many lost people with joy. Sitting at the table with Jesus, the disciples felt like the “friends” of the shepherd in the parable, who rejoiced to see him come back with the lost sheep. The women disciples in turn rejoiced like the “neighbours” of the poor woman in another parable, who had found her lost coin. Everyone could see in the joy of Jesus’ followers, that God (having a sense of the real/truth) is good news for the lost.
Service/Action, community and contemplation are all interconnected with the one enriched by the other and reinforcing the other – but with contemplation being the basic driving and unifying factor – and contemplation being in itself prophetic.
In conclusion, then, I come back to the question posed at the start: What makes a ministry Carmelite? I hope I’ve gone some way in this presentation in suggesting it is in integrating the essential elements of contemplation, community and service into our experience, into who we are, into our way of seeing, our way of being, our way of doing. In the Carmelite spirit, we’d also hope to recognize that experience in ourselves and in those around us, even if not in overtly religious language. We’d also hope to cultivate that experience by our own contemplative practices (e.g. prayer/ centering/ mindfulness/ reflection/ meditation) – and draw on our experience to lead others with whom we relate in whatever context into their own experience of being contemplatives in action/service who both draw from and contribute to community. Together we can support one another to cultivate that experience, to rejoice in that experience, to share that experience. I commend you for being the contemplatives in action in community that you are and, out of your experience, helping others cultivate, recognize and share their own experience of being contemplatives in action in community. To the extent that we are contemplatives in action in community I believe we will make the places where we live and work and play truly happy, peaceful and life enriching places and thus enrich our world.
Paul Cahill, O.Carm.