Carmelite Spirituality

This article is being presented here as an historical document. An updated version with appropriate commentary, in book form is available to the public through: ICS Publications, 2131 Lincoln Road, NE, Washington, DC 20002 - 1199, USA

Carmelite Spirituality

Paul-Marie de la Croix, O.C.D.
Translated by: Kathryn Sullivan, R.S.C.J.

The Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel counts among its members many mystics and many saints, its roots are plunged deep in the Old Testament, its mission is specifically spiritual and yet at no time in the past does it seem to have made any special effort to define its spirituality. Does this not mean that this present work is temerarious?

It is true that the members of the "Carmelite family" feel closely united to one another by "a characteristic and permanent way of seeing, feeling, willing".1It is also true that Carmel possesses texts that are specially representative of its traditions and spirit but these texts are rather like reminders or manifestations than sources.

To characterize the spirituality of Carmel is all the more difficult because unlike other religious families Carmel has, in the strict sense of the word, no founder who trained it or gave it a rule. As a matter of fact no rule was written until the hermits of Mount Carmel requested one. And this was but the codification of the form of life that these men had spontaneously adopted.

Where are the sources of Carmel's spirit to be found and how can that spirit be acquired?

To answer these questions, two things are necessary. First, we must understand the nature of this spirit which came down from heaven upon the sons of the prophets dwelling century after century on the slopes of the holy mountain; because without this spirit Carmel would never have started and would never have lasted. We must also grasp the extraordinary signs of this spirit that are evident in those who possess it and give it full expression.

It will be seen that Carmelite spirituality is based only in part on documents. It is above all spirit and life. So it follows that by examining its origins, searching the Rule, the lives and writings of the Order's great saints that the soul of Carmel is revealed and, at the same time, Carmelite spirituality is made manifest.



1 Jerome De La Mere De Dieu, O.C.D. quoting Costa Rosetti, S.J. in "La doctrine du venerable frere Jean de S. Samson", La vie Spirituelle, 1925, p. 32, n.1.




Elias the prophet.

While it is certain that "schools of prophets" were established on Mount Carmel in the footsteps of Elias and Eliseus, it is impossible to discover how and when these schools became permanent institutions. Despite the mystery of these beginnings Carmel has always claimed Elias as its own and has seen in him one who inaugurated the eremitic and prophetic life which is its characteristic.

This is not to say that Elias introduced within the Old Testament frame of reference a special spirit, a new doctrine, a personal way. On the contrary, Elias is typical of the just men and the prophets who lived under the Old Covenant. But his disciples remembered this distinguishing note about him: He is the man whom the Spirit of Yahweh led into deep solitude and who, drawing waters from the "torrent of Carith", drank from the rivers of living water and tasted, in contemplation, pleasures that are divine. Therefore, if it is in documents that we wish to find the spirit of Carmel it is to the chapters in the books of Kings dealing with this prophet that we must go.

Here in fact rings out that fundamental note which will reecho down the centuries, not only in the rocky solitudes of Mount Carmel but throughout the whole history of the order. In Elias, Carmel sees itself as in a mirror. His eremitic and prophetic life expresses its own most intimate ideal. In studying the life of Elias, Carmel is aware of a growing thirst for contemplation. It perceives its deep kinship with this man who "stood in the presence of the living God". If it shares his weaknesses and his anguish, it also knows his faith in God and his zeal for the "Yahweh of armies" and it has tasted the same delights of a life hidden in God which the prophet also experienced. When it discovers in the light of the inspired word that Elias , "in the strength he drew from the divine food, walked forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God", it is not in the least surprised. How could the prophet not have been drawn to this spot where that tremendous event of the religious history of mankind had taken place several centuries earlier: God's revelation to Moses.

There, in the bleak wastes of Sinai, we read in the book of Exodus that Moses, silent and alone, perceived Yahweh's mysterious presence in the light of fiery flames that burned the bush without consuming it (Ex. 3 : 2). There, were revealed to him the incommunicable Name, the divine transcendence and benevolence. There, Moses understood that he must make known to those entrusted to him what he had been allowed to contemplate. "Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS, hath sent me to you". (Ex. 3 : 14).

How could the father of contemplative life not have been drawn to this mountain where God spoke to Moses "as a man is wont to speak to his friend" (Ex. 33 : 11), where man dared address this prayer to God: "show me Thy glory" (Ex. 33 :18)? How could he have failed to see that all the elements essential to contemplation were already contained in the scene on Horeb? So we may say that having found its model in Elias, the Carmelite advances with him toward the very origin of true contemplative life. Or, it might be more exact to say that having found the contemplative experience in its origin, carried by Elias to the highest degree of purity, detachment and fulfillment, the Carmelite, wishing to renew this experience, feels obliged to recreate in his soul the climate in which this life grew: the desert with its spiritual solitude and silence; and he, in his turn feels constrained to undertake this persevering march toward the mountain of God where fire burns but does not consume.

Carmelite spirituality in every century needs to breathe the air of these high places if it is to live: and it needs a form of life sufficiently recollected to permit the soul to perceive the divine presence "in the sound of a gentle breeze" (Cf. 3Kgs. 19 : 12). In this perpetual return to solitude and recollection, this nostalgic call to detachment: "I will allure her, and will lead her into the wilderness; and I will speak to her heart" (Os. 2 : 14), the Carmelite finds the very soul of his vocation.

return to top

So he takes as guides those who have advanced along the paths of divine union and have tasted the sweetness of heavenly things; and he prays with Eliseus to his father Elias to grant him a double part of his spirit (4 Kgs. 2 : 9).

Can we describe this spirit?

In spite of the mystery of its beginnings, on this point no hesitation is possible. This spirit consists essentially in a longing for union with God.

It will be objected that all spiritual men know this longing. This is true. Nevertheless at Carmel this aspiration has a quality of immediacy, an insistence on prompt realization that distinguishes the Order's religious attitude.1 Carmel makes contemplation its proper end and to attain this end it practices absolute detachment in relation to all demands, or at least to all temporal contingencies. Eminently theocentric, Carmel refers itself wholly to the living God: "As the Lord liveth the God of Israel, in whose sight I stand" (3 Kgs. 17 : 1).

From the earliest ages union with God has been its raison d'etre and its soul. No doubt it was "the anticipated dawn of the Savior's redemptive grace"2 that made this possible. No doubt, too that it has benefited by the progress and development of revelation down the centuries. Nevertheless at Carmel from the beginning, union with God has been and continues to be central.

Characterized by an awareness of the presence within man's heart of the very being of God, the spirit of Carmel also includes a sense of the sacred and a thirst for things divine. Progress in the experience of God only serves to deepen and develop this basic and truly essential element. Without it neither the wise nor the simple could enter into and intensify their relations with God.

No matter how individual is this spirit and with what difficulty it is analyzed, this spirit is to be identified with the most authentic mysticism. At Carmel nothing imitative or esoteric is to be found and Carmelite tradition is singularly sober as to the content of spiritual experiences though their presence is frequently attested. Always objective, it merely affirms the possibility and the reality of direct contact with God and points out the necessity, if this is to be attained, of recourse to a particular kind of life - the eremitic life.

It assigns no date to its first manifestations but instead states forcefully that, granted certain conditions, it is possible for man truly to live the divine life. For this it suffices for him to realize in himself the climate of the original desert, and after withdrawing into this interior solitude, "to hold himself in the presence of the living God". Then the light of truth will come to purify, enlighten and enkindle his soul.

Foundations are thus laid for a personal experience of God and the intimate relations that a creature may have with Him. Going back through the ages Carmel will never hesitate to recognize itself in the first hermit whom the Bible describes for us and to model its life on that of men vowed to the contemplation of divine things in silence and solitude.



1. Saint John of the Cross gives a startling confirmation of this fact when he recalls it in the very title of The Ascent of Carmel. He writes: "The Ascent of Mount Carmel shows how: soul can prepare to arrive promptly at divine union..."

2. Cf. Journet, Petit catechisme des origines du monde.

N-Y (III). - 8




Primacy of the contemplative spirit.

A direct and intimate experience with God is the basis of Carmelite spirituality. Therefore, before any Rule, and in order that the Rule may be lived when it is formulated, a contemplative spirit and a deep sense of God are required of those who wish to lead the life of Carmel.

Of one who understands how to stay before God, no special activity, no special practical disposition is required. While, on the contrary, this sense of God, this thirst to remain in His presence does not belong to that category of realities that a Rule or a technique can call into being. Nor can they be developed in any way ascertainable by the sense. They must exist prior to the realization of a contemplative religious life. God Himself has placed them in the soul's very center and ceaselessly maintains them by means of His grace and His Holy Spirit.

This enables us to understand how, although it is not an institution in the western meaning of the term but only a place for the election of a spiritual reality, Carmel has long been able to exist in a free, spontaneous, elementary way and to subsist through the sheer power of its "spirit".

This primacy of "spirit", necessary in every religious institute seems even more necessary in Carmel.

No exterior activity, whatever be its form, not even fidelity to the Rule, jealously guarded though this must be, can ever take the place of what ought to be the soul of Carmel, we mean the divine current that reaches the depths of man's being and impels the Carmelite to return constantly to his center.

This search for God, so essential and so secret, leads of itself to simplicity and spiritual poverty. Instinctively the soul seeking God longs to be disencumbered, to be delivered from all things spiritual and material, in order to think of God alone, to be freed from things of the flesh in order to attain to life in the spirit, and to become altogether spiritual.

An idea like this necessarily leads to a spiritual conception of religious life. In fact, nowhere as much as in Carmel must life and observances be vivified by the spirit.

That is why a religious as familiar with the origins of Carmel as John of Saint-Samson could write in De la perfection et decadence de la vie religieuse:

In fact the ideal of Carmel was always, according to the expression ot this same author in Le vrai esprit du Carmel, "to live in a state of great purity...and to enter into God with all one's strength".

return to top

It is obvious that John of Saint-Samson here refers to the Institution des premiers moines, a text highly representative of the spirit of Carmel and of its oldest and purest mystical traditions. In it we read these lines in which the author seeks to describe the life of the first hermits of Carmel.

At Carmel, purity of heart is never disassociated from delight in things divine. The illusion most to be dreaded has always been to aspire to the highest gifts while disdaining or underestimating the necessary purifications. There is another and equally dangerous snare: to try to live a life of high perfection for its own sake and not to aspire to receive the communication of divine life. Carmelite spirituality consists of a supernatural balance which is only possible where there is habitual recourse to the spirit with humility of heart. Although Carmel can see the weakness of its children wihout astonishment or pessimism, and because it counts on the abundance of divine mercy to remain undisturbed, it has no pity for the slightest shadow that soils the soul. A man who voluntarily harbors some vain attachment in his heart is not a spiritual man. But of what price is purity without spiritual fruitfulness? A detachment in which there is no love?

In fact theological primacy makes it impossible for the Carmelite soul to deviate in his pursuit of his double goal. If he aspires to love with the love of God Himeself, it is because he is strong in his hope, resolute in his faith, docile in all things to the invitations of the Spirit; it is because he depends on God alone.

Presence to God and zeal for souls.

No one will be suprised that in such a climate a connatural form of activity will spontaneously come into being, we mean prayer understood not so much as an exercise but as being present to God. This is altogether objective and interior, silent and sustained, detached and spiritual.

To prayer, as it is understood at Carmel, there are no limits; just as there are no limits to the quality of interior silence that it realizes and the links it fashions between man and his God. According to the measure of the soul's generosity and divine grace, the living God possesses and vivifies this solitude.

The exercise of prayer at Carmel is accompanied by a minimum of material conditions. Prayer involves no rigorously prescribed methods. For its development it requires the liberty and fidelity of a soul constantly visited and vivified by the spirit.

The Rule faithfully preserves this conception of life with God. The central obligation there laid down is "to meditate night and day on the Law of the Lord".

But the example of Elias, as well as an inner exigency, urges the hermits to realize within themselves and without, a spirit of silence and solitude eminently favorable to prayer and of which the desert is the most perfect expression.

The desert calls out to the spirit and the spirit calls out to the desert. Between the spirit of Carmel and the desert there is a living relation. Carmel's prayer is the desert in which the spirit dwells.

But the desert also induces thirst, and prayer slakes the soul's thirst only to create new capacities for the infinite. "They that drink me shall yet thirst" (Eccl. 24 : 29).

If it is not without meaning that the word of God was heard in a desert, it is equally significant that the possession of the Promised Land was conditioned by an exodus through that same desert. The soul, too, arrives at a metting with God, in prayer, only at the price of an exodus painful to sense and spirit. But the soul then knows the infinite value of things divine and enjoys that liberty of the children of God which is characteristic of Carmelite spirituality.

This search for God in silence and solitude, this absence of imposed forms of prayer, a colloquy that is free and truly heart-to-heart in "the place of the espousals" - this is what the desert means , this is what has characterized Carmel from the beginning.

Life of God and desert: these timeless realities are never separated in the Old Testament or in the New. The desert of the soul is the very place of God's communication.

"The land that is desolute and impassable shall be glad, and the wilderness shall rejoice, and shall flourish like the lily" (Is. 35 : 1).

The depth in which the intuitions of the Carmelite soul are rooted may make them seem obscure. They are, nevertheless, astonishingly living and active. Consciously or not, the soul unceasingly returns there, to strive to live them fully and directly.

If no one is more convinced than the Carmelite of the riches and benefits of tradition , it is also true that no one is more faithfully and lovingly attached to it, yet no one else is more fully persuaded that it is necessary to live personally and to experience in direct contact the mystery of God. Tradition may indeed explain and give a love for the divine realities tasted in prayer: it cannot confer that supreme and incommunicable knowledge which is a fruit of divine wisdom. This comes only to him who suffers God in his soul and in his life.

To remain living and active, the revelation of the divine transcendence and mercy ought to be renewed in each one of us. But as soon as the divine revelation crosses the threshold of our inner dwelling, there is a dawn and centuries vanish. The soul brought back to an absolute beginning watches the flowering of an eternal spring in his own soul. Is not "the verdent one" the meaning of Elias' name?

God himself is there and speaks to the soul. And the soul making her own the words of the prophet, murmurs: "He liveth. He before whom I am". - "As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth..."(Cf. 3 Kgs. 17 : 1; 4 Kgs. 2 : 6).

The spirit of Carmel is none other than this power and life which spring from the divine word and seek to enter the soul; none other than this divine presence which is waiting to be received and communicated in a reciprocal gift. Today, no more than in the first days, can this word wait for tomorrows in which it will be accomplished.

If the impossible were to take place and the past were suddenly obliterated and tradition no longer existed, and the call of the living God were to sound for the first time in a soul, this call would carry with it the spirit of Carmel in all its freshness, its newness, its eternal richness.

return to top

Because it is of God and is pure reference to God, this spirit is distinguished by a clarity, a simplicity and a limpidity that are absolute. It has nothing to do with techniques. It fears more than all else material and spiritual encumbrances, multiplicity of means, devotions and spiritual exercises. It is God just as He is that it seeks and desires: God, for the mind all mystery, but for the soul light and delicious knowledge.

The spirit of Carmel is a spirit of childhood, of original life, of newness, of immediate proximity to the divine outpouring. It drinks "of the torrent" without a shell; it does not kneel down but stands erect. It is born of God in all its profundity and passes into man renewing and in truth creating him. That is why this spirit is so immediate, so lacking any kind of transition, so without compromise; so bare, with the bare life of the Old Testament; that is why it is so essential. Strengthened by a power that transcends human means and traverses,without ignoring, what is relative, it discovers its goal and goes straight towards it with a totalitarian exigency of unitive transformation. In short, it advances with a thirst for the absolute, which, once having been felt, can never more be slaked.

Without the least shadow of pessimism, the least disdain for the world, the Carmelite is deeply conscious of the infinite distance separating the created from the uncreated, God from His creature. Prayer gives him an understanding, better still, permits him to acquire a kind of experience of the absolute. It is also through prayer that the Carmelite, we read in the second chapter of the Institution des premiers moines, "tastes in his heart and experiences in his soul the strength of the divine Presence and the sweetness of the glory from above".

This does not make the spirit of Carmel aloof toward what is created and toward those who live and grow in the earthy and the relative; this experience of God, on the contrary, is the origin of the most active zeal for souls which is characteristic of the action and person of the prophet Elias.

Carmel has never in fact, separated the apostolic from the contemplative life in its father Elias "who was afire with zeal for the Yahweh of armies" (3 Kgs. 19 : 10; 18) with fierce energy preserved in the people of Israel belief in the true God, and who has never ceased to serve as model to the Order that claims him as founder. In 1275 Nicholas the Frenchman, the seventh prior general, recalled this in these words in his Ignea Sagitta:

So it came about that from the beginning Carmelite prayer has had an apostolic side and overflows with missionary fervor.

Although these spiritual realities are part of the distant epochs of its pre-history, they have come down through the ages and will always be characteristic of Carmel. This inalienable treasure transmitted to us from century to century by the hermits seems to us in its brilliance and marvelous freshness like an ancient jewel discovered in all its beauty in the desert sands.




Many Centuries have to pass before we possess documents giving evidence of the presence of hermits on Mount Carmel. The first definite text goes back to 1177; it comes to us from the Greek monk John Phocas. Consequently exact information about the kind of life the solitaries led on the mountain of Elias cannot be obtained before this date.

But in 1209 the Ermitains dou Carme had been established near El Chader (which means "the school of the prophets") beside Wadi-Ain-Es-Siah (which means "the fountain of Elias"). There it seems they had settled about 1150 and had followed a number of prescriptions belonging to the great monastic tradition. Now they asked Albert Avogadro, patriach of Jerusalem, for a Rule which would permit them "to lead the form of religious life they had chosen so that they might live dependent upon Jesus Christ and serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a good conscience".1

In this way is established a spiritual continuity, between the Ermitains dou Carme and the sons of the Prophets. It also offers proof of the fact that the Rule (which was soon to be that of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel) repudiated nothing of the past. By means of this Rule the monks living on Carmel were able to live the life of Elias, their father, in a Christian climate.

The New Testament fulfills the Old. In its turn the Rule of Carmel fulfills the School of the Prophets. The spiritualityof Carmel has no difficulty in developing the basic elements drawn from its biblical origins within an evangelic life of perfection. Henceforth it is in the light of Jesus Christ and in dependence on Him, characteristics of the Rule from its very first lines, that its spirituality must be considered.

In fact it is to Christ that the Carmelite turns, offering Him prayer and love. And it is followng Him that the Carmelite intends to walk "with a pure heart and a good conscience".2

Elias and those who followed him, had been in search of all that would lead them to God and favor their meeting with Him: silence, solitude, desert, sense of the divine absolute, thirst for a direct and ardent contact with God in the heart of prayer. All these are for the Carmelite a path leading to Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.

The Spirituality of the Rule.

Codifying a form of life spontaneously adopted by the hermits and informing us at the same time of the spiritual principles which guided them, a knowledge of this Rule is particularly precious. It enables us not only to discover the spirit of Carmel; it also gives new insights about those whom it binds. John of Saint-Samson was later to say: "Our primitive Rule is extremely basic and concise; it is more inwardly in regard to the spirit than outwardly in regard to expression".3

It is always important to know the spirit in which the special ends of an order are to be sought, as well as the external works for which it was founded. Now the spirit is usually only one of the constituent elements of the order, one characteristic among many others. But, when an order has only a spiritual work, and no other end than to promote and sustain spiritual life, then the spirit is everything. The Rule of Carmel makes this clear in its preamble:

Is it possible to discover the spirit of an interior Rule if one does not possess an interior spirit? From the first, Carmel has insisted on this thirst for solitude and silence, this attraction for the desert as the best place for the divine meeting and for contemplation. The Rule takes this setting on the spiritual plane and makes it interior. The cell becomes the desert where the soul meets its God. Prayer becomes its conversation, its occupation "from morning to night", its "interior life". "Let each remain in his cell, or near it, meditating day and night on the Law of the Lord and watching in prayer."5

Can the climate of this interior life, of this prayer, be discovered in the Rule? And can the Rule help us to describe the spirituality of Carmel?

return to top

So sober is the text and so brief that the answer would a first seem to be, no. But considered from within, the text becomes much more revealing.

First of all, this sobriety itself appears eminently characteristic of the spirit which imposed it. It is an immediate introduction to a spirituality freed from the letter and utterly detached. The soul realizes that it must sell all to acquire the hidden treasure; that the kingdom of God alone matters: all else will be given to it over and above.

The sobriety is accompanied by a liberation from every spirit of individualism. Just as "the brother hermits who live on Mount Carmel" had recourse to the Church in the person of the patriach of Jerusalem to obtain a Rule (and it will be remembered that when the greater reformer was on her death bed she gloried only in the fact that she was "a daughter of the Church"), so we see even now that the Rule requires that the Divine Office be recited according to the freely embraced "regulations laid down by the Sovereign Pontiffs and the customs approved by the Church".

What would men, fiercely devoted to spiritual liberty and accustomed to the breeze that comes from the desert or the sea, have to do with special forms and complicated methods? Instinctively they cling to what is most simple and ordinary because that is what makes it possible for them to give themselves in peace to "the one thing necessary".

Or course the principle of authority is affirmed, obedience is exacted, as well as silence, work, and the renunciation of all property. But this is to be done in the spirit to which the Gospel has accustomed us. All these are simple means to a single and uniquely necessary end: union with God.

Therefore the Rule is extremely simple and supple, not only because everything in it is ordered and directed to a single end but also because it does not hesitate to make use of all means, according to the gentle and flexible way of the spirit. We read in the Rule: "You may... inasmuch as the Prior shall deem it fitting... when that can be done conveniently... unless he be lawfully occupied in some other way... taking into consideration the age and the needs of each one... when that may be done without trouble... unless obliged by sickness or the weakness of the body or by some other just cause to break the fast, because necessity knows no law...".

Nothing cut and dried, nothing narrowly literal but a a simple and truly spiritual means of enabling souls spontaneously to advance in the path of the absolute. This is the spirit of the Gospel: "If thou wilt...".

The Rule is not unaware that a life of union with God rests on the foundation and generous practice of renunciation. But it asks for a renunciation which "without stifling the soul will enable it to be aware of its poverty so that at every instant it will turn toward God".6 Of course, no progress is possible without effort and so there is a virile note in every part of the Rule. With Job it repeats: "Man's life on earth is a temptation" and "Those who live piously on earth will suffer persecution". "Therefore, set about with all zeal to clothe yourself with the armour of God". How could we fail to be reminded, when we see that the Rule lists all the armour recommended by Saint Paul, that it was made for "Crusaders", eager to place themselves at the service of their "Lord" Jesus Christ, Crusaders who were faithful to their ancestors: those great solitaries whose heroic struggles with the flesh and the devil tradition has recorded.

But the ascetic side of the Rule is tempered. Effort, renunciation, work, silence appear above all as means of stripping the soul of self, of freeing it so that unhampered it may advance more surely along the paths of divine union.

All that the Rule offers along this line comes straight from the Gospel, whose fragrance it retains. And all this is perfectly integrated with what it has received from its origins. This completes the Rule and adds depth, laying down a path through the desert where the soul can advance without getting lost. "If anyone wishes to be My disciple, let him renounce himself and follow Me".

At all times Carmel longed for God. The Rule points out the way. The way does not consist in a series of didactic lessons, or formulas, or techniques but the study of the living way which is Christ Jesus.

Dependence on Jesus Christ

From Christ, the Carmelite, henceforth, is not to look away; in dependence on Him the Carmelite intends to live. Carmel was searching for God and union with God. Then came the Son of God, God Himself. Turning towards Him, the Carmelite did no more than continue along the path that had always been his. In virtue of an essential and profound continuity Carmel, which is biblical and remains biblical, becomes evangelical.

In fact, born under the Old Testament, formed by the divine Word, Carmel awaits its fulfillment. With Elias and the prophets it watches for "Him who is to come"; it can look at nothing else. It finds that, like the prophets, its natural study is to desire the coming of the Savior, to hasten His arrival.

Filled with the preparation which abounds in the Sacred Books, Carmel turns toward Christ with the certitude of finding in Him all it seeks.

It seeks God as an object of knowledge and love; where then could it better find and embrace Him than in His Son who was made flesh and given to us? Carmel awaits the fulfillment of the divine Word. Now Saint John of the Cross tells us that "God has spoken but one Word and that is His Son".

Carmel has received as a legacy the awareness of the greatness of God, of the nothingness of the creature, and of its divine vocation. How then could it not place all its hope in a Mediator and Savior, all its hope in Christ suffering and dying for us through love?

Nevertheless, considered relatively, Christ's role in the Rule is lightly stressed. Here we are in the presence of one of Carmel's mysteries. It is not easy to grasp: a hidden, half formulated spiritual reality which is at the same time truly central and profoundly operative.

Beyond any doubt there are other schools of spirituality in which Christ's role is more prominent. He is the model, the exemplar, and His life must be imitated. The spirituality of a contemplative order could never be like that. If it is a question of always looking at Christ, it is also and even more a question of uniting one's self to Him and living by Him. Christ who is the way toward the Father, the author and finisher of our faith, becomes by this fact, the milieu in which contemplation develops, the path it uses. So it would seem the Carmel's Rule is on Christ and that Carmelite prayer develops in the depths of the life Christ communicates to the soul.

No doubt Carmel is not unmindful of the need of some kind of a method but it seems that those who had asked for the Rule had already made some progress in spiritual life. This is because they had been leading for a long time a solitary, interior and mortified life, and they possessed "a pure heart and a good conscience". Therefore the Rule is more interested in highlighting what must be characteristic of contemplative life: perpetual prayer to which the hermits must dedicate themselves, "these interminable vigils of prayer must make [religious] the Lord's intimate friends, and love becomes a state of soul".7

return to top

The Rule does not define the nature of contemplation toward which it is oriented but it is easy to discover it in L'institution des premiers moines. This document was long held in the same reverence as the primitive Rule and allows us to understand that this perpetual prayer must make it possible for the Carmelite "in some way to taste in his heart and to experience in his soul the strength of the divine presence and the sweetness of heavenly glory: in other words to drink from the torrent of divine pleasure".

Clearly this is a reference to a mystical experience of God. This is, in fact, the end toward which the Order is oriented. Of course not all reach the goal. But Christ is for all, at least, the path that leads to the goal. And all ought to live "in dependence of Jesus Christ", all ought "to remain in their cells ... meditating day and night on the law of the Lord and watching in prayer".

Brothers of our Lady:

Directed to Christ and oriented to Him, Carmel is also directed to Mary and oriented to her. "Completely Marian", Totus marianus est, Carmelite authors like to repeat throughout the centuries, and of all their titles none is dearer to the sons of Elias than that of Brothers of our Lady.

It is historically certain that the first hermits who retired to Mount Carmel in 1150 made their center a chapel consecrated to our Lady and from the time of Saint Brocard, the first Prior General, the Carmelites were called Brothers of our Lady of Mount Carmel. So devotion to our Lady is seen to be one of their distinctive signs. "Despite its historical inexactitudes L'Institution des premiers moines shows that the Order is dominated by the two great figures which represent, on different levels, its ideal: Elias and our Lady".8

No need to follow the example of medieval Carmelite authors, in particular Bostius, and multiply the subtle and often forced resemblances between Elias and our Lady. The origin of these resemblances is to be found in a mystical interpretation of the scene in the book of Kings where on the heights of Carmel, at the prophet's prayer, a little cloud, about as big as the palm of a man's hand, rises out of the sea, melts into rain and fructifies the parched land: this is the image of the Virgin who was to give the Savior to mankind (3 Kgs. 18 : 44).

Nor is it necessary to do what Baconthorp did about 1330 and seek to establish close parallels between the life led by the Carmelite and the life of our Lady. "We have chosen a Rule", he said, "in which many points are similar to the life led by the Blessed Virgin Mary".

If this be so, why does this Rule never once mention our Lady's name? Nor is the name of Elias found in its pages (in fact no reference is made to the fountain of Elias in the primitive texts). Nevertheless it is certain, as the Order's many authors and documents repeat, Carmel belongs to Elias and to our Lady. "Marianus et Elianus Ordo Carmeli", is the way it is expressed in the Mirror of the Carmelites, or the History of the Order of Elias of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.

At Carmel what is true of our Lady is also true of our Lord. Contemplative life advances by assimilation and union, much more than images, examples and models. Preserving all due proportion, what we have said of Christ we repeat about Mary. If the Carmelite does not strive to imitate Mary's life, he does find himself quite naturally in deep harmony with her soul, and it is in this sense that he may be said to lead a "Maryform" life.

Our Lady is for him not only the Mother of Christ and his own mother. She also represents and expresses the soul's essential attitude before God. Mary not only sums up the whole Old Testament, she represents all mankind. She is its soul athirst for God, longing for Him, hoping for Him. All her strength and all her faculties are turned toward Him so that she may receive Him and fully live by Him. Our Lady is also the place of the divine response, of the divine coming. In her, mankind becomes conscious of God's desire and His fully efficacious will to communicate Himself to man. Mary is the place of this meeting; better still, she is the temple in which is consummated God's espousals with man, the hidden sanctuary in which the Spouse is united with the bride, the desert which flowers at the breath of God.

Our Lady is pure reference to God and to the life of God in the sense in which Eliseus said to Elias: "As the Lord liveth and as thy soul liveth". From the moment of her immaculate conception Mary's soul had no other life than God, no other end than to know Him and to love Him purely and without any admixture and to allow Him to accomplish in her His designs of love. Carmel finds in Mary the fullness of the spirit which is its own: her beauty is without spot, her purity is absolute. As Isaias says: "The beauty of Carmel will be given you" (35 :2). Reciprocally, Mary's soul is connected with Carmel. She is a daughter of David according to the flesh, the daughter of the prophets and the daughter of Elias according to the spirit.

In biblical times souls sought to make the perfect response that Mary was to give to the Word of God which "she pondered in her heart" (Luke 2 :19) and on which she "meditated day and night". They longed for the ardent zeal with which she was aflame under the action of the Spirit of God. But her virginal maternity made this predestined daughter of Carmel a queen and raised her to a place of sovereignty among her brethren. For this reason, Carmel will live Mary and will breathe Mary with a movement as natural and as spontaneous as it is willed and conscious.

To advance along this path the Carmelite has but to intensify his marian attitude of virginal simplicity and pure reference to God. At Carmel, God is the object but the soul will become more and more Mary.

So the reason why the Rule does not mention our Lady is clear. Carmel seeks to gaze upon God and love Him with mind and heart. What Mary represents is the soul itself. As the soul is united to Christ, so Carmel is hidden in Mary. Mary is, beyond any doubt, for Carmel the infinitely admirable and lovable Mother, the all-merciful Mother, but deeper than this, she is the one who was chosen and formed by God to be the Mother of the Savior; she is the purest, highest and most perfect expression of the soul that is open to the divine action and lives in Mary's light and in Mary's love. She is, par excellence, the contemplative soul.

This mystic and filial intuition is to be confirmed in the centuries that were to come. In a critical hour, our Lady herself answered the trusting, insistent prayer of Saint Simon Stock. She appeared to him, holding in her hand the scapular of the Order, and said: "This is the privilege that I give you and all Carmel's children. Whoever dies clothed with this habit will be saved".9 In this way she extended, in visible fashion, her special protection over the Order which has always called itself her own.

Mary was to intervene in the lives of Carmel's saints. Saint Albert of Sicily, Saint Andrew Corsini, Saint Peter Thomas, Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, and in our own days Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus were favored with our Lady's visible protection. It seems as if at Carmel there can be no great servant of God who has not been sustained and guided by Mary.

return to top

Similarly, Carmel's authors multipy works which tighten the already close bonds between Carmel and our Lady. The Order was founded for the veneration of the Blessed Virgin. The Rule was formulated in connection with her life and virtues.9 In one sense, the objectivity and value of these connections matter little. It is certain that between the time of the Rule and the Reform, "the idea of our Lady taken as model greatly gained in precision... and it become clear that Carmel was established for her honor". Was it not normal and at the same time the manifestation of an altogether filial spirit for Carmel to give the Blessed Virgin Mary honor that expressed something of her own intimate fervor.

Apostolic Contemplation.

The Rule that keeps Carmelite spirituality along interior and contemplative lines and gives it its evangelical and marian character equally confirms the apostolic orientation that it received from the patriarch Elias himself. If he pronounced the sentence on which the contemplative spirit is based: "He lives before whom I am"; he also proclaimed: "I am consumed with zeal for the Lord of hosts".

Within limits suitable to the Order, the Rule faithfully maintains this apostolic note in the spirituality of Carmel. The only reason for which the Carmelite is allowed to interrupt "his meditation of the Law of the Lord'. and leave for a time the silence and recollected solitude of his cell, is the salvation of souls. This orientation is clearly marked in the Rule and explains why Carmel can be classified among the mendicant orders which by principle are devoted to the care of souls. It is also classified among the orders that are called mixed because they are directed to both contemplation and action.

Therefore whatever be the dangers of activism and the attraction of the apostolate, the spirituality of the apostolate will never be that of an exclusively contemplative Order. When Sovereign Pontiffs ask Carmelites to give missions, to preach, to undertake good works, the invitation will never be refused on the ground that the Carmelite's vocation is purely contemplative.

On the other hand, how many are the appeals made to the Order by its great spiritual leaders, how many are the efforts made by its superiors to prevent Carmel from becoming gradually transformed into an active Order. Contemplation is the heart of Carmel, its reason, its distinguishing mark, its protection. If there must be some interruption "even thougth it be necessary and for a short space of time", as soon as his work is done the Carmelite must quickly return to the primary and direct object of his vocation.

In the Arrow of Fire, Ignea sagitta, Nicholas the Frenchman recalls with vigor and sorrow the Order's contemplative traditions which he believed to be endangered. Adding example to words, he withdrew to a hermitage. In his turn, Raoul the German who succeeded him, did exactly the same thing. The general chapter of Montpellier (1287) took various measures to maintain in the Order "the citadel of contemplation". Retreat and solitude were recommended in every constitution. That is why deserts will later appear, for without them Carmel lacks one of its essential elements. The neighbor's needs may well draw the Carmelite to the apostolate; something still stronger must constantly draw him back to his solitude; because in the last analysis it is there, in his heart to heart union with God that he will produce the true fruits of the apostolate, because the fruitfulness of his life is measured by the purity of his love for God.

This better part, which in Carmel is contemplation, was to be constantly threatened until Saint Teresa's reform. The Order was introduced into the west in the thirteenth century. It became more and more involved in the intellectual and social life of its age and like most religious orders it was subjected to influences which brought about its decline. In the case of Carmel, this decline came from the gradual abandonment of contemplative life, the giving up of what John South calls "continual, uninterrupted perservering prayer", or "that union with God which is not only habitual but actual" which Father Rubeo of Ravenna recommended on the eve of the Teresian reform.

Had Carmel remained truly faithful to this central precept of prayer, recollection and a life of union with God and at the same time did not give up its apostolate, no Teresian reform might have been necessary. Perhaps there is no better way than this of showing how essential to Carmelite spirituality is this priority of contemplation over action which alone makes possible the preservation intact of its true ideal. For its restoration Saint Teresa "will live alone with the Alone" and will establish her daughters in strict cloister; and Saint John of the Cross, the great doctor of life hidden with God, will sacrifice his life. Nothing less than the genius, the efforts, the sufferings of these two great saints were needed so that the pure spirit of its origins could flourish once again in the Order of the blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.


1 Rule of Mount Carmel.

2 Rule of Mount Carmel.

3 True spirit of Carmel, 1658.

4 Francois De Sainte-Marie, La Regle du Carmel et son esprit, Edition du Seuil, 1949, p. 33.

5 Rule of Mount Carmel.

6 Francois De Sainte-Marie, ibid., p. 88.

7 Premieres Constitutions d'Italie.

8 Francois De Sainte-Marie, ibid., p. 112.

9 Viridarium in Speculum Carm., 599.

10 John Baconthorp.

11 Elisee De La Nativite, O.C.D.; "La vie mariale au Carmel", Maria, II, p. 839, Beauchesne.

return to top