Carmelite Spirituality

The core of Carmelite spirituality is a journey of the heart. Father James McCaffrey, OCD, from the Carmelite Priory in Oxford, writes in his book The Carmelite Charism that Carmelite spirituality is “like the exodus experience of God’s people and their meeting with ‘the Lord’, in the wilderness”. And then he adds that “The Carmelite is called to search in every dark and hidden crevice of the human heart for those lurking demons of Israel’s desert experience”. In the Carmelite tradition the desert experience has often taken place in the mountains, which is deeply rooted in the Bible. It often says that the mountain is a place of prayer, the place of our encounter with God. Moses, the leader of the chosen people, met God on Mount Horeb where God revealed to him His name: “I am He who is”. The great prophet Elijah gave us the example of how to fight and challenge our false gods when he challenged the prophets of the false gods on Mount Carmel. When we carefully read the Gospels, we can discover that some of the greatest events in Jesus’ life also took place in the mountains. He also used to go up there to pray.

Searching for God, even and especially, in the darkness is the goal of Carmelite spirituality. In his defeating of the false gods on Mount Carmel, Elijah is a symbol of that search. Jesus also points to this goal in his life and way of prayer. This search constitutes the Carmelite understanding of holiness to which all disciples of Christ are called.

There are many attractive thoughts and ideas concerning the quest for holiness. Also, Carmelites have their own unique understanding of holiness that profoundly shapes their spirituality. We believe that the sphere of God is the sphere of holiness and everything that is brought into this sphere is purified in God’s healing love. Carmelites stress that if a doctrine of the holy is not interpreted in the sphere of the divine, it may narrow the meaning of holiness into something of a purely ascetical, emotional or devotional character. Thus, the concept of holiness should exceed this character and needs to be taken in its original biblical meaning. In Scripture, God, the Divine Being, understood as the Holy One, is the principal source of holiness for every person, place and thing. This is, in fact, a pure gift of perfect love, which is given by the Holy Spirit. In the divine holiness, there is no place for being afraid of God, as “in love there can be no fear” (1 Jn 4:18).

Carmelite spirituality emphasises the fact that, according to the New Testament, Jesus, the Son of the Holy One, has become God’s revelatory figure among all people. He came on earth to reveal himself as vere homo et vere Deus – truly man and truly God – and to give his earthly life for our salvation. Before his death, he prayed for those who had believed in him, and asked God to give them eternal life. He asked God that his followers might be one with him, just as he is one with the Father. In other words, he asked God that his disciples might have a share in his divine holiness. The Gospels proclaim that Jesus, conceived of the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:18.20, Lk 1:35), “will be holy” (Lk 1:35). This, along with many other events from Jesus’ life, shows clearly that his unity with the Father reveals the attribute of his divine holiness. And to this holiness, understood as union with God, all disciples of Christ are called. This teaching is present among all Carmelite saints and spiritual masters. Among them are Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (these three are proclaimed Doctors of the Church), Saint Raphael Kalinowski, Saint Edith Stein (co-patroness of Europe) and many others.

Carmelites teach that God makes us, the disciples of Christ, holy. In Saint John’s Gospel we read that it was Christ who asked the Father to sanctify his disciples with God’s own holiness. It was a free gift of the divine Being, God’s pure love for those who are his own. The same gift and the same promise are given to the future community, which means that it is given to all of us who believe in Christ and follow him.

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