10 September 2021

CARMEL AND LAY SPIRITUALITY: PART 1
by Father Francis Kemsley, O.Carm

Every Easter we hear of the Gospel account of the discovery of the empty tomb of Jesus, we renew our baptism promises and witness the baptism of new members and the reception into full-communion of others.  This is the high point of the liturgical year.   In recent years there has been a lot of debate about lay spirituality that places much emphasis upon our baptism.  What does it mean today to receive the character of Christ: Priest, Prophet and King?  Can the image of entering the tomb of Christ have significance and be inspirational for the new millennium?  I believe that all the religious orders through reflection and sharing of their charism have a contribution to make to the development of lay spirituality.

The Carmelite Order has its origins on Mt. Carmel, Israel in the early thirteenth century.  We do not know the name of the founder of the first community on Mt. Carmel that gathered around the spring of Elijah there.  Most of the community were lay men who had been crusaders or pilgrims.  They received a ‘formula for living’ from the local bishop, Albert of Jerusalem.  The Rule begins with Christ and ends with Christ.  The centre of the Rule is the command to celebrate daily Eucharist.  There is an emphasis upon reflecting and living the Word of God.  In our Rule we are encouraged to listen, read, reflect and pray the scriptures.   We are asked to pray in our cells.  This is a reminder of the need of inner-solitude, allowing God to speak to us in the silence of our hearts.

The Rule was inspired by the account of the first Christian community in Jerusalem described in the Acts of the Apostles (2:42).  They gathered as a community celebrating the Eucharist united in prayer and sustained by the teaching of Christ.   

At our baptism we believe that we go into the tomb with Christ and our old nature dies and we rise with Jesus.  The Liturgy of the early Carmelites may help us today as they took their liturgical ceremonies from the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre.  This holy place was important for them not because it was the site of the burial of Jesus but because it was the place of the Resurrection.  There was a procession every Saturday night in honour of the Risen Christ and a unique celebration in honour of the Solemn Commemoration of the Resurrection on the last Sunday of the liturgical year.  This always took place in November when the Church traditionally remembered the dead.  Therefore, the medieval Carmelites concluded their month of prayer for the dead with a solemn celebration of the Resurrection.  When the Carmelites travelled to Europe in the 1230s and 1240s they found the spirituality there was based on the suffering Jesus upon the cross, which was influenced by Saint Francis and Saint Bernard.  The Carmelites changed their original striped cloak to a white one, which symbolised the Resurrection.

In chapter ten of our Rule we read that the Carmelite community are “to gather each morning to hear Mass”.  This is an echo of the resurrection account in John’s Gospel: “On the first day of the week Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark” (John 21:1).  Not surprisingly Mary of Magdala was an important figure as the first witness of the Resurrection and is celebrated in the medieval Carmelite calendar.


Gothic fresco of Mary Magdalene with an ointment jar, Tingsted church, Denmark

At a religious profession ceremony it is common for the paschal candle to be burning in the sanctuary.  This is a reminder that our commitment to the religious life is a deepening of the baptism promise.  I believe it was their baptism that gave a purpose to the early Carmelites who lived on Mt. Carmel.  Their Rule reminded them that they were living “a life of allegiance to Jesus”.  When they had to leave Israel because of the political situation and travelled to Europe they were going into the unknown.  Their hearts never really left Carmel as all our great figures returned in their prayer to the holy mountain where like Elijah they encountered God.

What would become of their way of life now that they were no longer living around the Spring of Elijah?  With papal approval there were changes made to their Rule so that they could become mendicant friars.  As they followed in the footsteps of Jesus they were now bringing Christ to the world.


The Carmelite Saints Chapel at Aylesford Priory in Kent

Next week, I will discuss more about the traditions that the medieval friars kept and others that they dropped. 

Let us pray....

Holy men and women of Carmel,
you found in the Carmelite Family a school of prayer,
a community ready to serve others,
and sure companions for your pilgrimage through life.
From your place at the summit of Mount Carmel,
Jesus Christ, help us to walk steadily in his footsteps,
that our prayers and good works may further the cause of his Church. Amen

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Gothic fresco of Mary Magdalene with an ointment jar, Tingsted church, Denmark - April 11, 2017
Credit:stigalenas (Istockphoto.com)