17 September 2021

CARMEL AND LAY SPIRITUALITY: PART 2
by Father Francis Kemsley, O.Carm

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 Church has frequently been called “a pilgrim people”. This is a reminder of the journey of forty years during which the chosen people set forth from Egypt to the promised land, from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light.  Our baptism is the beginning and not the end of our journey.  We are no longer individuals on a journey but part of a community of faith.  At our baptism our Godparents on our behalf received a new candle freshly lit from the Paschal Candle with the words “Receive the Light of Faith”.  The light of Christ leads us on our spiritual journey.

There is much in Carmelite literature that speaks to us of pilgrimage and this can be food for our journey.  Elijah walked for forty days to Horeb the mountain of the Lord.  There he encountered God not in the traditional ways of wind, earthquake and fire but with the sound of silence.  After that Elijah set out refreshed and strengthened on a new commission from God  (1Kings 19:9-18).

Saint Teresa of Avila used the image of the Castle.  She described a journey to the centre, passing from seven different dwellings in which we are stripped of our imperfections that separate us from God.  When the pilgrim arrives in the seventh and final room they are in the centre of the Castle and there they meet the King.  Prayer is the entrance to the Castle.  By reflecting upon our brokenness, through our self-knowledge that comes from our prayer, we attempt to place God, who has called us, at the centre of our lives.

Her contemporary Saint John of the Cross wrote in the Spiritual Canticle of the lover searching for the beloved.  We must overcome our compulsions and our desires in our looking for happiness and peace.  The union of the beloved with the lover is compared to that of marriage.  When we find God we are released from our enslavement and given true freedom and happiness.  John uses the image of marriage, our union with God bit our spiritual relationship also needs to be developed and sustained.  John is often seen to be distant and remote but he uses poetry to describe the spiritual relationship that still speaks to us today.  John described travelling through the desert and encountering God in the oasis.  He wrote that the beloved leaves the oasis to meet us and travels with us.  Therese also used this image.  

Above all we remember John for his description of the Dark Night.  There may be times of darkness when we feel completely abandoned by everyone.  This may be due to unemployment, unexpected illness or the sudden death of a loved one.  However, the dark night, the little way and desert remind us that, no matter how bad things feel, we are not alone in our pain and suffering, as God comes to support and comfort us.

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux is famous for her ‘little way’. This simple way has helped thousands of people on their spiritual journey.  She saw herself as a little one in the sight of God whose love was unconditional.  Carmel means “the garden of the Lord” and Therese saw her prayer like a flower in the oasis in the desert.  Our faith reminds us that God never deserts us, as he loves us like a child.

John, Teresa, and Thérèse all wrote about spiritual pilgrimage perhaps because they came from a spiritual tradition that placed the image of a journey at the heart of its story, as the early Carmelites had to leave their original home to go into the unknown.  We do not know what those early Carmelites felt when they sailed from Haifa and looked upon Mount Carmel for the last time.  However, in their prayer and contemplation they returned to Carmel.  As they were asked in their Rule to place their chapel in the centre of their cells, so they travelled to the centre to meet and encounter God.

Earlier I asked what does it mean to receive the character of Christ.  How do we become Priests, Prophets and Kings today?  We are asked to take ownership of our faith and be responsible Christians. When we welcome Jesus Christ into our lives we receive all his baggage that includes the Gospel of Peace, Love and Justice.

I feel the story of the Prophet Elijah is still a source of inspiration for us today.  He was a great prophet but also he had his times of darkness when he told God that he had had enough (1 Kings 19:3-8).  His faith in God led him to challenge the priests of Baal on Carmel (1 Kings 18:17-40) and Ahab over the murder of Naboth in order to gain his vineyard (1Kings 21: 1-24) Elijah was compassionate to the poor and the lowly as he comforted the widow of Zarephath (1Kings 17:7-24).  If Elijah lived today would he be a paid up member of Pax Christi?  Would he demonstrate at Government Offices about unjust political policies?  Would he challenge religious intolerance?  Would he visit the sick, those in prison and those on the margins of society?  I believe he would.  Elijah is for us today a figure of prayer but also of action.  He can be a figure of inspiration for us today as we reflect upon what it means today to be a Priest, Prophet and King.


The Prophet Elijah - Shrine of Saint Jude

When we think of baptism we often remember the importance of water.  Saint Teresa often reflected upon the image of water.  She wrote about troughs and aqueducts.  For her, water expressed the awareness of the presence of God in the Spirit.  She was fascinated by the story of Samaritan woman at the Well of Jacob (John 4: 1-42).  Jesus offered the woman at the well ‘Living Water’ which was not ordinary water that would merely quench her thirst for a short period but rather Eternal Life, a permanent relationship with God, that would last forever.  Jesus led the woman gradually to recognise Him as the Messiah, so he leads us step-by-step.  The Samaritan woman became the most unlikely of disciples.  Once she received Jesus into her heart she wanted to share that gift with everyone she met.  The woman at the well became an instrument of God; once she let the ‘Living Water’ into her life there was no stopping it.

Since the time of the first Carmelite hermits on Carmel there has been a special devotion to Mary.  The Chapel built in the centre of the cells was dedicated to Her.  Mary is important today not simply because she was the Mother of Jesus but also because she was His first disciple.  She is the Woman of Faith in John’s Gospel.  For us today she is a figure who pondered and reflected upon what God was asking of her.  Mary reminds us of the need of finding God and reflecting upon what he is asking of us today.


Mount Carmel - Israel

Saint Thérèse said that for her Mary was more Mother than Queen.  Therese reflected upon her relationship with her mother who died when Therese was young.  Since the Reformation Mary has been venerated as the Queen of Carmel.  Therese returned to an earlier understanding of Mary as the Mother of Carmel.  Since the Middle Ages Mary has also been called our Sister.  An early title of the Order was Brothers of the Blessed Virgin of Mt. Carmel.   She shares our humanity and leads as along our pilgrim path like an older sister.  Where she has travelled we hope to go.

At our baptism we received a white garment.  This is a reminder of our new life in Jesus in the light of his Resurrection.  As Elijah went up to the skies in his chariot of fire his cloak fell upon his successor Elisha.  The wearing of the scapular has been a common devotion. This year the Carmelite Family are marking the seven hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the traditional date of the giving of the Scapular by Mary to Saint Simon Stock.  We do not know much about this early Carmelite.  He is thought to have been one of the early Prior Generals of the Order, who had inspired the Order during the period of change from being hermits from Mt.Carmel to being mendicant friars dwelling in Europe.  The scapular is now a popular devotion that has helped many people.  Their prayer is to follow Mary as She followed Our Lord.  Father Malachy Lynch, the first Prior of the restored Shrine at Aylesford in Kent, preached the simple message about the scapular.  He suggested that every morning we pray “Use me today”.

Our baptism may have taken place a long time ago but its consequences remain with us for the rest of our lives. We begin our spiritual journey at our baptism.  Christ enters our lives and supports and sustains us.  The first Carmelites were fully aware of this.  They would remember the end of their Rule that read “Our Lord, at his second coming, will reward anyone who does more than he is obliged to do.”  Through our baptism we share the mission of the Church to bring Jesus to the waiting world.  Carmel reminds us that we are all pilgrims and we are following a well-trodden and old way. We are not alone on that journey.


The Carmelite Saints Chapel at Aylesford Priory in Kent
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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Credit of the pilgrim:by-studio, Istockphoto.com