What Carmelite Life Means to Me
I have been in the secular order of Teresian Carmelites for about four years. I wanted to find a way to get closer to God. An opportunity arose for a guided spiritual retreat which I attended and what I learned there made me feel that this was the way to my goal. For me the Carmelite way has enabled me to practice living my life day to day in His Presence which gives me great peace and joy. It is an added bonus to be able to meet with like minded people once a month to discuss the writings of the Carmelite saints. It is the most loving environment, brothers and sisters dwelling in harmony (even when we have different ideas).
Why am I a Secular Carmelite? My first answer could sound almost profane – God knows! But I mean this seriously, it’s God’s choice, ultimately, not mine. If he “knew me before I was born” (Isaiah 43:1) then becoming an OCDS is becoming what he wants me to be. That should be that but, of course, it isn’t. As human beings we’re rarely inclined to do what’s best for us or to hear what God is saying to us through the way our lives go – yet he has his ways of getting through to us, so I thought I’d try to identify some of his hints & nudges along my way to becoming a Secular Carmelite.
My parents were lapsed Catholics, very opposed to the Church but because I was a very anxious child & facing my third infant school when the family moved after my father’s serious illness, I ended-up in a Catholic school but unbaptised. I can’t recall a time from then on when it didn’t seem obvious that, if God existed, then nothing else could possibly be more important. Then I was blessed with a parish priest who asked me, and not my parents, if I wanted baptism. My first big lesson that faith involves choice.
Two powerful memories emerge from this time. First is of a class teacher telling us that if God forgot us even for a second we would cease to exist. The second is how much I loved the deep silence that was central to our celebration of the 40 Hours of perpetual exposition.
The family moved again when I was nine and my formal Catholic education ended. It was again up to me to keep going. As a teenager I was fortunate to join a choir run by nuns and from that time a third memory emerges – the impact made by Clifford Howells book on the Mass – The Work of Our Redemption. I remember the excitement & exhilaration I felt at this deeper understanding of the meaning of the Mass & what this meant for our lives.
As an older teenager the anxiety & unhappiness of my early childhood re-emerged with a vengeance so that the emotional & mental cracks became gaping wounds and for some time I lost all sense of who I was. But recovery was also a deeper level of conversion and these early positive convictions & impressions re-emerged. Looking back I see how all of this spoke of my basic “shape” as that of a Carmelite and of a calling to acknowledge God’s absolute claim on my life.
I want to take the second point first. My awareness as I recovered of my utter dependence for my existence on God and of the complete gratuity of his love and salvation was founded upon the early experiences I’ve been talking about. I increasingly saw my life as a gift that is meant to be returned in love & thanksgiving. Taking promises as a Secular Carmelite to live in the spirit of the Evangelical Counsels & the Beatitudes is for me an external expression of an inward reality, an avowal that my basic identity is as a gift. This roots me in the Mass, where I give myself in order to receive the gift – “May he make us an eternal offering to you” we say in the Eucharistic Prayer.
So, to look at the first point, why Carmel? This takes me back again to those early intuitions & experiences. Carmel is based on this conviction if God exists, then nothing else could possibly be more important. We look for our origins to the prophet Elijah in his proclamation, “The Lord lives, before whom I stand.” Our first purpose is to declare by our lives that God is, that he loves and that we are made to be in intimate relationship with him.
Elijah also speaks to us of that dependence upon God that brings us to acknowledge the cracks, the incapacity, the failures in our lives as ways in which he opens us up to himself. Remember Elijah sitting beneath his furze bush, ready to give up and feeling he may as well be dead. (1 Kings 19:1 - 8)
And Elijah speaks of the silence & stillness of contemplation, of that listening to the “still, small voice” that is at the heart of Carmelite prayer.
But Elijah does not meet Christ until the transfiguration on Tabor. The teachings of the Carmelite saints all develop these insights from Elijah in the light of Christ and the Incarnation, so that all is seen from the perspective of Easter and directs us back to the Eucharist as the source & summit of our lives.
All Christian spiritualities lead us to the Father, through Christ & in the Holy Spirit; each has its own “flavour” & its own particular emphases; when one “speaks” to us it’s because it is calling-out in us the shape God has made us to become. In following it we find our way to become like Christ.
Why am I a Carmelite?
Contemplative life is of great importance in the Church; it cannot be confined to convents and monasteries. We also need to be able to live this way of life in the world – as a light to others however small. And invite others to join us…
The Carmelite Secular Order gives us this opportunity and a small local community who will help support us as we journey together; with whom we share common values and ideals; who share our commitment to prioritise prayer, both liturgical and personal; who will pick us up when we fail and encourage us when we are perplexed; who will provide a “family life”. Seeking to grow and mature in prayer and holiness can be frightening and confusing at times.
The Secular Order gives structure and discipline to my daily prayer – which is invaluable. Morning and Evening Prayer, silent prayer, the writings of the saints, the sacraments – feed and energizes me, furnish my mind, keep me going on the journey, free me from my own self will to become who God created me to be. I have to trust that God will work on me, fashion me to become the person he created me to be. And I have to listen to Him.
I need prayer and silence every day. There is a great tension living in the world but not of it; it is so easy to be swamped by cultural messages.
My vocation is to marriage as a wife and mother. Finding the time can be hard and often interrupted when my family needs me. God has given them to me to be my first priority.
We are all called to holiness, to become a saint – this is one way to that goal. Our fundamental vocation is to love today and for all eternity. Vocation = how to live your life as a gift. We are called to intimacy with God, with the Trinity.
Only God can welcome a person's total surrender in such a way that one does not lose one's soul in the process but wins it. St. Edith Stein
Young people of every continent, do not be afraid to be the saints of the new millennium! Be contemplative, love prayer; be coherent with your faith and generous in the service of your brothers and sisters, be active members of the Church and builders of peace. To succeed in this demanding project of life, continue to listen to His Word, draw strength from the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance. The Lord wants you to be intrepid apostles of his Gospel and builders of a new humanity.
St Pope John Paul II World Youth Day 2000
Do something beautiful for God. Do it with your life. Do it every day. Do it in your own way. But do it!
St. Teresa of Calcutta