The promontory of Mount Carmel, photographed in 2008 by Fr. Richard Copsey, O.Carm.
The Church speaks of religious orders having charisms, that is, particular gifts from the Holy Spirit for the service of God's Kingdom. Like all Christians, the heart of the Carmelite charism is contemplation, that is, developing an ever-deeper relationship with God, especially becoming friends with Jesus Christ, our brother and lord. The Carmelite Rule of Saint Albert describes this as living in allegiance to Jesus Christ.
To speak of the spirituality of a religious order is to indicate the particular facets of the Christian Gospel which it has chosen to highlight. In the case of Carmelite Spirituality the figures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady, and the prophet Elijah, embody the virtues that Carmelites strive to imitate. Mary and Elijah provide keys to understanding our particular approach to the Christian life.
The first hermits on Mount Carmel around the year 1200 dedicated their first church to Mary, thereby demonstrating her importance to the community. In the Gospel account Mary is described as the woman who treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:51). She inspires Carmelites to do likewise, pondering the law of the Lord by day and by night (Rule of Saint Albert). Mary found God in the events of everyday life, was obedient to God's will, and was blessed because she believed.
The prophet Elijah - described in the Bible's Books of the Kings - also demonstrates the contemplative ideal as the model of the hermit lifestyle. At the same time, he was active in proclaiming God’s word and rejecting any compromise with idolatry. He stood out against the paganism of Queen Jezebel, routing her priests of Baal in a famous contest on Mount Carmel and restoring the worship of God among the people God has chosen. Carmelites of today find inspiration in the figure of Elijah. First of all we seek to rid our own hearts of the false idols that can replace God as the one source of human happiness; only then can we help others to do the same. Like Elijah, Carmelites seek to be aware of God’s presence in our lives. Like Elijah on Mount Horeb, this involves times of silence when we listen to the voice of God who speaks in the depths of the human heart, and also through everything that happens around us.
One of the foundational texts of Carmelite spirituality written around 1385, The Book of the Institution of the First Monks, contains a short passage from the First Book of Kings which is said to contain the fullness of the Carmelite vocation:
The compiler of The Institution of the First Monks deduced from this Bible passage the two aims of our way of life: to be hidden in Cherith means that we are to offer God a heart that is holy and pure of all stain of sin: to drink of the brook means that with God’s help we can experience His presence here and now.
St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross attained a synthesis of Carmelite spirituality in their writings. Teresa teaches that intimacy with God can be attained through prayer which is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.(Life Ch. 8). St. John of the Cross also emphasises the importance of intimacy with God in order to produce a love that is always other centred and never introspective.
The Carmelites of today seek to bring their awareness of the presence of God to bear on the situations of fear, poverty and injustice which are as part of the modern world as they were of the world of Elijah. Like Mary, we seek to be available for God so that He can do great things in and through us.