The Goal of Carmel
Dear Sister Mary Colombiere,
I know that all Catholic spiritualities are centered on Christ and the Gospel. But what is the ultimate goal of Carmelite Spirituality?
Life is a journey through time and every journey has a beginning and an end. The goal of every journey is to reach the end having fulfilled the purpose of the journey. We all have wants and desires in this life and the goals that we set identify our desires and define the effort needed on our part to achieve within a limited time an anticipated result.
God has placed within us a longing and desire for Him. Since we are all called to holiness which is very clearly explained in Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium, this longing and desire is expressed in the actions that enable us to reach our goal.
“Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ (#40).”
The fullness of the Christian life and the perfection of charity necessitates that we embrace the call of God the Father through the Holy Spirit that He might consecrate and transform us into the image of His Son. Thus we become a dwelling place of God’s presence which flows into every aspect of our life and into the lives of others. All other life goals, such as family, work, health, education, social, etc. must be in service to the perfection of charity.
To speak of goals of Carmelite Spirituality we would necessarily address first those of life which are already noted in Chapter 2 of The Institute of the First Monks:
1) virtuous labor and effort with the help of divine grace: the purgative way;
2) to taste in some way in one’s heart and to experience in one’s spirit the power of the divine presence and the sweetness of glory from on high. This is God’s gift, not attained by human effort: the illuminative and unitive ways.
This journey, whether it be long or short by human standards, is always a pilgrimage of conversion, a slow and pain-staking progress whereby we surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit allowing ourselves to be conformed to Jesus.
Carmel speaks of this goal as a two-part end or a double spirit and portrays the image as the double portion of the firstborn. Recall Elisha when he realized that Elijah was about to leave him and be taken up and so pleaded for a double portion of his spirit.
And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me. (2 Kings 2:9)
This passing of the mantle symbolized the clothing of the Spirit of prophetic leadership from Elijah to Elisha as his divinely appointed successor.
The first Carmelites were hermits living in shared solitude who settled on Mount Carmel in northern Palestine in the 12th century. Inspired by the example of Elijah, a holy man and a lover of solitude, they dwelt in small cells near a spring called Elijah’s Fountain.
In Elijah, Carmel sees itself as in a mirror. His eremitic and prophetic life expresses its own most intimate ideal. In studying the life of Elijah, Carmel is aware of a growing thirst for contemplation. It perceives its deep kinship with this man who “stood in the presence of the living God”. If it shares his weaknesses and his anguish, it also knows his faith in God and his zeal for the “Yahweh of armies” and it has tasted the same delights of a life hidden in God which the prophet also experienced. (Carmelite Spirituality by Paul Marie de la Croix of the Order of Discalced Carmelites)
In the Book of Kings God had commanded Elijah to go east and hide himself in the wadi Cherith. There he would drink from the stream that God would provide as well as eat the food that the ravens would bring to him (See 1 Kings 17:3-4). Thus Elijah began not only a physical journey but also an inner journey of transformation. He was to experience the rigors of the desert – the first goal – the purgative way of purification, the dark night; he would spend time at Cherith in charity where God would give him to drink of His divine pleasures at the stream of transforming union.
A direct and intimate experience with God is the basis of Carmelite spirituality (Paul Marie de la Cruz). The Ratio reminds us that contemplation is the heart of the Carmelite charism. Although contemplation is a free gift of God the loving friendship with Him that is enkindled through prayer opens one up to be receptive of whatever graces He wishes to give. Carmelite spirituality is characterized by an intense thirst for an immediate and direct experience of God.
Thus prayer and contemplation promotes growth in the virtues. The perfection of charity is the fulfillment of the two-fold gospel commandment of love of God and love of neighbor. It is God’s presence within us carrying the Gospel of Jesus Christ into every part of human existence as we journey through life.
Perhaps this can best be summed up by Ernest E. Larkin, O. Carm.’s advice: “Prayer life is not about experiences, but about transformation in Christ.”