At the heart of the Carmelite vocation is a profound and intimate friendship with Christ.
This friendship is not grounded on a concept of climbing toward God, or an ascent of any kind. Rather, it is centered on the astounding reality that it is God Who comes to us – in the Incarnation, through grace within our souls, and the special presence of Our Lord in Holy Communion. This profound reality – His divine, unconditional love for each one of us personally – is the basis for our friendship with Christ. He comes to us and invites us to an ever deeper union with Him through prayer.
The joy of this ever-growing intimacy with Our Lord is not the goal of a Carmelite vocation. Our Holy Mother Saint Teresa puts it this way. “We should desire and engage in prayer not for our own enjoyment but for the sake of acquiring the strength which will fit us for service.”
This is the vocation of the Carmelite Life – loving service to God’s people overflowing from our prayer.
The only appropriate attitude, the only fitting, corresponding response to God on my part is:
A kind of delighted indifference
Carmelite life is modeled on the lives of Mary and Joseph.
The religious observance, therefore, in the Carmelite Order is such as to create an environment in which the soul can expand and open out to God. It provides opportunities for coming into frequent contact with Him.
In other words, the whole pattern of Carmelite life is ordered to a single end: to facilitate a life of friendship with Christ. Since prayer is the greatest power on earth, there are no boundaries to the influence of prayer.
The Carmelite, therefore, can plead the cause of the whole world. She prays, particularly for priests – that after they have entered the struggle, the Lord may keep His protective hand on them so that they may be delivered from all the dangers with which they are daily confronted.
If one is to be called a friend of Christ, a Carmelite must fulfill the obligations which even the world demands of what it means to be a faithful friend. The four basic obligations of intimate human friendships are:
It is precisely on these four points that the Rule of Carmel is based:
- Encounter with Christ takes place through the Sacraments and the Liturgy
Mutual knowledge and love deepen through intensified mental prayer
Presence of the Beloved becomes real through Eucharistic adoration and common life in the mystery of fraternal charity
Conformity of the will grows through self-discipline and prudent self-denial
Conformity of Will means bending our will to the Lord’s Will. It is that radical renouncing of ourselves that the Lord Jesus requires of us in the Gospel.
A Carmelite engages in a training that is at once personal – rigorous – gentle – constant – uncompromising – joy-filled, life-giving and life-long. This training helps the Carmelite grow in self-denial and in the practice of virtue: overcoming impatience, moderating all the senses, governing speech, directing all energies to God. The purpose of this training is to grown in freedom of spirit. Without this necessary preparation, says Saint Bonaventure, a soul would be present at prayer like a dog chained to a block.
Saint Teresa did not look for perfect people to enter Carmel. She did, however, want people who were “resolute, detached and courageous.” She says, “It seems very easy to say we will surrender our will to someone until we try it and realize that it is the hardest thing we can do if we carry it out as we should.” The reward, however, is awesome.
“A union is effected between the Creator and the soul. Our Lord begins to cherish this soul, to reveal secrets to it, to raise it above all earthly things. He makes such a friend of the soul that not only does He restore its will to it but He gives it His own also. He does what this soul asks of Him.” The prayer of this soul is now “irresistible.”
Our Lord taught Saint Teresa a simple method of prayer. It is often called mental prayer. “I never knew what it was to get satisfaction and comfort out of prayer,” confesses the Saint, “until the Lord taught me this method – I beg of you to test it.”
The method is this: we know God is everywhere, but He dwells in the human heart in a special manner. Close your eyes, then and look at Him, present there within you. This look is already a prayer. This simple gaze gives glory to God. The whole problem, Saint Teresa teaches us, comes from our not really grasping the fact that He is within us: “How is it, Lord, that we do not look at Thy face when it is so near us?”
“Look at Him; keep Him company; talk with Him. Do not be foolish – speak with Him as with a Father, a Brother, sometimes in one way sometimes in another.”
This manner of praying brings with it a thousand blessings. “Before long,” says Teresa, “you will see how you gain. There will be a gradual gaining of mastery over oneself. The soul will be stronger for the fight.”
“You will be laying a good foundation so that if the Lord desires to raise you to achieve great things He will find you ready because you will be close to Him.”
“Gently recall your mind when it wanders . . . unceasingly gather up again your scattered spirit. Turn your inward eye once more towards Him . . . persevere with an unconquered heart.”
“During the day quietly prepare for prayer-time: in the midst of work recall, if only for a moment, your Divine Companion; go about your duties in a quiet way.”
The setting of the Carmelite convent encourages, nourishes and develops this simple form of prayer. This personal, silent, solitary prayer is the backbone, the whole meaning of Carmelite life. Without it, Carmel would be nothing.
“When you have not been speaking to a person for some time,” says Saint Teresa, “he soon becomes a stranger to you and you forget how to talk to him. Before long even if he is a kinsman, you feel as if you do not know him, for both kinship and friendship lose their influence when communication ceases.”
‘Communication’ never ceases in the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. The Carmelite Rule bids each Carmelite, day and night, to meditate on the Law of the Lord and to watch in prayer. This watching in prayer, not only prepares us for heaven when we will behold the Lord of Glory in the face-to-face beatific vision, but it disposes us to receive graces of intimacy in this life.
“O Christian! O my daughters!” she exclaims. “Remember that He does not keep us waiting until the next life before rewarding us for our friendship. Our recompense begins in this life.”