Carmelites are known for their lives of intense prayer, private or hidden lives, and contemplation. It seems a nearly impossible thing for a layperson outside the walls of a monastery or convent. But really, we all can live like Carmelites without becoming cloistered or even changing our circumstances. Here’s how
We are pilgrims
Did you know that our entire life here on earth is to be a preparation for our life in eternity? St. Thérèse of Lisieux once famously said, “The world is thy ship and not thy home.” This life is meant to carry us from here into the next life. Too often we become enamored of all we can have in this life, rather than preparing well for what we are meant to have in the next life.
Carmelite spirituality focuses heavily on this: that there is meaning even in the simplest things of life, the smallest tasks, the greatest tribulations. It is in realizing that this life is a pilgrimage that we discover the joy of life and the joy of God. Cardinal Anders Arborelius, O.C.D., in his book Carmelite Spirituality: The Way of Carmelite Prayer and Contemplation, explains it this way:
“As Teresa of Avila said, ‘Our life is always andar con Jesús, to walk with Jesus.’ This truth has many dimensions: mystical, dogmatical, ethical, liturgical. We can become more and ore conscious of these aspects during our earthly pilgrimage. There is always something new to discover on the road. One of the most essential things is to keep growing, to become more and more a pilgrim. Fundamentally, this means that we have to discover the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity as guidelines and lights for our path through life. These theological virtues or attitudes help us to see the traces of God everywhere and give us the force to follow in the footsteps of His Son. They bind us to Him with the tender links of His love.”
How to contemplate the Holy Spirit
Sometimes the Holy Spirit is the hardest person of the Trinity to understand, relate to, and contemplate. He is sort of nebulous: a dove or a tongue of fire or the stirring in your heart or “the love of God”. We can only relate to a dove so much; a tongue of fire is a tool, not a subject; a stirring is an action; love is a thing and a feeling. None of these images or modes of understanding the Holy Spirit really lead us into a deeper relationship with him.
“The Spirit doesn’t want to keep quiet, as it were. Even if we don’t hear a thing, He keeps praying in us, ‘Come to the Father,’ as Ignatius of Antioch said. The Spirit always keeps up the conversation between the Son and the Father. When we pray, we simply join this dialogue,” Cardinal Arborelius writes. St. Teresa of Avila gave this definition of prayer: “Mental prayer, in my view, is nothing but friendly discourse, and frequent solitary conversation, with him who we know loves us.”
So, to contemplate the Holy Spirit means to recognize God within us and within every ounce of creation and being. God the Father is the ruler, guider, and creator; God the Son is the savior and the way; God the Holy Spirit is God everywhere and in all things.
The Holy Trinity
We have to learn, during this life, how to contemplate God, the Holy Trinity, in our everyday actions and obligations. The Beatific Vision is us constantly contemplating the Trinity and worshipping Him nonstop. As this life is preparation for the next, we need to start contemplating Him always right now. Cardinal Arborelius writes,
“Even when we work and our mind is totally absorbed in a very complicated task, we can abandon ourselves into God’s hand. Our heart can be awake for God in the midst of our daily work. We can remain in God’s presence, however busy we are, however we fell. We can renew our attachment to Him with a glance, a sigh, a breath. There are innumerable ways for a soul in love with Gd to show Him that she wants to belong to her Beloved One and remain in His presence. It’s one of the most essential things in Christian life to learn to remain in the presence of the Holy Trinity.”
That’s it! It’s as simple as abandoning ourselves into the hands of God constantly throughout the day, whenever we think of it. Since the Holy Trinity is in us by virtue of our baptism, he is constantly there, prompting us to come to him, and leading us in the conversation. It’s important to remember here that God is not just a thing to think about, but a person to be in relationship with. So it’s not enough to think about him often; we must give our entire being over to him.
Believing in the Father
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who understood the radical complementarity of childhood and maturity, said, “Perfection consists simply in doing his will and being just what he wants us to be.” This was a hard-won understanding and conversion for her, as she was an extremely sensitive child, prone to much anguish even at the smallest of things. What she did know the entire time was that God the Father loved her beyond measure and surrounded her always, and she entrusted herself fully to his care.
This is what it means to believe in God the Father, that we depend on him for all things and, as we gain these and grow in maturity and love of him, our faith and love deepen. We will never, not even in eternity, know all there is to know of God, as he is endless, so we will always have to depend on him. At once we are both children and mature.
Children of the Father
This, of course, relates to the last point, but what does it mean and entail?
“Thérèse wants us to rediscover this tremendous truth that God, as Creator, is also a loving Father Who cares about every little duck and chick, Who loves the worst murderers and even the indifferent people, the ‘respectable people,’ as Oscar Wilde would call them, who care about nothing but their own pleasure and well-being, and really, that could apply to most of us. It is impossible to speak or think about God without realizing that he is Father, that his very being is to be the Father of the Son…From Thérèse’s experience, we understand that the Father is is more eager to save sinners than to give saints the consolation of enjoying their faith. Saints and sinners are the most important people in the Holy Church, and they belong together. They help each other. Sinners give saints the possibility of becoming saints by sacrificing themselves for the salvation of their brother sinners,” writes Cardinal Arborelius.
What it means to be a child of the Father is to entrust all of our needs to him and to work with him, through our prayers and sufferings, to bring all sinners (ourselves included!) to his grace and mercy.
We belong to Jesus
Caryll Houselander once wrote, “Christ does answer all our real needs. People who have what is called a ‘special devotion’ to one particular aspect of Christ’s humanity find in this approach to him the true answer to some deep need in themselves. One of the greatest motives of God’s love is to answer the needs of men. Thus, he is a child to the childless, a friend to the friendless, a father to the fatherless, a shepherd to the wanderer, a home to the homeless, a comforter to the mourner, a king to a valiant heart, light to the blind, bread to the hungry, and living water to the thirsty.”
This is the recognition that Jesus is everywhere! He is all things to us, just as St. Paul wrote, “I am all things to all to save at least some” (1 Cor. 9:19), except Jesus actually does save all. To belong to him means that he is in us and we are in him and we recognize him everywhere.
Fully surrender yourself to Jesus
Carmelite Spirituality understands that surrender is the goal of our spiritual life. Seems pretty easy! But it takes time and patience to grow in the understanding that we are loved by Jesus and then to accept that. It’s not always easy for us to love ourselves, but that is part of understanding God’s love for us. If he can love us, why shouldn’t we be able to love ourselves? Cardinal Arborelius reminds us, “It is of utmost importance to remember that love is a gift received. It’s a gratuitous gift given to us by pure grace. It’s God’s love, not ours. We are always poor, helpless, loveless people, but we receive God in his love into our emptiness. Then we are brim-full of his love and can use it for our own purposes, loving him in return and loving our neighbors.”
Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “The most intimate mystery of communion between God and man is accessible in the sacrament of the Body of the Risen Lord; conversely, then the mystery lays claim to our bodies and is realized in a Body. The Church, which is built upon the sacrament of the Body of Christ, must herself be a body. And she must be a single body, corresponding to Jesus Christ’s uniqueness, a uniqueness which is reflected in unity and in the ‘continuing in’ the one, apostolic teaching.” Of course we know that God is fully present—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—in the Eucharist and that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1324). But all seven of the sacraments bring us closer to God and allow us to live in him and his presence in different ways, through our bodies in mystical ways.
“It’s not enough to receive God in our minds. We can never grasp him with our thoughts and ideas. Maybe that’s the reason our bodies have to take part in the reception of the sacraments. We are a unity of body and soul, and so we can receive God in our bodies as well as our souls. A sacrament is a material thing, but it transmits a spiritual gift to us—Christ Himself,” Cardinal Arborelius tells us.
We are corporeal and spiritual beings, so we need material things that transmit spiritual gift to us to live in the unity of our bodies and souls. This is what the sacraments do for us, making God’s presence to us material and spiritual.
Following the wind of the Holy Spirit
A prayer of Gilbert Shaw’s is particularly perfect for this aspect:
Comforter, Who takes the things of Jesus to show them to me, teach me to live Your way, the way of Jesus, step by step, grace following grace. Teach me to be a stranger to the aims of world-possession. Teach me to be a traveler through the vanities that pass, that all my ways be Jesus’ ways and You the Guide, my Comforter. Most Holy Spirit, Comforter Divine, through You the life of prayer is made complete, through You the suffering pilgrimage is made joyful, through You the darkness is made light: illumine my life, inspire my prayer, be the unity that makes me one, that I may be all prayer. Amen.
The Holy Spirit wishes to make Jesus alive to and in us. “From the first page of Holy Scripture, the Spirit has been described as wind…The wind of the Spirit is always blowing and showing us where we are supposed to go what we are supposed to do…The aim of our lives is to learn to discover the goal where this wind is leading us…We have to learn to discern the wind direction of the Spirit in our concrete lives– and accept the grace we so badly need in order to follow that direction,” Cardinal Arborelius writes. Being led by the Holy Spirit means letting ourselves be loved, guided, and carried. The gift of the Spirit is making us trust completely in Jesus.
St. John of the Cross wrote, “The south wind is a delightful breeze. It causes rain, makes the herbs and plants germinate, opens the flowers and scatters their fragrance. Its effects are the opposite of. those of the north wind. The soul, by this breeze, refers to the Holy Spirit, Who awakens love. When this divine breeze sties her it wholly enkindles and refreshes her, and quickens and awakens the will and elevates the previously fallen appetites that were asleep in the love of God.”
Mary as model
Oh Mary, we never hear enough about her. The perfect disciple, the Immaculate Conception, the one who is full of grace. Not only is she blessed among women, but she is blessed among men. She did this, though, by being responsive to God. All her life was a response of love to the grace God had given her. This culminated in her reception of the Son of God into her womb, the Incarnation, and was completed when Jesus’s body was taken down from the Cross and laid in her arms.
We must be like Mary. Maybe it seems daunting– we’re not “full of grace”, after all! But she is the icon of this most important part of Carmelite spirituality, giving us hope and inspiration to try and try again. We are each called to say “yes” to God, just as Mary did at the Annunciation.
Cardinal Arborelius writes, “The entire life of Carmel is a life of prayer. But, really, every Christian is invited to live in a constant union of love with Christ and, thus, in constant prayer. Mary can be regarded as the protectress and patroness of Christian prayer life. If we contemplate the icon of the Annunciation, this role of Mary becomes more and more comprehensible. In Carmel, this aspect of Mary’s protection is very much alive, and I think it is helpful for all of us to look upon her as a sister and mother, helping us to grow closer to Jesus in prayer.”
The heart of the Church
“The Church is more mother than institution,” Cardinal Arborelius writes, “more Bride than hierarchy, more mystery than sociology. The Carmelite vision of the Church concentrates on this innermost reality of the Church. This reality can help our contemporaries, who often feel utterly alone and empty, to find healing in the life-giving womb of the Church.”
The heart of the Church, which we must all live in to truly become close to Christ, is our constant prayer and adoration of the Holy Trinity. The heart of the Church is the synthesis of everything we’ve talked about up to this point. This is putting it all together.
Adoring and glorifying God
“God, Who is rich, becomes poor to make us, who are poor, rich. This fundamental paradox helps us to adore the glory of God, where all the contrasts of ours are reconciled. Poverty and richness are united in God, reconciled in him who is everything but owns nothing,” Cardinal Arborelius tells us.
St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, a Carmelite, said, “The life of Carmel is a communion with God from morning to night and from night to morning. We perceive him in everything, because we bear him within us, and our life is an anticipated heaven.” What beauty in these words! And this is something we can do and achieve outside the walls of a monastery. We must see our own poverty; we are nothing, God is everything, and he gives us his riches.
Cardinal Arborelius again says, “In Carmelite spirituality, we speak a lot about contemplative life. This life is not only for monks and nuns in the enclosure. It is, in one way or another, meant for all the baptized. Contemplation is the full development of the life of faith, hope, and charity. The contemplative life can be realized wherever we live, whoever we are.”
We can and do live the Carmelite spirituality, the contemplative life wherever we are and whoever we are. As a parent, busy with small children. In our careers and jobs. In our daily tasks. In our intentional prayers. In our unintentional prayers. To live the Carmelite spirituality means to learn to contemplate God the Holy Trinity at all times. We can do this. You can do this.
For more on Carmelite spirituality, pick up a copy of Cardinal Anders Arborelius, O.C.D.’s book Carmelite Spirituality: The Way of Carmelite Prayer and Contemplation.