MOUNT CARMEL FEAST
An Invitation to Prayer and Spiritual Empowering
Dr. Rudolf V. D’ Souza OCD
On 16th July the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Mount Camel, and on 20th July the Feast of St. Elijah. Both these commemorations spell out the importance of prayer and spirituality; and the significance of “CARMEL”. The word ‘Carmelite’ is derived from the Old Testament; and precisely its mention is found in the I Kings Chapter 18, where the adventurous Prophet Elijah has a religious appointment with the prophets of Baal. On Mount Carmel he gives witness to the Living God offering Him a true sacrifice and massacring the false prophets of Baal after they had failed to prove the existence of their deity. The prophet shows himself a man filled with zeal for the living God and has several encounters with Him later in his life (I Kgs 19). Mount Carmel is not a single mountain, rather a mountain range that provides a scenic beauty to the beholder and compels one to contemplation, prayer and solitude. It is here that the disciples or the sons of the Prophet Elijah begin their life of total dedication to and communion with the Lord.
The Birth of Carmel
The Carmelite Order, the cradle of Carmelite spirituality was born when a group of dedicated holy people lived together trying to experience the presence of the living God after the maiden example of Prophet Elijah. In their undying quest for God-experience they faced squarely all the difficulties and trials and got settled on the western slope of Mount Carmel, determined to live in obedience to God and sought to live the Christian life in imitation of Jesus Christ.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, some of crusaders who had come from France, England, and other Western countries, to fight and re-conquer Palestine, decided to settle on the slopes of Mount Carmel, dedicating themselves to “meditation on the law of the Lord, day and night, and watching in prayer.” Most of them were scarcely literate soldiers, who got converted to a more spiritual warfare, took up an eremitical form of life, and professed a special devotion to Our Lady, styling themselves, Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
In their tryst venture at living a totally dedicated life to God, they felt something was missing and they approached the Patriarch of Jerusalem for some guidelines around which they could organize their daily life. The Patriarch of the time (1206-1214) was Albert the Great, and he obliged the holy people to offer them some important guiding principles. Being himself a Canon regular of St. Augustine, and quite experienced in the monastic way of life, gave them a program of life in a short document succinctly explaining the characteristic features of the new lifestyle they wished to embrace. This is what has come to be called The Carmelite Rule, a document that was to become the basis and point of reference for all who subsequently joined this new religious family. The Carmelite School of Spirituality has its roots in this very rule given to those hermits.
The Initial Essentials
Since the holy hermits had decided to embrace the eremitical life as a group (and not as individuals) they had to elect one among them to preside over their life affairs. The elected one is to be called the Superior and will then govern the daily affairs with the agreement and collaboration of all. He will live in the cell nearest to the entrance to their settlement so as to be more easily accessible to anyone seeking to join the group or meet the group or individually. He would be responsible for assessing candidates and making due provision for their admission to and initiation into their particular way of life. He is to regard himself as the humble servant of the rest, while they in turn are to honour and obey him as the representative of Christ in their midst.
Each hermit is to live in a cave or cell of his own meditating the word of God and watching in prayer, unless otherwise other duties required their attention. Every morning they are to come together to celebrate the Eucharist. All they possess is to be held in common and distributed to each according to ones age and needs. At least once a week, they are to come together to discuss the observance of the main points of the Rule and what concerns the salvation of their souls. This was the time to draw attention to any fault, be it in an individual or in the community as a whole, with a view to progress in spiritual life.
They are to be austere in their eating habits: no meat at any time, a fast from the Exaltation of the Holy Cross to Easter was to be strictly observed. It was accepted that delicate health, illness or any just cause could excuse one from the fast or abstinence, as necessity knows no law. The Patriarch then goes on to exhort them to live by faith, hope and charity and never to forget that life is an ongoing battle. Their whole energy must be directed towards loving God above everything else and loving their neighbours; and they were to look to the Lord alone for their salvation and inspiration. Manual work or any other type of work was essential in the whole monastic tradition, and therefore it was to be regarded as an integral part of their way of life. Following the example of St. Paul, it was to be a means of earning their livelihood as well as a means of avoiding idleness that created the occasions of so many temptations.
If they are to ponder God’s law day and night, then silence was indispensable. During the day they must avoid all unnecessary speech and at night from Vespers till next morning all useless communication had to be severed. Should anyone wish to do even more than is required here, concludes Albert, he may do so, and the Lord will reward him when He comes. Let everything be done with that moderation which is the hallmark of all true virtue. From these primitive rules sprout forth the initial shoots of Carmelite Spirituality that gradually become the mighty branches of the spirit of this family.
The Birth of Spirituality
Due to persecution in the Holy Land the Carmelite hermits were forced to escape to Europe for their survival in the thirteenth Century. The Carmelite life spread rapidly in various parts of Europe and especially in Spain.
The Great Teresa of Avila, a woman of determined determination launches into renewal of Carmelite life in Europe, especially in the Castile region of Spanish territory after she felt a deeper longing for living exclusively for God alone. Teresa was born in Avila, Spain, March 28, 1515. She died in Alba, October 4, 1582. Her family origins have been traced to Toledo and Olmedo. Her father, Alonso de Cepeda, was a son of a Toledan merchant, Juan Sanchez de Toledo and Ines de Cepeda, originally from Tordesillas. Juan transferred his business to Avila, where he succeeded in having his children marry into families of the nobility. In 1505 Alonso married Catalina del Peso, who bore him two children and died in 1507. Two years later Alonso married the 15-year-old Beatriz de Ahumada of whom Teresa was born. On Nov. 2, 1535, Teresa entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation at Avila, where she had a friend, Juana Suarez. Her father resigned himself to this development in the life of Teresa. The following year she received the habit and began wholeheartedly to give herself to prayer and penance. Shortly after her profession she became seriously ill and failed to respond to medical treatment. As a last resort her father took her to Becedas, a small village, to seek the help of a woman healer famous throughout Castile, but Teresa’s health did not improve. Leaving Becedas in the fall of 1538, she stayed in Hortigosa at the home of her uncle Pedro de Cepeda, who gave her the Third Alphabet (Tercer Abecedario) of Francis of Osuna to read. This reading triggers in her a novel enthusiasm for God-experience.
Her great work of reform began with herself. She made a vow always to follow the more perfect course, and resolved to keep the rule as perfectly as she could (Life 32.9). However, the atmosphere prevailing at the Incarnation monastery was less than favorable for a perfect type of life to which Teresa aspired. A group assembled in her cell one September evening in 1560, taking their inspiration from the primitive tradition of Carmel and the discalced reform of St. Peter of Alcantara who proposed the foundation of a monastery of an eremitical type.
The Spiritual March
Teresa’s writings are an indication to the development of the Spirit of Carmel and her march towards deeper experience of God. Among her writings three can be indicated as the depositories of her spiritual teaching: her autobiography, the Way of perfection, and the Interior Castle. Readers must exercise some caution, however, and resist the temptation to hastily synthesize the doctrine in these books, because St. Teresa wrote from her personal experience at different stages of the spiritual life according to the need of the time. For example, the doctrine of prayer found in the autobiography is not identical with that in the Interior Castle. One is the offshoot of the other and more than a decade had elapsed between their final compositions. Teresa had meanwhile attained a higher degree of spiritual maturity with its simultaneous deepening of experience. The autobiography, written primarily as a manifestation of her spiritual state for her spiritual directors, was later elaborated for benefiting her own sisters. Chapters 11 to 22 inclusive are devoted exclusively to the discussion of prayer, although additional comments and examples are scattered throughout the remaining 28 chapters. Teresa depicts different stages of the life of prayer in metaphorical terms taken from the manner of drawing or carrying water to irrigate a garden. The “first water” is laboriously obtained from a well and carried in a bucket to the garden; this is in reference to beginners who, liberated from the more flagrant mortal sins, apply themselves to discursive prayer of meditation, although they experience the daily fatigue and aridity from time to time. After speaking at length of meditation in its stricter meaning, Teresa makes a brief reference to “acquired” contemplation before beginning her discussion on the “second type of watering the garden”. In this second stage, the gardener secures water through use of a windlass and bucket or container. Here Teresa refers to the “prayer of quiet, a gift of God through which the individual begins to have a passive experience of prayer. The third method of irrigation is channeling the water from a stream or river. This application made in reference to the “sleep of the faculties or powers during prayer.” Although Teresa considered this an important stage in the evolution of prayer, she later compares it to a simple intensification of the “prayer of quiet” in the Interior Castle. The fourth method of irrigation is a downpour of God’s graces i.e., the rain. Teresa uses this metaphor to describe a state of union in prayer in which the soul is apparently passive and drinks quietly all that God gifts to the soul.
In her Way of Perfection Teresa teaches the major virtues that demand the practice of prayer, and using the Pater Noster as a true means for teaching prayer at greater depth. This book is sometimes referred to as the apex of Teresa’s ascetical doctrine. The Interior Castle is the principal source of mature Teresian thought on the spiritual life in its integrity. Chief emphasis is laid on the life of prayer, but other elements like charity, service and apostolate are also integrated. The Interior Castle is the soul, in the center of which dwells the Trinity. Growth in prayer enables the individual to enter into deeper intimacy with God marked by a progressive journey through the mansions of the castle from the outermost to the luminous center. When a man has attained union with God in the degree permitted to him in this world, he is “at the center” of himself; in other words, he has integrity as a child of God and as a human being. Each of the mansions of the castle is distinguished by a different stage in the evolution of prayer, with its consequent effects upon every other phase of the life of the individual.
The Master and Teacher of Mysticism
The next level of Carmelite Spiritual School is to be attributed to the scholarly exposition of spiritual theology and mysticism in the writings of St. John of the Cross. John was contemporary of Teresa of Avila. Spiritually he was the right hand of Teresa, guiding her and strengthening her in her discernment of the will of God. He delves deeper into the mystery of God’s love and dedicates his energy and talents into discovering the profound center of God in the human heart. In his writings he never lets down the reader, rather leads him to the culminating experience of God until one is totally saturated.
Among the Church’s contemplatives, John is one of the acknowledged masters of mystical theology. Indeed, no other writer has had greater influence on Catholic spirituality than John of the Cross. Together with Teresa of Avila, he reformed the Discalced Carmelites, an order devoted to the service of the Blessed Mother through prayer and penance.
Born at Fontiveros, Spain, in 1542, John had to face many uncertainties in his childhood. Though he was the son of a wealthy silk merchant, Gonzalo de Yepes, and a poor weaver girl, Catalina Alvarez he became a pauper because the Yepes family disowned John’s father for marrying a girl not of their wealthy standard. The young couple lived in hardship, following the ordinary trade of silk weaving. John was the youngest of three sons. Shortly after his birth, Gonzalo died due to a prolonged illness, and Catalina struggled heroically to provide for her sons, settling in Medina del Campo. Young John attended a school for poor children, gaining a basic education and the opportunity to learn skills from local craftsmen. When he was 17, he began to work at the Hospital de la Concepción, and its founder offered to let him attend the Jesuit College, so long as he did not neglect his hospital duties. From 1559 to 1563, John studied with the Jesuits, learning Latin, Greek, and other subjects. He was offered the chance to study for the secular priesthood, which would have given him material security, but he felt God was calling him to Religious life. At age 20, he entered the Carmelite Order, being clothed with the habit on February 24, 1563, and taking the name Juan de Santo Matia (John of Saint Matthias). John continued his studies notably at the University of Salamanca, which was known for its excellent professors of Thomistic philosophy, an influence which is apparent throughout his writings. An outstanding scholar, John taught classes while still a student. He was ordained in 1597, and said his first Mass in Medina del Campo. During that trip, he first met Teresa of Avila, and she encouraged him to promote her reform among the men’s Order.
The Discalced Carmelites
In November, 1568, John and three other friars take up the observance of the Primitive Carmelite Rule in a farmhouse near Duruelo. At that time, he changed his name in religion to Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross). The small band soon came to be known as “Discalced” (shoeless) Carmelites, because they went barefoot as a sign of their commitment to poverty. Their poverty was very real: the first house was barely more than one room, and the young community suffered many privations. When Teresa was ordered to return to the Convent of the Incarnation as its superior, she called upon John to assist her in renewing the large community, which had grown quite lax. Arriving there in 1572, he became the spiritual director of the nuns, including Teresa herself. For unknown reasons, the attitude of the original (“Calced”) Carmelites began to change toward the reformers. Initially they had agreed and even encouraged the movement. In the Chapter of 1575 the members placed severe restrictions on the reform and forbade any further foundations and ordered Teresa to choose one monastery as her permanent residence and remain there.
In 1576 the Discalced Friars convened their own Chapter; and the Calced friars moved stringent restrictions on the Discalced. They arrested John and another friar and imprisoned him in a Calced monastery in Toledo in a windowless 6′ x 10′ room. Scourged and humiliated, he nonetheless refused to renounce the Reform. He passed the time in his cell composing the sublime lyric poems that form the basis of his mystical treatises. After some months, he managed to escape to south of Spain, where he was elected Prior of the monastery at El Calvario and appointed director of the nuns at Beas. In 1579, he became Rector of the new Discalced Carmelite college near the University of Baeza.
The Holy See granted the Discalced the permission to erect their Province in 1580, although complete independence from the Calced did not come until 1593.
During these “middle years” of John’s life, he filled a variety of offices within the reformed Order, wrote the commentaries on his poems elucidating the mystical life, gave spiritual direction, and lived a life of deep union with God. Toward the end of his life, he disagreed with the new General, Nicholas Doria, about some changes in the Order. He was sent to the solitude of La Penuela in August, 1591 – in truth overjoyed to be relieved of administrative duties for the first time in years. But his peace was disturbed by news that a move was on to expel him from the Reform he had founded. His critics tried to gather evidence against him to defame his character.
John fell ill. When urged to seek medical attention, he went to the monastery at Ubeda, where the Prior received him coldly, placed him in the worst cell in the house, and complained bitterly about the expense of caring for him. John grew worse, and, realizing his time was short, he called for the Prior to beg forgiveness for all the trouble he had caused him. Instead, the Prior, realizing John’s holiness and his own hardheartedness, wept. John died as he had prayed to: without honors, without material comforts, and with great suffering. He was 49. He was beatified in 1675, canonized in 1726, and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1926. Among his classic works are The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love.
From Ascent to Living Flame of Love
John’s life and writings reflect and bear witness to the deepest and concomitant elements of the Christian Spirituality. The Ascent of Mount Carmel helps the reader to savor the taste of true love of God and intimacy with Him. The Dark Night of the Soul is an authentic picture of a soul suffering the tortures of a life lived only in intense longing for God. The Spiritual Canticle is a masterpiece of the beauty of the spiritual journey and a true legacy of the lovers in union with one another. The Living Flame of Love is a document of the experiences between the living God and the creature enjoying the eternal bliss here on earth in the most intense encounters between them.
St. John of the Cross systematically presents his spiritual doctrine step by step to those who would seriously venture into experiencing God. He is well versed in the Christian Scriptures and grounds his teaching on solid philosophical principles. He quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine and makes references to the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato. He is very close to our age expressing his views and convictions in an idiom of thought and language that is not completely foreign to us. Reading through his commentaries one can easily discover that he was an expert psychologist who is able to understand the mind, the unconscious and the various dynamic of man’s spirit.
The religious and spiritual condition of the people of the time of John was very complex. The popular devotions ranged from regular pilgrimages to St. James of Compostela (Northern Spain) to frequent and touching manifestations of popular processions to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was the time were religious extremist movements like “alumbrados”; recogidos, etc. sprouted and infected the minds of the people. Practically there were religious movements and counter movements at every nuke and corner of Spanish territory. St. John of the Cross through his well balanced and solidly grounded spiritual writings silently combats against all these popular, superstitious and emotionally charged devotions and pilgrimages, and offers those who wanted an authentic life with God as a challenge to delve deeper into the mystery of God and of Christ.
The writings of John witness a strong reaction to what was going on in Spanish religious history. His writings do away with all popular devotions, even though he admits that they are a help to the beginners. The spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola also were a help to people to exercise themselves in spirituality, side by side with the writings of John and Teresa of Avila.
His main spiritual principle is that the soul must “empty” itself of self in order to be “filled” with God, that it must be “purified” of the last traces of earthly dross before it is fit to become united with God. In the application of this simple maxim he shows the most uncompromising logic. Supposing the soul with which he deals to be habitually in the state of grace and pushing forward to better things, he overtakes it on the very road leading it, in its option for God, and lays open before its eyes a number of sores of which it was altogether ignorant, viz. what he terms the spiritual capital sins. Not until these are removed (a most formidable task) is it fit to be admitted to what he calls the “Dark Night“, which consists in the passive purgation, where God by heavy trials, particularly interior ones, perfects and completes what the soul had begun of its own accord. It is now passive, but not inert, for by submitting to the Divine operation it co-operates in the measure of its power. Here lies one of the essential differences between John’s mysticism and a false quietism. The perfect purgation of the soul in the present life leaves it free to act with wonderful energy: in fact it might almost be said to obtain a share in God’s omnipotence, as is shown in the marvelous deeds of so many saints. As the soul emerges from the Dark Night it enters into the full noonlight described in the “Spiritual Canticle” and the “Living Flame of Love“. John leads it to the highest heights, in fact to the point where it becomes a “partaker of the Divine Nature”.
John has often been represented as a grim character; nothing could be untrue. He was indeed austere with himself, and, to some extent, also with others, but both from his writings and from the reports of those who knew him, we see in him a man overflowing with charity and kindness, a poetical mind deeply influenced by all that is beautiful and attractive.
His writings are a direct indication to the people that the way to God does not mean “a multiplicity of considerations, methods, manners, and experiences – though in their own way these may be a requirement for beginners – but demands only the one thing necessary: true self‑denial, exterior and interior” (Ascent II,7,viii). He corrects certain of people’s wrong understanding of religion when they were blindly carried away by certain extraordinary phenomena like experiencing visions, revelations, locutions and messages from saints and holy people. He corrects their understanding concerning their attachments to statues, relics, paintings, processions, pilgrimages etc. When spiritual pursuit is limited to certain external acts like penance, mortification, detachment without any noble and interior thrust it does not lead a person anywhere than to satisfy his own egoism. Through his writings John presents systematically the way one has to journey towards God with pure love and total self-surrender. God experience and union with God is not the result of self-efforts, rather it is to be merited through one’s utter resignation to God’s will.
We have summarized the whole Carmelite Spirituality in the above text. One can certainly notice the progression of the spiritual heritage received on/from the heights of Mount Carmel to our times. The Spirit of Carmel has spread throughout the world like the clouds and showering all over its incessant riches. Perhaps we still could add a few more stages/pages, but that would only add a few more reflections to the present article. Our intent here was to give a complete picture of Carmelite spirituality inspired on Mount Carmel. We have tried to give the essentials of this School that attracts millions to its inexhaustible source. We have noticed that Prayer and contemplation form the crux of Christian Spirituality. Nonetheless, the other dimensions of spiritual life are taken care of throughout the rich tradition of Carmel through insistence on balanced detachment, mortification, humility, fraternal charity throughout the writings and legacy of the masters of this school.
In all the above-mentioned pillars of the Order of Discalced Carmelites through various stages we notice a deep thirst for God right from the beginning on the ranges of Mount Carmel. The serenity and beauty of those mountains reflect thoroughly in the writings of the Spiritual masters of this Order. Their passionate desire for God is a direct going back to the spirit of Prophet Elijah who is filled with zeal for the living God. The first hermits’ desire to live in a community according to the rule given by Albert the great is another milestone in the Carmelite School Spirituality that bears witness to community living and sharing. In addition to this the desire for holiness through the reading of the Word of God is an essential element of Carmelite School. Furthermore we notice the deep desire for intimacy with God through prayer and contemplation seen in the life of Teresa of Avila is a deepening of the gift granted to each one of us in baptism. Her writings are a true witness to a life that is totally dedicated in the service of the Church and in the service of the neighbour.
The life and writings of John, again remind that one has to work for personal sanctification through asceticism and prayer. Detachment and prayer are the hallmarks of Christian spirituality. There is no point in diluting this seed of charism, which has its roots in the Primitive Rule given to the early hermits on Mount Carmel. Then the modern saints Therese of Lisieux, Edith Stein, and Elizabeth of the Trinity who through their life, prayer, and writings have influenced the Carmelite charism and enriched it thoroughly. The words ‘Carmelite’ and ‘Prayer’ seem closely related due to their historical background. The historical association of Mount Carmel with the spirit of prayer is an accepted fact. We cannot find any better example than our forefather Prophet Elijah who combined in himself the very characteristics of Mount Carmel that is beautiful, affluent, silent, strong, contemplative and mystical.
Before I conclude this article I would strongly draw your attention to the stunning fact of modern discovery of the intricacies of brain mechanism. We know that prayer and meditation is as old as history of mankind itself. However, modern scientists and experts on brain have come to a conclusion that it is through meditation and prayer that one can become healthier, wholesome and integrated. They may not give a religious flavour to their discoveries, but they are fully convinced that for emancipation and for fuller experience of love in human life, prayer and meditation are a must. We can bet that prayer and contemplation show the right path towards fullness of love in human life. Praying on a regular basis can have an enormous effect on your psyche by stabilizing your moods, giving you a feeling of well-being, both physical and psychological, improving how you interact with others, and positively changing how you conduct yourself.
Prayer can be a boon to physical health too, in addition to emotional health. The physiological benefits of praying can be very far-reaching. These benefits have been studied and fully documented in medical journals. There is also a wealth of information on the benefits of praying before risky medical surgery. In a number of important studies, patients who prayed before surgery came through their operations in much better shape than those who did not pray.
Some of the most powerful and successful political leaders all over the world have professed to praying on a regular basis. The power of prayer has helped them to overcome poverty in their countries, keep their people together, and stand up to their enemies with courage and resolve.
Fr. Rudolf V. D’Souza OCD, is the parish priest of Guardian Angels Parish (Vancouver – Downtown – CANADA) He has authored and co-authored 20 books on spirituality and prayer