A charism is a gift from God to the Church for the world. With regard to a Religious Order, the term refers to the gift which God gives to an individual or group to inspire the founding of a new religious family within the Church. This gift is handed down through the centuries and enriched by all who are called to live it. The charism of each religious family is the particular way in which its members are called to follow Christ. Since all Christians follow Christ, the charisms will have many elements in common, but the way in which these elements are emphasised gives each religious group its unique feel. All religious families have been asked by the Church to rediscover their original founding charism and make it come alive in each culture and in every age.
This Rule of St. Albert and the experience of the Carmelites as they sought to be faithful to it in various circumstances gave definitive shape to the charism. We can say that there are several elements which make up the Carmelite charism. Firstly, and most importantly, it is a way of following Christ with total dedication. Carmelites do this by seeking to form contemplative communities at the service of God’s people in whose midst they live. Fraternity, service and contemplation are therefore essential values for all Carmelites.
The heart of the Carmelite charism is prayer and contemplation. The quality of our prayer determines the quality of the community life and the quality of the service which is offered to others. The goal of the Carmelite life is union with God. We seek to live in God’s presence and consent to God’s will for us. This involves us in listening to God who speaks to us in many ways and especially in the words of Scripture. Prayer is the way we relate to God and as we grow in friendship with Christ our prayer will tend to become more and more simple. The relationship with Christ will change us, impelling us to move out of the prison of selfishness towards the bright daylight of pure love for God and our fellow men and women. We are called to embark on a journey of faith whereby we are gradually stripped of all that is not God so that we can put on Christ. We do all we can to respond to God’s initiative in calling us but we are very aware that in the end only God can change our hearts and so we learn to wait patiently for the coming of God to us. As we follow Christ along this path of trust in God we are inspired by the example and virtues of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the Prophet Elijah.
Prayer and contemplation for the Carmelite are not private matters between the individual and God but are to be shared with others since the charism is given for the whole world. Therefore there is an emphasis in the Order on the ministry of teaching prayer and giving spiritual direction. The Carmelite is aware that the transformation of the human heart by God may be hidden from most eyes but has far reaching consequences for our world. The way of prayer is mysterious and goes beyond our normal human categories. Prayer opens us to the Ultimate Mystery.
Carmelites seek to form communities where each person feels accepted and valued not for what he can do but simply because he is. This kind of community is in itself a witness that the love of Christ can break down the barriers which human beings set up and that it is possible for people of different backgrounds and nationalities to live together in peace and harmony. Carmelites are also aware of being part of an international fraternity which is present in many parts of the world.
The hermits were forced to leave their home on Mount Carmel and settle in Europe. There they changed their style of life from hermits to friars. The major difference is that friars are called to serve the People of God in some active apostolate. Some Religious Congregations were founded for a specific work but the Carmelite Order tries simply to respond to the needs of the Church and the world which differ according to time and place, and so, many friars work in parishes, schools, universities, retreat centers, prisons, hospitals etc. The kind of service which each individual friar is involved in will depend on the needs of the people in whose midst he lives and his own particular talents.
THE CHARISM OF THE ORDER
- “To live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience;” these words, inspired by St. Paul, are the basis for all the elements of our charism; they are the foundation upon which Albert constructed our way of life. The particular Palestinian context in which the Order originated, and the approval bestowed by the Holy See at the various stages of the Order’s historical evolution, gave new meaning and inspiration to the way of life set out in the Rule. Carmelites live their life of allegiance to Christ through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through fraternity, and through service (diakonia) in the midst of the people.
- The spiritual tradition of the Order has stressed that these three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. Down the ages the Carmelites have emphasized the dynamic of the desert experience as a crucial factor in unifying these values. The desert experience is a Carmelite commitment to make the crucified Christ – stripped and emptied – the very foundation of their lives; to channel their energies entirely towards him in faith, tearing down any obstacles which may stand in the way of perfect dependence on him or impede perfect charity towards God and towards others. This process of detachment which leads to union with God – the ultimate goal of all human growth – is found in our spirituality in the expressions “purity of heart” (“puritas cordis”) and “total availability to God (“vacare Deo”). These indicate a total openness to God and a gradual self-emptying. Through this process, when we come to see reality with God’s eyes, our attitude towards the world is transformed according to his love, and the contemplation of the loving presence of God will be seen in our lives of fraternity and of service.
1. THE CONTEMPLATIVE DIMENSION OF OUR LIFE
- From its earliest days, the community of Carmelites adopted a contemplative style, both in its structures and in its basic values. This is clearly reflected in the Rule, which describes a community of brothers, totally dedicated to prayerful attention to the Word, celebrating and praising the Lord with zeal. The Rule speaks of a community whose members are open to the indwelling of the Spirit and formed by the Spirit’s values: chastity, holy thoughts, justice, love, faith, the expectation of salvation, work accomplished in peace, silence which, as the Prophet tells us, is the cult of justice and brings wisdom to word and action; and discernment, “the guide and moderator of all virtues.”
- The tradition of the Order has always interpreted the Rule and the founding charism as expressions of the contemplative dimension of life, and the great spiritual teachers of the Carmelite Family have always returned to this contemplative vocation. Contemplation begins when we entrust ourselves to God, in whatever way he chooses to approach us; it is an attitude of openness to God, whose presence we discover in all things. Thus, contemplation is the inner journey of Carmelites, arising out of the free initiative of God, who touches and transforms us, leading us towards a unity of love with him, raising us up so that we may enjoy this gratuitous love and live in his loving presence. It is a transforming experience of the overpowering love of God. This love empties us of our limited and imperfect human ways of thinking, loving, and behaving, transforming them into divine ways.
- Contemplation also has a gospel and an ecclesial value. The practice of contemplation is not only the source of our spiritual life; it also determines the quality of our fraternal life and of our service in the midst of the people of God. The values of contemplation – when lived faithfully in the midst of the complex events of daily life – make Carmelite brotherhood a witness to the living and mysterious presence of God among his people. The search for the face of God, and openness to the gifts of the
Spirit,make us more attentive to the signs of the times and more sensitive to the seeds of the Word in history, seeing and evaluating facts and events within the Church and within society. Through living like Christ, in solidarity with the events and the hopes of the human race, Carmelites will be able to make appropriate decisions to transform life, making it conform more closely to the will of the Father. Moreover, for the good of the Church, the contemplative dimension will encourage those who feel called to an eremeticallife.
- A contemplative attitude towards the world around us allows us to discover the presence of God in the events of ordinary daily life and especially, to see him in our brothers and sisters. Thus we are led to appreciate the mystery of those with whom we share our lives. Our Rule requires us to be essentially “brothers”, and reminds us that the quality of interpersonal relationships within the Carmelite community needs to be constantly developed and enhanced, following the inspiring example of the first community in Jerusalem. For us to be brothers means to grow in communion and in unity, overcoming privileges and distinctions, in a spirit of participation and co-responsibility, in sharing material possessions, a common program of life, and personal charisms; to be brothers also means to care for one another’s spiritual and psychological well-being, through walking in the way of dialogue and reconciliation.
- These fraternal values find expression and nourishment in the Word, in the Eucharist, and in prayer. Hearing, praying and living the Word – in silence, in solitude and in community, especially in the form of lectio divina – Carmelites are led, day by day, to know and experience the mystery of Jesus Christ. Inspired by the Spirit and rooted in Christ Jesus, abiding in him by day and by night, Carmelites allow every choice and every action to be guided by his Word. Inspired by the Word and in communion with the whole Church, the brothers come together to praise the Lord, and invite others to share in their experience of prayer. Every day, if possible, the brothers are called, from solitude and from their apostolic work, to the Eucharist – source and culmination of their lives so that, gathered together around the Lord’s table, they may be “united, heart and soul,” living true, fraternal koinonia in unselfishness, in mutual service, in faithfulness to a common goal and in a spirit of reconciliation inspired by Christ’s love. As a contemplative fraternity, we seek the face of God and we serve the Church in the world or possibly in eremetical solitude.
3. SERVICE IN THE MIDST OF THE PEOPLE
- As a contemplative brotherhood, we seek the face of God also in the heart of the world. We believe that God has established his dwelling place among his people, and for this reason, the Carmelite brotherhood knows itself to be a living part of the Church and of history – an open fraternity, able to listen to the world it lives in, and willing to be questioned by it; ready both to meet life’s challenges and to give an authentic, evangelical response based on our own charism. Carmelites will show solidarity and will be eager to collaborate with all who suffer, who hope, and who commit themselves to the search for the Kingdom of God.
- The notion of traveling, hinted at in the Rule, is an expression of the evangelical and apostolic style of the mendicant orders. It is a call to the Carmelite brotherhood to discern and to follow the ways marked out by the Lord’s Spirit for communities and individuals; it is a sign of solidarity and of generous service – both to the Universal and local Church and to the world of today.
- The community residence is where the community “gathers” and lives; for Carmelites, it is also a place of welcome and hospitality, so that people share in a common spirit, in fraternal reconciliation, and in the experience of God lived in the community.
- Finally, this way of being “in the midst of the people” is a sign and a prophetic witness of new relationships of fraternity and friendship among men and women everywhere. It is a prophetic message of justice and peace in society and among peoples. As an integral part of the Good News, this prophecy must be fulfilled through an active commitment to the transformation of sinful systems and structures into grace-filled systems and structures. It is also an expression of “the choice to share in the lives of “the little ones” of history, so that we may speak a word of hope and of salvation from their midst – more by our life than by our words.” This option flows naturally from our profession of poverty in a mendicant fraternity and is in keeping with our allegiance to Christ Jesus, lived out also through allegiance to the poor and to those in whom the face of our Lord is reflected in a preferential way.