About 800 years ago, a group of men dedicated to the spiritual life seeking silence, solitude, and community in order to deeply know, love, and serve God, began to gather and live near one another as hermits on Mt. Carmel in Israel. This mountain is where Elijah the prophet, his disciple Elisha and their school of prophets had lived near the spring of Carith. It is where Elijah confronted the false prophets of Baal, and God responded with consuming fire, bringing the people of Israel to their senses and back to the one true God. It is where Elijah experienced the “still small voice of God.”
The hermits called themselves the Brothers of Mary of Mt. Carmel. Each hermit lived in a cave or simple dwelling. There was an oratory in the center where they gathered for daily mass. We can reflect on this arrangement as symbolic of the entire family of the Church, that we too are arranged around Jesus in the Eucharist, around the mass which is at the heart of our faith.
Eventually they sought to have their way of life written as a rule approved by the Church. Sometime between 1206 and 1214 they approached the Patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Albert of Avogadro, to do this for them. The resulting rule of life is the shortest the Church has on record, and most of it is Scripture and references to Scripture. It was approved finally by Pope Innocent IV in 1247.
The Rule of St. Albert does not contain a lot of detail but shows in a more general way the spirit of the Carmelite’s life of prayer on the mountain. Every aspect of their lives was crafted to cultivate a continual awareness of the presence of God within and around them. This prayerful awareness practiced daily came to overflow into all of their activities, inspiring their service and leading them to the heights of prayer. They sought to experience the beauty of the Lord more and more, inspiring them to greater and greater love, until they truly prayed without ceasing and were transformed in character, conduct and consciousness* by their union with the Lord.
Paragraph two of the Rule says
Many and varied are the ways in which our saintly forefathers laid down how everyone, whatever his station or the kind of religious observance he has chosen, should live a life in allegiance to Jesus Christ – how, pure in heart and stout in conscience, he must be unswerving in the service of the Master.
For us lay people today, this can serve as a reminder. All of us whatever our station in life, or our personal religious expression within the Church, whatever ways we pray, are all called to holiness. We share a common purpose of unswerving allegiance to Our Beloved Lord.
Carmel is a excellent way. I have heard before that there is no Catholic who does not owe something to Carmel. It is a sure way trodden by saints and Doctors of the Church. Carmel’s charism is prayer, and it is a trustworthy school of prayer. I think every Catholic can benefit from Carmelite spirituality in some way.
The joy and love of contemplative life and profound intimacy with God is here for every one of us.
Hopefully something about the Rule of St. Albert will inspire your own prayer life.
These men had a very simple life free of worry about possessions, property, social obligations and engagements. Their calendars were pretty clear.
All things were held in common and distributed by the Prior according to each ones’ needs.
They didn’t have to wonder what to do. Very little planning was necessary. The rhythm of their lives was basically the same every day.
All this freed them to also have calm, quiet but rich inner lives.
Living as they did may be too much for us. But their dedicated example can encourage us to simplify our own lives and find time for silence and solitude.
So what was a day in the life of an early Carmelite hermit like?
He would be up very early like most people who live close to nature, to light lamps, care for animals, take care of chores.
He would have prayed Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours..
a collection of Psalms, canticles, Scripture readings and prayers. The Liturgy of the Hours is still prayed by clergy, religious and lay people all over the world today. A free online resource for this is Universalis if you would like to tune in to the official public prayer of the Church, weave Scripture into your day, and find a great way to sanctify time. It is also a good way to order your daily life toward prayer.
Our hermit then would have gathered with the others for mass at the chapel of Our Lady of Mt.Carmel.
Ruins of the chapel still on Mt. Carmel
He would have then followed his compatriots to breakfast, which would have been meatless, home grown or donated food.
The Rule specifies that they were to eat whatever was given to them. I think one way to translate this for our lay lives is a quote from St. Elizabeth of the Trinity “Let us lovingly eat the bread of the will of God.” In our lay Christian lives, we could take this as a profound example of reliance on God’s providence and a deep acceptance of his will in our lives as it presents itself each day.
At all meals they tried to listen attentively while someone read aloud from the Scriptures as they ate.
Our hermit would have gone on with his day of work and prayer, “keeping Scripture as an accompaniment with all [he did.] “
How did he do that? In some of the desert communities (the prototypes of Christian monasticism starting in the third century in Egypt) the Psalms were chanted while work was done. However the rule states that Carmelites were to do their work in silence. Perhaps this Scriptural accompaniment was done by pondering the Scripture in his heart and mind as he worked.
When I worked at the Eagle Newspaper in the Press Room, my job was manual labor in nature. The rolling of the press was as loud as an a jet during takeoff. During a “run” there was little conversation, only what was necessary to get the job done, speaking over a head set. I found myself doing exactly what the Rule recommends; working in silence, pondering over the Scriptures and praying as I worked.
One of the crew members and I used to give one another Scripture to memorize. I I developed the habit of keeping a verse or two in the pocket of my uniform that I was working on committing to memory. Perhaps the Carmelites prayed like that as they went about chopping wood, carrying water, working in the garden, caring for their animals , simply praying and meditating on the Scriptures through the day.
The Rule says that the hermit of Carmel was supposed to stay in his cell or nearby when he wasn’t working, “keeping watch in prayer” and “pondering the law of God day and night.” This law is generally understood to mean the Scriptures. I also think that according to Jesus the law of God is love.
O God, we meditate on your unfailing love. Psalm 48:9b
How wonderful to ponder continuously the law of God which is love, and God Himself whom we know is Love.
As St. Teresa, reformer of Carmel was to say hundreds of years later, “Prayer is making time to be alone with the Friend who we know loves us.”
The Brothers of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel crafted a life of love.
On Sundays our hermit would have attended a community meeting where various issues were discussed and the brothers were to “lovingly correct one another’s faults.” us This does not sound so fun. But we do know that spiritual community and spiritual friendships are indispensable in the life of prayer. We need others to walk, pray, and talk about spiritual things with. We need people who love us enough to help us stay on track, help us to discern God’s will, and inspire us in the love of Christ. Our soul friends help us grow.
At times our hermit may have gone down the mountain to teach, preach, beg food for the community, or be of service to others in some way. When we are people of prayer, our prayer will inspire service and sharing of our faith. St. Teresa said the perfected spiritual human being will be the perfect mix of Mary and Martha: prayer and service.
Our hermit’s dinner would have been much like his breakfast; eaten in silence with his brothers as one of them read aloud from Scripture.
He would have prayed Evening Prayer, attended to any evening duties.
At about 9 O’Clock he would have prayed Night Prayer.
I expect he would have gone to bed early.
And so ended his day, well arranged around prayer, leading to an entire life of prayer and intimacy with God.
After Night Prayer the Carmelites kept a rule of silence until after Morning Prayer the next day. The rule states that “silence is the way to cultivate holiness” and urges them that even during times the hermits could speak with one another that they avoid pointless chatter.
Most of us can probably see how avoiding pointless chatter and guarding our speech would improve our spiritual lives not to mention our relationships. We can make an effort to be kindly in speech and to experiment with silence. So often people feel loved when we are more quiet and can listen to them. I am sure God feels similarly! When we are quiet we naturally turn inward where God lives.
Back to this staying in the cell thing:
Carmelite spirituality is driven by the belief expressed so well by our St.Teresa of Avila:
“God is within us and we should not leave him there alone.”
Colossians 11:27 says
To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
So you could think of this cell as your heart where Jesus, as we are repeatedly told by Scripture, truly lives.
We could read “Stay in your cell” as “stay in your heart, and when you’re working stay close to your heart, keeping watch in prayer. ”
How did the hermits actually pray?
Early Chrisitian contemplative prayer was very much grounded in Scripture. The Carmelite hermits, similar to the Desert Fathers, would have spent a lot of time memorizing Scripture. The method of inner prayer they used was similar, I imagine, to Meditatio Scripturarem, a sustained going over and over a memorized passage as a way to keep continuously focussed on the Lord. That is what I think they were doing. The Hesychasm (a method of “imageless” interior prayer developed in the desert by the monks of the Eastern Church) of the Desert Fathers had not been developed yet and Lectio Divina (literally “holy reading” a way to pray with the Bible in an interactive way with God) of the Western Church had not been formalized into steps. So I am thinking they used the Scripture in a less formal way than was developed later.
In Carmelite prayer, the important thing, as St.Teresa herself said in general, is a not to think much but to love much. To me that means presence and attentiveness are the main things they would have been trying for.
Active inner prayer is about attention. The words of the Scripture, for this practice, are touch stones of focus.
If you would like to try this early Christian form of interior prayer, I have written about it here.
Carmel is a Marian order but Mary’s name is not mentioned in the rule at all except for the name the Brothers called themselves, the Brothers of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. How is Carmel Marian? Carmelites consider ourselves to be living the life of Mary, her actual spiritual life. The Carmelite strives to continually ponder God’s word in his heart as Mary did, to cherish Jesus within, to be attentive to God’s presence at all times, and to develop a listening and responsive heart. Then, as Mary did, he takes this love and experience of God to others. He prays with and for the Church as Mary is shown to have done.
The Marian devotion of Carmel is primarily imitation of her, reflecting her, mirroring her heart.
I think this is why we often call her not only our Mother and Queen, but also our sister.
Night Prayer ends each day with a prayer, chant or song to Mary.
Let’s pray one now and ask that she might impart to us her own inner life of prayer and love.
1. In what ways do you (or can you) develop the contemplative dimension of your life?
2. When is your alone time? Think about what you like to do in your alone time with yourself and God? How do you cherish and protect that time?
3. How do you pray best? What kind of prayer are you most drawn to?
4. In order to live an intentionally spiritual life the early Carmelites practiced detachment from possessions and simplicity of life. What might be the value in that? What are some ways we can simplify our lives: our physical space, our time, our days… to make room for calm, for God ?
5. How can we order our own days to find a rhythm and balance of prayer, work, community, contact with Scripture, and service to others? Do you have any ideas for your own rule of life?
* …”transformation of character conduct and consciousness” is a phrase I borrowed from Gandhi.
Note: this is an adaptation of a talk I gave at a women’s retreat recently. Minus my dumb jokes. And only because I can’t remember them.