Carmelite spirituality is Christian spirituality – not an idiosyncratic or esoteric spirituality. As such, contrary to some popular misconceptions, it is not reserved to a select group within the Church or to a spiritually elite, but is accessible to all whom the Spirit calls to follow this way. As a Christian spirituality, Carmelite spirituality is a way of following Jesus Christ and walking the path of the gospel.
Carmelite spirituality is characterised by an intense thirst for an immediate and direct experience of God. Reduced to its most fundamental expression, Carmelite spirituality is centred on prayer, understood as loving friendship with God, and contemplation as the free gift of God. Hence, Carmelite spirituality is focused on attention to one’s relationship with Jesus. This is expressed in various ways in the major sources of Carmelite spirituality, such as the Rule of St. Albert, the writings of the founders of Discalced Carmel Sts. Teresa and John of the Cross, and indeed in the writings of all our Carmelite saints.
In the Rule of St. Albert, the Christian character of Carmelite spirituality is clearly expressed as living ‘a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ’. This involves a gradual and progressive conversion and transformation – a putting on of the mind and heart of Jesus. Sts. Teresa and John of the Cross, speak of prayer and contemplation as ‘friendship with God’ and ‘union with God’ respectively. Prayer and contemplation, as a relationship with God, in and through loving friendship with Jesus Christ, is not a technique or one of the many daily activities, but embracing of one’s whole life. For the Carmelite then there is no experience in one’s life that is outside the ambit of relationship with God.
Together with prayer and contemplation, Carmelite spirituality emphasises the doctrine of the Divine Indwelling. Both Sts. Teresa and John of the Cross teach us that God, the Blessed Trinity, dwells within the human person. Hence, one need not go out of self in search for God but enter progressively ever deeper within oneself to be with God who dwells at the very centre of our being. St. Teresa speaks of this journey within as an itinerary through a castle with seven mansions. St. John of the Cross hymns this reality: “What more do you want, O soul! And what else do you search for outside, when within yourself you possess your riches, delights, satisfactions, fullness and kingdom – your Beloved whom you desire and seek? Be joyful and gladdened in your interior recollection with Him, for you have Him so close to you. Desire Him there, adore Him there. Do not go in pursuit of Him outside yourself. You will only become distracted and wearied thereby, and you shall not find Him, or enjoy Him more securely, or sooner, or more intimately than by seeking Him within you.” (S.C. 1:8) Interiority and recollection, then, are at the very heart of Carmelite spirituality.
In order to foster and facilitate relationship with God, through prayer and contemplation, Carmelite spirituality proposes certain means, both personal and communal, namely meditation on the word of God, liturgy, silence and solitude, and asceticism. The Rule of St. Albert urges an unceasing pondering of the Law of the Lord in Scripture and the strengthening of one’s heart with holy thoughts, so that the word of God may abound in one’s heart and lips, and guide all one’s actions. The Rule also exhorts Carmelites to come together daily for the celebration of the sacred liturgy.
Carmelite spirituality proposes silence and solitude as necessary pre-requisites for prayer and contemplation. Silence refers not only to external noise but also to the stilling of one’s internal noises. Silence is the condition for listening attentively to the still small voice of God. Solitude provides the ambience where one may be alone so as to focus more attentively on the Beloved. Solitude then is not primarily separation or isolation from others, but a place of privileged encounter with the Beloved.
Asceticism is the means of freeing self from the tyranny of self-will, simplifying one’s life, and preserving all of one’s energy for journeying to God. For St. John of the Cross, the main expression of asceticism involves a radical detachment from inordinate or disordered desires and appetites. Detachment is a way of prioritising God above all creatures. As such, it witnesses to the primacy and all sufficiency of God. Asceticism is not only at the service of a deeper life with God, but it is also geared to the demands of the apostolic ministry.
Although Carmelite spirituality highly esteems prayer and contemplation these are always in service of the apostolate. Hence, integral to Carmelite spirituality is apostolic service to the Church. This aspect is particularly highlighted by St. Teresa. For St. Teresa, while prayer and contemplation are paramount, they are not ends in themselves but are orientated to the support, welfare, and apostolic fruitfulness of all those engaged in the work of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. Carmelite spirituality, then, is not simply about self salvation, but a way of co-operating with God in bringing about God’s reign on earth.
Finally Carmelite spirituality teaches that authentic prayer and contemplation is accompanied by and promotes growth in the human and theological virtues. This leads to a flowering in the Carmelite of the two-fold gospel commandment of love of God and love of neighbour.