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Carmelite Spirituality in the midst of a Pandemic

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

Carmelite Spirituality in the midst of a Pandemic

Rev. Ron Oakham, O.Carm.

Beginning in 2005 and concluding with a report in 2008, the Vatican staged a visitation of seminaries in the United States. During the visit of the Carmelite’s theological house of formation in Washington, DC, the visitators presented to the formation directors a concern that they didn’t see the students (the seminarians) spending much time in prayer in the chapel beyond the periods of common prayer (the Liturgy of the Hours and the celebration of Eucharist). The formators responded by referring the visitators to Chapter 10 of the Carmelite Rule: Each one of you is to stay in his own cell or nearby, pondering the Lord’s law day and night and keeping watch at his prayers unless attending to some other duty.

This directive has its origin in the way of life of the first Carmelites who dwelt in a wadi (side canyon) on Mt. Carmel (a 13 mile long ridge on the southern edge of the Bay of Haifa in the northern part of the Holy Land) in the spirit of Elijah the prophet. As Christians, we are familiar with how Jesus would periodically withdraw from time to time from his public ministry for periods of quiet prayer and reflection. This has been an inspiration for his followers through the centuries made explicit in our tradition of retreat centers and houses of prayer often supported by communities of men and women who have withdrawn from secular life to form monasteries and hermitages. But this practice of withdrawing from the regular routine of one’s life can be seen as a part of the prayer tradition prior to Jesus within our Judaic ancestry. One example is of the prophet Elijah who often took refuge in the Wadi-‘Ain-es-Siah of Mt. Carmel in the Holy Land. Tradition holds that it was to this wadi that Elijah would withdraw to dwell in one of the caves on the side walls because it is the one wadi on the mountain that has a spring which flows year round, a spring honored with the title The Spring of Elijah. Through the centuries, even those before Christ, persons seeking spiritual nourishment would withdraw from their daily lives to dwell in the caves along the walls of the wadi in the spirit of Elijah.

In the latter part of the 11th and beginning of the 12th century, disillusioned crusaders took to the wadi forming what was to become known as the Latin Hermits of Mt. Carmel. The particular format of life for these hermits was not so much of individuals living in isolation (the most common understanding of the eremitical life), but that of what is know as cenobitic life (that of cenobites) in which one lived in their own dwelling but came together for communal prayer and meals. When Albert Avogardo (the Latin Patriarch – bishop – of Jerusalem) was asked by the Latin Hermits to write them a rule of life, he lived with them for a period of time and simply wrote up the way in which he observed them living. While they came together for communal prayer and meals, each spent the rest of their day in their cell (or nearby) in prayer. Their cell was their primary place of prayer, reflection, contemplation, not the chapel. Albert codified this practice in what we know now as Chapter 10 of his Forumla Vitae (the Carmelite Rule).

In time, the Latin Hermits, seeking refuge from the warring advances of the Saracens, returned to Europe with crusaders heading home. There, their way of life transitioned from that of cenobites to medicants – religious actively involved in ministry. So, while much of their day may have been spent “in the streets of the city” doing pastoral work along with time in chapel for communal prayer, they still understood their cell (their room) to be their primary place of prayer. This remains the understanding for Carmelites throughout the centuries even unto today.

This aspect of Carmelite Spirituality has made it quite feasible for including laity in the family of Carmel. Third Order Carmelites – single and married members of the Faithful – are persons who live and work in the secular world but who bring to it their commitment to Christ in a very conscious manner. In the Rule for the Third Order of Carmel (Living the Carmelite Way), a quote by the Carmelite Blessed Titus Brandsma is included: “Prayer is life, it is not an oasis in the desert of life” and article #39 states: The scope of spiritual life is not limited to the liturgy. Although Christians are called to common prayer, they are also asked to go into their rooms and pray to their Father in secret. (Mt 6:6)… Lay Carmelites, according to the constant tradition of Carmel, very diligently cultivate prayer in all its forms. Great importance is to be given to a prayerful listening to God’ word: lectio divina. Other forms which have found a place in the Carmelite tradition are mental prayer, the practice of the presence of God, aspirative prayer, silent prayer, as well as other devotional practices. Their rule is clear, one does not need to withdraw from life “in the world” to be a person of prayer, nor does one need to leave their home to live as a Carmelite. What one needs to do, is to consciously see the home as their primary place of prayer and reflection from where they will come together from time to time – at their parish as well as with other Third Order Carmelites - for communal prayer and worship, and from where they bring to bear the Spirit of Christ as they engage in their daily lives (the mission of the Laity).

I believe this dimension of Carmelite Spirituality has something to offer us today in this era of a pandemic when we are experiencing “stay at home” directives. Because of the precautions we are taking to stem the tide of the spread of the Corona Virus, parishes have ceased to offer public gatherings for the celebration of the Eucharist as well as other liturgical celebrations and devotions. Even when there has been a limited reopening of parish worship services, those 65 years and older are encouraged to abide by the “stay at home” precaution turning to watching electronically streamed / recorded Masses if they have the needed technological hardware. If one’s spirituality is founded upon being in a sacred space (a chapel or a church), this is an exceedingly challenging time.

However, adopting a Carmelite attitude, one can recognize in their own home (their “cell”) a place of prayer and reflection. To foster this sense of a sacred place, I recommend establishing a place within one’s home as a prayer space. If one’s home has sufficient space, a designated room or space within a given room could be set aside to be used only for prayer and reflection. To facilitate entering into a prayerful mode, the immediate surroundings should be set up in such away that entering this space leads one into a spirit of prayer - religious articles and items for prayer (the Bible, book with the Liturgy of the Hours, spiritual reading, rosary, etc.) could be set there along with a candle or incense burner to be lit when one withdraws to pray or an audio player on which to play sacred music any of which can be used to guide one into a prayerful presence. If one’s home isn’t abundant in space, one could still establish a particular area within the home, a specific chair, etc., with some religious items nearby to be taken out and put into place when one withdraws for a time of prayer and reflection.

As one interested in spirituality, you may have already developed a prayer space in your home. I believe that this dimension of Carmelite Spirituality could foster within you a sense that this is not just a secondary place of prayer (the church or a chapel being first), but a place that is one’s personal place of prayer intimately connected to these places of communal prayer. Thus, time spent in this identified place (one’s particular “cell”) becomes sacred and is where one is nourished by God’s Spirit for one’s daily routine and for joining in a communal gathering for worship and prayer even if one or both of these realities is/are virtual (working from home, worshiping from home).

This reflection has been prepared by Rev. Ron Oakham, O.Carm., a priest of the Order of the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance. He has served in parish, diocesan, international and provincial ministry positions. Currently retired, he continues to do pastoral ministry assisting in parishes as well as renewed studying of Carmelite Spirituality.

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