The Vocation to Carmel

Below is an article from Fr. Iain Matthew, a Carmelite Priest. Father is an assistant editor of Mt. Carmel and a member of the Carmelite Retreat Centre, Boars Hill, Oxford. Extensive extracts have been taken from Father's article. Father has artfully woven the lives of our Saints into his article and through them captures the essence of the Carmelite vocation and the apostolic thrust of Carmel.


Carmel's inner room

'When you pray, go into your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in that secret place. And your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.' (Mt. 6:6)

OCD-carmelite-prayer.pngThe Carmelite saints point the way to this place where prayer is most alive. They also show just how open and embracing that inner room is. There people connect: closely, humanly. In a chattering, lonely society, the journey within offers a way out of our impotence and isolation.

St. Teresa's reform rests on this conviction: that the person, who enters within, to be with the King, is lifting up the world. Her 'Way of Perfection' is evidence of this. Her sisters wanted advice on prayer and this she offers masterfully in the second half of the work. Since prayer is a way of loving, it implicates the person: 'What kind of people do we have to be?' St. Teresa asks in the first half of the book (WP 4:1). But all of this - how to pray, how to live so that prayer may grow - rests on the appeal she makes in the first three chapters. There she sets out the rationale of her communities. You are here, she says, for them: for the church, for people. It is because the sisters' life of prayer can have a direct effect on the life of the Church that their freedom, concord and wakefulness are of such concern to the mother foundress. 'The world is on fire - No my sisters: this is no time to be treating with God of matters of small importance.' (WP 1:5)



Prayer helps others because, when we ask, God answers our prayer. But more is at stake than an extrinsic connection. The prayer of love fosters togetherness deeper than any natural bond. John of the Cross and his interpreter St. Therese express this. In the 'Spiritual Canticle' the person is increasingly awoken by the love of Christ until she can be all for Him. 'A little of this pure love, love from a centre come alive in the breath of the Bridegroom, does more good to the Church than all the other works put together' (ef. SC 29:2). The search for Christ, however private it may appear, is freeing up blocked veins and restoring connectedness to the whole Body.

This perception was essential to Therese's mission. The inner room, where love binds the soul to Christ intimately, is where fragmented humanity knits together. She rejoiced to discover that the Church has a heart. Actively being that heart, she has a direct effect on the health of her brothers and sisters: 'In the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love' (SS p.194). The Church is so one, that each person's love affects the whole.


The Meetings Place

The Saints invert perceptions. Our lives, separate on the surface, are closest when we live from 'within': what looks hidden, withdrawn, privatized, is in fact the point of greatest access. Other figures strike the same note. Francisco Palau, prophet of the Church's oneness, of humanity's connectedness in Christ: Edith Stein committed to healing the wound of her people by living their pain from within. But this sense of their bonding finds a particularly practical expression in Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity. She speaks of it with ease and warmth. She seems to have lived it, tasted it. Her faith in our oneness in Christ, and her focus on His presence at the soul's centre, make it the meeting place for those who are in Christ. There they can be one, however much geography and physics may seem to keep them apart.

When she entered the Carmelite community in Dijon, Elizabeth was concerned to stay close to her sister. Her letter to 'Guite' insistently summons her to a new togetherness. Referring to a period of Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, Elizabeth promises that her sister and mother will 'be there with me ... I so love to speak of you to God... There close to Him, I find you again, for there is no separation for souls. Ah! How I love you! I have never felt it so much!' Four months later: 'I spent nearly my whole day close to Him, and my Guite was there with me, for it seems that I keep her in my soul'... This 'keeping the other in her soul' is something real...


Communion in Love

When those we love are far away, or suffering, or in need: when we know people whose lives are being destroyed and there seems to be no way of reaching them; when people are in impossible situations and there are no words to help them: the Carmelite Saints hold out the promise of a hidden access to the other's heart. When we know ourselves part of a Body, with all its wounded-ness and gracefulness; when Christ calls us to be part of His project and help reconcile the world: when we want to go to the core of things: the Carmelite saints assure us that these hopes are not illusions. Blessed Elizabeth in particular knew this. In the inner room, Christ dwells, actively loving and pouring out His life. Communion in Him is so real that one can meet others there, and hold them there, and place them under the saving influence of Christ. Blessed Elizabeth writes to Antoinette de Bobet, a mother in her thirties who increasingly became her friend who at this moment became unwell: 'I hold you in the centre of my soul, right where the Divine Guest dwells and I am exposing you to all the sweet rays of His love, saying to Him: Master, Antoinette is there!'

That is one way, Blessed Elizabeth tells us, we can reach and help others: hold them at the centre, where the Divine Christ dwells, and expose them to the rays of His love.

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