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The Carmelite Vocation

Thomas Mcginnis, O.Carm.

We often read in books and hear in lectures about the various schools of spirituality within the Catholic Church. We are told, for example, that the Dominican school is distinguished by its emphasis upon the intellectual element in the spiritual life; the Franciscan school, by a similar emphasis upon the affective element. The existence of such schools may at first sight appear strange; yet serious consideration will tell us that the oft-quoted words of St. Augustine apply not only to individual souls,

but as well to individual religious orders, individual pious congregations, individual nations: “some follow this path; others, another”. Clearly, it is not the end of the spiritual life which differentiates the various schools of spirituality, for all spiritual life tends to the goal of the beatific vision of God for all eternity. What does differentiate the various schools of spirituality is the means of attaining that end: not that each school uses one or more means to the exclusion of all others, but each school places special emphasis upon one means and employs all the other means in varying proportions. Hence, a one-word description of Cistercian spirituality might be “Silence” ; of Benedictine spirituality, “Liturgy” ; still no one should think for an instant that the Cistercian school neglects the liturgy or that the Benedictine school disregards silence, just as no one should think that the Cistercian and Benedictine schools have exactly the same conception of liturgy and silence. To know the spirituality of a particular school, therefore, and such knowledge is necessary if we wish to live according to the spirit of such a school careful study is required: study not only of the teachings of its writers and masters, but study of the lives of its saints and holy members, study of its life as it influences its present day members. One word descriptions may be easy to remember, but they may also be misleading.

It is our present aim to discuss Carmelite spirituality. We intend to present a series of articles on this particular form or school of spirituality, because the depth and richness of the school cannot be examined in a few pages. In our study we shall present the traditional and authentic teaching of this school as it is interpreted currently by the Order's most outstanding scholars, and as it has been lived by the Order's most outstanding saints. In accordance with the principle stated above, we must say first of all that Carmelite spirituality does not differ from any other spirituality as far as its end is concerned. The end to which Carmelite spirituality tends is the end to which all spirituality tends; namely, perfect and everlasting union with God. Carmelite spirituality is distinguished, in the first place, by the main means which it uses to reach such union, and, secondarily, by the varying emphasis which it places upon all the other general means to true and perfect holiness. In this article we intend to examine this primary means; in later articles, the subordinate ones.

The Carmelite way of spirituality is the mystical way; the primary means which the Carmelite school proposes to reach the end of union with God is mysticism; the Carmelite vocation, as it is generally called, is the vocation to the mystical life.

But before examining in detail the Carmelite vocation, namely the call to the mystical life, the ultimate end to which the Carmelite, and every other earnest interior soul, must tend union with God — needs some explanation. We find the explanation in that monumental work by St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel. In the fifth chapter of the second book of the Ascent, the Saint writes: “In order to understand what is meant by this union, it must be known that God dwells and is present substantially in every soul, even in that of the greatest sinner in the world. And this kind of union is ever wrought between God and all the creatures, for in it He is preserving their being; so that if union of this kind were to fail them, they would at once be-come annihilated and would cease to be. And so, when we speak of union of the soul with God, we speak not of this substantial union which is continually being wrought, but of the union and transformation of the soul with God, which is not being wrought continually, but only when there exists that likeness that comes from love; we shall therefore term this the union of likeness, even as that other union (i.e., of God with all creatures) is called substantial or essential. The one (substantial union) is natural; the other supernatural. And the latter comes to pass when the two wills—namely that of the soul and that of God—are conformed together in one, and there is naught in the one that is repugnant to the other. And thus, when the soul rids itself totally of that which is repugnant to the Divine will and conforms not with it, it is transformed in God through love.”

In this same chapter, the Saint develops that notion of the soul's purification in which it “rids itself totally of that which is repugnant to the Divine will” and explains it. He writes: “This is to be understood of that which is repugnant, not only in action, but likewise in habit, so that not only do the voluntary acts of imperfection cease, but the habits of those imperfections, whatever they be, are annihilated. And since no creature whatsoever, or any of its actions or abilities, can conform or can attain to that which is God, therefore must the soul be stripped of all things created, of its own actions and abilities—namely, of its understanding, liking and feeling—so that, when all that is unlike God and unconformed to Him is cast out, the soul may receive the likeness of God; and nothing will then remain in it that is not the will of God and it will thus be transformed in God. Wherefore God communicates Himself most to that soul that has progressed farthest in love; namely, that has its will in closest conformity with the will of God. And the soul that has attained complete conformity and likeness of will is totally united and transformed in God supernaturally. Wherefore the more completely a soul is wrapped up in creatures and in its own abilities, by habit and affection, the less preparation it has for such union; for it gives not God a complete opportunity to transform it super-naturally. The soul, then, needs only to strip itself of these natural dissimilarities and contrarieties, so that God may communicate Himself to it supernaturally, by means of grace”. Hence, St. John concludes, “the preparation of the soul for this union not that it should understand or experience or feel or imagine anything, concerning either God or all else, but that it should have purity and love that is, perfect resignation and detachment from everything for God's sake alone”.

In reference to this purification and preparation of the soul for union with God, we must cite the words found in the Book of the Institution of the First Monks a book, the identity of whose author, to be sure, has been challenged, but whose position as the most venerable evidence of the Carmelite spiritual tradition remains secure. For “to place that in doubt”, says Fr. Patrick of St. Joseph, O.C.D., “would be to show a singular ignorance of the substance of this sublime work; indeed, in the eyes of those for whose instruction it was written, the documentary and purely historical value of the book has ever been of secondary importance”. In the Institution is outlined the spirit of the Carmelite life and the end to which the Carmelite must tend, thus: “This (the Carmelite) life has a twofold end. The one we acquire by our own work and by the practice of the virtues, with the constant aid of divine grace. This end is to offer to God a heart free from all stain of sin; and this end is attained ...when we are hidden in that love of which Wisdom says: Charity covereth all sins God, wanting Elias to attain this end, said to him: Hide thyself by the torrent of Carith”. It should be noted that this “end” to which the Institution refers is not an end, in itself, but only insofar as it is a necessary preparation for man's final end. We can see, then, how clearly all Carmelites are bound to tend towards intimate union with God, since the preparation for this union is one of the main objectives of the Carmelite life.

Still using St. John of the Cross as our guide, we find another reference to the preparative purification of the soul in The Dark Night of the Soul. In the third chapter of the first book of the Night we read: “However greatly the soul itself labors, it cannot actively purify itself so as to be in the least degree prepared for the Divine union of perfection of love, if God takes not its hand and purges it not ... in the way and manner that we have to describe”. A superficial reading of this text might lead us to claim that the Saint contradicts himself. For did he not say in the Ascent that the soul need only rid itself of all that is opposed to God in order to attain to union with Him? Yet here he seems to say that the soul is unable to attain such union. The solution of the problem is this: in the Ascent the Saint spoke of that degree of union with God which is dependent on the action of the soul, which is acquired by our own efforts, in other words, together with the habitual aid of grace. In the Dark Night of the Soul he tells us that there is a degree of union with God a degree possible even in this life—which is beyond the industry of the soul to attain. It is a degree of union to which God calls generous interior souls who have attained the lower degree of union by their own personal activity. God calls the soul, and if the soul will not resist His grace, He leads it strongly yet gently through the so-called “purgatory before death” or the passive purification of sense and spirit, usually referred to as the dark night. A glance at the nature of these purifications will enable us both to see their necessity and to appreciate the lofty and intimate union with God to which they lead.

The generous interior soul in the beginning of its spiritual life is commonly blessed by God with sensible consolations. These consolations are, indeed, momentarily useful, but they easily become an obstacle to the working of God's grace when they are sought for their own sake with a kind of spiritual gluttony. Hence the necessity of a passive purification of the senses which places the soul in sensible dryness and leads it to a spiritual life more disengaged from sense, imagination, and reasoning. By the gifts of the Holy Ghost, particularly by the gift of knowledge, the soul receives an intuitive and experimental knowledge of the vanity of earthly things and of the limitless grandeur of God. To resist temptations which God often permits the soul to suffer at this time, very meritorious, if not heroic acts of the virtues of chastity and patience must be made. It sometimes happens that the soul undergoes such a passive purification when deprived of a loved one by death or estrangement, when beset by illness or family trials, and so on.

This passive purification has for its object to subordinate our lower sense faculties to our superior spiritual faculties of intellect and will. But these higher faculties, too, need a very profound passive purification. As St. John of the Cross has written, even after the purification of sense “there still remains in the spirit the stains of the old man, although the spirit thinks not that this is so, neither can it perceive them; if these stains be not removed with the soap and strong lye of the purgation of this night, the spirit will be unable to come to the purity of Divine union”. Even those who have advanced thus far in the spiritual life, therefore, still unconsciously seek themselves, often to a great degree: they are very much attached to their own judgment, to their own particular way of doing good. They are, in a word, too sure of themselves. “The devil”, writes St. John, “is also accustomed, in this state, to fill (these souls) with presumption and pride... and these imperfections are the more incurable because such souls mistake them for spiritual perfections”. These, surely, are the faults which others see in us, and which we do not see ourselves only because we are deceived by our self-love.

The purification of the spirit is therefore indispensable; it is truly a “purgatory before death” to purify from all imperfection the virtue of humility and the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. This purification proceeds from an infused light, which is above all an illumination of the gift of understanding and which appears obscure to us only because it is too strong for the feeble eyes of our spirit. It reveals to us ever more clearly the infinite grandeur of God, superior to all the ideas which we ourselves can form of Him. On the other hand, it shows us our own defectibility and our own deficiencies, which often are seen to extend much farther than we had thought. Then humility becomes truly humility of heart: the will to be nothing, the acknowledgement that God is all. During this purification also, God generally permits very strong temptations against faith, hope, and charity to assail the soul in order to enable the soul to place heroic acts of these, the highest virtues. The soul is obliged to believe, in the absence of all other reasons, for this sole motive: God has said it. The soul is obliged to hope, against all human hope, because God, the all-powerful, abandons not His creature unless He is first abandoned by it. The soul is obliged to love God, not because of sensible or spiritual consolations which He may give it, but because He is Infinite Goodness; it is brought to love Him more than itself, since He is infinitely better than itself. Thereby, too, the soul is led to love its neighbor despite his ingratitude, and to aid hirn to salvation.

This passive purification of the spirit thus leads to what is called the mystical death, that is, to the death of self-love, of spiritual or intellectual pride which is so subtle, to the death of egoism, the root of every sin. In the depth of the soul, therefore, incontestably reigns the love of God and of the neighbor, according to the supreme precept: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with the love of thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and thy whole strength, and thy whole mind; and thy neighbor as thyself “.

The generous passage through these purifications of sense and spirit places the soul in the so-called mystical life, a life which is characterized by acts which cannot be produced by our personal activity aided by common grace, but that require a special inspiration, which is defined as a simple and loving knowledge of God, above reasoning and in the obscurity of faith. The soul is introduced to this infused contemplation when it successfully undergoes the purification of the senses, and such contemplation becomes more lofty when God sees fit to call the soul to higher perfection and union with Himself. Hence, the terms mystical life and contemplative life are often used interchangeably: the one term and the other both designate that life which has its beginning and end in love, that life which is the eminent exercise of the virtues of humility, faith, hope, and charity. In this life the soul burns to see the beauty of God. True it is that contemplation is not perfection; perfection, we know, is found essentially in charity. But contemplation is the most excellent means united to the end, since it joins us to God, for “the contemplative life is directed to the love of God, not of any degree, but to that which is perfect”. By such a life man “offers his soul in sacrifice to God”, and it is, so to speak, a beginning of perfect beatitude, “for it bestows on us a certain inchoate beatitude, which begins now and will be continued in the life to come”.

What is the position of the Carmelite with regard to this higher degree of union to which God raises truly generous interior souls? Let us return for an answer to this question to the Institution quoted above. Having outlined the first end of the Carmelite life, namely, to offer God a truly pure heart, the author of the book continues: “The other end of this life is attained solely by the gift of God. This end is that we may feel and experience in our mind and heart the power of the divine presence and the sweetness of heavenly glory—not only after, but even during this life. This is to drink from the torrent of God's pleasure. And it was this end that God promised to Elias, saying: And there thou shalt drink of the torrent.” We can think of no better commentary on these words than that of Fr. Titus Brandsma, O.Carm., who thus wrote in his article on Carmelite spirituality in the French Dictionary of Spirituality: “Never, as far as I know, in any Order, has a book furnishing a norm of life and describing the end toward which the members of the Order must tend announced in so formal a manner the vocation to the mystical life”.

We know that the Carmelites devoted themselves exclusively to the contemplative life until the thirteenth century. Then, it is true, the Order received a marked direction toward the active life; still, the distinctive Carmelite orientation toward the contemplative life did not change then, nor has it changed since. For example, the first Prior General of the Order after St. Simon Stock wrote a circular letter in which he emphatically sketched the mystical traditions and vocation of the Order. “Our Order”, he wrote, “from its very origin has been distinguished from all others by the solidity of its contemplative spirit. We have the joy to receive, in our cells, the luminous direction of the Holy Ghost. A treasure of inestimable value is revealed to us in the delight of contemplation, so that our soul, detached from all earthly things, may give itself in all fervor to this contemplative impulse”.

Blessed John Soreth, too, who reformed our Order in the fifteenth century, spoke eloquently and forcefully about the mystical life as the Carmelite life. He wrote that the reading of Holy Scripture, the Law of God, must occasion in us true spiritual joy over the presence of the Divine Guest in our souls. He tells us that we have been chosen, or rather that we are strictly obliged, to grow constantly in the pure love of God. Prayer for the Carmelite, he teaches, should not be merely an oasis in the desert of life—it should be one's whole life. And according to his doctrine, apostolic work is subordinated to the primary end of the Order, which is intimate and constant conversation with God.

The Teresian Reform, as is well-known, also insisted upon the lofty vocation of the Carmelite. And St. John of the Cross repeatedly insists upon the preparation which souls should make in order that God may favor them with His graces: “And it here behooves us to note why it is that there are so few that attain to this lofty state. It must be known that this is not because God is pleased that there should be few raised to this high spiritual state—on the contrary, it would please Him if all were so raised—but rather because He finds few vessels in whom He can perform so high and lofty a work”. And the Saint exclaims in his Spiritual Canticle: “O souls created for these grandeurs and called thereto! What do ye do? Wherein do ye occupy yourselves? Your desires are meannesses, and your possessions miseries. O wretched blindness of the eyes of your souls, which are blind to so great a light and deaf to so clear a voice, seeing not that for so long as ye seek grandeurs and glories ye remain miserable and deprived of so many blessings, and have become ignorant and unworthy”.

The Touraine Reform of the seventeenth century also kept this same idea of the Carmelite life, as can be seen from the writings of Michael of St. Augustine, one of the leading disciples of this reform. In his work, The Introduction to the Interior Life, he notes: “... the Religious of other Orders glory in their respective institutes; the Carmelites, however, glory more in their vocation, which is to meditate day and night on the law of the Lord, and, by being constant in prayer, to hold perpetual conversation with God”.

Finally, in the present Constitutions of our Order, we find these words: “we profess the principal and primary end of the Order to consist in prayer and contemplation”.

Realizing the high vocation to which we have been called—whether as members of the First, Second, or Third Order, lay or regular—our first feelings should be those of deep gratitude to God and His Mother and of sincere appreciation of the life and spirit of the Order. Next, we must renew our good resolve to try to be faithful to our vocation, to try to reach that degree of sanctity—and it is a high degree—to which God is most definitely calling us. That high degree, to be sure, will be the result of a free gift on His part. But we have first to use the means to dispose ourselves for such a gift, to use the particular means which we have as Carmelites: silence, solitude, prayer, mortification, complete consecration to Mary; and the use of these means in Carmel will form the subject matter for later articles. Finally, our constant plea should be that God will enable us to reach that degree of active union with Him which He requires before He will raise us to a more intimate union. While practicing the Carmelite ascetical life in silence, prayer, and mortification, we will be faithful to those words spoken to us by the Lord through His prophet Zachary: “Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you”. While praying that He will enable us to prepare actively in order to receive the favors He wishes to bestow upon us, we will be answering Him in the profound words of Jeremias: “Convert us, O Lord, to Thee, and we shall be converted”.

Thomas Mcginnis, O.Carm.

In The Spirit of Carmel, No.1 - 1951


As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."