Reflecting on the question people sometimes ask about the characteristics of Carmelite prayer, the first thing that comes to the mind is the prayer life of Carmelite men and women of the past and the present. Carmelite prayer is the prayer of people who feel inspired by the rich tradition of Carmelite spirituality. They find inspiration in Scripture and liturgy. Another source of inspiration are the words and lives of Mary, Mother and Splendour of Carmel, and Elijah, leader and father of Carmel. Both Mary and Elijah are models for the contemplative way of life.
Praying the Carmelite way is a praying that is rooted in the Scriptures. The Carmelite Rule is one long chain of Biblical quotations. The Rule advises us ‘to contemplate day and night the Law of the Lord’. The Carmelite is formed and transformed by the Word of God. Throughout the centuries, Lectio divina has been used for contemplating the Word of the Lord. While reading and meditating on Scripture texts, ideas and feelings arise which lead to conversation with God. By thinking about what one has read, one tries to search for the deeper meaning of a certain text in order to arrive at an unconstrained conversation with God in the intimacy of the contemplation. Lectio divina or the Spiritual Reading wants to bring the one who prays to this contemplative consciousness. The method has been translated by members of the Carmelite Family into contemporary models of spiritual reading.
In Carmelite liturgy one focuses on the Word as this was received by Mary and has become flesh in Jesus. The daily liturgical life of the Carmelite Family finds its inspiration in Scripture and especially in the Psalms. For many Carmelite friars and brothers and sisters reading the Psalms is a way of interiorizing the Prayer of the Divine Office. The Word of God as this resounds in the liturgical gathering is an important source of the daily prayer life of the members of the Carmelite Family.
Marian & Elijan prayer
In Carmelite spirituality it is the personal relationship with God that matters. Through this relation one lets him or herself be inspired by the life of Mary and the life of Elijah. Since the beginning of the Carmelite Order Mary has taken a special place. Mary is sometimes called the patroness of contemplative prayer. The brothers and sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel let themselves be inspired by her as an example of a life in God’s presence. Contemplation on Mary’s life can be a way of becoming aware of God’s presence in our daily life. The same is true for contemplating the life story of the prophet Elijah. Carmelites love his words: ‘The Lord lives, in whose presence I stand’ (1Kings 17:1). Carmelite prayer is oriented towards a contemplative standing before the Face of God.
According to some people Carmelite prayer is always a contemplative prayer. Ernest Larkin, O.Carm., in his book about Carmelite prayer, has an interesting part that shows that there are big similarities between contemporary contemplative forms of prayer, like the Christian meditation and interior prayer (centring prayer) and the Carmelite prayer tradition. In the literal sense of the word Carmelite prayer is the prayer of known and unknown Carmelite friars and nuns, who with heart and soul have dedicated themselves to God. Some of them have left us their mystical writings. They did this out of obedience to their superior or because they wanted to introduce others to the mystery of God’s presence. Thus the great Teresa of Avila inspired the young Thérèse Martin to follow the little way which she describes in the ‘Story of a Soul’. In her turn the little Teresa inspired nuns to live in God’s presence. Also the Jewish philosopher, Edith Stein, was touched by the truth which she detected in the life of Teresa of Avila, and by John of the Cross because of his knowledge of the Cross. As a Carmelite nun she wrote about her own knowledge of the Cross and how she had lived it. In order to reach the highest forms of contemplative prayer many have consulted the centuries-old Carmelite mystical tradition.
Carmelite prayer is praying with the heart, or affective praying. For Teresa of Avila praying is a moment of dialogue. Praying is for her ‘nothing else than having contact with a friend of whom we know that he loves us and with whom we therefore seek contact in order to speak with him alone and in confidence’. Because Teresa uses plain language when she speaks about the way of prayer she is still a source of inspiration for many people who are seeking God today. Carmelite prayer is sometimes called Teresian prayer.
In the writings of Carmelite reformers like John of the Cross and John of Saint Samson we find the prayer of aspiration. Aspiration come from the word ‘aspirare’ and this means breathing towards. This refers to inhaling the love and moving along the path that love opens up in us. It is the praying that happens in you. In a receptive soul God breathes in order to carry the soul along with him. According to Hendrik Herp, the contemplative life consists of a soul and a body. Love is the soul of contemplation and aspiration is the body of contemplation. Through the aspiration, or rather through moving along the movement of God’s breath, the desire of man to love will enkindle his love ever more. When love lives in us, then every word we speak will be like an arrow which pierces the heart of the other. Aspirations are short and quick prayers of heaving sighs. The sighing of the soul, which utters an ‘oh’ or an ‘ah’ is like the prayer of someone who does not know how to pray. It is like the Spirit, who comes to rescue us in weakness and pleads with unspeakable sighs. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul speaks about his hope for the coming glory. With St Paul, Carmelites live from hope. Our praying is like the coming of the Messiah. Our working in silence is carried by the hope which lives in our heart. But ‘because our hope is directed towards the invisible, our waiting and expecting must be accompanied with perseverance.’
Sanny Bruijns is a Carmelite sister of the Dutch Province of the Order of Carmelites.