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Contemplation, the heart of the Carmelite way of life

Fr. Miceál O'Neill, O.Carm.

This reflection on the elements of the Carmelite charism leads us to a consideration of what lies at the heart of our way of life. The formation document of the Carmelite Friars called the Raio (Ratio Institutionis Vitae Carmelitanae) made great strides in clarifying what is this heart.

From a stage when the thinking of the Friars was that the desert, and our openness to God, were at the heart of the Rule, the latest thinking sees contemplation itself as the heart. The contemplative dimension is not merely one of the elements of our charism (prayer, fraternity and service): it is the dynamic element which unifies them all. The desert on the other hand is the process by which we become more open to the gift of God.

Contemplation and open attentiveness go together. There is so much going on in an average day. We are never able to pay attention to everything. We try perhaps to pay attention to what is most important. In prayer we pay attention to the things of God and relate them to our own lives. We might give the name cry to all that relates to our own life. The Scriptures in different ways assure us again and again that God hears the cry. In specific terms it says that God hears the cry of the poor. In this context the poor are clearly those who turn to God in prayer, honest prayer, unpretentious prayer, humble prayer that recognises that we are sinners and God is God. This is a way of understanding our open attentiveness to God. It bears the marks of some desire to be heard, some urgency in wanting to know.

Once we have established this relation of prayer and attentiveness between ourselves and God, we then begin to see that my being attentive is not entirely my own decision. I am not in a position to say that now I will be attentive, now I will contemplate. Somehow we recognise that there is something else going on. It is the action of God. It is in the nature of God to be working all the time. It is in the nature of the Holy Spirit to be offering communication to us all the time. The more we accept that communication the more we become God-like. This then is our understanding of contemplation: God's action that transforms us and leaves us transformed as little by little we grow into god-likeness. The Ratio puts it this way:

Through this gradual and continuous transformation in Christ, which is accomplished within us by the Spirit, God draws us to himself on an inner journey which takes us from the dispersive fringes of life to the inner core of our being, where he dwells and where he unites us with himself. (Ratio, 23)

The Ratio goes on to say:

The inner process which leads to the development of the contemplative dimension helps us to acquire an attitude of openness to God's presence in life, teaches us to see the world with God's eyes, and inspires us to seek, recognise, love and serve God in those around us. (Ratio, 24)

A contemplative way of life

One of the contemplative processes of attention with which we have become more familiar in recent years is the process called Lecio divina. We have now learned to use this method of prayerful attentiveness as we pray with the Scriptures. What if we apply this same method to the rest of our lives, particularly the way we deal with situations and people? We are talking to someone: will we listen attentively to what they are saying? Will we ask ourselves, what does this mean for them, and for us? Will we accept the truth of what they say? Will we allow that to change our mind, our life, our decisions in some way? Will we believe that this encounter has something to do with ongoing salvation? There are situations that we look at everyday in our lives. Will we look at them attentively so that we can see what is really going on? Will we ask what this means for us? Will we accept the truth of what we see and allow it to change or influence our minds, our lives, or our decisions? Or will we apply to every situation that confronts us the ideas and categories and prejudices that are already in our minds and so lose the opportunity to grow? A line I remember from a talk I heard some time ago goes as follows: Be present, pay attention, make connections, speak your truth and release the outcome. This is a contemplative way of life.

A life of deepening motivations

The more we grow into the contemplative way of life we recognise that in every human life there are different levels of motivation in our lives. Today we live with a much heightened sense of the importance of spirituality. Everyone has a spirituality. Everyone has a spiritual life that is worthy of attention and care. Our spiritual growth may be understood as a process of deepening motivations.

The conflicts in our lives indicate that there are different motivations at play within us. These motivations are not all of the same depth. There are clearly different levels of motivation in the human person ranging from the very superficial to the very profound.

The spiritual doctrine of Saint John of the Cross suggests ways that help to distinguish deeper levels of motivation from the more superficial. The Dark Night of the senses, The Dark Night of the Spirit, and Union mark stages in the purification of motivations. Growth into the maturity of the Christian life is a growth into deeper levels of motivation.

Take any aspect of our lives and examine the motivations that shape it. For example, an examination of how we pray will show that it is possible for people to pray simply because they like to pray. They like the words they read, the songs they sing, the people who share their prayer, the feeling of goodness it gives them, the encounter with God in peace. To pray in this way is a great gift, but prayer is not always like that. It does not give us immediate satisfaction. It can be very dry.

Some people pray because they are convinced of the value of prayer. They believe that prayer is effective: it changes their lives, it brings them into a relationship with God, and it moves them beyond themselves. They believe they have a duty to pray, even when it is dry. To pray in this way is a great gift. It can give meaning and direction to life, but it can also become a source of pride, a system of defence or a false source of security.

Some people pray because God prays in them. It is no longer simply their own desire, or their conviction that is at work. God speaks words to them and draws them into such union with him that all their own faculties are caught up in God. They come to something deeper than all that they like, and deeper than all that they believe. They come to union of mind and will with God. This is the contemplative dimension that is capable of affecting every aspect of human life and shapes all human faculties and endeavour.

This same kind of thinking applies to all that we do: our life in community, our commitment to the poor, our work for justice and peace. It is helpful to know why we chose to get involved in the Carmelite family, just as it is important to know from where our energy comes for this work. The deeper our motivations, the more long-lasting and enduring will our commitment be. The Dark Night of the justice and peace worker comes from the need to grow from more superficial motivations into deeper and deeper motivations.

A prophetic way of life: intense involvement with God, intense involvement with people

The Second Vatican Council speaks very clearly of the vocation of the lay person as a call to live out the gospel in the midst of the affairs of daily life in the world and by so doing to transform the world and harness it for Christ. The document on the Church in the Modem World (Goudium et spes) from Vatican II was a statement of a Church that wanted to engage with the world because of its engagement with God, and to engage with God because of its engagement with the world. The prophets of old engaged with the people because of their engagement with God, and with God because of their engagement with the people. In the lives of our saints we see the same dynamic which leads us to two conclusions: (a) that those who believe in God and know God must come to have the same care for the world that God has, in so for as that is humanly possible, and (b) the only voice that can ultimately help the world is the voice of the one who knows God. Every other voice, on its own, will fall short because of its partiality. But in the community of believers, with each member supporting the others and all members open to the gratuitous, generous, overflowing and transcendent nature of God's justice, there will be a voice that is capable of bringing peace and hope to all. The world needs to hear the Gospel as told by Carmelites.

Statements to think about

  • I have the Carmelite charism.
  • The grace of God has transformed me.
  • The world needs to hear the Gospel, told by Carmelites.
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."