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Nine Themes in Carmelite Spirituality - 1. Carmel is Christocentric

by Fr. Patrick Thomas McMahon, O.Carm.

Lay Carmelites seek God's presence in prayer while living an active life in the world. This duality of contemplative prayer and active ministry was modeled by the first Carmelites who lived as hermits on Mount Carmel, then later became mendicants in the cities of Europe.

Carmel is Christocentric

The first characteristic of Carmel is that we are Christocentric.

Carmel is first and foremost about following Jesus Christ. The Rule of St. Albert outlines the purpose of our vocation. It says: “Many and varied are the ways in which our saintly predecessors laid down, how everyone, whatever one’s station in life, or kind of religious observance one has chosen, should live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ, how pure in heart, stout in conscience, we should be unswerving in the service of our Master”. Carmelites live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ whom the Carmelite rule calls: “our only Saviour.” I will mention Mary at a later point. But let me say now that while Carmel is a Marian Order it is not so in the same sense that St. Louis Grigon de Montfort advocated for his Institute. We Carmelites never take our eyes off Jesus Christ. The first Carmelites came to the Holy Land drawn by the places where Our Lord had lived. They wanted to read the Gospels, live the Gospels, in that land. They wanted to see what his eyes had seen, and to set their feet in the paths where he had walked. I think the Holy Land still is, and always will be, a very special place for Carmelites. Carmelites are profoundly incarnational in our approach to Jesus Christ. St. Teresa tells us in The Interior Castle, book 6, chapter 7: that even at the heights of the spiritual life we cannot leave behind us our focus on the humanity of Jesus Christ. Carmelite spirituality stresses the humanity of Jesus Christ. The humanity of Christ is often misunderstood today. Many good people buy into the Monophysite Heresy which perceived Jesus so divine that his human nature has been eclipsed by his divinity. Yet this is not the faith of our Church. The faith of our Catholic Church celebrates two natures in the one person, Jesus Christ. Jesus has a divine nature exactly the same as the Father’s, and a human nature exactly the same as ours. These two natures each remain intact, and distinct. One does not absorb or eclipse the other in any way. St. Teresa advises us that the humanity of Christ should be a constant source for our meditation. We should focus on his fears in the garden as he struggled to be faithful to his Father’s will. We should focus on his bewilderment that he had been obedient to his Father’s will, but his faithfulness led not to glory but to shame – or so it would have seemed on that Good Friday. We should focus on his sense of abandonment by his friends. We should focus on the trial of faith he underwent in his passion. We need to know that as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that he was tempted in every way that we are, and we need to know as Paul tells us in the Letter to the Philippians that he did not consider his equality with God something to cling to, but he emptied himself taking on himself the nature of a slave being born in human estate. To understand our vocation as Carmelites we need to identify with Jesus as he goes into the desert for forty days to discover his father’s plan for him. We need to go with him up the mountain to spend the night in prayer. We need to go with him to the lonely place where we, like he did, can search our lives to see if we are still on track with God the Father’s will. The sacred humanity of Christ, sinless as it was, but beset by every other human condition and was even tempted, tempted far greater than we are, to sin. The humanity of Christ is our life’s breath for in his sacred humanity is the path to our salvation. As the Fathers of the Church teach us, God became human so that we might become divine. In the humanity of Christ we see our invitation to share in his divinity. This is the end, the purpose of Carmel, like the end of the Christian life in general. It is transformation into Christ so that we may share in the divinity of him who humbled himself to share in our humanity. That is why the Rule of St. Albert calls him: “Our Only Saviour”. We never take our eyes off him. We never set our feet on any path but his. We walk after him in the company of Mary, his mother, and with the other disciples, but we run after him and him alone. Like the Syro-Phoenician Woman, we grasp at the hem of his garment for our salvation.


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."