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Nine Themes in Carmelite Spirituality 3. Carmel is spiritual

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 spiritual

We are a community centred on the word of God.

The prayer book of the Carmelite is the Bible. Lectio Divina is a prayer form that the whole Order is rediscovering. Lectio Divina means the “Sacred Reading,” the prayerful, prayer filled, attentive reading of the word of God. This takes place certainly in the liturgy, both in the Liturgy of the Hours and the Liturgy of the Word at Mass. But as we go about our day we continue to feed off the liturgy and in particular to feed off the scripture which we pray both in the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass.

Our vocation is outlined in our Rule, The Rule of St. Albert, and that is a text which echoes and re-echoes the Sacred Scripture. It is a pastiche of texts that are drawn from the Bible. The Rule of St. Albert is a brief text. It’s about three pages typewritten and yet in those three pages there are at least forty-two direct references to scripture and an uncountable number of indirect references. This Rule of St. Albert encourages, in fact it demands, that we be a people of the Word. It says in one of my favourite quotes: “The sword of the spirit, the Word of God must abound in your mouths and hearts. Let all that you do have the Lord’s Word for accompaniment”.

What is the heart of Carmelite life? Traditionally, following St. Teresa of Avila, we’ve always said that it is the part of The Rule of St. Albert that says: “Each one of you is to stay in your own cell or nearby, pondering the Lord’s law (that is the Lord’s Word), day and night, and keeping watch at your prayer unless attending to some other duty”. How do we Carmelites pray? Well, The Rule of St. Albert tells us those who know their letters and how to read, that they should read the Psalms appointed for each of the Hours of the Divine Office according to what “our holy predecessors laid down, in the approved custom of the Church appoints for that hour.” In the revision of the Rule by Pope Innocent IV in 1247 this was changed to the recitation not only of the psalms but of the entire Divine Office. In other words, the reading of The Psalms and, in particular, the Divine Office, is at the very heart of our Carmelite prayer Life and all Carmelites should begin to use The Liturgy of the Hours.

The early Carmelites had a life that was impregnated with the Word of God. They interrupted their day seven times to pray the Psalms. After the revision of the Rule in 1247 they listened to the Sacred Scripture as they ate their meals. They listened to the readings for Mass each day, and throughout the day and into the night whenever they were not busy at some other task they pondered this Word of God. They reflected on it. They searched out its meanings. Furthermore, subsequent Carmelite spiritual authors were totally dependent on the Word of God. We can look at these documents, The Fiery Arrow or The Institute of the First Monks. We can look at the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross. We can look at the writings of St. Therese, who practically knew the Gospels by heart, or Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, whose writings are drawn from St. Paul’s epistles. And we can see just how this entire Carmelite tradition has been shaped by knowledge of and an immersion into the Word of God. And so the Carmelite today must be a person who is impregnated with the Word of God. This is perhaps why Carmel has never much been given to devotional prayer. The sort of devotions that characterized some other Orders, especially those from the 18th and 19th centuries never took hold in Carmel. The prayer life of Carmel has always been simple: The Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, and meditation on the sacred text of Scripture.

Over the past two years I have given parish missions or other renewal programs in various churches around the United States. And in each of about ten Churches I asked the congregation to stand. Then, when they were all standing, I told those who had read the Scripture in the last twenty-four hours that they should be seated. Then I asked those who had read the scripture in the last forty-eight hours please be seated; after that, the last seventy-two hours, and finally those who had read the scriptures any time in the previous week. At this point in seven out of the ten congregations, more than fifty percent were still standing. That is to say, more than fifty percent had not looked at the scripture in the last week. In the remaining three congregations, almost half sat down on the first cut. Almost half had read the scriptures in the last 24 hours! Those three audiences were Lay Carmelite communities. I often tell Lay Carmelite communities that I do not want to see them with shiny and new bibles. Bibles are meant to be worn out.


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."