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Nine Themes in Carmelite Spirituality - 5. Carmel is in the classic Catholic Tradition

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 in the classic Catholic Tradition

There are too many people in the Church these days hitting each other over the head with the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the decrees of the Second Vatican Council or the encyclical letters of the Pope, or decrees from Roman congregations. All these documents are good and fine, but we should remember that they are doorways into an ancient tradition. And too often people point to the doorway and say, ‘see’, when with doorways we are called not to look at them and admire them but to walk through them. Carmelites, because of our rich tradition of the spiritual masters – the masters of a century ago, St. Thérèse and Blessed Elizabeth, of four centuries ago, St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, of eight centuries ago, The Rule of Saint Albert and The Fiery Arrow – know that we have to go back and study the tradition. Our past defines and shapes our present. We cannot understand our present unless we go back to our past. And so the writings of our Carmelite tradition have a very special place in our reading and study and prayer. And so too must the writings of our Catholic faith. We are not simply a people of Vatican II or the Catechism. We are a people of St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Ambrose, all the Fathers/Mothers and Doctors of the Church. Look at the footnotes in the Catechism or the Council documents and you will see a vast and rich array of authors who have taught this Tradition through the centuries, through nineteen centuries, twenty centuries now. In fact, you cannot authentically interpret the Catechism or the Council documents without going back to the rich heritage of the twenty centuries of Christian faith that have preceded us.

Fortunately, today many of the essential writings, especially in the rich spiritual tradition, are easily available to us through sources like the Classics of Western Spirituality series published by Paulist Press. Also many parishes, retreat centres, and local colleges sponsor talks and workshops. Even the internet makes many of these sources available. It is the spiritual poverty of our ‘Evangelical’ brothers and sisters that so many of them have forgotten the nineteen centuries of faith that stand between us and Jesus. We Catholics must not loose the rich treasure we have in our theological tradition, a tradition dating not to the 1950s or even to the early part of the last century, but a tradition that dates back almost twenty centuries. And I would hope that Lay Carmelites would increasingly turn to the Fathers/Mothers and Doctors of the Church, to the great mystics and writers, without detracting from the primacy of Scripture in our spirituality. I hope we can turn to the Tradition and study it, to profit from it. Put down the other things you read – The Radio Times or Hello! or The Racing Post or (my favourite) Gourmet Magazine – and pick up something that matters, something that points us home, to our true home in God. Let me say one practical introduction to the Fathers/Mothers of the Church and the Doctors of the Church, in this rich treasury of Christian literature, is in The Divine Office, which contains many fine sections of this classical Catholic tradition in the daily Office of Readings (in the full 3 volume breviary). Our faith will be much richer and deeper as we become more familiar with the thoughts of the men and women who were part of the great chain of Christians who received the faith from the apostles and handed it on to us.

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."