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Nine Themes in Carmelite Spirituality - 9. Carmel has its roots in the Laity

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 has its roots in the Laity

My final point in the tape recoding that I made twelve years ago for the American Lay Carmelites was that Carmel is essentially a lay organization. I must admit that I have never been happy with that formulation because it is not quite accurate. In this regard, it is easier to say what we are not, rather than what we are. We are not, at least if we are faithful to our roots, either a clerical or monastic society. We Carmelites began as laymen who embraced the eremitical life. Our spirituality is one that reflects our origins among the laity. The first Carmelites were laymen. There may have been a priest or two among them, we do not know for certain. But we do know that the hermits who gathered in the wadi en’esiah in the first decade of the thirteenth century were not monks but lay hermits, ordinary men who had grown somewhat disillusioned with their world and what little it really had to offer them. They were people like ourselves who wanted to find some meaning to their lives, a meaning that only God could give, a meaning that was defined not by the world around them but by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At an earlier time in the history of the Church – in the fourth or the fifth centuries – these hermits would have become monks. Monks in those first centuries were groups of lay men or lay women who withdrew from the rush and clamour of the society around them to devote themselves to prayerful rumination on the Scriptures in an attempt to lead a more intense Christian life. Over the centuries, however, monasticism had developed from its simple foundations in the deserts of Egypt and Syria into a complex organizational structure, closely tied into the hierarchy of the Church and earthly kingdoms of the day. The simplicity of the hermitage had been exchanged for the magnificent architecture and elaborate ritual of the great abbeys, and the monastic life was limited almost exclusively to the children of the land-owning nobility who supported the monasteries. The vision that had impelled men like Antony Abbot or John Cassian to the desert to live in solitude and simplicity, mediating day and night on the Word of God, had to find new ground in which to grow. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries many laymen wishing to follow Christ more intensely began to live in simple fraternities of hermits in the countryside of Europe. One such group, drawn from Europeans who had come with the Crusaders to the Holy Land, settled on the slopes of Mount Carmel. Their spirituality was monastic in as much that they were driven by the same spiritual hungers that had called the desert monks of old, but they were ordinary laymen who had sought their bishop’s blessing on their living a hermetical life that empowered them to follow Christ in listening to his Word. They did not aspire, initially, to be either religious or priests. But after twenty years or so of the simple hermetic life, some of the hermits began being ordained, probably so that they could occasionally preach, or hear confessions of the pilgrims who came to Mount Carmel on their way to Jerusalem.

Once those hermits began establishing hermitages in Europe it became more important for them to be ordained. And so about fifty years after they were started the Carmelites developed into a clerical community, but they never lost their affiliation with the laity. While I was Provincial Delegate for the Lay Carmelites in my province, I had the opportunity to attend the Lay Carmelite congress in Fatima, Portugal. Each evening many of us went down to the Basilica for the procession at the shrine that marks the site where the apparitions took place. I noticed that whereas all the clergy who were present marched together as a group of priests and deacons around the statue of Our Lady, the Carmelites, both priests and brothers, walked with the laity. No one told us that we had to do this; it just seemed to be the natural thing for us to do. We were comfortable with our Lay Carmelite brothers and sisters and wanted to be with them. Carmel has never lost that affiliation with the laity. In Carmel the priest-brothers have always worn the same habit as the lay brothers. For many centuries the priests were not called ‘Father’ but both priests and brothers used the same title ‘Frá, a title which simply means ‘brother;. In some places today, such as France and Brazil, Carmelite priests are called ‘Brother.’ Through our history, ordained brothers and lay brothers have lived in the same communities, prayed at the same time and in the same place, worked side by side, and shared a common life. The life of the Carmelites is reminiscent of the great quote from St. Augustine which I will paraphrase as ‘With you, I am a Christian, for you, I am a priest’. The Carmelites and the Franciscans, unlike the Dominicans, have always distinguished very little between the priest friars and the lay friars, and have always maintained a strong connection with the laity. I say this as a way of beginning a warning: Lay Carmelites should not try to be a ‘friar in the world’ or a ‘nun in the world’. Your vocation as a Lay Carmelite is to be just that, a Lay Carmelite in the world. You need to dress like a lay person. You need to eat or to fast like a lay person. You need a home appropriate to a lay person. You need to pray appropriately as a lay person does. You need to be what the Church has called you to be, a Christian lay person who witnesses to the values of the gospels in daily life. Your clothes should be appropriately modest, both in design and in cost. Your food should be moderate in cost but healthy. Your home should be without excess in a world where so many of God’s children lack basic necessities. And your prayer should be the Prayer of the Church: the Eucharistic banquet and the Liturgy of the Hours should enjoy the pride of place in your prayer life that they enjoy in the prayer life of the Church.

Sometimes, when I was Provincial Delegate, the question would come to us in the Lay Carmel Office in Darien, near Chicago, about Lay Carmelites taking a new name at the time of reception or profession. Lay Carmelites are free to ‘take a name’ if they wish, though many provinces discourage it, and you should always consider that the only name by which God knows you is the name given to you in Baptism, and so there is no name more appropriate to any one of us than our baptismal name. I would not want to do away with the option of taking a new name for the friars and nuns because sometimes parents do thoughtless, even cruel, things. And if the religious members of the family can ‘take a name’ then I suppose the lay members of the family should be able to also, even though they would not use that name in public. Most of the friars and nuns and sisters today, however, keep their baptismal names. Rather than taking a new name, I would encourage you in following the Discalced Carmelite custom and take a title – something you can meditate on, some aspect of our Blessed Lord’s life, or in the life of his Mother. However, the practice that some communities once had of calling each other ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister’ should be discontinued where it is not already ceased. As you are lay people (or in a few cases diocesan clergy) you should not use titles commonly reserved for those in religious life. And incidentally through most of the Order the friars, nuns and sisters call each other by their first names and not their titles. Even our Father General, Fernando, is usually known among the friars by his given name. We are a family after all. Most of the friars prefer to be called by their names, even by the laity. Carmel has never been a very formal place. Our spirituality is one of letting go, not of adding on, so let go of the little customs and focus on the only thing that matters: the love of God for you revealed in Christ Jesus who became human for your sake, and who offered his life on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins. Get rid of everything else that is not this. Everything else is simply garbage. You can’t be a contemplative, and you can’t be a Carmelite, if you are holding on to anything else but Jesus Christ.

Some final thoughts

I am very concerned about the rapid growth of Lay Carmel. Recently one of my Discalced Carmelite confreres said: ‘The good news is that we are growing very fast and the bad news is that we are growing very fast’. We are growing faster perhaps than we can shape Lay Carmel in harmony with the larger Order. We do not want ideas and practices that are not consistent with our 800 year-old tradition to worm their way into Carmel. We want to work together to keep that tradition pure so that Carmel can continue to offer the Church what it has always offered, a spirituality of following Jesus Christ in solitude and silence, in charity for our neighbour, and nourished by contemplative prayer and the support of our brothers and sisters. I know that this concern is shared by all the friars of both observances, the O.Carms and the Discalced. I have not only studied the traditions extensively, and not only do I teach the tradition to our students in formation as well as sabbatical students, but I spend a great amount of time working with the friars and nuns of the Discalced observance as we work together to preserve and propagate this tradition. Carmel is not ‘make it up as you go along’. Carmel is a well defined spiritual tradition in the Church, and we must work to keep it pure and authentic. If it does not speak to you, do not try to change it, but leave it and find a group of Catholics who better reflect where the Holy Spirit is leading you. If this sounds blunt, know that it is the same advice I would give a vocation to the friars or the nuns who want to make Carmel over into something different than it has been for its eight centuries. We come to Carmel to be shaped by it, not to shape it into something of our own liking. Carmel has proved itself to be of great value to the Church through these eight centuries. We have provided three Doctors of the Church: Teresa, John of the Cross, and now, Th&r!se of the Child Jesus. We have provided countless saints and blesseds. Pope John Paul II canonized and beatified many saints from our family: Blessed Titus Brandsma, Saint Edith Stein, Saint Raphael Kalinowski, Saint Teresa of the Andes, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, the Martyrs of Compiegne, Blessed Isidore Bakanja, and others. Pope Benedict is continuing the flood of Carmelites being raised to the altars. I could go on and on and on. The Carmelite path is tried and true. Carmel is giving you the call, ‘Come and follow Jesus Christ with us’. Turn to Teresa and John, Therese and Edith and Titus to learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. You don’t need to be a priest or a friar or a nun. You don’t need to wear a habit or a veil. You don’t need to live in a monastery. You don’t need anything but to follow Jesus Christ like those first hermits on Mount Carmel eight centuries ago, like the great saints of the Order, like the thousands of men and women around the world today who live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ.


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."