Presence to God and zeal for souls
No one will be surprised that in such a climate a connatural form of activity will spontaneously come into being, we mean prayer understood not so much as an exercise but as being present to God. This is altogether objective and interior, silent and sustained, detached and spiritual.
To prayer, as it is understood at Carmel, there are no limits; just as there are no limits to the quality of interior silence that it realizes and the links it fashions between man and his God. According to the measure of the soul's generosity and divine grace, the living God possesses and vivifies this solitude.
The exercise of prayer at Carmel is accompanied by a minimum of material conditions. Prayer involves no rigorously prescribed methods. For its development it requires the liberty and fidelity of a soul constantly visited and vivified by the spirit.
The Rule faithfully preserves this conception of life with God. The central obligation there laid down is "to meditate night and day on the
Law of the Lord".
But the example of Elias, as well as an inner exigency, urges the hermits to realize within themselves and without, a spirit of silence and solitude eminently favorable to prayer and of which the desert is the most perfect expression.
The desert calls out to the spirit and the spirit calls out to the desert. Between the spirit of Carmel and the desert there is a living relation. Carmel's prayer is the desert in which the spirit dwells.
But the desert also induces thirst, and prayer slakes the soul's thirst only to create new capacities for the infinite. "They that drink me shall yet thirst" (Eccl. 24: 29).
If it is not without meaning that the word of God was heard in a desert, it is equally significant that the possession of the Promised Land was conditioned by an exodus through that same desert. The soul, too, arrives at a meeting with God, in prayer, only at the price of an exodus painful to sense and spirit. But the soul then knows the infinite value of things divine and enjoys that liberty of the children of God which is characteristic of Carmelite spirituality.
This search for God in silence and solitude, this absence of imposed forms of prayer, a colloquy that is free and truly heart-to-heart in "the place of the espousals"--this is what the desert means, this is what has characterized Carmel from the beginning.
Life of God and desert: these timeless realities are never separated in the Old Testament or in the New. The desert of the soul is the very place of God's communication.
"The land that was desolate and impassable shall be glad, and the wilderness shall rejoice, and shall flourish like the lily" (Is. 35: 1).
The depth in which the intuitions of the Carmelite soul are rooted may make them seem obscure. They are, nevertheless, astonishingly living and active. Consciously or not, the soul unceasingly returns there, to strive to live them fully and directly.
If no one is more convinced than the Carmelite of the riches and benefits of tradition, it is also true that no one is more faithfully and lovingly attached to it, yet no one else is more fully persuaded that it is necessary to live personally and to experience in direct contact the mystery of God. Tradition may indeed explain and give a love for the divine realities tasted in prayer: it cannot confer that supreme and incommunicable knowledge which is a fruit of divine wisdom. This comes only to him who suffers God in his soul and in his life.
To remain living and active, the revelation of the divine transcendence and mercy ought to be renewed in each one of us.
But as soon as the divine revelation crosses the threshold of our inner dwelling, there is a dawn and centuries vanish. The soul brought back to an absolute beginning watches the flowering of an eternal spring in his own soul. Is not "the verdant one" the meaning of Elias' name?
God Himself is there and speaks to the soul. And the soul making her own the words of the prophet, murmurs: "He liveth. He before whom I am".--"As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth. . . " (Cf. 3 Kgs. 1 7: 1, 4 Kgs. 2: 6).
The spirit of Carmel is none other than this power and life which spring from the divine word and seek to enter the soul; none other than this divine presence which is waiting to be received and communicated in a reciprocal gift. Today, no more than in the first days, can this word wait for tomorrows in which it will be accomplished.
If the impossible were to take place and the past were suddenly obliterated and tradition no longer existed, and the call of the living God were to sound for the first time in a soul, this call would carry with it the spirit of Carmel in all its freshness, its newness, its eternal richness.
Because it is of God and is pure reference to God, this spirit is distinguished by a clarity, a simplicity and a limpidity that are absolute. It has nothing to do with techniques. It fears more than all else material and spiritual encumbrances, multiplicity of means, devotions and spiritual exercises. It is God just as He is that it seeks and desires: God, for the mind all mystery, but for the soul light and delicious knowledge.
The spirit of Carmel is a spirit of childhood, of original life, of newness, of immediate proximity to the divine outpouring. It drinks "of the torrent" without a shell; it does not kneel down but stands erect. It is born of God in all its profundity and passes into man renewing and in truth creating him. That is why this spirit is so immediate, so lacking any kind of transition, so without compromise; so bare, with the bare life of the Old Testament; that is why it is so essential. Strengthened by a power that transcends human means and traverses, without ignoring, what is relative, it discovers its goal and goes straight towards it with a totalitarian exigency of unitive transformation. In short, it advances with a thirst for the absolute, which, once having been felt, can never more be slaked.
Without the least shadow of pessimism, the least disdain for the world, the Carmelite is deeply conscious of the infinite distance separating the created from the uncreated, God from His creature. Prayer gives him an understanding, better still, permits him to acquire a kind of experience of the absolute. It is also through prayer that the Carmelite, we read in the second chapter of the "Institution des premiers moines," "tastes in his heart and experiences in his soul the strength of the divine Presence and the sweetness of the glory from above".
This does not make the spirit of Carmel aloof toward what is created and toward those who live and grow in the earthy and the relative; this experience of God, on the contrary, is the origin of the most active zeal for souls which is characteristic of the action and person of the prophet Elias.
Carmel has never, in fact, separated the apostolic from the contemplative life in its father Elias "who was afire with zeal for the Yahweh of armies" (3 Kgs. 19: 10; 18) with fierce energy preserved in the people of Israel belief in the true God, and who has never ceased to serve as a model to the Order that claims him as founder. In 1275 Nicholas the Frenchman, the seventh prior general, recalled this in these words in his "Ignea Sagitta":
"Conscious of their own imperfection, the hermits of Mount Carmel remained long in solitude. But because they desired to be in some way useful to their neighbor, and lest on this point they incur guilt, at times, yet very rarely, they left their hermitage. And as it was with the scythe of contemplation that they harvested in the desert so now in preaching they will scatter the grain on the threshing floor and with open hands they will sow the seed."
So it came about that from the beginning Carmelite prayer has had an apostolic side and overflows with missionary fervor. Although these spiritual realities are part of the distant epochs of its pre-history, they have come down through the ages and will always be characteristic of Carmel. This inalienable treasure transmitted to us from century to century by the hermits seems to us in its brilliance and marvelous freshness like an ancient jewel discovered in all its beauty in the desert sands.