Skip to Content

The Solitude of Carmelite Prayer


Keith J. Egan

So I say now that all of us who wear this holy habit of Carmel are called to prayer and contemplation. This call explains our origin; we are descendants of men who felt this call, of those holy fathers on Mount Carmel who in such great solitude and contempt for the world sought this treasure, this precious pearl of contemplation. (IC.5. I .2)'

Carmelite Spirituality is a richly woven tapestry whose warp and woof change over time to accent now one hue, then another. This Carmelite tapestry, like Joseph's coat, is multicolored with rich fibers running this way and that. Some fibers arc so integral to an authentic Carmelite charism that, were they eliminated, the tapestry would no longer be true to the Carmelite tradition. Unthinkable is Carmelite life without Mary. What would Carmelites do without the inspiration of Elijah) Carmel's various ministries, whether preaching, teaching, or the all important ministry of the contemplative life, are crucial to the variations that occur in Carmel's spiritual tapestry. Even more incomprehensible is Carmelite life without solitude. Solitude lay at the heart of the original charism of Carmel and has been restored whenever new life has been breathed into Carmelite spirituality. When great figures in Carmel's tradition have articulated their understanding of Carmel's way of life, they have inevitably retrieved solitude as crucial to the authenticity of Carmelite prayer. The quotation from Teresa of Jesus at the heading of this essay shows how strong was Teresa's conviction that the recovery of solitude was crucial to her reform of the Carmelite Order.

Carmel's staying power in the church's religious traditions may well rest on its insistence that solitude has a unique place in its way of life and prayer. At the very heart of human existence is the challenge to be a person and at the same time to be in relationship with others. That is the paradox of solitude and community. Two modern philosophical systems put the emphasis at opposite ends of the spectrum. Marxism comes down on the side of community, while existentialism favors the autonomy or freedom of the person. Keeping the poles of this paradox, solitude and community, in creative tension, is the challenge of every human person, of the human community, and is a special concern of the Carmelite tradition. Were there space in this essay, one might inquire in what way the paradox of solitude and community reflects the three persons and one nature of the Trinity and the unity of two natures in one person of the Incarnation. Or one might explore how celibacy can create within one a holy solitude. These explorations must wait for another day.

In Carmelite spirituality solitude is in creative tension with com-munity and with the ministries undertaken by community. l suggest that a crucial factor in the attraction of so many religious seekers to the Carmelite charism is its ongoing struggle to live creatively this paradox of solitude and community. From the beginning Carmel gave a special place to solitude but always as a solitude within community. Living the dynamic of solitude within community is Carmel's mission in the church, its perennial challenge, its key to ongoing reform and its way of challenging its members to stand in mindfulness before the living God even as some Carmelites serve the apostolic needs of God's people. Solitude, shaped variously in differing eras, has been a decisive factor in the life of prayer for anyone who is called to pray within or with the Carmelite family. One way to track the evolution of Carmelite prayer is to trace how solitude was configured at different moments in Carmel's history, especially by classic figures in its tradition like the three Carmelite doctors of the church, Teresa, John and Therese.

Solitude in the Carmelite Tradition

The solitude of the original Carmelites was integral to their “allegiance to Jesus Christ.”' This phrase from the prologue to the Formula of Life sees Carmelite life as an imitation of Christ and as an “...obedience to His way of life depicted in the Gospels, remembered in the tradition.....” The earliest Carmelites were to imitate the Jesus who was in the habit of going aside to pray, to be alone with God, his Abba (Luke 5:16).' The Carmelite charism thus focuses on a central issue of human existence and at the same time imitates a habit of Jesus whom Carmelites by their rule were pledged to follow. From their first location on Mount Carmel the Carmelites had inherited a desert spirituality which prized solitude. The desert dweller Abba Moses once said: The man who flees and lives in solitude is like a bunch of grapes ripened by the sun, but he who remains amongst men is like an unripe grape.

The first Carmelites were conscious that they had settled in a land made holy by the presence of Jesus, who often sought solitude, and in a land made sacred by the monks of the deserts whose very name, monk, means to be alone. A modern interpreter of Carmel's prayer, Kilian J. Healy, has written that “...the tradition of Carmel has always been to live a life of solitude, silence and mortification in order to be continually occupied with God....To be occupied with God (vacare Deo); this is the spirit of the Order....”' This solitude is for the sake of being alone with God so as to experience the transforming power of God's love. The thesis of this essay is that Carmelite prayer has grown and matured creatively whenever solitude has been nurtured. Solitude here does not mean the completely eremitic life where one lives totally alone. The Carmelites have never espoused a life divorced from community; in fact, in 1247 they expanded the communal aspects of their life so as to identify with the fraternity of the friars. Carmelite solitude has always been for the sake of inner solitude, a habit of deep inner mindfulness of the presence of a loving God. Physical solitude is for the sake of solitude of the heart or, as John of the Cross would say, for the sake of poverty of spirit, an emptiness to be filled by God's love. Carmelite prayer depends on the retrieval of a solitude that is faithful to the original charism of Carmel and at the same time is shaped by the signs of the times. Without discernment in each age, Carmelite prayer would not be ecclesial and contemporary. In every era the Holy Spirit shapes the life of the church and its religious communities according to a design that can be seen as an ongoing epiclesis. This is a calling on the Holy Spirit to weave the threads of the Carmelite tapestry according to God's will.

Carmelite solitude has been and is lived in various manifestations, that is, in one way by cloistered Carmelite nuns, in another by apostolic Carmelite sisters, then again by the friars and in other ways by lay Carmelites and by anyone who turns to Carmel for inspiration. As Saint Paul taught, every charism is for the sake of the whole community (1 Cor 12). Cannel's paradox of solitude and community is a gift to be shared with all who seek to live attentively in God's presence.

It is impossible to report in a brief essay the whole story of Carmel's retrievals of solitude during the eight hundred years of the order's existence. I shall indicate only some special moments in that history that illustrate the connection between solitude and Cannel's life of prayer. These moments reveal how Carmelites have lived according to the aphorism vacarr Deo, being open to God's presence, “continually occupied with God: as Kilian Healy translates the phrase: John of the Cross's Spanish for vacare Deo has been translated into English as 'free for God” (SC.7.6). Solitude makes one free for the guidance of the Holy impossible for the Latins in the Holy Land. By 1238 some of the Carmelites were migrating to the West and found themselves in places like Cyprus, Sicily, England and France. When they got to Europe, the hermits of Mount Carmel encountered the phenomenon of the friars. The friars were everywhere and were attracting recruits in extraordinary numbers. Dominic and Francis had turned traditional religious life on its head. In place of the stability of the monks, the friars were mobile and international. Along with the personal poverty of the monks, the friars adopted corporate poverty. The friars streamlined the monastic liturgical hours. Perhaps most revolutionary of all, the friars began to evangelize the expanding urban centers of Europe. To prepare for this ministry the friars entered the universities so that they might prepare their members to bring the gospel to the large numbers of poorly instructed Christians in Europe. With their move into the universities the friars became student orders, with each of their foundations a feeder for specialized student houses in various provinces.

The first Carmelite foundations in Europe were eremitic, but it soon became evident that this lifestyle was out of sync with the taste of the friars' patrons and with the sensibilities of young recruits eager to throw in their lot with the enormously popular mendicant orders. In 1247 the Carmelite Formula of Life became an official Rule, and the Carmelite hermits slipped into the ranks of the friars. The Carmelites quickly acted like friars and turned with haste to make foundations in cities like London, Cambridge, Oxford, Paris and Bologna. The papally approved revision of the Formula of Life entailed only slight verbal changes in the text but the implications for solitude and prayer were telling. The changes not only allowed the Carmelites to settle in non eremitic sites (towns), but the time of silence was shortened. The Carmelites now gathered in a common refectory and recited the canonical hours. While the once eremitic Carmelites now lived the more communal life of the mendicants, they had a legacy of solitude that had to be woven into the newly shaped Carmelite tapestry if the Carmelites were to remain faithful to their original charism. The Carmelite historian, Father Joachim Smet, believes that the transition from an eremitic to a mendicant order was more gradual and less abrupt than l have described this change. Father Smet's interpretation extends the eremitic character of the Carmelites beyond 1247 and therefore puts additional emphasis on solitude after this date.”

The demands prompted by Carmelite participation in the evangelization of Europe's towns altered the way solitude could be lived. This ecclesial call to evangelization recast the more simple paradox of solitude and community into a tension between solitude and ministerial community, a community called upon to serve the neighbor through preaching, teaching and spiritual guidance. The stillness, quiet and solitude experienced on Mount Carmel were no longer possible. Hence it was inevitable that the prayer of the Carmelite friars would also be altered.

The change from hermits to friars, an alteration of the original Carmelite charism, did not occur without opposition. First of all, the Carmelites encountered the general opposition to friars that was mounted during the second half of the thirteenth century by bishops and secular clergy who saw the friars as intruders into their ministry of evangelization. Within the Carmelite Order, Nicholas the Frenchman, prior general from 1266 to1271, scolded his brothers in no uncertain terms for fleeing to the cities instead of remaining faithful to solitude: ''You who flee solitude and spurn the consolations it has to offer, would you hear how the Lord has shown by his words the high esteem in which he holds it [solitude]?” Nicholas proceeded to eulogize solitude as practiced from Abraham to Jesus, and he reminded his brothers that their predecessors had, though rarely, preached what they had reaped in solitude with the sickle of contemplation:” However, neither external nor internal opposition deterred this recently minted mendicant order from a commitment to evangelization.

At the very time they were undergoing opposition, certainly by 1281, probably earlier as their Constitutions could have dated from 1247, the Carmelites were telling their young members that the order had a long tradition of being “true lovers of solitude for the sake of contemplation.” That significant statement about solitude in the prologue of their Constitutions was retained in the Constitutions for centuries. Here is the longer context of this quote from the rubrica prima, a charter for young Carmelites contained in the Constitutions:

Since some of the younger brothers in our order seek when and how our order began but in truth do not know how to respond, we wish to answer them with the following written words: bearing witness to the truth, we say that from the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha who dwelt devotedly on Mount Carmel, holy fathers of the Old and New Testament praiseworthily lived there in ever continual holy penitence on that same mountain as lovers of solitude for the sake of contemplation.

As early as 1281, if not three decades earlier, the Carmelites had composed a mission statement for the young that gave pride of place to solitude, a solitude for the sake of contemplation. The Carmelites were also becoming more and more conscious of what was implied by their having been founded on Elijah's mountain. To look toward Elijah and Elisha for their inspiration was to become aware of the prophetic dimensions of their solitude and prayer.

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." 


ocarmpage | by Dr. Radut