Nicodemus: Carmelite in Formation
This homily was delivered by Fr. Raymond Maher, O. Carm. on April 30, 2019 in the chapel of Stella Maris Monastery on Mount Carmel to a group of his fellow pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. The Gospel for the day was John 3:7b-15.
Sisters and brothers, so here we are on Mount Carmel, the first stop on our pilgrimage and significant to all of us for its place in the Books of Kings as the place where the prophet Elijah successfully challenged the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal to a contest of sacrifices. I must say it is downright thrilling for me to be here, as this is where the Carmelites began. The origins of the Order are somewhat obscure, but we know that in the Middle Ages (and perhaps, earlier) hermits had gathered on Mount Carmel (which means “God’s Garden” in Hebrew), dwelling in caves in the Wadi ‘ain es-Siah, near the Fountain of Elijah. They were probably Europeans who had come to the Holy Land on pilgrimage or to fight in the Crusades and had decided to stay and pursue a life of prayer in the land where Jesus had walked. It is very likely that most were laymen. In time they realized that they needed some structure to their life, so they asked the local patriarch, later known as Saint Albert of Jerusalem, to give them some guidelines for their communal solitary life. Some time between the years 1206 and 1214 Albert composed a Formula of Life for the hermits. This Formula Vitae was fairly simple, exhorting them to “live a life in allegiance to Jesus Christ (in obsequio Jesu Christi), serving Him zealously with a pure heart and a stout conscience.” Other organizational issues were addressed as well. This document morphed into The Rule of Saint Albert after we became an official religious order some forty years later. The Carmelites also claimed Elijah as the founder of the Order! How and why that happened is a long story, but the prophetic spirit of Elijah, along with the model discipleship of the Virgin Mary, has been an inspiration for Carmelites for over eight hundred years.
The first words that we hear out of the mouth of Elijah in the First Book of Kings (17:1) are spoken to the wicked King Ahab, who had forsaken the One True God for the worship of the Baals, false gods: “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” Taking a cue from Elijah’s self-introduction, Carmelites view our spirituality as a matter of standing in the presence of the living God with an open heart, attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, with a good conscience. That is Carmelite life in a nutshell, if you wish, and, of course, it is enfleshed in many different ways. The early Carmelites considered John the Baptist a Carmelite (at least, in spirit), and a fourteenth century Carmelite document called The Book of the First Monks makes mention of Joseph and Mary taking Jesus to Mount Carmel for picnics when He was a child!
I wonder then whether we could not consider Nicodemus in today’s Gospel as a Carmelite in process as well. As a “leader of the Jews,” he stands in the presence of the living Son of God seeking enlightenment with a sincere heart. He does not understand what Jesus says about being “born of the Spirit,” so he asks for clarification. His attitude is one of humility and openness. He comes to Jesus at night. This is usually understood as caution on Nicodemus’ part, so as not to be seen by anyone, especially other Pharisees, as he approached Jesus. But the phrase “at night” may also connote spiritual unrest and a longing for “the light of all people,” as John refers to Jesus in the prologue to his Gospel (1:4). Carmelites are said to have a special affinity for the night. You know the joke: “How many Carmelites does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer: “Oh, those Carmelites, they don’t even bother to change the light bulb; they love “the dark night!” In the dark night of the Carmelite mystics, the Lord invites the soul into deeper relationship with Him. Maybe something like that may be said of Nicodemus in today’s Gospel. In the end, we don’t know how zealously Nicodemus served Jesus Christ in the days after this nighttime visit, but later we find him bringing the myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39). His final gesture in John’s Gospel is one of reverence for the body of Christ.
Jesus talks to Nicodemus about “being born of water and the Spirit,” a clear reference to Baptism. Indeed, each of us has been “born from above” in the sacrament of Baptism. But we know that in the spiritual journey Baptism is the easy step. (Most of us were literally carried to the waters of Baptism as infants!) It is the days and years after Baptism that require focus and commitment and on-going repentance, as we submit our stubborn hearts and wills over and over to the control of God’s Spirit. At the start of this pilgrimage we, no doubt, seek many blessings for ourselves and for others. Perhaps the first prayer each one of us offers might be for the grace of repentance – a change of heart, a fresh start – just as Nicodemus came to Jesus seeking a change from his pharisaical ways of thinking and behaving, and the early Carmelite hermits repented of whatever lifestyle they had left behind for the solitude of this mountain.
Let us end with a story. A tale circulated in the Middle Ages about a young woman who managed to be expelled from heaven! As she left, she was told that if she would bring back the gift that is most valued by God, she would be re-admitted. She brought back drops of blood from a dying patriot. She brought back some coins that a destitute widow had given to the poor. She brought back a Bible that had been used for years by an eminent preacher. She brought back some dust from the shoes of a missionary laboring in a remote wasteland. She brought back many similar things but was turned away repeatedly.
One day she saw a small boy playing by a fountain. A man rode up on horseback and dismounted to take a drink. The man saw the child and suddenly remembered his boyhood innocence. Then, looking in the fountain and seeing the reflection of his hardened face, he realized what he had done with his life. Tears of repentance welled up in his eyes and began to trickle down his cheeks. The young woman took one of these tears back to heaven and was received with joy and love!