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Carmel. The future

Joseph Chalmer, O.Carm.

What will the future hold? If we knew that, we could all make a fortune. We are invited into God's future and only He knows what that will be but He is constructing the future out of our present. We are laying the foundations now for what we will be in the future. I would like now to share with you some dreams I have for the future of Carmel and how I see lay Carmelites in particular fitting into that future.

Karl Rahner said that the Christian of the future will be a mystic. Many people seem to want to settle for far less than they were created for. Even church people can succumb to that temptation. However you want more. The fact that you are Carmelites and that you are taking the time to read this means that you are seeking more. But what is this more?

In the future of the Church I see the goal of Christianity being spelled out much more clearly and I believe that Carmel has a very important role to play in this future. The goal of Christianity is not just to say your prayers and avoid mortal sin so that you will get to heaven after passing through purgatory. I think that the goal is nowhere better expressed than in the letter to the Ephesians:

This then is what I pray, kneeling before the Father from

whom every family whether spiritual or natural takes its name, that out of His infinite glory He may grant you the power, through His Spirit, for your hidden self to grow strong so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith and then planted in love and built on love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; until knowing the love of Christ which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God. Glory be to Him who wants to do far more for us than we could ask for or even imagine. Glory be to Him in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3,14-21).

Despite the scholarly debates about who actually wrote the letter to the Ephesians, I think that we can still say that St. Paul wants us to be filled with the utter fullness of God, because the whole letter is certainly "Pauline". This "utter fullness" is the contemplative value in Carmelite spirituality of which we speak a great deal. To be filled with the utter fullness of God is to be a mystic. Mysticism is not for an elite few; it is for everyone. It means to become an intimate friend of God. This is the call which we receive in baptism and mysticism or contemplation is the full flowering of the baptismal grace.

At present there is a thirst for God among people. Despite the present aggressive secularism, this thirst has not been dampened, though it does tend to be expressed in ways outside the Church. Those who profess a Christian faith often express this thirst in terms of prayer. Many people are seeking depth and a whole host of prayer groups have sprung up to answer this need. Carmelite spirituality can lead people to the source of living water where their thirst can be quenched. I see in the future much more concentration on the contemplative charism of Carmel. Those who are called to Carmel are called above all to be contemplatives. Let us be clear that a contemplative is not one who is enclosed in a monastery or a convent. There are contemplatives in every neighbourhood and in every area of life. One famous contemplative was Dag Hammarskjold who was Secretary General of the United Nations and obviously an extremely busy man. No-one of course knew that he was a mystic, nor I am sure did he. It was only after his death that his diary was discovered. The jottings there showed quite clearly that he was indeed a man of God. His diary has been published under the title of "Markings".1 Mostly contemplatives do not know that they are such. Contemplation and mysticism really have the same meaning and I use the terms interchangeably. Being a contemplative or a mystic has nothing to do with visions or hearing voices or anything of that sort. Mystics can be the busiest people but in the midst of all their activity are seeking the One who is.

Mystics allow God to take flesh once again in their lives. People who follow this path become their true selves. We are called to follow Christ and to imitate him. Jesus was truly human because he was divine. We are not yet fully human; we are on the way. We become fully human when God unites us with Himself and we become like Him. Purgatory means that death is not the end of our journey; we have the opportunity to grow after death so that we can become what God knows we can be. We believe that we can help each other by our prayer and we can help those who have died to continue their journey through our prayer for them.

I believe that in the future there will be a much greater concentration on the path which leads to the fulfilment of all our yearnings. If we accept that we are called to be filled with the utter fullness of God, how do we arrive at that? The Carmelite way will come into its own because it is about leading and guiding people to the summit of Mount Carmel where God is all in all. This is never to be thought of as an individual venture. We need one another as we journey and the acid test of how we relate to God is always how we relate to one another. However there is a major problem in that we cannot arrive at our goal. This is impossible for us but not for God for nothing is impossible for God. (cf. Lk. 1, 38)

The emotional programmes

God desires to accomplish His will in us but He wants our co-operation. God will not force Himself on us. We must allow Him to dismantle our emotional programmes, so laboriously set up, that we mistakenly thought would bring us happiness so that He can invade our whole being and unite us with Himself. These emotional programmes are the major blocks within us to God's accomplishing His will in us. So what are these emotional programmes within us? These are ways by means of which we attempt to control our own lives and destiny

What God desires to do in us is recreate us in the image of His Son. This is the true self which needs to emerge from the cocoon of the old self. From our earliest days we learn how to cope with the world and with people. We protect ourselves from perceived danger and we seek happiness. We gradually build up these emotional programmes for our own protection and happiness. Deep within us there is an instinct for survival which is healthy and good. It stops us from doing silly things and putting ourselves into obvious danger but it also drives us to seek security in many subtle ways. We tend to believe in God while trying to hold on to whatever it is that we think will make us feel secure. We can tell God that we trust in Him alone but the reality can be very different.

Also we need to be loved and we seek this love for our own well-being. However this deep human need and desire can easily be twisted. We can base our sense of self-worth on the level of love or affection which others have for us. Therefore we will manipulate people into gratifying our own needs and desires. However we are good and worthwhile simply because God has created us and loves us. Whatever people may think about us, that truth remains. So we must gradually let go of our clinging to people for the gratification of our need for affection. I am not and can never be defined by what people think of me. I can find the reflection of myself only in God. The world can be perceived as a very threatening place and in order to feel secure we need to feel in control. Therefore there can be a tendency to seek power over things and people in order to maintain our control.

These three emotional centres as they are called survival, affection and power are in each of us to a certain extent. We may tend towards one more strongly than another at times or even permanently. They do affect us in very subtle ways. The way to recognise when they are operating is through our emotions. Our instinctive reaction is to blame other people for our emotions - "You have hurt me" or "you have made me angry" or "it's all your fault". Of course you are not to blame for my feelings. They are my problem, not yours. The three emotional centres form the false self and it will defend itself by all means in its power. If you do not back up my opinion of myself by your attitude, I will strike out at you in some way - perhaps by anger or withholding my affection. If only the world, or my bosses or the organisation to which I belong were better then everything would be fine. But, I'm afraid, everything would not be fine. In the Gospel, Jesus challenges me personally to let go of the false self-system, to die to self so that the true self can be bom. The one who holds onto his life will lose it; the one who loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it. (cf. Mk 8,35 )2

The challenge at the beginning of the Gospel is to repent and believe the Gospel which means turn around in your road and seek your happiness in God and in nothing else. An idol is any person, place or thing from which we look for the happiness that can come only from God. Our emotions and feelings faithfully record what our true values are even though we may think they are Gospel values. Therefore our emotions, not our words and concepts, will let us know whether in fact we are placing our trust in an idol or in the Living God Taking this path involves us in a struggle which requires great honesty. This is the real penance. St. Therese of Lisieux, when she was preparing to enter Carmel, decided to live a life of mortification. She makes it clear that she does not mean that she took on physical penances. Instead she would do little things to thwart her own will, to hold back the cutting word and so on.3 God calls us to freedom but freedom is not easy to come to. We have habitual ways of acting and responding from childhood and these ways are so ingrained in us that they are very difficult to eradicate. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the other one too". (Mt. 5, 39). This is not a pacifist manifesto but an invitation to freedom. Our habitual tendency is to strike back in some way when attacked. This is not just a physical thing. If you hurt me in some way, then I will seek, albeit in a subtle way, to repay you in kind. Jesus calls us to the freedom of not having to respond in this habitual way. We are called to unconditional acceptance and love of all people. Only God can do this and so only God can give us the freedom to act in this way also. The false self system, based on the emotional programmes for happiness, can adapt itself to any kind of life style. It is just as effective in the spiritual life as it is in our exterior life. God must teach us that we cannot grasp hold of Him, nor can we control or manipulate Him. Of course we do not think that we are trying to do that, which is why our attachment to our emotional programmes for happiness is so subtle. We can cling onto feelings and consolations in prayer because they can give us a sense of getting somewhere in the spiritual life and in our relationship with God. Sometimes God will take these away so that we will learn by experience that only He, and not any of His gifts, no matter how sublime, can satisfy us.

Continuing on the inner journey will involve us in a long process whereby God reshapes us according to the image of His Son. The breaking down of the old self is painful but the birth of the new self makes all the pain worthwhile. Another term for this process is purification. We are purified so that we can receive God.

As we become more and more conscious of God's presence and action within us as the true source of all our happiness, we become more ready to dismantle the false self which we now perceive to be a burden. In the false self we have placed our hope for happiness and now slowly there develops within us a progressive self- forgetfulness and self-abandonment, confident in the power of God to lead us to the fullness of life. Our various likes, dislikes and desires gradually become a radical surrender to God's will not just at the time of prayer but also in daily life. In this way we become what God knows we can be.

Our spiritual heritage

In the future I see a greater concentration on the spiritual journey in the Church at large and in Carmel. We will become more and more aware of our spiritual heritage and how the insights of Carmelites who have gone before us can help us on our own journey and also help us to help others. Our spiritual tradition is very rich but it is little known. Many people associate Carmel with St. John of the Cross and think that it is only for a spiritual elite. We know that it speaks to us of the whole spiritual journey and gives all of us hope that we might, like Elijah, receive the food and drink necessary in order to journey to Horeb, the mountain of God. (cf. I Kings 19, 5-8). Carmelite spirituality is for people on a journey, the spiritual journey, moving towards God. It does not matter where the individual starts as long as he or she has a desire to journey towards God, then Carmelite spirituality can be of assistance.

I see in the future a continual flourishing of different lay movements within the Carmelite family. Just as the friars do not have a monopoly on the Carmelite charism, neither does the Third Order have a monopoly on how lay Carmelites can be a part of the Carmelite family. The Third Order is a particular way in which lay people can be members of the family. It may suit some people but not others. The Rule of St. Albert has proved over many centuries that it is a source of spiritual fruitfulness. Who knows what might emerge in the future?

How will the Third Order evolve in the future? That is lost in the mystery of God but perhaps I could share with you some ideas which I have. First of all I would see that the present Rule of the Third Order being expanded to become a commentary on the Rule of St. Albert suitable for lay people. The Rule of St. Albert is deceptively simple. It was originally written for hermits and then adapted for conditions in the West and for those who wished to commit themselves to an active apostolate while maintaining a focus on prayer and contemplation. There are many ways to read a text. One way is to ask what Albert meant when he wrote it and what the hermits understood by it. However this interpretation would not mean a great deal today. Another possible way of reading the text is to bring our own issues, concerns, questions and experiences and ask what the Rule has to say to us. We use this method of interpretation unconsciously when we read Scripture e.g. when we apply some of the Song of Songs to Our Lady. The writer of that Old Testament text did not have Our Lady in mind when he wrote but because of our Christian experience, we can see meanings in the text which go beyond what the original writer intended. Therefore let us read and reread the Rule of St. Albert as a gift from God to us, not as a "sacred text" which has an unchanging meaning but as a source of inspiration as to how we can adapt the original Carmelite inspiration to our changing needs and cultures.

The Rule is imbued with the Word of God. Short though it is, it contains about a hundred explicit or implicit Scriptural texts. The hermits were enjoined to ponder on the law of the Lord day and night. This pondering was intended to transform the individual into Christ from the inside out. We are to allow the Word of God to envelop us so that whatever we do will "have the Lord's Word for accompaniment" (ch.14). The same process of transformation is at work in all of us whatever our particular style of life. The Rule of St. Albert has inspired many different kinds of ways of life; it can also inspire members of the Third Order to live more deeply their Carmelite vocation at the heart of the world and its concerns.

The two inspirational models which Carmel presents to us, Mary and Elijah, are biblical figures who pondered long on the Word of God and gave it their whole-hearted assent. Carmel itself is imbued with the Word of God. I would see in the future far greater emphasis on lectio divina which can be translated as sacred reading. This is a way of pondering on the Scriptures and the model is the bee which is out to collect pollen. It does not just fly over many flowers; it has to enter inside and collect all the pollen before it flies on to another flower. This sacred reading can be done alone and also with a group. I would then see that the meetings of Carmelites would be very much concentrated on this sacred reading of Scripture. The members could be asked to bring their bibles which will probably be falling apart from constant use (!) and read a selected portion of Scripture together. This would be followed by silence for 10 to 15 minutes during which the members would simply listen to God in the depths of their own hearts. Then the group would share together what the particular Scriptural text means for each person. This would not be a discussion but a sharing of faith. The head is not the most important aspect of the reading but the heart. Lectio divina is a particular form of prayer but much more importantly it is the structure of all authentic Christian prayer and shapes the day with its flowing of reading, reflection, responding and resting. Following on from this greater emphasis on Holy Scripture, I would see the use of the Divine Office become the norm instead of the little office. The Divine Office is the Prayer of the whole Church and it is fitting for lay Carmelites to use this form of prayer.

I believe that there will be much greater emphasis on the Third Order as a lay organisation with elected national officials who will animate the local chapters with help from the friars when requested. Being a member of the Third Order is just as much a vocation as being a friar. The friars are not the sole custodians of the Carmelite charism. It is too rich and too multi­faceted for that. The Third Order will take its own direction and the friars will be advisers. More lay Carmelites will enter into ministries helping people to pray and to deepen their spiritual life. Perhaps for this the friars will be able to help by giving training and so on in the tradition. Unfortunately Carmelite spirituality is not quite as easily packaged as Ignatian spirituality. However perhaps this training will only come when there is a real demand for it.

We are being invited into God's future but what this will be like depends very much on our co­operation. How do you want to live out your Carmelite vocation? If you are perfectly happy with things as they are and want no change, then no change will take place because it is your vocation. Self-satisfaction is always a little dangerous. If however there is to be change it will mostly come from lay Carmelites themselves. Lay Carmelites must make known what they are looking for and how the Order as a whole can help.

I have only sketched in outline form some of the possibilities for the future. Each of these points could be developed much more. However perhaps you can develop them in your own time. We have been called together into the land of Carmel. Under the patronage of Our Lady and inspired by the prophet Elijah, may we co-operate with God as He helps us to grow both individually and as a family so that we all become what God knows we can be.


1      Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, (Faber and Faber, London & Boston, 1964).

2      For a simple explanation of the false self and the emotional programmes that make it up, see Elizabeth Smith and Joseph Chalmers, A Deeper Love. An Introduction to Centering Prayer (Continuum, London & New York, 1999).

3      A, 68v. This is a reference to the first manuscript of St. Th£rese's Autobiography or Story of a Soul, which was written when she was in the Carmel of Lisieux. It was written at the command of the then prioress, her sister Mother Agnes of Jesus (Pauline). There are so many published versions of this book that references are now normally given to the original French text." Throughout the book, references to Th^rfese's autobiography is to manuscript A, B or C followed by the page in the original where it may be found. The text used is: Th£rfese de L’Enfant-J#sus et de la Sainte face, Oeuvres completes, (Textes et Demieres Paroles), (Editions du Cerf, 1992, Desclee de Brouwer).


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."