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Carmelite Spirituality - The Presence of God

Fr. John Malley, O.Carm.

Since the beginning of religious life in the Church, there have been different schools of spirituality. Even though every spirituality has but one foundation, Jesus Christ, some holy men and women throughout the centuries have been attracted to specific values from His

teaching and have emphasized certain truths of His life. As a result, particular Gospel values have become identified with different religious families in the Church. These are truly gifts of the Holy Spirit, enriching and benefiting the lives of God’s people.

Psalm 42 has expressed so well the longing of the human spirit: “Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God. My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can 1 enter and see the face of God?” St. Augustine expressed this same truth so beautifully: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

Our Carmelite spirituality begins on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. The first hermits, some probably lay pilgrims, and others former crusaders, came together toward the end of the 12th century to a place well known in Scripture for the presence and deeds of the Prophet Elijah. They were drawn by his words in the First Book of Kings: “God lives, in whose presence 1 stand.” They were seeking the presence, the face of the living God, the God of Love whose image Jesus constantly reflected during His time on earth, as He reminded His disciples of the Good News - that the God, who created us in His image, has first loved us and has called us to a personal union with Himself.

1 would suggest to you that the presence of God has been and should still remain the first and most fundamental value of our Carmelite spirituality and tradition. For centuries, this yearning, this striving, was expressed by the Latin words - Vacare Deo - a total availability to God as we become more aware of His presence in our life. Like so many of our Saints in Carmel, that phrase will take on a very personal meaning for each of us, as we strive to find time for Him, as we rest and relax in His presence, as we literally “take a vacation with God,” simply seeking God day after day in our many commitments and activities.

This inspiration to seek the presence of God is strongly rooted in our Carmelite spirituality because of the influence of Elijah the Prophet. The early hermits gathered on Mount Carmel by the fountain of Elijah. It was there that they hoped to find a spiritual environment, a place where God’s spirit and the human spirit would meet. Elijah and Elisha were inspiring models of this fundamental challenge for all Carmelites: to stand in the presence of the living God and to seek His face. The prophets of Mount Carmel reminded one and all that God lives among His people and that He loves each one of us with an everlasting love.

St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of the Child Jesus are two of our saints who witnessed so strongly to this first fundamental value. They remind us so well that the thirst for God is not the exclusive right of a privileged few, but that our God is eager to share Himself with every sincere soul. They are both so mindful of Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well: “Whoever drinks the water 1 give him will never be thirsty; no, the water 1 give shall become a fountain within him, leaping up to provide eternal life.”

We are all familiar with the story of Teresa, who at the age of seven ran away from home with her brother Rodrigo, and when asked by her anxious parents why she had done this, she replied: “I went because 1 want to see God, and to see him we must die.” The reply of a child, but it foreshadows her life-long quest - to live in the presence of the living God who loved her. She later wrote: “We need no wings to go in search of God but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.”

The spirituality of St. Teresa is simply this movement toward God present in the most inner mansion of her soul, where she seeks to be intimately united with Him. Teresa begins her quest for God by seeking only Jesus, but the whole Christ is revealed to her. She had looked to find God in relationship to herself, but she finds as “a daughter of the Church” that Christ Jesus is found in His members, in His mystical Body. Because of this profound understanding, she shared with us her beautiful prayer: “Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which He looks with compassion on the world ...” How well does Teresa reflect the two-fold battle cry of Elijah, the prophet of Carmel: “God lives, in whose presence I stand,” and “With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts.”

St. Therese too, at a very young age, had a profound sense of the presence of God, one that was replete with love. Her image of God was taken from her own father whom she admired, respected, cherished and loved so much. Her mother tells us that Therese as a child “speaks only of God and wouldn’t miss her prayers for anything.” Later, in Carmel she had deepened this value to such an extent that as she was dying she tells us that the source of her joy came from a total acceptance of the will of “Papa, God” whom she was soon to see face to face. She told her sisters very simply: “Don’t be sad at seeing me sick like this. You can see how happy God is making me”.

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."