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The Development of Carmelite Spirituality


Joel J. Moelter, O.Carm.

The study of the history of spirituality has unfortunately been somewhat neglected until comparatively recent times. Yet its importance can hardly be exaggerated. It is true that those features which characterize sanctity in general must necessarily be found in all of the saints. Still there is an enormous personal factor. Thus to know that St. Teresa was a saint is not to know how she was a saint. This can be learned only by the reading of her works, and particularly of her Autobiography. For al­though every Christian lives the life of grace, still there are no two who live identical lives of grace. How much more is this condition verified in those great heroes of sanctity, the saints! As St. Bernard says, each one drinks the water from his own well.

Now to study this vast field of individual spiritual experience is the work of the history of spirituality. This study supposes the historical method, but it also presupposes the existence of a supernatural order and of the laws of grace. It is this that raises it to a category above that of mere secular history. Hence to neglect this science is a great and harmful mistake, and in fact this is not the attitude that the Church recommends. For, as Etienne Gilson, commending the study of the history of spirituality, notes: " She (the Church), on the contrary, by proposing the saints for our veneration and imitation, by recommending the spiritual writing of St. Bernard, of St. Bonaventure, of St. John of the Cross, of the two Sts. Teresa, and of so many others, invites us to become acquainted with them and study them in order to live by them ". Hence it is with a keen awareness of the utility of the study of the history of spirituality for the individual spiritual life that this series of articles is undertaken.

These article3 will deal with but one branch of the great tree of spir­ituality, namely, the Carmelite. Still, as Archbishop Goodier sagely points out, all modern mysticism can be said to derive from the great Spanish mystics of the sixteenth century. Indeed the editor of a recent edition of the works of St. John of the Cross observes that: " It is quite worthy of note and to the credit of the other glorious religious foun­dations, that, while they might have been expected to urge their own doctrinal merits, instead they have exalted with the utmost zeal and efficacy the teaching office of St. John of the Cross... ".

Nor should it be thought that only the Mystical Doctor has had this widespread influence; for it would be impossible that the great tide of mystics with which Carmel has been blessed would not exert its effect on the spirituality of the whole Church. However, besides this general value of Carmelite spirituality there is its particular and cherished sig­nificance for all Carmelites. It is this last motive that gives the true fillip to this presentation.

Now in order to present a clear idea of the history of Carmelite spir­ituality two things are necessary. First, recourse must be had to the genuine sources from which it springs; and then, an examination must be made of the living tradition of the Order. That tradition is to be found in those approved and recognized masters who give us the true spirit and authentic interpretation of the written founts. It is this two­fold path, therefore, that is followed in this investigation of the devel­opment of the spirituality of Carmel, of its interior life, of its intimate spirit; a study, as is clear, much more exacting than that of the external history of the Order.

Carmelite spirituality traces its origins back to the hermits dwelling on Mount Carmel. The two most important founts are the Rule of St. Albert, given there in the first part of the thirteenth century, and the Institution of the First Monks, written about the middle of the twelfth century or somewhat later. Without doubt the Rule of St. Albert is the most important source from a purely juridical viewpoint. However, this Rule, solemnly approved by the Apostolic See in 1226, is in reality not the foundation, but rather the official codification, of the Carmelite way of life; as can be seen from the Prologue: "But since you request it of us, that in keeping with your proposals we give you a rule of life... ". It is true that at first sight the brevity and simplicity of the Rule do not reveal its true wealth, but give instead an impression of inherent defi­ciency; nevertheless when well studied the Rule is found to include a complete code of sublime Christian spirituality. In regard to this characteristic of the Rule the Venerable John of St. Samson aptly observes:

"Our Rule is very condensed, exceedingly subtle, and contains much more than the mere words express. It must be meditated with great assiduity, for to the extent that we would become more spiritual the more carefully must we follow its precepts; that is, we must, using true and well-ordered means, revert to God with all our strength and not fall by the wayside".

This deeper content accounts for the many commentaries which have been published on the Rule. In the fourteenth century we have two brief expositions of it, one written by John Baconthorp and the other by Sihert de Beka or William de Sanvico. Later came the Exposition of Blessed John Soreth. Then in the seventeenth century Venerable Jerome Gracian, Venerable Thomas of Jesus, O.C.D., Valentine of St. Amond, Venerable John of St. Samson and John Baptist Lezana, all wrote commentaries. These were followed in the eighteenth century by those of Emmanuel of Jesus and Mary, 0.C.D., Joseph Sardi and Ignatius Rossi. In the present century there is had the treatise of Angelus of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, O.C.D.

All this literature serves better than anything else to demonstrate the place and transcendancy which the Rule holds in -Carmel. The Rule is the permanent basis of Carmelite life. It is true that it must be ex­plained and adapted to the needs of the day, but it must never be neg­lected or disregarded, under pain of destroying true Carmelite life. Hence it is evident that the observation of the spirit of the Rule of St. Albert as the ideal of the life of the Order is essential to Carmelite spir­ituality. This is the reason why the 'substance of the Rule has always been respected, and the Constitutions and Acts of the General Chapters have done nothing more than accommodate it to new circumstances; al­ways being deeply convinced that the continued existence and progress of the Order is grounded precisely in its exact and fervent observance. Now, although juridically the official fount of Carmelite spirituality is the Rule of St. Albert; nevertheless historically the primitive source is the Institution of the First Monks (sometimes inaccurately called the Rule of John XLIV) or the traditions on which it is founded. This work, compiled at the time of the restoration or reorganization of the Order occasioned by the Crusades in the twelfth century, was assembled to serve as a doctrinal foundation for the restoration. It contains two parts. The first part (Chap. 1.8), which is strictly doctrinal, outlines by means of an allegorical commentary on the biblical narrations concerning the prophet Elias the form which Carmel's spirituality must assume in spite of the vicissitudes of history. It presents in clear terms the tenor of the life which in imitation of Elias every Carmelite most adopt. The second part (Chap. 9-48), which can be called the historical section, gathers together the principal traditions of the Order in regard to Elias and the Blessed Virgin, tradition not in a merely formative stage but already well developed.

With every right, then, the doctrine of this venerable book can be considered the foundation of Carmelite spirituality in so far as it consti­tutes a precise summary of the spiritual doctrine of the Order and at the same time forms the official expression of the fundamental spirit of the Order. Actually the spirit of the Institution animated the Rule, the scope of which was to perfect the way of life already sketched in it and to regulate religious observance when the Order passed from a more or less elemental anchoretical constitution to a more developed cenobitical, although still solitary, form of life. Hence it may be said, as the celebrated Philip Ri'bot (d. 1391) remarks in his Mirror of the Order, that what the Institution "counseled in a general way, Albert determined in particular".

It is for this reason that the author of the so-called Epistle of St. Cyril (1230?) employed the doctrine of the Institution as the most authoritative expression of the traditions of the Order. Likewise, it was with this same body of doctrine before his eyes that Blessed Nich­olas the Frenchman wrote his renowned The Fiery Arrow (127o). However, its influence is not limited to these works but is easily de­tected in those written in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to defend the name and antiquity of the Order. Among these, especially noteworthy are: The Garden by John Grossi, A Chronicle by John de Veneta, The Patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Arnold Bostius, and The Origin of the Order by an anonymous author.

Consequently, it can be said that the early Fathers of the Order de­rived from the Institution the true spirit of Carmel which was to sustain them in their passage to the West, to the tumult of the world, to the fatigues of the Apostolate; far from the peace and tranquillity of that holy Mount which they had chosen for the contemplation of the things of God. This all agrees with what the distinguished historian of the Order, Father Gabriel Wessels wrote of the Institution: " in regard to the ascetical section it certainly exercised a great influence on the Order. Before the seventeenth century it was the principal book of the Order used for the spiritual reading of the brethren, especially after it was printed in 1507. Indeed, it was considered by all as the ancient Rule of the Order. It exerted its influence on St. Teresa, on St. John of the Cross, and on Michel of St. Augustine; as well as on the Directory of Novices, and other ascetical books of the Order ".

Hence in conclusion: the primitive founts from which has flowed the great stream of Carmelite spirituality are the Rule of St. Albert and the Institution of the First Monks. In future articles it will be shown how through the course of the centuries their simple but profound doctrine was elaborated and systematized. Still, although Carmel's spirituality has been subject to this progressive change, it continues to rise from these original springs. Accordingly it is to these primitive founts that all must hearken who seek the fundamental spirit of Carmel, the spirit that gives them the right to the beloved name of Carmelite.

Joel J. Moelter, O.Carm.

In The Spirit of Carmel - No.1 1951

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." 


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