On Being a Celtic Carmelite
Our community recently watched some videos on Carmelite Spirituality. As there is yet to be any available on the Celtic Carmelite synthesis, we choose popular and more available ones as a starting point for further sharing and reflection. The Celtic Carmelite integration is unique and expresses a distinctive vision of a way to seek and give thanks to the God-among-us, in prayer and in the challenges and blessings of daily life.
Unlike other religious orders in the West which are founded in direct historical lineage to a specific teacher (eg. Benedictines following St. Benedict, Franciscans following St. Francis) the Carmelites are named for a place held in close spiritual association with the Old Testament Prophet Elijah. Places shape and express spiritual energy, reveal God in a unique configuration of presence through the elements and topography, earth and horizon. The sea on one side and the desert on the other define Mt. Carmel. The caves found there have been inhabited since the first humans emerged out of Africa and began the long path of migration and journey across the globe.
Mt. Carmel is an ancient crossroads. It is a fitting site where Elijah should have some of his most powerful and foundational encounters with the Holy One. In the Book of Kings (17:2-3) we are told that Elijah was instructed to hide by the brook at Cherith and only once Yahweh instructs the Prophet to “hide” at this very precise and particular place is he then given permission to drink and be fed by ravens. Adrienne Von Speyr notes that this very precision of description—restorative action following contemplative withdrawal--speaks to the command that Elijah come to know the Presence of the Divine directly, in that form of obedient and surrendered being we call contemplative prayer. There is a deep intimacy revealed in this simple description. It is the intimacy of the soul becoming one with ineffable Mystery
Elijah is thus the model for the integration of contemplation and action, for authentic being that flows from the Source and for action that arises in seamless unity with the contemplative ground. Only in this way is action something other than mere acting but is, instead, Being-itself in realized manifestation. It is, I feel, for this that Carmelites, including Celtic Carmelites, locate the archetypal foundation of their Order in the Prophet Elijah. As we are fed by the energy of Elijah we also are nurtured by the contemplative fount manifest through the gentle interiority of Mary.
The first hermits who arrived at Mt. Carmel—whether they were first drawn there by the Crusades or on pilgrimage—found at this site something that they could not resist and that beckoned them to reside there, “hidden” under the mantle of Elijah and the protective gaze of Mary. There they found in the wild surround of risk and danger peace and purity of heart. They also found the fire of God, the passion of Divine Love. I have never been to Mt. Carmel but I do have a friend who has and he describes the remarkable Presence that radiates from there, one that aligns awareness with an immaterial light. Consciousness vibrates with cognizance that God who is so Other is also so immanent and radically intimate.
So, we follow both Elijah and Mary. Each emphasizes a different intimate engagement with God. Each highlights a concentrated interiority linked to responsive action. Each in different ways expresses something of the wild desire of God, the fiery furnace in which the soul is transformed--and ultimately divinized--into the reflection of divine ontology. Both share in the mystery of ascension as each lived a hidden life of the desert, one in the raw extremes of the wilderness (outside of culture but open to visionary mission), one through the path of ordinary daily devotion within the culture of family and generational care while simultaneously residing in the cave of the heart. The relationship between Elijah and Mary as the grounding source of the Carmelite ideal found its most explicit expression in The Institution of the First Monks by Phillip Ribot in the fourteenth century.
What the videos we watched somewhat obscure, at least for me, is the radical transition in organization and identity when the first hermits who lived as monks in the manner of the desert fathers and mothers became mendicant friars when those hermits returned to Europe from Mt. Carmel in Palestine. As early as 1240 some hermits were living in Pairs. The Rule of St. Albert was modified by St. Simon Stock with the help of the Dominicans under Pope Innocent IV and thus became part of the mendicant gospel-spreading movement of the thirteenth century. A tension emerged in the Order as the original source became diluted and thus lived with less consistency. The Order took on a highly formalized and centralized structure and became shaped by the Roman sensibility. The initial charism was largely divided between cloistered nuns whose focus was the contemplative life and men's communities that were more apostolic in focus, a practice still normative in the Roman Church. It did not take long, however, before alienation from the nurturing ground of Carmel gave rise to at least one voice of protest and a desire
Thomas Merton in an essay on the "Primitive Carmelite Ideal" describes what was unique about the first Carmelites and how their spirit is essential to maintain if one ever hopes to be an authentic contemplative who also expresses the fruits of contemplation in action. In reading his essay I was especially intrigued by the story of the Prior of the Order who followed St. Simon Stock, known as Nicholas the Frenchman. Nicholas wrote a text entitled "The Flaming Arrow" in which he argued for a return to life as hermits and viewed the driven apostolic urbanization of the Carmelites as a dilution and dispersal of their abiding in sustained concentration within God’s presence. He also viewed this development as mendicants as the distracting downfall of the Order. Nicholas spoke with the passion of the poet of how the hermit life is one that is in union with all of creation which he contrasts with the dilution of focus when one attempts to live “contemplatively” in the center of cities saturated with noise, violence, and, even-then, overstimulation. I love this section of Nicholas the Frenchman’s meditation on the gift that nature provides the soul of the contemplative:
to favor us. The heavens,
resplendent with the stars and planets in their amazing order, bear witness
by their beauty to mysteries higher still
The birds seem to assume the
nature of angels, and tenderly console us with their The
mountains too, as Isaiah prophesied, "drop down sweetness" incomparable
upon us, and the friendly hills "flow with milk and honey
as is never
tasted by the foolish lovers of this world. When we sing the praises of our
Creator, the mountains about us, our brother conventuals, resound with
corresponding hymns of praise to the Lord, echoing back our voices and
filling the air with strains of harmony as though accompanying our song
upon stringed instruments. The roots in their growth, the grass in its
greenness, the leafy boughs and trees-all make merry in their own ways as
they echo our praise
the flowers in their loveliness, as they pour out
their delicious fragrance, smile their best for the consolation of us solitaries.
The sunbeams, though tongueless, speak saving messages to us. The shady
bushes rejoice to give us shelter. In short, every creature we see or hear in
the desert gives us friendly refreshment and comfort; indeed, for all their
silence they tell forth wonders and move the interior man to give
the Creator-so much more wonderful than themselves.
Isaiah writes in of this joy that is to be found in solitude or in the
desert: "The wilderness shall rejoice and shall flourish like the lily; it shall
bud forth and blossom, and shall rejoice with joy and praise."
In reading this section of “The Flaming Arrow” I was reminded of the observation of J. Phillip Newell in his lovely little book Christ of the Celts that for the Celtic tradition nature and grace are one, moving in harmony in relation to each other. “Grace, he writes, is given to save our nature, not to save us from nature.” It is given, he adds, “to free us from the unnaturalness of what we have become and done to one another and the earth.” Grace through nature is given so that the deepest sounds within us may be heard. In I hear echoes of the vision of Nicholas the Frenchman. The love of nature and the love of the hermit life go together just as the soul, like a Bridegroom, seeks in Christ its true Bride. Shortly after writing “The Flaming Arrow” Nicholas the Frenchman resigned as the Prior of the Carmelite Order. He returned to Mt. Carmel where he continued to live, like Elijah, a hidden life.
The image of the Flaming Arrow speaks strongly to me as it also resonates through the subsequent Carmelite tradition. Similar imagery is found in both St. John of the Cross, in The Spiritual Canticle, and in Teresa of Avila, in The Interior Castle where the motif of an arrow on fire conveys the impulse of divine love. If John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila express the forward momentum of this image through time, some three hundred years after Nicholas the Frenchman, the motif of was present in the contemplative imaginary from at least the third century, in the early desert tradition. Abdisho” Hazzaya spoke of what he called “the fiery impulse” while Arsenius, of St. Anthony, in his cell in the Wadi al-Natrum is described as surrounded by flames. This is what God wants of us, what he wants for each of us, that we should be enlivened and divinized with the light that never goes out. That is our inherent nature,
given without merit to all, as of the Divine Light through the in-dwelling mutual gaze between what the Celts fondly called the Three-in-One--Father, Son, and Spirit.
Celtic Carmelites feel in a poignant way this burning zeal for the Lord, whether it is expressed in the hidden life or in a more public expression. For me, Nicholas the Frenchmen provides special inspiration and an orientation to what is most essential and most real in Carmelite spirituality and what, equally, is embodied in the authentic Celtic sensibility. I think of Nicholas the Frenchman as the first Celtic Carmelite, even if this was not in any way his explicit self-understanding.
I also find inspiration in two other figures from more recent history. The Irish Carmelite Noel O’Donoghue who has written about Celtic themes speaks in his wonderful book Adventures in Prayer about the interesting life of Fr. Hyacinthe Loyson. Fr. Loyson was a French Carmelite who in the mid-nineteenth century was one of the most popular preachers in Europe. His homilies at Notre Dame in Paris captivated the hearts of all who heard him. Fr. Loyson could not, however, accept the dogmatic definition of Papal Infallibility in 1870 and so became a part of the Old Catholic Church. O’Donoghue describes how this act of conscience on the part of Fr. Hyacinthe became a focus of concern for St. Therese of Liseaux. On her final communion before her death, which was on the Feast of St. Hyacinthe, she prayed for Fr. Hyacinthe. Her last words—Oh Sweet Jesus—were also the last words uttered by Fr. Hyacinthe when he died in 1912. O’Donoghue has this to say about this prayerful synchronicity: “Perhaps he, too, had his own adventure in prayer, which led by strange paths to his last words which sound like an echo of Therese…and may well have ‘connected’ to her in some way.
The other founding Celtic Carmelite is the contemporary hermit, William McNamara (Fr. Willie) whose life of “disciplined wildness” is a lived testimony to the summons of divine Eros, a love feast of asceticism and joy, communal ecstasy and solitary reclusion. All mystics must at some point and sometimes frequently follow the path of exile. Institutions have not always embraced his Celtic spirit of devout fiery independence. Authenticity demands as much. God provides hidden presence even as friendships and loyalties fall apart, even as partners part and judge, even as emotional wounds sear the soul raw with vulnerability, even if all that was counted on collapses. Such dark nights are the paradoxical way of divine intimacy. In Wild and Robust Fr. Willie describes how the divine summons has always called him to the edge while wedded to the Christ who dwells within, much like the early Celtic monks were called to wild places like Michael Skellig in the Irish sea a most extreme environment all was given in spousal union to the living God. The Flaming Arrow of Divine Love asks no less.
There is an aching loneliness in the heart of each person that cannot be met through all the typical strategies of distraction and normative addiction. It cannot be met through success or drive, through image or esteem. This abyss in the heart is known most directly by those who fail according by the destitute and homeless and those whose mind’s have been shattered by pain or whose bodies have been wracked by disability. For others, its presence announces in more subtle ways as an anxious agitation, fears without an object, a quivering sensitivity. This lonely spot in the soul can only be met in deep spiritual intimacy—in rare communities of love where true communion of hearts is the norm and in the sustained silence and stillness of solitude where the heart can absorb without distraction the balm of God’s healing desire. Here, the still small voice speaks in the cave of the heart and wholeness, in moments of contemplative repose, is given in the manner described by Nicholas the Frenchman, as “a cord of tenderness.” The Celtic Carmelite is summoned to no less.