Reflections: Occasionally, members of our Order provide insights and reflections we would like to share with our internet friends.
The following is a from Brother Elisha, a gifted friend and brother:
On Being a Celtic Carmelite
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 himself 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 ensuing 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 reason 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 highlight 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 from which action flowed 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 is 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 for re-vision.
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
“In the desert1
all the elements conspire to favor us.
resplendent with the stars and planets
in their amazing order, bear witness
by their beauty to mysteries higher
The birds seem to assume the
nature of angels, and tenderly console
us with their gentle carolling. The
mountains too, as Isaiah prophesied,
"drop down sweetness" incomparable
upon us, and the friendly hills
"flow with milk and honey"
such 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;
and 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 praise to
the Creator-so much more wonderful than
Isaiah writes in figure 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 this
contemporary Celtic sensibility I hear echoes of the thirteenth century 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 spiritual fire
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, disciple 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 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 bestowal
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 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 psychic 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 where in 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 to convention, 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.