They are called the ‘evangelical’ counsels because we find them lived and therefore recommended (counselled) by Jesus in the four accounts of the Gospel ('evangelium' in Latin). Jesus Christ was poor in spirit, chaste in heart, and obedient in love to the will of his Father. The evangelical counsels are a useful support in our pursuit of living - as the Carmelite Rule states - 'in allegiance to Jesus Christ'.
All Christians are called to live as Christ lived, and Carmelites profess to do this publicly through the evangelical counsels. The evangelical counsels are closely linked to the way of life of religious communities, because although people have been living the evangelical counsels since the time of Jesus it was not until the development of monastic and mendicant communities that these virtues were professed publicly with the swearing of a vow or promise. Vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are now taken in some form by all formal congregations and orders of religious in the Roman Catholic Church, and the counsels are regarded as the foundation of their conduct and way of life.
A universal invitation
However, the invitation to live poor, chaste and obedient is not restricted to religious and clergy. All Jesus’ followers are invited to adopt these principles in whatever way is appropriate to them. The evangelical counsels are recommended for all the baptised. Both the 1983 Code of Canon Law (§207 # 2) and the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (§873) remind us that within both the clergy and the laity ‘there exist Christian faithful who are consecrated to God in their own special manner and serve the salvific mission of the Church through the profession of the evangelical counsels.’ The Catechism states that those who profess the evangelical counsels publicly within a permanent state of life recognised by the Church live a consecrated life. So it can be said that, even though they are not religious, in making the profession proper to the Carmelite Third Order, lay Carmelites consecrate their lives to God as a deepening of their baptismal commitment.
The 2003 Rule for the Third Order of Carmel also reminds lay Carmelites that they are invited in a special way to adopt poverty, chastity and obedience as part of their way of life:
Poverty, chastity, and obedience are not ends in themselves; they are virtues we practice so as to conform more closely to Jesus Christ. By professing these counsels as a free choice, Carmelites become prophets in the heart of the Church, reminding all people by our dedication to Christ that God alone can set us free to be fully human and alive.
Carmelites are invited to be poor in spirit and to follow the vision of Saint Albert’s Rule in sharing our resources. Carmelite religious live in material poverty, not claiming property as their own. Carmelite laity are not required to give up all possessions but are invited to live simply and in a spirit of poverty.
The virtues associated with poverty resonate with the contemplative core of the Carmelite charism. Poverty is closely linked to the Carmelite notion of vacare Deo; leaving space for God to act in our lives and trusting in God’s providence. Having a spirit of poverty allows us to make space for God and do away with false idols, since ‘you cannot serve both God and wealth’ (Luke 16:13). Ultimately only God, not things, will satisfy and save us. Material goods are tools given to us by God and are not bad in themselves, but possessions can come to possess us and enslave our hearts. Carmelites strive to live more simply, being not excessively concerned with material things.
Through poverty God gradually releases our hearts to love not only him, but also in solidarity those who have less than ourselves, physically and spiritually. By practising poverty we come to respect the created world of which we are stewards, and to be grateful for God’s bounty which is for all people. Embracing voluntary poverty condemns possession of the poor and the idolatry of wealth, and impels us to seek justice and peace.
Chastity is often confused with the vocation of celibacy, but chastity is concerned not only with bodily purity but more importantly with purity of mind and heart, what the Carmelite traditions calls puritas cordis. In the Carmelite tradition Albert’s Rule speaks of the ‘cincture of chastity’ (Chapter 19) and Mary, Our Lady, is hailed as the woman who kept a heart pure for God so that God could pour into her whatever grace he willed.
At profession Carmelite religious undertake a vow of chastity and live a celibate life. Lay Carmelites promise chastity according to their state in life. This does not mean cutting off relationships because of Carmel; quite the opposite. Lay Carmelites are asked to deepen their relationships, to make their actions selfless rather than selfish, and to be an experience of God for other people. In relationships we are invited by the virtue of chastity to encounter the spirit of God dwelling in other people, and so not be demeaning or abusive. Chastity is not about a prudish rejection of physical love, but a statement that God alone can fully and finally satisfy the longing of our hearts. Chastity is a way of living open to everyone, whether we are single or in a relationship, clerical or lay.
Professing to live in chastity is described as follows in the 2003 Constitutions of the Discalced Carmelite Secular Order:
Some people within the Carmelite Family – mostly the religious – take the further step of committing to live not only chaste but also celibate, that is, forsaking sexual relations so as to be available more freely to serve all people and thus build up the Kingdom of God. However, celibacy is a vocation and gift in its own right and is not given to the majority of lay Carmelites, who through their commitment to their families and loved-ones (sometimes though not always in sexual relationships) also contribute to the building up of God’s Kingdom.
The term obedience comes from the Latin ob-audire, ‘to listen to’. It is not simply about ordering people to do our bidding because we have power over them, nor is it about blindly doing the will of others against our conscience or reason. Obedience in the proper sense is not an exercise of power but rather about listening, discerning together the will of God, and respecting legitimate authority even when we cannot understand from our limited perspective why something is being asked of us. When we commit ourselves in Carmel, we commit everything to God. We hand over control and learn to cooperate with God, so that the Spirit can work in and through us.
According to an ancient formula the traditional promise made by a Carmelite, lay or religious, is obedience to God, to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to the Prior General. The Prior General as senior brother within Carmel is the visible sign of unity in the Order, ‘a spiritual father, head and bond of unity’ (Rule for the Third Order of Carmel §11), and he is committed to all members of the Carmelite Family. Although it is unlikely that the Prior General will ever ask anything directly of most Carmelites, it is possible, and this needs to be considered seriously when pledging oneself in the service of the Order. More likely we may be asked to do something by the people to whom the Prior General delegates his authority, normally a Prior Provincial (senior brother within a particular area) or his representatives.
At a local level when we commit to Carmel we subscribe to be obedient to the people chosen by the community to lead us. Leaders are also asked to be obedient to the will of God as expressed through the community. That may include taking up responsibilities within Carmel even when we do not want to because we have been asked by our brothers and sisters. In the Carmelite tradition it is very significant that those in leadership are always chosen by the consent of the community.
The Rule of Saint Albert arguably has more to say about obedience than it does about either poverty or chastity, addressed as it is to ‘Brother B. and the other hermits living in obedience to him’. It was not until Pope Innocent IV approved Albert’s Way of Life text as a formal Rule for religious in 1247 that vows of poverty and chastity were explicitly incorporated into the text in Chapter 4. As Carmelites we therefore need to reflect very seriously on the virtue of obedience, which according to our Rule of Saint Albert will help us merit the reward of eternal life (Chapter 23). The Rule also reminds us that we should revere those who serve us in leadership roles, our minds set not on the individual ‘but on Christ who has placed him [or her] over you’ (Chapter 23). The leader of the Carmelite community is also reminded by the Rule to ‘put into practice what our Lord said in the Gospel: Whoever has a mind to become a leader among you must make yourself servant to the rest’ (Chapter 22).
Through baptism we undertake to listen to the wisdom and authority of the Church. By entering Carmel we also submit to the authority of the ‘elder and wiser part’ of the Order (Rule Chapter 4). We are asked to be faithful to what is authentically Carmelite, and at times submit our minds to the teachings of the tradition and of the Church, though an informed conscience is always the ultimate authority. Being obedient does not mean we stop thinking for ourselves, but it does mean that we need to have minds that are open to having our ways of thinking challenged.
When we commit to Carmel we do not give up the unique gifts that we bring to the Family. The proper exercising of authority in our tradition is to help the gifts and experience of individuals to flourish in the community. It used to be said that obedience was about driving out our individuality and making us conform to one standard ‘ideal’ of Carmelite life. Today we understand that we need to find a balance between expressing our own God-given identity and individuality, whilst allowing God and those around us to transform those parts of us that still need to change.
The statutes of the lay Carmelites in one of the provinces in North America describe the vow of obedience this way:
Through promising obedience Carmelites undertake a serious commitment, but rather than demanding commitment from us the Order invites us to give of ourselves freely. However, having made that commitment through profession we are at the call of the Order, and asked to be obedient to it. By entering Carmel a candidate is committing to something more than a club, a prayer group or pious sodality; henceforth he or she belongs to a religious order, and the Order does not belong to him or her. Membership of Carmel does bring responsibilities and obligations, as well as rights. Embracing a vocation within the Order should be a free acceptance of our obligations within the Carmelite Family, not a burden thrust on us or accepted half-heartedly that we come to resent.
Practice makes perfect
The evangelical counsels offer us a challenge to be as perfect as we can be – or better put – to be as loving as we can be. The counsels are a way for us to cooperate with God. We can choose whether or not to take up the challenge; neither God nor the Carmelite Order will ever force us to be obedient, poor, or chaste, but we are invited by Jesus to adopt these values as a way of living so that we grow in true love and thus build up the Kingdom of God.
The evangelical counsels are ideals to live up to, and it is likely that at times we will fail to do so. We do not have to be perfect in our living of the evangelical counsels to make the step of trying to live them day by day, publicly or privately. All we are asked to do is to have an open heart to try and live them as best we can, and God will do the rest. This idea is captured in the friars’ document on formation, the Ratio issued in 2000: