A Carmelite friar at prayer by the tomb of St. John of the Cross.
Prayer: Heartbeat of Carmel
Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to the Prior General of the Carmelites, described our Order as 'the ones who teach us to pray'. We Carmelites would be untrue to our vocation if we did not help people to pray, and our rich spirituality
has much experience in this area. In the end, of course, it is the Holy Spirit who teaches us to pray. However, the Spirit works through those who encourage, who point the way, and who are willing to share their own journey in prayer withothers. Many people start off praying with great enthusiasm, but when they begin to experience difficulties and dryness they need understanding and guidance from those who have walked the same path. Carmel has a rich spiritual heritage, including the writings of our many saints, which ofer great insights and guidance for those who wish to grow in friendship with God in prayer. Carmelites seek to share our heritage with others and travel with them on their spiritual journey.
Types of Prayer
One of the greatest teachers on prayer is the Carmelite nun and Doctor of the Church Saint Teresa of Avila
. Here follows a brief summary of the types of prayer Teresa identified [adapted from Aloysius Rego, O.C.D., St Teresa and the Our Father: A Catechism of Prayer
, Oxford: Teresian Press, 2015].
Prayer is the principal subject matter of all Teresa's writings. For Teresa, prayer is 'the royal road to heaven' on which everyone is invited to travel. It is also the means towards the fullest possible communion with God in this life.
In her writings, Teresa refers to three different kinds of prayer; vocal, mental and contemplative. Of these, only the first two can be taught and must be worked at; the third, contemplation, cannot be taught but only received and its effect described.
- Vocal Prayer is prayer with words - set prayers such as the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Divine Office and the rosary.
- Mental Prayer can be vocal or silent, since it does not take any particular form but is a prayer of presence, an attentive awareness of the God whom we are addressing.
- Contemplative Prayer, as described by Saint Teresa, is predominantly passive prayer; God the Holy Spirit is the principal active agent, working in us with directness and immediacy. We cannot achieve this form of prayer by our own efforts - it is pure gift - but we can dispose ourselves to be open to the Spirit's activity in us.
For Teresa, the great
test of a life of prayer is seeing it bearing fruit in good works of love towards others.
Carmelites sharing Taizé-style prayer.
Today there is a surge of interest in meditation and 'mindfulness'. Carmelites have much to share with those exploring these concepts.