The British Province
of Carmelite Friars
A Contemplative Community in the Midst of the People
We are the brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. Our Order began because the Latin hermits on Mount Carmel wanted to form themselves into a community of brothers. They had been together long enough to work out for themselves a proposal for a way of life which they took to St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, so that he could give them ecclesiastical approval. When Albert's "formula vitae" was formally approved as a Rule by Pope Innocent IV in 1247, the hermits were inscribed in the new mendicant movement which was sweeping Europe at the time. The Carmelite hermits became Carmelite friars called to the service of the people. One of the hallmarks of the mendicants was that they lived in the midst of the people and not in large monasteries like the monks.
Despite the fact that the Order is clearly called to the active apostolate, contemplation remains a fundamental element of our vocation. We understand ourselves to be contemplative communities at the service of God's people in whose midst we live. Thank God we have passed beyond those years when we were still searching for our identity. Our identity is now clear. What remains for us is to tease out the implications of our charism for our daily life.
We are to live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience and we do this through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through fraternity, and through service (diakonia) in the midst of the people. (Constitution, 14). These three elements are closely interwoven being bound together by the experience of the desert which is the experience of the purifying action of God in our lives. Contemplation determines the quality of our fraternal life and of our service in the midst of the people of God (Constitution, 18). The goal of contemplation is to be transformed in God and thus see reality with the eyes of God and love with the heart of God (Cf. Constitution, 15).
A contemplative attitude allows us to discover the presence of God in others and to appreciate the mystery of those with whom we share our lives (Constitution, 19). We are called to community, to share our lives with others but above all with our brothers and this in itself is a witness to others that God is present in our midst and through this witness God will touch the hearts of many.
We could speak very beautifully about the theory of community and its theological meaning but we all know that the reality of religious community is very different. Our communities mirror the reality of the Church and of the world in which we live. We are redeemed sinners who are striving to do the will of God. We are not perfect as individuals and therefore we cannot have perfect communities yet.
There is a thirst for community in our world and yet at the same time individualism is rampant. This tension is present in our own lives since we cannot but be affected by the world in which we live. We are drawn to community on the one hand but on the other we are tempted to put our own needs and desires above everything else and to judge everything by how it affects us. Community is not easy and though we are committed to living community, it is crucial to recognise the tendency which exists in all of us to escape its demands and to close in on ourselves in selfishness. This is the reality of sin in our lives but we have been redeemed. Clearly the redemption won for us by Christ has not made saints of us yet; we are hopefully on the way. Christ offers us a way to grow beyond our limitations but we must accept the healing which he offers. The first stage of healing is to recognise that something is not quite right.
What is it like to live in our Carmelite communities? "The community of believers were of one heart and one mind. None of them ever claimed anything as his own; rather everything was held in common." (Acts. 4,32). If that is your experience of community life, you are truly blessed but I would guess that this is not your experience. I would guess that at best it is reasonably pleasant and that in your community you have come to a mutual acceptance of one another. At worst ..it can be very difficult and a reality from which we seek to escape at every opportunity. Why is our community not perfect? We can blame the Provincial and Council for putting us in this dreadful situation or for dumping Brother X on the community or we can blame our brothers with whom it is impossible to form true community despite our desire to do so. We could try blaming God of course but if we find ourselves blaming everyone but ourselves perhaps this should ring a warning bell for us. Could it be possible that others find us difficult to live with and in their hearts are blaming us for the lack of real community?
We have been called together from many different backgrounds. We come into community with our own particular experience of life which has marked us for good or for ill. We approach community with our own baggage and our often very different expectations. We may use the same word, "community", but we may mean very different things. I believe that the first step towards improving our community life is to accept that we are different and that we may be looking for different things. We need to accept one another in all our diversity and try to see in this human reality something of the richness of God. Each individual truly is a mystery. We need to accept the fact that some individuals are so badly damaged by the ups and downs of life that they are almost completely dysfunctional. Where their behaviour is damaging to the community life, they must be challenged and every help given to them to live a more balanced life. I appreciate that this is no easy task but failure to challenge inappropriate behaviour leads to the dysfunctional individual dominating the life of the community. Such people are in a minority but all of us need to be challenged from time to time to be faithful to the vocation to which we have been called. This challenge can come to us very often through the daily living with others. We preach the Gospel but the test of our words is in our deeds. It is very easy to love our neighbour if we do not have a neighbour. How we actually live in community will tell us whether we really are men of prayer and will tell others. The authenticity of our prayer will become obvious through our daily contact with our brothers.
Although living the reality of community is not easy, it is the way which God has chosen for us. If vocation is not something imposed on us from the outside but part of our inner reality which we discover little by little, then the yearning for community and the ability to live it is written into the very fabric of our being. Of course because of our fallen nature, we have things out of balance but the elements of community life can help us to grow if we are willing to follow Christ into the desert.
There is no gain without pain. Growing up is painful but the pain forms us into mature men. There is a serious danger in religious life of remaining immature all our lives. We receive what we need from the community whether we work for it or not. If we are awkward enough, we will be given anything we want just to keep us happy and so that the others can have some peace. Then we are just like spoiled children. Following Christ leads inevitably to the cross in some form or another. This is not a punishment but God's way of helping us become what He knows we can be. Through our experience of life, God will purify us, rubbing away our rough corners. We will probably not appreciate it at the time but the end result makes it very worthwhile. Some of this purifying will take place in and through our life in community. Are we willing to consent to the action of God in our lives or will we turn away and instead do what we want? This is the difference between working for God and doing God's work. Working for God means to do what we want and we assume that it also must be what God wants. Doing God's work can be very different - doing what God is really asking of us which involves us in careful discernment and silent listening for the still small voice of God who speaks to us through the most unexpected people.
The Constitutions point out those elements of our life which are designed to help us grow as individuals and as brothers (31). The first is "in the shared participation in the Eucharist, through which we become one body, and which is the source and the summit of our lives, and therefore the sacrament of brotherhood." Do we have a shared Eucharist in our communities? This is written into our Rule and was a very unusual precept for hermits. I am not proposing a shared Eucharist because it is part of our law but because it is the greatest help we have to build up our communities. I am well aware that there can be all sorts of reasons why community Eucharist is not convenient but where there is a will, there is a way. Sometimes the demands of the apostolate can be used as an excuse to escape other demands. In this case we need to look at our lives with great honesty. What am I seeking? What do I want to do with my life and what does God want of me? How does my lifestyle fit in with my vocation to be a Carmelite?
The second element mentioned in the Constitutions is similar to the first, that is the communal celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours. Perhaps some of us are still suffering from the experience of the past where in some cases the community said lots of prayers together but the individual members could not stand one another. Prayer can be used to boost our own ego instead of being an opening to the purifying and healing action of God but that danger is not a reason to give up prayer either as individuals or as communities. St. Teresa of Avila said that with regard to prayer we need to have a very determined determination to keep going and never give up. If we want to praise God together as brothers, the Church has given us a precious opportunity to do so by means of the Liturgy of the Hours whereby we join with the whole Church to offer to God the sacrifice of praise. It is of course possible to enliven our liturgical celebrations so that they do not became routine.
The next element mentioned in the Constitutions for the building up of our community life is the prayerful listening to the Word. This of course is part of the celebration of the Eucharist and of the Liturgy of the Hours but is also recommended by means of Lectio Divina where together we read and reflect on the Word of God and share our response to this Word in our own words and in silence where we allow the Word to shape our hearts and to bind us together in unity. We cannot have prayerful communities if we are not prayerful individuals. Each one of us is responsible for the health of the community. Being prayerful does not necessarily mean saying many prayers but allowing our prayer to change us and how we relate to others.
The Constitutions recognise that we need to discuss common concerns and so the community meeting is an important element in community life. If we do not discuss things which concern us, they will become problems which can destroy the harmony of any community. The community meeting needs to look at business but also at the spiritual aspects of community life. There are certain basic skills needed to organise and run a successful community meeting. If you know that you do not have them, or suspect this to be the case, try asking one of the other brothers to chair meetings or perhaps the chairing could be shared.
We are also encouraged to share the common table and recreation together. If we never spend time together, we will never grow in unity. If we do spend time together, there is a risk of conflict of course but if good will exists and a willingness to dialogue, then these problems can be overcome and be in fact a bond of unity between us. Each of us must examine our own conscience. Am I truly willing to dialogue with my brothers? Am I always right and the others always wrong? Could some of their criticisms have an element of truth? If so what will I do about it?
Finally we are encouraged to work together and to share our joys, our anxieties and friendships. It is important to celebrate together the ordinary human things like birthdays or anniversaries etc. It is also important to be there for one another when we are in trouble. Always safeguarding the community's right to some privacy, it is very helpful to be able to share our own personal friends with the community.
Religious community is a human reality and therefore is flawed but it is the ambient in which we have been called to respond to God's gratuitous love for us. It is the privileged place where we can grow as human beings, as Christians and as religious. Let us accept one another with all our faults, strive to love one another as Christ has loved us and value one another as brothers and co-heirs of God's Kingdom. Of course we will fail from time to time to live up to our high ideals but that is no reason to let go of these ideals and settle for an unhappy mediocrity. Christ has promised to be with us and we can depend on that promise. If we allow him, he will love our brothers through us. If our experience of community has not been good, why not try to follow the principle of our brother, St. John of the Cross who said, "Where there is no love, put love and you will find love." If there is love within a community, all obstacles can be overcome. Life will not be perfect but we will know that we are accepted for who we are which will give us the confidence to go out to others and share that love with them. Our community lives will bear witness to the truth of the Gospel that Christ has broken down the barriers which separated people from one another and that his love can heal.
If we are willing to take the risk of loving our brothers, we will fulfil the article of our Constitutions which says, "Fraternal life modelled on the Jerusalem community is an incarnation of God's gratuitous love, internalised through an ongoing process by which we empty ourselves of all egocentricity - which can affect groups as much as individuals - as we move towards authentic centering in God. In this way we express the charismatic and prophetic nature of the consecrated Carmelite life, weaving harmoniously into it the personal charisms of each member, in the service of the Church and the world." (30).