B. Contemplation: the heart of the Carmelite charism

23. Journeying towards our goal

"Contemplation is the inner journey of Carmelites, arising out of the free initiative of God, who touches and transforms us, leading us towards unity in love with him, raising us up so that we may enjoy his gratuitous love and live in his loving presence. It is a transforming experience of the overpowering love of God. This love empties us of our limited and imperfect human ways of thinking, loving, and behaving, transforming them into divine ways"(40) and enables us "to taste in our hearts and experience in our souls the power of the divine presence and the sweetness of heavenly glory, not only after death, but during this mortal life."(41)

The contemplative dimension is not merely one of the elements of our charism (prayer, fraternity and service): it is the dynamic element which unifies them all.

In prayer we open ourselves to God, who, by his action, gradually transforms us through all the great and small events of our lives. This process of transformation enables us to enter into and sustain authentic fraternal relationships; it makes us willing to serve, capable of compassion and of solidarity, and gives us the ability to bring before the Father the aspirations, the anguish, the hopes and the cries of the people.

Fraternity is the testing ground of the authenticity of the transformation which is taking place within us. We discover that we are brothers journeying towards the one Father, sharing the gifts of the Spirit and supporting one another through the hardships of the journey.

From the free and disinterested service which only the contemplative can give, we receive unexpected assistance in our spiritual journey; this helps us to grow in openness to the action of the Spirit, and to allow ourselves to be sent out again and again, constantly renewed, to serve our sisters and brothers.

24. An inner journey

Through this gradual and continuous transformation in Christ, which is accomplished within us by the Spirit, God draws us to himself on an inner journey(42) which takes us from the dispersive fringes of life to the inner core of our being, where he dwells and where he unites us with himself.(43)

This requires a constant, radical and lifelong effort, through which, inspired by God's grace, we begin to think, judge, and re-order our lives, in accordance with God's holiness and goodness as revealed and poured out in abundance in the Son.

This process is neither linear nor uniform. It involves critical moments, crises in growth and in maturation, stages where we must make new choices - especially when we have to renew our option for Christ. All this is part of the purification of our spirits at the deepest level, by which we may be conformed to God.(44)

The inner process which leads to the development of the contemplative dimension helps us to acquire an attitude of openness to God's presence in life, teaches us to see the world with God's eyes, and inspires us to seek, recognise, love and serve God in those around us.(45)

25. An evangelical journey

The Carmelite way assumes that life in accordance with the evangelical counsels is the most appropriate path towards full transformation in Christ.(46) He chose this lifestyle for himself, and he proposes it to his disciples in order that they may become less self-centred and more open to the gift of God, who conforms them to himself for the building of the Kingdom.

Obedience, which requires us to listen to the will of God and to implement it both personally and communally, enables us to attain genuine freedom.(47)

By living poverty, we recognise and accept our frailty and our nothingness, without seeking compensations, and open ourselves increasingly to God's lavish gifts.(48)

Through chastity, our capacity to love is freed from selfishness and self-centredness so that, drawn by God's tender love for us, we become increasingly free to enter into intimate and loving relationships with God, with our brothers, with all people and with all of creation.(49)

Thus, the practice of the evangelical counsels is not a renunciation but a means by which we grow in love(50) so as to attain fullness of life in God.

26. An ascetic journey

The process of transformation in Christ demands from us a continuous striving to "offer to God a holy heart which has been purified from every actual stain of sin. We attain this goal when we become perfect and in Carith - that is to say, when we are hidden in that love (in charitate) in which the Wise One says 'all guilt is covered over' (Pro 10, 12b)".(51)

This process cannot take place if we rely merely on our own willpower, unaided by the experience of God's transforming love, poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.(52) This experience gives us the strength to respond to Christ's radical invitation: "Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it."(53)

However, this process also requires "our efforts and the practice of the virtues."(54) Sustained by grace, we engage in a process of gradual transformation: in the encounter with Christ and in the process of union with him, the new self replaces the old self, we are clothed in Christ(55), and we bear the "fruit of the Spirit"(56).

27. A journey through the desert

The first Carmelites, in tune with the spirituality of their time (the 12th - 13th centuries), attempted to live out this ascetic commitment by withdrawing into solitude. Their desert was more than a physical reality; it was a place of the heart. It was the context in which could be lived the commitment to focus one's being on God alone. They had chosen to follow Jesus Christ, who denied himself and emptied himself to the point of dying naked on the cross. People of pure faith, they awaited the gift of new and eternal life, fruit of the Lord's resurrection.(57) The desert, a place of solitude and aridity, blooms(58) and becomes the place where the experience of God's liberating presence builds fraternity and inspires us to service.

In the footsteps of the first Carmelite hermits, we too journey through the desert, which develops our contemplative dimension. This requires self-abandonment to a gradual process of emptying and stripping ourselves, so that we may be clothed in Christ and filled with God. This process "begins when we entrust ourselves to God, in whatever way he chooses to approach us"(59) . For we do not enter the desert by our own will: it is the Holy Spirit who calls us and draws us into the desert; it is the Spirit who sustains us in our spiritual combat, clothes us in God's armour(60), and fills us with his gifts and with the divine presence, until we are entirely transformed by God and reflect something of God's infinite beauty.(61)

In speaking of this process of transformation, Carmelite tradition uses other expressions and images besides this symbol of the desert: for example, "puritas cordis" (purity of heart), "vacare Deo" (becoming free for God), the ascent of Mount Carmel, the dark night.

28. Ways leading to contemplation

It is important, not only to be familiar with the theory of the contemplative process and to have a constantly renewed understanding of the vows and values of Carmelite spirituality, but also to acquire and to incarnate a contemplative lifestyle and contemplative attitudes.

In prayer and in the constant encounter with the Word of God, we learn to meet God in daily life and to entrust ourselves to him on the journey of inner transformation. In this way, we become capable of receiving accomplishments and joys as gifts, and crises and deserts as moments of growth; thus we become able to harmoniously integrate the fundamental values of Carmelite life.

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40 Costitutions 17; see also St. John of the Cross, Canticle B, 22, 3-5; 26, 1; 39, 4.
41 Institutio primorum monachorum, 1.2.
42 Among the many texts of the Carmelite tradition, see in particular Institutio primorum monachorum, 1.2-8.
43 Cf. St. Teresa of Jesus, The Interior Castle, I.1.3; 7.1,5; St. John of the Cross, Canticle B, 1, 6-8.
44 Cf. St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night, 1.11, 3.
45 Cf. Constitutions, 15; 78.
46 Cf. Institutio primorum monachorum, 1, 3-5.
47 Cf. Constitutions, 45-49.
48 Cf. Constitutions, 50-58.
49 Cf. Constitutions, 59-63.
50 Cf. Institutio primorum monachorum, 1, 6.
51 Cf. Institutio primorum monachorum, 1.2.
52 Cf. Rom 5:5.
53 Mt 16:25.
54 Cf. Institutio primorum monachorum, 1.2.
55 Cf. Rom 13:14; Gal 3:27; Eph 2:15; 4:24; see also EE, 45.
56 Gal 5:22-23.
57 Even the place they had chosen, with their cells spread out around the oratory, can be seen as an expression of this miracle of the rebirth of life in the desert, effected by the presence of the Risen One; the liturgical rite of the Holy Sepulchre, which was celebrated for a long time in the Order, also testifies to this.
58 Cf. Is 32:15.
59 Constitutions, 17.
60 See Rule, 18-19.
61 Cf. St. John of the Cross, Canticle B, 36, 5; see also 2 Cor 3:18.