January 5, 2010

A Carmelite Vision

How often do you have a deep drawing towards more silence, solitude, prayer, and simplicity? Maybe it comes and goes. For me there came a time when the drawing wouldn't go!

To test my call within a call, I spent two and a half years on exclaustration at a House of Prayer, which afforded a semi-eremitical contemplative lifestyle. (I had made a four-week retreat there, and returned long-term at the invitation of the Core community.) It was a grace-filled experience -- just about everything I had hoped for: in reach -- silence, solitude, simplicity, fostering contemplative life; outreach -- helping to make it possible for others to experience time apart from God. It was a joy to be in this far-reaching life and ministry.

However, Carmel and Carmelites were missing, and I felt this increasingly. How could it be otherwise when Carmel had been my way of life for over 30 years? I loved everything it stood for. My discernment on lifestyle (changing from monastic to semi-eremitic) had spanned a couple of years. But it didn't touch the essence of Carmel. In fact, I felt I was pursuing the essence of Carmel. The difficulty was there was no Carmelite desert place where I could test my call, and eventually perhaps serve.

I left the House of Prayer very grateful to the Core community, but knowing I wasn't called to join them permanently. There followed an encouraging experience of Carmelite family as I shared my difficulty with several Carmelites before accepting the warm invitation of the Hudson community to transfer to their monastery in transition. Their understanding and support has been an outstanding gift. Through their kindness, God showed me how to remain in the Order and still sound out the possibility of a Carmelite desert place/house of prayer.

Christopher O'Donnell, O. Carm. wrote: "If one were to ask what is Carmel's greatest contribution to the Church, the answer would surely be that it has taught the importance of the desert experience and the wonder of the inner journey.... It is in the desert, however experienced, that the Church finds its truest self, its heart of Trinitarian love, that must then be poured out in the service of humanity." (Love: An Ecclesiological Theme in Some Carmelite Saints, Paul chandler, O. Carm. and Keith J. Egan, eds., 1991)

Carmel has indeed taught me the importance of the desert but where do we provide for such an experience?

While I was at the House of Prayer, I often asked myself why someone would have to leave Carmel in order to live such a contemplative lifestyle. No Order can do everything, but isn't contemplative prayer, desert experience, encouraging others to live in the presence of God and pray contemplatively, inherent in our charism?

When people think of Carmel, they hopefully think prayer. Often it is to request intercession for a special need, and we walk with them through their traumatic time. For others prayer IS their difficulty. Of these, some are ready to walk into a they-don't know-what-experience of more prolonged silence and solitude. People even travel hundreds of miles for this. A Carmelite desert place could provide an atmosphere where persons can attune themselves to the working of God within them. Listening needs silence. Intimacy needs solitude. Response needs courage, flexibility, fidelity, perhaps guidance.

The prophetic spirit is also integral to Carmel's charism. Much has been discussed about this in recent years. How to witness to it is one thing; how to empower the prophet is another. A Carmelite writing for Carmelites has put it well: "Silence, solitude and prayer are the stuff which produces mystical prophets. Because the prophet tastes the divine presence, he/she can also taste its absence in history. It is this awareness of the Divine absence which causes the prophet to denounce the old, the reign of Satan, and announce the new, the reign of God. Silence, solitude and prayer are the school of Elijan prophets." (Donald W. Buggert, O. Carm., "Jesus in Carmelite Spirituality", ibid.)

By encouraging one another and others to take Cherith times, gentle breeze times, we help to send prophets into the world. Prophecy is born of encounter with God -- deep encounter, usually through deep prayer.

I remember one person who worked at a Dorothy Day House and really spent herself in the cause of the marginalized. She took off several days a year to spend at the House of Prayer: to pray, read, listen, rest. she is a prophetess -- being voice for those who have no voice, who goes apart to insure her words and work come from God within.

Isn't this what Carmel stands for -- God's fanning flames from within, brightening lights of the world, salting the earth? A desert place is numerically a small ministry, but it supports numerous ministries from behind the scenes.

If this is a painful time for the Church and the Order, some of those pains are birth pains. It is a paving time. By prayer, reflection, sharing and courageous decision-making, the paving (initially, ploughing!) can open new roads along which to carry Carmel's charism into the new millennium. It would mean a willingness to risk some things new; a take-off from Carmel's ancient charism and a landing into a 21st. century expression of it.

"The call to Carmel is primarily an invitation to go aside, as Elijah did at cherith, to be alone with God, communing with him in prayer, completely dependent on his providence." (Prophet of Fire, Kilian Healy, O. Carm., 1990) That providence, that overshadowing, that love, can fashion reality from risk.

The more members of the Order I meet, the stronger sense I have of Carmelite family. An Order is more than a time-honored set of values and ideals. It is the persons who live them. The more I ponder this, the stronger grows my desire to share with Carmelites first of all the pearl of great price God led me to find in a semi-eremitical life and ministry. The grace, I feel sure, is one to be used and shared.

I need your input. Please give this some prayerful consideration and let me know if what is presented resonates in your own heart. Do you see a semi-eremitical place of prayer as a potential life-giving ministry for the Order?

Each house of prayer has its own spirit, so there was no attempt here to go into detail. It is a "we and Holy Spirit" mission. Can you think of any member of the Carmelite family who may be drawn to live and serve at a Carmelite desert place? If so, please let me know, or please encourage the persons to contact me. My own great desire is to live a semi-eremitical contemplative life at a Carmelite place of prayer, and extend hospitality to those who wish to come and be.

I will be grateful for your suggestions, comments, questions. If this desire has been conceived of the Holy Spirit, may it be born of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.

Mary Grace Erl, O. Carm. - Carmel of the Sacred Heart
430 Laurel Avenue - Hudson, Wisconsin 54016-1688

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