What is Carmelite spirituality?

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Mt. Carmel in Israel (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

What is Carmelite spirituality? A couple of readers have asked me this question, and I assume several more have wondered and not asked. So I’m going to write this as a post (for maximum visibility and readership), then make it a permanent page soon.

Carmelite spirituality stems from the teaching and lifestyle of one of the oldest surviving religious orders in the Catholic Church. Like the Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, and others, the Carmelites have a particular way of living out the faith, which has been approved by the Church. St. Therese of Lisieux, one of the best-beloved saints of our age, was a Carmelite nun.

From ancient Mt. Carmel to medieval Europe

In the 12th century, a group of Christian hermits settled on Mt. Carmel,  where the prophet Elijah had once lived in a cave. St. Albert of Jerusalem wrote a rule of life for them to follow. They built a monastery and came together for prayer, but each lived in his own cell. They dedicated their oratory to Mary, becoming known as the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mt. Carmel.

As always, tensions were high in the Middle East at this time. Soon the Carmelite brothers left the Holy Land for Europe. There they assumed an active life–that is, living and working in the world. Blessed John Soreth established the Carmelite nuns in 1452. The Third Order, for seculars, began two centuries later.

The reform by Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross

File:Zurbarán St. John of the Cross.jpg
St. John of the Cross by Fransisco Zurbaran (Photo Credit:Wkimedia Commons).

Throughout the centuries many saints and blesseds in various countries reformed the Carmelites in their lands. The most significant reform came from saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross in 16th-century Spain. The communities they established eventually became the separate Discalced Carmelite Order. “Discalced” means “shoeless.” They wore sandals as a sign of poverty and penance. Teresa and John were later named doctors of prayer by the Church. This means the Church not only approves their teaching, but recommends it to all Christians.

These days, the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance (O. Carm.) and the Discalced Carmelites (OCD) see themselves as two branches of the same family. Though their goals and teachings are somewhat different, they share much in common. There are also at least a half-dozen new members of the Carmelite family that have been approved by the Church, including the Monks of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, to which my brother belongs.  They would probably all agree with the spirituality posts on this blog. Nevertheless, when I speak of Carmelite spirituality, I am speaking about OCDS spirituality, which is what I know most about. I was a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites (OCDS) for about 15 years.

The spirituality of OCDS

The recently approved OCDS Constitutions list 6 “fundamental elements of the vocation of Teresian Secular Carmelites”:

  • living in allegiance to Christ by imitating the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • seeking union with God though contemplation and apostolic activity
  • commitment to prayer
  • apostolic zeal
  • self-denial in accordance with the Gospel
  • commitment to evangelization

These are the central ideas I blog on in my spirituality posts, along with wisdom from St. Therese of Lisieux and other Carmelite saints. I also include some more general Catholic spirituality.

Why I am no longer OCDS

The first Mass of my brother, Fr. Michael Mary, M. Carm.
The first Mass of my brother, Fr. Michael Mary, M. Carm.

Another question people ask is why I am a “former member of OCDS.” Here is my story. I began in OCDS when I was single and living in the Twin Cities, about 40 minutes from the nearest community. I got married a year before making my definitive promise. Within a year after making my promise, we moved to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where my husband went to work for then-Bishop Raymond Burke. We were now about 200 minutes from the nearest OCDS community. During this same time, OCDS was working on its new Constitutions. In the past, the order had allowed members to live their promises in isolation, but that was now no longer the case. As our family grew, I could not make it to monthly meetings, but I remained in contact with my community and participated by email in formation classes.

In 2009, we moved to New Ulm, Minnesota, about 80 minutes southwest of the nearest OCDS community. I was hoping to be able to make it to meetings more regularly, but found that was too hard on my family. I petitioned and received permission from our Provincial Delegate to temporarily wave the requirement to attend monthly meetings.

That changed in 2011, when the OCDS community I had long belonged to was suppressed. Due to irregularities in the formation practices of the community, members who wished to transfer to other communities had to be under probation for one year. I no longer had a community to relate to. I would have to attend meetings regularly for one year at least, before a new community could decide whether or not to accept me as a member. After discussing this with my husband, I realized the requirement was too difficult, given the distance and our four sons, the youngest a newborn. I was not able to obtain an exception this time, so, sadly, I had to be released from my Carmelite promises.

Connie Rossini

Share with us: Do you have further questions about the Carmelite family or Carmelite spirituality that I have not answered? What are your experiences with Carmelites and their spirituality?

26 Responses

    • Connie Rossini

      As I’m sure you know from your mom, the Brown Scapular is the Carmelite habit. Those who wear it are associating themselves with the Carmelite family and seeking the graces Mary promised to the Carmelites through St. Simon Stock. I haven’t thought about writing a post on that. I think it’s because I’ve been wearing the scapular so long, I don’t even think about it. Hmm… That’s not good. Thanks for the reminder!

  1. Jenny (@suscipio4women)

    Hi Connie. Wonderful post. You know I have recently looked into becoming a Secular Carmelite, but my first priority is my vocation as wife and mother. This time, being available to my children from teen to toddler, is so short and I am so very needed here. The Carmelites have been around for a while and I am sure they will still be there when the seasons of my seasons of my life change.

    • Connie Rossini

      I think that was a wise decision. As you read, I started when I was single. There are lots of obligations, and it’s hard even for a single or retired person. You can still practice Carmelite spirituality without being OCDS. I do almost all the things I was doing for years as a member, plus I now blog about it! The most important thing, in my opinion, is a commitment to mental prayer. That’s something we all need to make a priority, even us busy moms. But sometimes you have to be creative about it. I always used to do my mental prayer while I was nursing a baby in the bedroom. It was a little challenging when son #2 was born (M), and D was only 20 months! Then D would run around the room while I tried to pray. I just did my best and I am sure some of the saints were laughing (joyfully) at the situation. When C was born, D and M would play together as I prayed. I did a lot more praying aloud then usual. It also helped me stay awake!

  2. a solitary bird

    Dear Connie,
    This was sad to read about you having to be released from your promises. I guess I hadn’t thought of that being a possibility under those circumstances. Your story does reveal how important a task it is for those responsible for formation – what they do and don’t do effects people’s lives! There are members in our community who travel 120 miles one way to come to the monthly meetings. They do not have small children, however. Having small children would make a big difference to the commitment anyone could make. I am glad that you are still practicing the Carmelite Spirituality all the same. Maybe someday you could find others in your area who are interested in OCDS and begin a study group. I believe you would have to contact your Provincial Delegate about this, but it could someday be a possibility. Best wishes to you! Thanks for your wonderful blog posts – I enjoy reading them.

    • Connie Rossini

      You know, I wonder if I had lived in another province an accommodation would have been made. Because I only needed it temporarily, until my kids were a little older. My husband was very concerned about the burden on the family of my being gone all day once a month, plus the difficulties of travel across the open countryside in a Minnesota winter. It was very different when I was single! I know someone who has started a study group in our diocese (though it’s no closer than the Twin Cities to us), and she has had all kinds of challenges. It’s still a time of transition in OCDS, and I think the superiors are wary of bending any rules, even provincial statutes. Understandable, but difficult for many of us who have spent years trying to be faithful members!

  3. Ruth Ann

    I enjoy your summary of Carmelite spirituality. I am a Lay Carmelite, aka, Third Order Carmelite of the Ancient Observance. We like to say the both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross started their spiritual journeys as one of us. We love them dearly along with St. Therese of Lisieux. When I joined our local community I didn’t even realize that the O.Carms still existed, but learned the history during my formation. In our branch of the Order we still have the option for having isolate members.

    • Connie Rossini

      Yes, as I’ve mentioned before, my in-laws are TOC. I looked into transferring, but it seemed to me that mental prayer was not emphasized nearly as much as in OCDS. I really love OCDS spirituality, and I think the new Constitutions are great! I also understand why isolates are no longer allowed–but I still wish they were, because then I would not have had to leave an order I really thought I was called to. I guess the call was a temporary one. God knows best.

  4. vincejhk

    I had an interest in Carmellite spirituality and used to subscribe the jounal – Spiritual Life. I translated some of the articles into Korean. However, I didn’t have a good experience with Lay Carmelites. About 10 years ago, I joined the Lay Carmelite online group and read their converations, but what they were talking about really disappointed me. I had heard about Carmelite spiritiuality before and expected somewhat deep spiritualy matters, but most of what they talked was about Carmelite ring – its color, shape, price…etc. So I expressed my frustation to the people in the group and the moderator accused me of acting Jesus and called me one of Satan’s followers. Eventually, I was expelled from the group. Was I in the cult group in disguise?
    I don’t think this is normal for Lay Carmelites. I hope not….

    • Connie Rossini

      “Lay Carmelite” usually refers to the O Carm. seculars, not OCDS. I’ve never heard anything about a Carmelite ring, and I’ve read the Lay Carmelite rule. Not every member of OCDS is a saint either, unfortunately. But I would hope that members are striving to become saints, or why would they be allowed to join? A community is not supposed to accept just anybody, and that was part of my difficulty. Even if I made a year’s commitment to meetings, there was no guarantee the community would accept me as a member at the end of it. I had tried to transfer years ago, and some elderly ladies said my nursing baby was too noisy. He hadn’t even cried, just made cooing sounds. I’m not trying to complain or gossip, just stating what happened. I can understand their concerns as well. They should be able to hear the speaker at a community they had been members of for years. So they rejected my application for transfer. I didn’t want to go through that again.

      • vincejhk

        It was a online discussion group so anybody can join. Well, there could be bad apples in any apple bags. I am not accusing them of anything. Maybe I was too sensitive and narrow-minded?….

  5. Melinda Loustalot

    Dear Connie — truly a time in the desert for you. . . .what can the Holy Spirit have in store? I am an inquirer in Secular Franciscan formation and would be so saddened and feel so lost if my group was suppressed. .I bid you peace and wish you all good. .

    • Connie Rossini

      Thanks, Melinda. I am finally starting to get over the sadness at no longer being OCDS. It has taken a while for me to accept this. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes way. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” I hope the Franciscans work out for you.

  6. Theresa

    Connie~I can understand your difficulty but God obviously has other plans : ) We can live the Carmelite Rule regardless. It has become, for me, a thread that is woven naturally throughout my day. Whether I belonged to a community or not, I would still continue to lead the life…especially the practice of mental prayer.

    I am currently struggling with belonging to community right now. I belong to a very loving, encouraging one and since I am in a major city, there are five communities within driving distance! And yet I feel called to more solitude and silence. My three oldest are working and going to college and I am homeschooling my youngest (9). So, there is more opportunity to seek those moments but I continue to discern what the Spirit is asking of me.

    It is as if I desire to follow a Rule in my life but don’t have the desire to participate in community. Please keep me in prayer as this has been a continual struggle for me.

    • Connie Rossini

      I will pray for you about that. I think when we both started in Carmel, community did not have quite the emphasis it has now. I mean, we always had attendance requirements in the communities I belonged to, but there was a bit more flexibility, and we knew people could be isolates. I wish we still could, because there are extra graces and prayers for professed members that those of us who associate more loosely with the order don’t receive. That’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to join in the first place. But, raising my 4 boys, I’m a long way from having silence and solitude!

      • Theresa

        Thank you for prayers! Yes…I wholeheartedly agree with you. It is a shame that isolates are no longer an option. There may be people called to that charism in their home but for good reason, whatever that may be, attendance at meetings is not an option…or at least every single meeting. It has soooo changed in that respect. They are currently adding a whole other section to the statutes on community life.

  7. Frank Dagostino

    Hi Connie,
    I just left the Lay Carmelites. For me it was a lot of issues. We moved and I was made an isolate member. My former community kept in contact. But the whole idea of rule was overwhelmingly hard for me. I couldn’t in conscious continue. I think I’m the type of person who needs less restrictions in the spiritual life. I had no joy in Carmel. It was always a burden. I try to apply what I can of Carmel. I believe we’re all led differently. O.Carm was wonderful but being in the order did not work for me, and I tried for 17 years. I have a twinge of guilt about leaving (did you?) but I know my decision was for the best. Kind of dark right now but I know God is leading me.

    • Connie Rossini

      Frank, thanks for commenting. I’m slightly less familiar with O.Carm. requirements than OCDS, but the latter has lots! At first I did feel guilty. I had considered Carmel as the way I was going to get to Heaven, and I was afraid to leave it. Then God showed me that was a lack of trust in Him, because He’s in charge, not a religious order. But mostly I felt sad. However, God has been working in my life a lot lately–especially through my blogging. So don’t be afraid!

      • Frank Dagostino

        Hi Connie…thanks so much for your comments. They really are helpful. I love the Carmelite saints and their witness, I guess I just do not do well with a lot of rules and regulations. I know they are necessary for large associations and they have to have some type of structure. But the “rule” came to be more important than spiritual growth I think. I was director of our community for 2 terms. But even then, it always seemed like I was on the outside looking in, if that makes sense. We moved a year ago at which Time the provincial delegate placed me on isolate status at my request. I thought that would make it easier but it did not. The pastor at our new parish has helped me immensely in seeing how God guides us….one size does not fit all. I believe now that God calls us individually to follow Him as an individual….for some that may include structure and rules, for others not. The most important thing is to love Jesus and do God’s will and be merciful to others. You hit the nail on the head….I do feel sad about leaving. My wife says to accept that as part of the grieving process … but God is with me always. As I look back on my life that is how it seems the Lord works with me: things go along fine for a while, even a long time, and then, boom, God brings a change. Even in the sadness, I have this sense that God is doing things and calling me to deeper life, but different than what I had originally thought it would be in the Lay Carmelites.
        The director of my former community sent a nice email assuring me that God was with me and they love me and the most important thing is to do God’s will as best as we can understand that.

  8. A. David Beaman

    I had a bad experience with a secular Carmelite group where the leadership was not screening people before their being allowed to attend the group. All the leader cared about was getting new members. She had people attending who refused to go to Confession and who read the KJV Bible during meetings, claiming that the Bible was all anyone needed. She considered herself to be an intercessor and did intercessory prayer her way, which sometimes lead to detraction within the prayer sessions by praying for other people by name, naming their faults and asking God to help them correct those faults, which were based on her judgment of what constituted their faults. When I entered the group there was no formation going on and she claimed that it had been stopped by the Order due to irregularities withing the group. After a while, I decided to call the nun who was in charge of the lay Carmelites in the Province. She had no idea that formation was not being conducted. She called the leader of the group I was in and formation was started, but it was not done well and perhaps even grudgingly. I tried and tried to get things back on track by having many private conversations with the leader who would agree, but in the group would never change. Finally, when I protested within the group, I was told by her assistant that I was “nit picking” and they moved on to something else without my protest being resolved. I quit the group and was very disappointed because I have a devotion to St. Therese, had read the works of St. Teresa and very much wanted to be a member of the Carmelite Third Order.

    I am unable to travel on a regular basis to any other Carmelite group. I wish there were a way for you to start an online Carmelite secular third order community that offered online formation and had the support and authority of a Carmelite nun or clergyman. I would certainly apply to that group.

    • Connie Rossini

      David, what a frustrating experience for someone who only wanted to grow closer to Christ! It sounds like this group was O.Carm./Ancient Observance, since a nun was overseeing them. OCDS is overseen by friars. However, this kind of experience could happen in any group. Its part of why both halves of the Carmelite family have reformed their secular orders in the past decade.

      I’m sorry I can’t have a “virtual Carmelite community.” But we’ll do the best we can to support each other any way.

  9. Laura Paxton Ocds

    I can understand why you were released from the obligation to a community, but aren’t your promises still valid regardless? Was there something you had to do, like to petition to be released from the promises? Or was it just assumed your promise had no more meaning?

    • Connie Rossini

      I told the provincial I would have to be released from my promises if he was going to require me to come to meetings regularly. He restated that he couldn’t make an exception. As I understand it, the promise is made to the community, which no longer exists. It can be transferred to another community, but that option was denied me by the conditions set. The Constitutions do not allow for isolate members. No community, no membership, and I have no community. My DH said there was probably a canonical process that the order had to follow to let me know my promise was no longer valid, and they did not do so. But I did not see any point in literally making a case of it. The fact is, I cannot fulfill the current obligations for being OCDS.

  10. Pat

    Hi. Just wondering if you know of a rule of the Carmelites third order that is specific. There is no community around me but I would like a rule to follow.

    • Connie Rossini

      Hi, Pat. I’m not sure what you mean by “specific.” The OCDS Constitutions are wonderful and you can find them here: http://www.ocd.pcn.net/ocds_Aen.htm. A big part of being OCDS is the community aspect, which is precisely why I am no longer OCDS. So just keep in mind that you cannot fully follow the Constitutions on your own (there’s also the question of obedience). Most of the daily practices, though, you can do, as I still do. God bless.

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