What is Carmelite spirituality?

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Mount Carmel (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

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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

41 thoughts on “What is Carmelite spirituality?”

    1. Theresa, where do you live? There are 3 OCDS provinces in the US, and each has an official list of communities. I know the Eastern province (which goes all the way through Minnesota) has theirs listed online.

          1. Connie, I was directed to your website by our Catholic adult religious education director. I have been considering becoming a secular Carmelite for a long time. Do you know if there is a community near Friendswood, Texas? It must have been a difficult decision to leave. Praying for you, Mary

      1. I am blessed to have an OCDS community at my church, St Germaine’s. There aren’t too many in the group right now, but I think more may join as time goes by. I haven’t found myself worthy enough to join yet, but God will let me know if that is what he wants me to do.

        Love in Christ,

        Peggy

        1. Peggy, There is an initial one year discerning process. Why not go to the meetings, and start that discerning process with the community, instead of just relying on yourself. Where two or more are gathered…

  1. What an intriguing story. I am sorry to hear that happened with your community. I can sympathize a bit, though, about being without one. I had to wait about 10 years from the time I felt called to the vocation, to the time when a couple of professed members received permission to establish a “study group.” Once we had enough members received, we became a community. I understand how you might feel “orphaned.” Your community does become your extended family. I am in Canada, in the Maltese Province, and we have isolates, especially in the north. Both of my parents are directors of formation and were instrumental in the writing of our constitutions. I hope this doesn’t come across too boldly, but I would think that if it was your vocation (of course I mean second vocation, as marriage will always be your first), it still is, the only difference being that you have been released from your obligations.

    1. Joanne, not too bold–I agree totally. The question is whether it was really my vocation or not. I sure thought it was, and I made sacrifices to attend meetings as long as I could. Perhaps God simply wanted me to have a Carmelite spirituality. Perhaps the M. Carms will have female oblates some time in the future and I can help start a community. I am as fully Carmelite in my spirituality as I was for all those years. In fact, writing about it makes me focus on it like I haven’t since the early days of formation. I don’t know what God has in store for the future. He likes to surprise me.

  2. I would be interested to get your take on the differences and similarities in what it means to be a third-order Carmelite and not being third-order but having and practicing a Carmelite spirituality. How is your day of prayer different between those roles? How is it different from the non-Carmelites you know?

    Do the Carmelites have a daily prayer practice–formally or informally? From your experience within and outside of a third-order community, what guidelines do you suggest for someone who wants to deepen knowledge and practice of daily Carmelite spirituality?

    1. Oh my, Steve, this is more involved than you would have guessed. Yes, for OCDS there are MANY daily obligations. First, about 30 minutes of mental prayer daily. Morning and Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. Night Prayer when possible. A daily examination of conscience. Frequent Confession. Daily Mass when possible. Frequent spiritual reading. Devotion to Mary. These may have changed slightly in the last few years, as new Constitutions were recently approved by Rome.

      No longer being OCDS, but having a habit of doing these things, I have kept up most of it. I never got into the habit of Night Prayer or daily Mass, because it was just too hard to do consistently. I usually only do Morning Prayer on the weekends now, because my mornings are quite busy with homeschooling. I still wear the brown scapular.

      But I am no longer automatically included in the prayers and Masses of the Order, and that’s a big difference! And, of course, I do not have to attend monthly meetings.

      I might never have put so much emphasis on mental prayer if I had never been a Carmelite. It is the center of my spiritual life. Also, Carmelites work to “meditate on the law of the Lord day and night,” and I try to do that along with Mary. My focus is still the same, but I have eased up a bit on regulations that are difficult for a busy wife and mother to fulfill.

      The most important thing for you is to practice mental prayer. Read Fr. Jacques Philippe’s book, Time for God, if you haven’t practiced mental prayer in the past. Do a morning offering of some sort, a nightly examination of conscience, and try to imitate Mary in pondering the work of God in your heart. Read my free ebook for some more ideas. Other good resources are St. Therese’s Story of a Soul and Fire Within by Fr. Thomas Dubay. God bless!

      1. Wow, Connie…I appreciate the answer. Thank you!

        I ordered Time for God from Amazon just now. I’ve read Fire Within and plan on rereading it, more slowly this time. I’m moving through Fr. Basil Pennington’s Lectio Divina right now (along with the Memorize the Faith and Baltimore Catechism #4).

        My reason for asking about your prayer practice was to see what a more disciplined spiritual life looks like and how a non-third-order person can build a practice that works given his or her daily life-demands. The appeal of belonging to a third-order is having a framework to work from and a commitment to something larger than oneself. But even when officially belonging isn’t practical, it still seems that an order that’s a good personal fit is a good way of building a daily spiritual foundation.

        Thank you for the time you spend on this blog!

        1. You’re welcome, Steve. I want to caution you about Fr. Basil Pennington. I have not read his books myself, but his works on centering prayer have been criticized as having more New Age than Christian roots. See this article, for example: http://www.ourladyswarriors.org/dissent/centerprayer.htm. Lots of the language in the quotes there is from Hindu or Buddhist worldviews, not Catholic. Some of the criticism by the Our Lady’s Warriors site may itself be over-the-top and alarmist, so I’m not necessarily endorsing everything said there. We just have to remember that the goal of prayer is communion with Christ, which only He can bring about through a supernatural act (contemplation). Our job is to prepare ourselves for contemplation. We do that by getting to know Jesus and entering into loving conversation with Him. We can’t bring it about by techniques. Techniques can give us good feelings that make us think we are praying at a deep level, when we may just be experiencing natural physical responses. Because of the potential problems, I would skip Pennington’s works altogether and stick with more traditional methods of prayer.

  3. Thank you, Connie for your beautiful site. I’m sure it is a great help for those spiritually searching and those who love the Carmelite spirituality. I know Father Daniel Mary of the Carmel your brother is a member of. Small world. I also keep a blogsite (srhelena.blogspot.com) and would like to post your blogsite as a Carmelite resource link, if it’s okay.

    1. Sr. Helena, I’d be more than happy to be listed as a resource on your blog. Fr. Daniel Mary baptized our oldest son when he (Fr.) was with the Lake Elmo Carmelites. I think I have been to your site before. Now I’ll have to visit again. God bless.

  4. I wrote an essay on the mystery of suffering and the cross
    We Are One Being
    (The mystery of suffering and the cross)

    Imagine how many different cars there are on the road.  Even though there are thousands of different cars, they all seem to have one design.  It could be said that the design of a car is transportation.

    Similarly, we humans seem to have a design. There are and have been, billions of us human beings in our world.  Each of us human beings has a unique, distinct, personal experience of being human.  We are all being human.
    What if there is only one being that we call human being and we are all being it?  Each of us is being … being human.  All of us humans, being, yet each with a unique, distinct, personal experience of being human.
    The word distinct is important to note.  I have one right hand.  However, the front of my right hand is distinct from the back of my right hand.  If I were to eliminate the front of my hand completely, the back of my hand would also be gone, yes?  Yet it is one hand with two distinct sides.
    Just as there are three distinct persons in one being, God, could it be that there are seven billion distinct persons in one human being?

    What seems to be also included in this proposal could be that Adam and Eve, by their free choice, brought into non-being, sin. They discovered the knowledge of good and evil.  Could it be that we, as humans, are born into that knowledge simply by being human?

    Christians believe that Jesus, God the Son, did not change the flawed context of human nature generated by our first parent’s free choice.
    Is it possible that as a result of sin, the unique, distinct, personal
    experience of my life has distorted my vision of who I really am?  Who I think I am is a unique person in my own universe, and that’s all.  I, not God, am the center of “the universe.” Jesus Christ doesn’t even change this view.

    Jesus transformed the damage wrought by sin into a new possibility for life. He took on being human without the distortion and resulting damage from sin. God the Father united human being with God being, with and through Jesus. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  Come follow me.  He dragged himself up a hill and He suffered death by dying on a cross.  Jesus didn’t change anything by his death. Jesus’ way is simply a continuation of the way life has always been after the fall, suffering and death, with one major difference: His way conquered death.  We believe that suffering and
    death was and is caused by sin.  We humans have suffered and died before and do suffer and die after Our Lord’s earthly life.  That hasn’t changed.  So, what has Jesus transformed? Jesus embraced this human condition of suffering and death and transformed it into the way of salvation. He suffered and died and overcame suffering and death by His resurrection.
    Mind you, Jesus chose 12 ignorant men who followed Him for three years. They saw him heal the sick and raise the dead. However, when He was arrested they ran away in fear for their lives. Do you think that if He did not rise from the dead his apostles would have thought, “ He couldn’t save Himself, but he’ll take care of us,” and then preach the good news and start His church 2000 years ago? 
    We get to rise also.  As St Paul put it: “Alter Christus.”  See, He, Jesus, didn’t even change our distorted view of ourselves.  He opened up a new possible view of who we really are, “Alter Christus”. Instead of a distorted view of who we are for ourselves, thinking we are the center, we get to unconceal and reveal what may well be in all our hearts: the true MODEL of the new transformed man, who we are now as a possibility is, “Alter Christus”….
    another Christ….distinct, but not separate.
    Remember that there were two other crosses on Calvary.  Both men on those crosses suffered and died.  The only difference between them is that one died suffering and in despair.  The other man suffered and died also, yet he believed in our master, our leader, our savior, who leads the way of the cross to our redemption and life.
    The two men who died with Jesus at the crucifixion, we ARE them, and they ARE us. We are one. Being!
    Since we are joined with Jesus in being, then our suffering and joy can be joined with His, or not.  It’s our choice.
    Free will certainly is an extraordinary asset, don’t you think?
    Pick your cross.
    By the Holy Spirit, through Jim Scileppi

    1. Jim, Thanks for visiting my blog. I’m not sure what your religious affiliation is or why you chose to post your essay in the comments of my page on Carmelite spirituality. The comments box is not really the appropriate place for this. Also, some of your ideas, as you expressed them here, are unorthodox. Maybe you were just being unclear or imprecise. I’m not sure. But we human beings are distinct individuals. We do not share the same being in the way that the three Persons of the Trinity do. We are separate from each other and are certainly separate from Christ. By His death and resurrection, Christ freed us from sin and death. We can become holy. We can conquer our fallen nature. And we will rise again to live forever. We can spend eternity with God in Heaven. Before our redemption by Jesus that was impossible. Peace.

  5. Hello Connie, I had a similar experience to you. I was told I could not advance because I had missed too many meeting when my twin girls were born. People in the group had always said that family comes first, but then there was a change in leadership, and the people who had always said the former, and had enjoyed much more relaxed rules when they had young children, began to act like children and family were somehow an impediment to have a Carmelite vocation. One or two even acted like I had gone too far to have more children after my twins. I have 10 children. I looked around me and realized that almost everyone in the group were old, or old and single, or old and widowed. They worry about failing to attract younger people, but anyone younger and with a family have eventually faded out of the group. It’s a shame.

    Later on, after the pain of having to step down because I realized that it was either/or family or the Carmelites, I found out that a number of others who had been in the group a long time had chosen to leave. The rules were getting ridiculous. One of the Carmelite priests whose order is also dying out, with no young vocations came and conducted a visit. He wanted the group to change all kinds of things, like removing the rosary from the prayers at the meeting, moving the evening prayer even later in the day which was very hard for these lay people, and a number of other things. It’s sad.

    Methinks, there needs to be a serious reform of the reform! God bless the Carmelites in WY and NE and the Hermit Carmelite Monks of Christoval TX.

    Happy to have found your website! God bless you,

    1. Adele, it’s so sad when we can’t fulfill the obligations to a second vocation we thought God was calling us to, because it interferes with our primary one. I think holiness should be accessible for young parents as well as the elderly and single. But OCDS is not currently a good vehicle for that group to reach the goal.

  6. That is sad, isn’t it Connie. Oh well, as they say, the biological solution will win out! ( : God bless you.

  7. Hello Connie, I stumbled into your page by accident today. Your topics — St Therese, homeschooling, commitment to prayer life, bringing up good children, holiness — these are all at the top of my mind! I am so excited. Thank you for your free book. God bless you.

  8. Hi Connie,

    I am so glad I came upon this site. I enjoyed your story. I am a Carmelite aspirant and looking right now like I am not going to make the first promise and get clothed, due to many of the same reasons you mentioned in your article and Adele’s comments. I love Carmelite spirituality and want to learn and grow more in Carmel but I feel as though it pulls me away from my family, which I absolutely, positively know is God’s first calling on my life. Being committed to a community makes me feel as if I have another life or family away from my home that doesn’t include my family and that makes me uncomfortable. It is almost making me feel as if I am pulled between the two. So, I think right now for me I don’t feel it is the right time for me to make a promise that I will always be a part of a particular community, once a month for always but as I said I love Carmelite spirituality. Well, the main reason for my post was I just wanted to say today I was discerning whether there were those who followed Carmelite spirituality but were not in a community and this website and your story and dedication to your family was most enjoyable to find. Thank you very much.

    1. You’re welcome, Catherine. I’ll say a prayer for your discernment. I loved being OCDS, but it was much easier when I was single than when I was married with young children.

  9. Connie, what a lovely blog. You are wonderfully sharing the beauty and power there is in Carmelite spirituality and in the Carmelite Order. As an OCDS myself, I feel sad for your having to relinquish your membership in the Secular Order. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that the spirit of Carmel and its saints has deeply affected you and you are credibly and accurately conveying our charism. I rejoice that the strength of our founders’ teachings is with you as you raise your family. God has a unique path for you with unique blessings. May all the richness of our spirituality be granted to you as you surrender to divine providence and live out your vocation of love. United with you in prayer.

  10. Connie,

    I, too, am a former OCDS, although for different reasons than yours. Mine was also related to moving around, though. I started out in The Teresian Way Carmel OCDS, becoming clothed and studying for about a year and a half after that. I moved to care for my mother, and started in a different community about an hour and a half from where I lived, but told I had to start over with my formation from the point of clothing. So, after two more years (now almost 4 years in formation), I made my first promises, and continued in formation.

    When it was time to make definitive promises, our priest had a stroke and it was postponed, Meanwhile, I needed to make another move. I thought I could just make my definitive promises after the move, but that was not to be.

    Upon attending the meeting of the OCDS here I was put back into the discernment group, and told that my first promises had expired so I would have to start all over. The first time I started over was painful, but I submitted in obedience. I knew that I just couldn’t do it again.

    I figured that God was asking me to go in a different direction, and I’ve joined a Community and Liberation group. More relaxed rules, strong fellowship, and a direction in spirituality that I personally needed (relationship oriented). Praise God!

    I love and try to practice Carmelite Spirituality; I attended the Convention in Oregon, and provide students a minute of silent meditation before starting my middle school math classes. I am hoping to attend a retreat in August with Kieren Kavanaugh! I just wish that the new constitutions would give the local communities the ability to take extenuating circumstances into account when applying the rules.

    Thank you for your website!
    Mary Regina of the Sacred Heart

    1. Mary, I think in many cases it’s not the constitutions, but the local statutes that need more flexibility. There are 3 provinces in the US and each has its own statutes. From what I have read, at least one province does not require members who are over an hour from the nearest community to attend meetings regularly. I grew up in a Charismatic community where fellowship was really important, and I have missed that as an adult. I am so glad that you have found another organization that fits your needs. I have never heard of first promises expiring. That seems a little unfair, especially since at least part of the postponement was beyond your control. But God works all these things into his plan, frustrating as they may be at the time. God bless!

  11. Greetings, Mrs. Rosini. I am largely unfamiliar with Carmelite spirituality, having been received into full communion with Jesus Christ in His one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church at forty three, six years ago. I live outside of Washington, DC near the OCD community which publishes the works of St. Teresa of Jesus, St. John of the Cross, and St. Therese of Lisieux edited by Fr. K. Kavanaugh. However, I found it ‘terra incognita’. I recently came across a much more basic introduction by Ralph Martin, who was involved with the charismatic renewal out of Duquesne and Notre Dame, worked with Cardninal Suenens, and founded Renewal Ministries. The book is entitled “The Fulfillment of All Desire” and the premise is his study and collation of seven (I believe) western doctors of the Church on the spiritual life cross referenced to the “Three Ages” or stages of the spiritual life. I was wondering if you were familiar with it and what your take (strengths and weaknesses) on Mr. Martin’s work was. I’m finding it helps provide me context and a beginning that seems much more suited to where I am at (it is humbling at forty-nine to think of one’s self as a newborn infant in the spiritual walk) in my personal walk with the Lord, and hopefully, after having worked through it a number of times, I will be able to go back to the OCD publications on St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross and St. Therese of Lisieux. Any constructive criticism and comments, direction or otherwise would be most welcome.

    1. Michael, sorry for the delay in replying. I’ve been on a blogging break. I have not read Ralph Martin’s book, but I have only heard good things about it. As far as the Three Stages of the Interior Life, if that is referring to the classic by Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, you can’t get any more solid than that. I have owned the work for years and periodically pick it up. In fact, I’ve been reading it lately as I write about Interior Castle, and I hope to read it all the way through this time. The three stages of the Purgative, Illuminative, and Unitive Ways are accepted by all Catholic authorities. Don’t worry about starting late. Most Catholics are in the Purgative Way, no matter what their age. As St. Therese said, God can do for you in an instant what you can’t do for yourself in years. Time does not hold Him bound. Surrender all to Him and you will quickly grow. God bless!

    1. Gina, I do not have any connection with the Carmelites in that part of the country, though I am sure they have a community. You will just have to Google it to find information. Sorry I couldn’t tell you more.

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  13. Sister Connie,

    Though change of life is the reason for you not being considered OCDS. To me, you are still a Carmelite Discalced of a much bigger community. Thank you for sharing your nuggets of wisdom. Please continue.

    Always in Carmel,

    Larry of our Lady of Joyful Hope, OCDS
    Good Shepherd Community, SC

  14. To whom it may concern,

    My name is Fr. Stephen Arabadjis. I am a member of the Society of St. Pius X. But I am in my 7th year of Sabbatical.
    Therefore I was hoping your group could do a 54 day rosary novena for my intentions. But any prayers and sacrifices would be greatly appreciated. I know Our Lady will reward you generously for this.

    In Our Lady,
    Fr. Arabadjis

    P.S. Thanking you in advance, since I don’t always get all my communications.

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