Close up photo of red flowers Close up photo of red flowers

Reflections on the Carmelite Tradition

Sr Heidi SCL

My interest in the Carmelites began a long time ago, when reading “The Story of a Soul”, the autobiography of St Therese of Lisieux. Later I was able to visit some of the Holy places in France and I discovered the Shrine of Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity in Dijon. I took away a prayer card with her photograph and her famous “Prayer to the Trinity”. I also briefly visited Lisieux, the Carmel and Basilica of St Therese. It was only later that I started to make connections between Carmelite Saints and the charism of the Carmelite Order itself.

Three years ago I went to the gathering of the RC Order of Consecrated Virgins at Boars Hill Priory in Oxfordshire. While I was there I asked one of the Friars if I could be enrolled in the “Brown Scapular” of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This is a Catholic Sacramental, a miniature version of the scapular worn by religious as part of their habit. The Brown Scapular is especially connected to the Carmelite Order placing the wearer under Our Lady's special protection and making them part of the spiritual family of Carmelites. I went home with a good supply of Carmelite Literature from the bookstore.

I decided to take up a course of on-line studies with the Carmelite Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (C.I.B.I.). I went on to read Carmelite writers, John of the Cross and the French Friar Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection who wrote “The Practice of the Presence of God”.

A tree provides a good illustration of the Carmelite Order. All Carmelites trace their roots back to the tradition of Elijah and Elisha's school of prophets on Mount Carmel ( 1 Kings 10 v 5 ) seeing Elijah as their founding Father, and associating the Blessed Virgin with the solitude, fertility and beauty of Carmel as their Mother Protectress, Patron and Sister. Sometime between 1206 and 1214 the group of hermits living on Mount Carmel appealed to the Patriarch, Albert of Jerusalem, for a Formula of Life to guide and give them a sense of collective identity. This he did in the form of a brief letter which became the “Rule”. During the Crusades the Carmelites were obliged to leave their hermit life on Carmel, asking the Pope to permit amendments to their rule to allow for a mendicant lifestyle as they spread into Europe. Some of the Carmelites came to Kent and founded Aylesford Priory. The “tree” branched out from Carmel all over Europe and subsequent reforms made for variety and different ways of living the prophetic, contemplative, eremitical and apostolic charisms found in the Carmelite Order. Probably the best known of the Reformers was Teresa of Avila, who together with St John of the Cross went back to the origins of the Rule to found the Order of Discalced (“shoeless”) Carmelites. Later in the history of Carmel we find a variety of apostolic Missionary communities and the Third Orders or lay Carmelites. At the tips of the branches are the many faithful who wear the little Sacramental Brown Scapular and who associate themselves by prayer with the Carmelite family.

Carmel provides me with so much spiritual nourishment through the symbolism and imagery from the story of Elijah and the example of solitude, silent prayer, and prophetic engagement with the world which he embodied.

Carmel is in a special way Our Lady's Order so I feel a connectedness with Mary, especially as I named my house “Carmel”. And my garden with her statue reflects her spiritual beauty, hidden life and tranquillity; Carmel has also inspired me to paint an “icon” of some Carmelite Saints, a little “window into heaven”, which I've hung in my oratory.

Carmelite spirituality finds its source and summit in the Holy Eucharist. The Carmelites have a passion and devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. This passion and love led St Therese of Lisieux to declare that she had found her vocation; “I will be love in the Heart of the Church”! Many Carmelites were led to share in the Eucharistic sacrifice by martyrdom. In the 20th century Blessed Maria Sagrario of St Aloysius, Martyr of the Spanish Civil War, Bl. Titus Brandsma and St Edith Stein ( Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) who both died in Nazi death camps.

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