The Carmelite Way(s)

Posted By on April 15, 2022

One of the things that has long amazed me and given me joy is how there is room for everyone in the Catholic Church. We have people of all races, from almost every imaginable culture celebrating their faith within the Church. We have different Rites for different cultures and different traditions. Most western people think of the Church as being what they see in an “ordinary” Latin Rite Mass (in their language), but there is so much more out there. There are prayer groups, the Charismatic Renewal, the Latin Tridentine Mass. We have priests, sisters, lay people. Apologists and prayer warriors; missionaries, authors, and families. Many of these groups overlap, and several do not; but the thing that has really struck me is how many different forms Catholic spirituality can take. The religious orders are a very good example.

Contemplative orders have a mission of prayer and penance, while active orders have a mission within the world. Many religious orders also have a “third order” for those who commit to the spirituality and authority of the religious order, while living in the world with jobs, spouses, children, and so on.

Franciscans focus on poverty and charity, following St. Francis’ model of humility and love. Dominicans have a mission of education to strengthen the Church. The Missionaries of Charity (Mother Theresa’s order) serve the poor in concrete ways. The Carmelites are called to contemplation, study, and prayer, especially for priests, under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin. There are too many others to name them all, but each has its own distinctive way of serving God and interacting with Him.

Now, as the name of this blog suggests, I am a Carmelite. Specifically, I am a member of the Order of Secular (third order) Discalced Carmelites, or OCDS. A large part of our devotion lies in following the examples and teachings of the Carmelite saints. And while the charism of contemplative prayer, community, and service may seem straight forward, an examination of the Carmelite Doctors of the Church illustrates how, even within one order with the same charism, there is much room for different “types” of people.

St. Teresa of Jesus (St. Teresa of Avila) was a powerhouse. A strong but humble personality, always willing to accept correction, yet fearless fearless in teaching her sisters and in spreading the reform of the Discalced Carmelites. She understood human psychology without having been taught it, and knew when to be firm and when to understand human weakness. Her writings are instructive and teach not only “what to do” but also “what not to do,” recognizing dangers to the soul and to the community. She spoke to God deferentially, but in a conversational way, even with humor.

St. John of the Cross, on the other hand, was a sensitive soul who wrote deeply moving poetry and sought an austere life of penance. He endured more than most people could. He had a gift for spiritual direction, and while stern with himself he was known as a very gentle confessor. Where St. Teresa often approached her teachings from a very practical standpoint, St. John delved into the deepest elements of spirituality and the soul.

And then there’s St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, otherwise known as St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She never sought to teach or establish anything but only to love as steadfastly as she could. She had a personal spirituality, “the little way,” of love. She had no idea it would be recognized by the Church and followed by many as a path to holiness. All she desired was to love God with everything. She explained her thoughts with analogies and in her simpleness never guessed that she was profound. It was not her accomplishments that drew attention, but her holiness.

How can three such different people represent the same order? It is because even within the Rule of the order, God is still personal. Each of us has a different relationship with Him, just as we do with anyone else. They all lived a contemplative, prayerful life. They all gave their lives to serve the Lord as He called them; but they also brought their very selves into that relationship. God has no desire to see us as matching prayerbots. His hope for us is that each of us be the most perfect version of ourself. Whatever we do, we bring our self into it. And that is as God wants it.

God made you to be you.


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