By Lisa Rosenlund,
Saint Brendan Parish Manager
Each week, we summarize a specific style, form, or approach to prayer, using the highly-acclaimed book by Robert J. Wicks, Prayer in the Catholic Tradition: A Handbook of Practical Approaches (Franciscan Media 2006). In this article, you’ll learn more about prayer in the Carmelite tradition.
I was eager to read this chapter of Wicks’ book because my grandmother was a founding member of a group of lay women that supported Carmelite nuns who arrived in Cleveland in 1923. I never really knew anything about the Carmelite tradition other than that it was a contemplative way of life.
For centuries, one of the main characteristics of the Carmelites has been their focus on prayer. The Carmelite tradition began with a small group of European hermits who traveled to the Holy Land around 1200 A.D. and settled on the side of Mount Carmel, which rises above the city of Haifa, Israel, facing the Mediterranean Sea. They modeled their lives of solitude and prayer after the prophet Elijah.
The early Carmelites asked Albert, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, in whose jurisdiction Mount Carmel lay, to document their pattern of living and praying. The resulting “Rule of Carmel” governed what became the Carmelite Order.
According to the Rule, each Carmelite was to have a “cell,” where he would meditate on Scripture day and night. This way of praying is now known as “lectio divina,” where one seeks God’s guidance by pondering the Word.
Throughout the eight hundred years that the Carmelite tradition has been in existence, many saints have been inspired by it. The Catholic Church has declared three of Carmel’s saints Doctors of the Universal Church: Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Therese of Lisieux.
According to Wicks, Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) understood prayer to be a conversation with a friend, the purpose of which was to align one’s life with God’s will. However, in order to have a conversation, one must first become aware of the friend’s presence.
In her book, The Interior Castle, Teresa imagines her spiritual life as a journey from the outside of a crystal, global castle to the center room where the King lives. Teresa’s journey moves through seven suites of rooms representing the seven stages of the soul’s relationship with God.
Teresa says that “[t]he door of entry to this castle is prayer and reflection.” Wicks interprets her writings to mean that, “rather than having one center in our life, we have many centers, each calling for our attention. The many concerns, the many centers, fragment us. What frees us from our dissipated and fragmented life outside the castle, on the periphery of our life, is prayer.” (214)
The original Carmelite settlement is now in ruins, but to this day Carmelites refer to going back to it in memory and imagination as “entering Carmel.” We can all try to “enter Carmel” by adopting the Carmelite style of prayer. As Wicks says, “With the Rule of Carmel as a foundation and Carmel’s saints as companions, the pilgrim in the land of Carmel is invited into the mystery of God.” (234)
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