When we talk about Carmelite spirituality what do we mean? Supposing someone felt called to explore the Carmelite path. What would be the steps? What might be one’s general goals? Fr. Daniel Chowning, OCD of the Washington, D.C. province, has been novice director for many years. Presently he is a councillor in Rome visiting Carmelite communities. Who better to synthesize what the Carmelite path involves? We include a summary that would suit lay or religious.
What is Spiritual Formation?
A desire to be transformed into Christ through ongoing conversion and, to progressively identify with the attitude of Christ’s self-gift to the Father for the sake of humanity is how this path begins. This metamorphosis includes the whole person throughout various stages of maturity, every aspect of the Christian life, integrating mind, body, and soul and its desires. One who sets out on the path of transformation is not already perfect, but aspires to learn and practice with designated companions, and thus to be on the way.
Carmel: A Call to Inner Transformation
A longing for transformation and healing, for conversion, and inner renewal, signify a touch of grace that hungers for deeper love and for greater psychological and emotional freedom – from addictions, attachments, and healing from one’s wounded history.
Journeying through dark nights of love according to John of the Cross, through the inner ways of the Castle of St. Teresa of Avila, and the Little Way of Therese of Lisieux, are tried and true ways.
One will want to explore the lives of Carmelite saints who witness to God’s dream for us. When the interior darkness that prevents us from embracing God’s unconditional love is dispelled, we are drawn into the very life of the Trinity.
The Human Person and Our Divine Vocation
According to John of the Cross we have an innate desire to love and be loved, and to love as God loves. Our origin is in the Trinity. God wants to share his life, his goodness, and his destiny with us. We are imprinted with the image of God as love and friendship, having the capacity to love God and one another. “God is the soul’s centre” says John of the Cross. Our authentic nature is love. We carry within us a “sketch” of the Beloved and we are sick until this sketch is complete.
But we forget who we are.
God created us as a bride for his Son. God wants to make us divine by participation. God desires to heal the wound of sin and to enlighten the darkness within – all that impedes the dynamism of divine love.
Sickness of the Soul
All is not well: we experience deep conflict in our hearts and disorder rooted in our depths that manifests in disordered desires and egoistic tendencies. We stay outside the interior castle. Our task is to enter the path of transformation and spiritual healing. Our goal is not to be perfect, but to become adjusted to our interior life, and to embrace our weakness, so that we become more free and loving.
Ongoing Formation: Mystery and Path
God continues to form us in ways both inexpressible and through a process that takes place in ordinary life.
In The Way of Perfection Teresa teaches that prayer is not just an isolated act, but a way of being in relationship with God, others, and the world around us.
“It is very important that we understand how much the practice of these three things helps us to possess inwardly and outwardly the peace our Lord recommended so highly to us. The first of these is love for one another; the second is detachment (freedom) from all created things; the third is true humility, which, even though I speak of it last, is the main practice and embraces all the others. “ (Way, 4.4)
These interrelated virtues are the foundation to human and Christian freedom, authenticity, and maturity. We cannot grow in prayer in an atmosphere where there are unresolved interpersonal conflicts, when material things or affection for other people enslave us, or when we are not striving to grow in self-knowledge and mutual respect. Love costs.
A Servant of Love
- “The soul’s progress does not lie in thinking much but in loving much.”
- “Mental prayer is nothing other than an intimate sharing: it means taking time frequently to be alone with the one whom we know loves us.” (cf. WP, Ch. 4-21)
The Core Problem
Our own psyche, our egotistical self, wants to impose itself on others, to be the centre of attention. It does not want to co-operate. It desires the goods of the world, or the goods of the flesh. Its desires for worldly wisdom and ambition are out of balance and we struggle with the integration of our strong desires.
Danger of Becoming Stuck
Acedia (the noonday devil) attacks our motivation: we get tired along the way and become lazy with our efforts.
We coast on our little works. We need trials to show us our fragility, attachments, weaknesses, and wounds. (Interior Castle, 3rd mansion) Still some worms remain. The roots of sin are deeply buried and need special graces to see. (Interior Castle, 5th mansion)
Formation in Daily Life
Community (or family) life matures us, grates on our selfishness, and challenges us to grow. Often our cross is meeting these challenges.
The intellect must always be nourished. What we think affects our behaviour. We need to practice clearing the mind as well as feeding it on great thoughts and images. A narrow mind dwarfs us. We need to study Scripture, and read spiritually wise words and the wisdom of the saints.
- Practice docility, inner flexibility, collaboration.
- Resolve to persevere despite the great effort necessary, despite criticism and failure.
- Surrender our will to his, be willing to go the distance whatever it may cost, as an athlete who desires to become expert will practice whatever disciplines help her reach her goal.
- Renew resolve daily!
This article is based on a talk by Fr. Daniel Chowning, OCD 2016