Praying like a Professional: Meeting the Carmelites Carmelites

Boromir - Scapular Meme

By Thomas Palanza, Jr.

You really don’t hear much about the Carmelites, do you?  Not like Franciscans – who doesn’t know at least one person who goes around in Birkenstocks and a brown gown?  And the Archbishop of Boston is one of them too.  Then there are Dominicans: Thomas Aquinas – enough said.  And, despite being the butt end of a great many religious jokes, thousands of students a year graduate from Jesuit schools of all levels.   But Carmelites – do you know any?  Have you ever seen one?  Do you know what they do?  Still, despite a lack of popularity, they always seem to be there, somewhere, popping up every now and then out of obscurity (we had a Carmelite story on this blog not long ago).  You might have even noticed the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel a few weeks ago.  You know Carmelites are out there – unlike some other orders – but you don’t really know much about them.

The origins of the Carmelite order are not well documented, but the more or less official start of the order came around 1210 with St. Albert of Jerusalem writing the very short Rule of St. Albert for the hermits who were living together on Mount Carmel.  That would make their beginning contemporary with the other popular mendicant orders.  But the hermits chose Mount Carmel in the first place because of its ancient connection to the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 18:19-46).  It is from the example of Elijah encountering the Lord in “a light, silent sound” (1 Kings 19:9-14) that Carmelites take their charism – the Spirit of their lifestyle – prayer/contemplation.

My mother is a member of the O.C.D.S. – which does not stand for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Society (although my siblings and I do enjoy using this coincidence when joking around with mom).  For the past 20 plus years, my mother has been a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites.  Third Orders, as they are commonly called, are made up of people who live out the charism of an order but continue to live in the “secular world.”  Thus, my siblings and I grew up very familiar with the Carmelite charism.  As hard and fast a rule as it was that no one could sit in Dad’s armchair in front of the TV, so too was it well known that Mom was not to be disturbed in the morning or evening – sometimes in between too – while saying her prayers.  In fact, not to throw my father under the bus, even though he is a deacon, I am certain that my mother is far more faithful to her obligation to say the Liturgy of the Hours than my father is.  But that doesn’t surprise me.  Prayer is everything for a Carmelite.  Sure, you can say prayer is central to all Christian life, but not like it is for a Carmelite.  When you can say, “Even if the only thing I do is pray, that is more than enough,” then you know what prayer means to a Carmelite.

While not even close to the Patristic period, St. John of the Cross does have many patristic themes in his theology and beautifully illustrates the essence of Carmelite prayer in his poem, The Dark Night.  I’ve included both the Spanish and the English versions below.  Read the Spanish out-loud even if you don’t know Spanish; it is likely that those will be the most beautiful sounds your mouth will get to make today.  Give the poem a read; read it once for the beauty of it, read it a second time to think about the theology in it, read it a third time thinking about what it teaches you about prayer – which is what John intended it to do.

If you are interested in reading more Carmelite classics, here are some of the books on my mother’s shelves: The Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila; The Ascent of Mount Carmel, John of the Cross; The Story of a Soul, Therese of Lisieux; and The Science of the Cross, Edith Stein.  Please suggest some of your favorite Carmelite works or Carmelite stories in the comments section below!

Noche Oscura

Canciones de el alma que se goza
de haber llegado al alto estado de
la perfección, que es la unión con
Dios, por el camino de la negación
espiritual.

1. En una noche oscura,
con ansias, en amores inflamada,
¡oh dichosa ventura!
salí sin ser notada
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

2. A oscuras y segura,
por la secreta escala disfrazada,
¡oh dichosa ventura!
a oscuras y en celada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

3. En la noche dichosa,
en secreto, que nadie me veía,
ni yo miraba cosa,
sin otra luz y quía
sino la que en el corazón ardía.

4. A quésta me guiaba
más cierto que la luz del mediodía,
adónde me esperaba
quien yo bien me sabía,
en parte donde nadie parecía.

5. ¡Oh noche que guiaste!
¡Oh noche amable más que el alborada!
¡Oh noche que juntaste
Amado con amada,
amada en el Amado transformada!

6. En mi pecho florido,
que entero para él solo se guardaba,
allí quedó dormido,
y yo le regalaba,
y el ventalle de cedros aire daba.

7. El aire de la almena,
cuando yo sus cabellos esparcía,
con su mano serena
en mi cuello hería
y todos mis sentidos suspendía.

8. Quedéme y olvidéme,
el rostro recliné sobre el Amado,
cesó todo y dejéme,
dejando me cuidado
entre las azucenas olvidado.

The Dark Night

Songs of the soul that rejoices in
having reached the high state of
perfection, which is union with
God, by the path of spiritual
negation.

1. One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
!oh, the sheer grace!
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. I darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
!oh, the sheer grace!
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me,
him I knew so well,
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
Lover with beloved,
beloved transformed in the Lover!

6. Upon my flowering breast,
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

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