Aldeburgh 23rd Oct 2014


Carmelite Spirituality, in common with all orders is lived out through the 3 vows of poverty,
chastity and obedience. Whereas Benedictine spirituality is characterised by perfection in
community, liturgical prayer and hospitality. Franciscans emphasise their love of nature
and charitable act, and the Dominicans are known as the order of preachers and teachers.

Whilst all orders overlap it is the Carmelite emphasis on silence and solitude and it's
insights into mystical experiences which sets it apart. It is built upon a direct relationship
with God through a deep, intimate friendship with Christ. Teresa once said whilst leading
her sister across a river in full spate, and narrowly avoiding drowning, if this is how you
treat your friends no wonder you have so few! But she also said if Christ has so few friends
then we must be the best. This friendship is built upon a life dedicated to contemplative

Teresa of Avila was the great reformer of the Carmelite order, an order which had grown
out of a group of hermits who lived on Mt Carmel, where Elijah had defeated the priests of
Baal following which Elijah experienced God not in the earthquake, wind or fire but in
sheer silence.

Teresa entered the monastery of the Incarnation in 1535. There were 150 nuns and
monasteries followed the social strata of the day. The wealthy sisters had suites of rooms,
good food and entertained visitors, the poor sisters did the work. Teresa was quite well off.
Because of endowments the nuns spent a lot of time visiting wealthy patrons, indeed many
nuns spent more time in the parlour than in prayer and this lead to a loss of purpose.

So Teresa set about establishing a new monastery which would return to the ways more in
line with the original hermits of Carmel. There were to be no endowments, life was to be
simple, impoverished and most of all prayerful. This caused huge upset in the order and
much of the work was done in secret. However in 1562 the Monastery of St Joseph in
Avila was opened.

When Teresa was asked to set up further foundations for men, she persuaded a young
man of 25 to assist, his name was John of the Cross. It is through their writings that we
can begin to understand and experience for ourselves the depth of prayer in Carmelite
Spirituality. I think it's important to note that some of their most profound writings were
produced during their darkest times - Teresa was forced into 'retirement' and John was
imprisoned by the Carmelite order!

The wonderful thing is that because of their writings and those of other Carmelites, such
as Therese of Liseaux, Elizabeth of the Trinity, Edith Stein and more contemporary writers
such as Ruth Burrows we don't need to join the Carmelite order to benefit from their

The key to Carmelite Spirituality is allowing God to work in us. The main obstruction to a
close, intimate relationship with Christ is our ego, our need to analyse and rationalise
everything, for when we understand something then we can control it and manipulate it,
even our prayer lives. What Carmelite Spirituality calls us to do is allow God free rein to
release us from these bonds. For when we let go, or empty ourselves of our need for
position and standing then Christ takes over. Let me give you an example, I have been an
Intensive Care Nurse, in brain surgery, a County Councillor and a Priest. Now I have no
title, no standing, when people say what do you do - I pray.

How do we start the process of letting going, the same way as Teresa and John did, and
every Carmelite since, by spending time in silence and stillness. Jesus tells us to go into
our secret place to pray, our secret place being our heart. Not always easy but if we start
with just 10mins at the start and end of each day, we will soon feel the benefits. Silent is
an anagram of listen and in the silence we listen for the voice of our heart not our head.
The distractions will lessen and we will soon find our focus more on Christ than on

As with most things, some people will have a natural gift for contemplative prayer, whilst
others will have to work at it, going through different stages, recollection, meditation and
contemplation. John describes the different roles the various types of prayer play in our
psyche by using the analogy of putting a log on the fire. At first the log spits and oozes as
it releases the impurities within, then it begins to give off heat and starts to glow and finally
it becomes one with the fire, this is the final stage of contemplation.

"I came to bring fire to the earth." (Luke 12:49)

Teresa uses the picture of a garden. Our soul is the garden, God works on us,weeding out
the negative, turning the soil and planting good seed, but the garden still needs watering
and it is at this point we have the desire to pray. It is prayer which waters the garden and
Teresa gives us 4 ways of watering:
1. The bucket down the well - this is very labour intensive and takes a lot of effort on our
part. (Sit in silence for 10 minutes and see what happens!)

2. Wheel & buckets (tap & watering can) - this is less work (prayer of quiet, this is Grace -

3. Water from a stream - very little work on our part (prayers just bubble up)

4. Water from rain - no work at all on our part. This is the living water Jesus talks about to
Samaritan woman at the well. (John 4) It is the work of God and God alone. Prayer ceases
to be something we do, but a gift we receive. God is the prayer and the pray-er. This is the
pinnacle of Carmelite Spirituality, transforming union with God, the log becomes one with
the fire, the soul becomes one with God.

Of course it sounds easier than it is, and it is not a competition, our prayer lives may feel
as though they never get beyond the well and bucket stage or perhaps we take two steps
forward and one step back. It doesn't matter, the important thing is that we make ourselves
open and available to God.

Carmelite Spirituality is a love story, by silence and solitude we make ourselves open to a
union of intimate love. Just as rain flows into streams and rivers so this unitive love
between a person and Christ overflows into all other relationships. To use a mixed
metaphor, If we allow our soul to be watered by the blood of the lamb, our hearts will be
ablaze with the love of Christ.

Last week saw the opening of a year-long celebration of the quincentenary of St Teresa.
She was born in 1515 and died Oct 4th/Oct 15th. (Just as the Julien calendar changed to
the Gregorian calendar, which meant 10 days were lost) The motto the order has adopted
for the celebrations comes from one of Teresa's poems:

I am Yours, and born for You.
What do You want of me? (ICS vol.3, p.377)

Or as Samuel said: "Speak Lord, your servant is listening." (1Sam 3:10)