no. 2 april - june 2003
The spirit of the letter "Cum Nulla" given to the Carmelite Prior General John Soreth by Pope Nicolas V at the request of the Carmelite prior of the monastery in Florence 550 years ago continues to impact our Order. That letter opened the way for the Order to accept the women who had asked to join as well as the lay people who wished to live our spirituality while remaining in their own homes.
It was an opening to the reality that Carmelite life need not be lived by males and only in the traditional way the Carmelites had been living it. In fact, the Order learned adaptation to the "signs of the times" as early as the 13th century when the Order was forced to move from a strictly eremetical existence to a mendicant lifestyle. Our 800 year history has weathered many other changes. Most of our judgements of the "signs of the times" have been viewed in a favorable light by the historians. An attitude of openness to new interpretations or emphasis has often brought new life and fervor to the Order.
Today our documents still give voice to that spirit of "Cum Nulla". The 1995 Carmelite Constitutions call for `life in community' which reflects that of the Holy Trinity (#29). They go on to propose the Jerusalem community, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, as a second model for living Carmelite life (#30).
That same Constitutional provision calls for Carmelites to be "open to developing new forms of community," very much in line with the spirit of the Order that resulted in Pope Nicholas V writing "Cum Nulla."
So how is that happening in the Order today?
The Phenomenon of the Carmelite Hermits
It is well known that the early Carmelites were hermits. It seems that they were men from Western Europe who had gone to the Holy Land to "live in allegiance to Jesus Christ." They were attracted by the sacred history attached to Mount Carmel and many began to live there, worshipping God in solitude and silence.
While the majority of Carmelites live in community and are involved in an active apostolate, the Order seemingly has never been without its hermits, those who have embraced the contemplative process by living in solitude.
However, today, this form of religious life appears to be gaining more attention and more practioners. Today Carmelites who have opted to be hermits are present in several countries, including the USA, Indonesia, Brazil, Italy, and France.
However, it has also flourished into new branches on the vine of Carmel. In the last five years three groups of existing hermit communities have incorporated into the Order. Another community of hermits has affiliated itself to the Order and is beginning the process of incorporation. While the numbers are perhaps small, they represent a geometric increase in the number of hermits previously in the Order.
Why this sudden renewed interest in this ancient form of living religious life?
"I think it is a desire for solitude which is very much a part of our spirituality but not very much a part of our world," said Joseph Chalmers, the Prior General. "Today our life is so frenetic that there is a real desire to discover God in silence and solitude."
As in any religious pursuit, hermits too need to be able to examine their lives with an experienced person as a way of helping to prevent the difficulties of life from dimming the hermits' enthusiasm and extinguishing their ideals. It is believed that for this reason, the Carmelite hermits gathered together in community. They maintained their eremitical ideals but they had the safety net of the community to make sure that they had their feet on the ground.
"To belong to the Order is a gift from God. It means not only being Carmelite in the juridical sense but also to be heirs to the charism that is to live in the present this ancient gift, thanks to the Holy Spirit. For years we have waited for this moment because of our attempt to live the charism in a new way, as hermits who live in community, not to live separately but to live our diversity in communion," said Sr. Maria di Gesù, prioress of the Carmelite hermits in Monteluro (Fi), Italy.
This community of female hermits celebrated their incorporation into the Order on March 30 when the Prior General received the vows of Sr. Maria, who then received the vows of the other members of the community.
"My idea of creating a Carmelite Hermitage was born out of my love for Carmel and its traditions. As a Third Order member, I was impressed by the Scriptural simplicity of the Rule and by the original eremitical way of life it envisioned," said Fr. Fabian, the prior of the Carmelite Hermits in Christoval, Texas (USA).
The hermitage is situated on 100 acres of
rolling forested hills, south of the city of San Angelo, in
the northernmost reaches of the Chihuahuan desert,
just outside the tiny town of Christoval. On December
8, 1999 the community was formally affiliated to
the Carmelite Order and on November 9, 2002, it
was officially incorporated into the Order. The Prior
General, Joseph Chalmers, and the General Councilor for
North America, William J. Harry, traveled to Christoval on
April 26-27, 2003 to participate in a celebration of the
incorporation. Several representatives from the Most Pure
Heart of Mary Province and the North American Province
of St. Elias also participated.
"After many years of living at the hermitage, I envision a life that has a harmonious blend of fraternity, as the Rule of St. Albert states, accompanied by silence, solitude, and the importance of the cell for prayer," said Fr. Fabian. "Together these give harmony and equilibrium to Carmelite eremitical life."
The setting in Christoval is traditional. Each cell is actually a separate house composed of a study, chapel, bedroom, bathroom, and porch. A cell is separated from the next cell by an enclosed garden and its own private entrance. The cells circle around the chapel.
Each hermit has free time for rest, reading, or correspondence every afternoon. On Sundays and Carmelite feast days, the day is less structured with work and provides ample time for reading or study as well as a community walk. Common recreation takes place on Sundays, as do community meetings, and these fraternal gatherings strengthen the bonds of community living.
"The monastery supports itself by raising and selling Boer goats and by the production of breads, jellies, and fudge which we sell both locally and through the mail.
There is no formal ministry outside of the life of prayer and contemplation, although our daily Eucharist in our chapel is open to the public," said Fr. Fabian.
About 90 minutes by car from New York City, outside the town of Chester, New Jersey, lives a group of female Carmelite hermits. "We try to live as close as possible to the original Carmelite Rule. For example, each hermit lives in a separate hermitage in the silence and solitude of the desert with the graceful sequence of prayer that begins and ends each day," says Sr. Mary of Jesus and St. Joseph. "Besides sharing in solitude in the common work of cooking, cleaning, lawn and property maintenance, each hermit contributes to the financial support of the Carmel by the creative development of her gifts and talents."
The Chester Carmelite hermits were incorporated on January 22, 2001.
"If you want to bear fruit, it is critical to have firmly planted roots and, at the same time, be open to the new ways of the Spirit. The Order is our root!" said the prioress of Monteluro.
There is a tension in Carmelite spirituality between the city and the mountaintop, between the active apostolate and contemplation. It is a healthy tension that has produced many saints through the Order's 800 years. In our day we are seeing a resurgence of the eremitical way of life and especially of communities of hermits, a bit of a refocusing on the mountaintop after years of working in the city.
The view of the Prior General is that this shows that the ancient Carmelite tradition is still capable of producing new shoots. "It is all a sign of the health of our charism. It is simply a new focus on an ancient way of living it out," he said.
Community Brings New Life to "The Carmine" in Florence
Four Lay Carmelite Families Join with Friars to Form Community
The papal letter "Cum Nulla" was actually written to address a question of "new forms of Carmelite life" that the community in Florence was involved with. Some 550 years later, the ancient monastery of Carmine is still open to a new form of community life.
For those who have not visited The Carmine in Florence before, the change is not immediately noticeable. But as you pass through the door to enter into the cloister of the Carmelites you notice this is not just another religious community.
Almost ten years ago, the ancient home of the Carmelites in Florence, has been home to a new and different kind of Carmelite community. Now, besides three Carmelite priests from the Italian Province who have care of the basilica, there are 26 other community members, from four different families and a single consecrated virgin. The newest member of the community was born in February of this year.
Forced by the looming problems of decreasing numbers of friars and maintaining one of the oldest houses in the Order, the Italian Province set out to find a solution, apparently with an openness to new forms of community life. It found the solution in blending two of the provincial apostolatesthat of the basilica of the Carmine and that of "La Famiglia"a group of the Third Order of the province.
La Famiglia (The Family) was founded in 1948 and has proved to be a very active movement, seeking to translate the community of the early Church into modern times. It attempts to bring together the various social classes in a dialogue and collaboration for a better society.
When interviewed for an article about this different community in 1999, Fr. Tiziano Ballarin, the prior of the community at the time, said, "I like it. It is very human."
Some of the members of the community grew up in the movement. So for some, it seemed somewhat natural to join the community at Carmine. "We already lived in a type of community together. It was positive and so it seemed right to try this in order to deepen our spirituality of Carmel."
Living in this particular form of community helps the families with the isolation that can often develop when searching for spiritual depth in today's world. It is helpful to have other families around who are searching for the same things. This type of communal life allows them to share and to help each other out.
The community has a basic rhythm. Jobs within the community are usually held for a week and then rotated. All of the members of the community participate in the liturgy and care of the basilica. Money from outside jobs and from the basilica are combined and all expenses are divided up according to need.
Fr. Tiziano indicated that the service of the Carmelites has evolved because of the presence of families as part of the community. Young married couples now come for conferences. These couples benefit from the theology of the priests and the lived experience of the families in the community.
Like any attempt to live in a community, there are obstacles to overcome. However, a conversation of any length about why participate in this form of community life is sprinkled lavishly with comments about the mutual support received for living a Christian life.
Each woman came into contact with the Carmelites in a different way.
Bep de Vreede, a member of the pastoral team of the parish in Dordrecht, had already worked for 20 years as the coordinator of pastoral work in a deanery of one of the dioceses and was introduced to the Carmelites during a week of reflection with her pastoral team. She hopes to make her final commitment on June 9th.
Anne-Marie Bos, now a theology student and member of the Carmelite community in Dordrecht, had known Carmelites all her life. Some were at her parish and some were friends of her parents. She made her initial commitment in June 2001.
Sanny Bruijns moved to Nijmegen to study theology at the Catholic University and was introduced to the Titus Brandsma Institute and the student church of Nijmegen where the Carmelites celebrated eucharist with some of the sisters. She is now a formator for the Dutch Province.
But each woman felt called to Carmel for remarkably similar reasons.
"I had an inner desire to share my life with others who live in the tradition of contemplation and action," said Johanna (Jo) Maria Goossens, who made her initial commitment in 1985.
Sanny wanted to learn more about the mystery of life, of God. She came with an idealism about a better world and with a hunger and thirst for God.
Ann-Marie found the space she felt she needed in Carmel. "I needed the space to find my own relationship with God and to search for the direction in which God leads me," she says.
Bep realized she had been having contact with Carmelites all the way back to 1970. Then she had a Carmelite as a teacher in theology. In 1977-79, she was in pastoral training with another Carmelite. In 1980 she traveled to the Philippines and met four Dutch Carmelites at the Carmelite priory in San Francisco. During spiritual direction her interest in the Rule of Carmel, the spirituality and the charism of Carmel grew. Then she learned that the Dutch Province was open to having women live in community alongside the friars.
In 2002, in the Dutch Province, there were nine Carmelite monasteries with 125 brothers and 13 sisters. There are also four monasteries of Carmelite nuns with 49 sisters. In addition, there are 14 associate members of the province from all parts of the Netherlands and 50 lay members, two groups of Lay Carmelites affiliated with the Province.
Previously the women were referred to as "non canonical members" of the Province. That has changed. "Private vows are canonical. We think it is better to speak about (the women as) members of the Province with private vows and a civil contract," responds Tjeu Timmermans, the Provincial of the Dutch Province.
The private vows are ratified by a legal contract between the Province and the individual woman to give her the material rights that friars have. Says Tjeu, "The contract is between the Dutch Province and the woman. In the contract it is explained that this woman lives according to vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity in one of our communities; that she shares all her goods and her income with the Province; that she participates in all that belongs to the normal membership of a community and the Province; that she can be invited to move from one community to another. She declares that she has made her choice with free will."
Why this new form of living the Carmelite life? Sanny says "There was a real longing to be active as well as contemplative. The Carmelites in the city of Nijmegen were a vital community whereas other communities I visited were not that inspiring. And it feels more natural to live with both women and men."
Jo Goossen explains her own call to this new style of community. "During the seventies, there was within Carmel in the Netherlands a prudent beginning to speak about participation of women in the First Order. There were even possibilities of different levels (or participation) in Carmel in our province. For me, it was exactly what I wanted," she said. At this time, the so called "Carmel Movement" was not yet born. "So after years of speaking, praying and waiting, an old dream became a reality. A life of men and women together in community while realizing Carmelite spirituality became a possibility."
Anne-Marie says "When I found out that there was a possibility for women in the First Order of Carmel, I felt that this way of living was for me men and women living together in one community, on an equal basis, is in my opinion the most natural way of community life."
"I believe that it is not accidental that at the very moment of my life, Carmel and Carmelites came in my life," says Bep. "There was an invitation and real possibility to deepen my spiritual journey by searching out God together with my brothers and sisters in Carmel, in a community. And now we have the possibility of inspiring each other, as man and woman and brothers and sisters, by living together as Carmelites in community and working together in the midst of the people."
And what has been the impact of this new form of community life on the Province? "The Province has been enriched by the presence and participation of every one, also by the presence and participation of the women. Their presence is very accepted and normal. I have not heard any negative comments about it during my term as Prior Provincial," reflects Tjeu.
"The presence of men and women in the community creates a mutual acceptance it modifies a `too masculine' attitude and atmosphere in the communities. It also modifies the image of God."
"We sometimes live with the pain of women because of their position in the Church or because of their being often seen in our society and culture as objects of abuse. It invites us to grow in respect to other people, man and woman. It invites us to grow in brotherhood and sisterhood according to the Gospel."