The word charism (understood here as a religious technical term for God's attitude toward human beings - his kindness, grace, favour, helpfulness) is from the Greek carisma, a verbal noun from carizomai [give] which denotes what has been given, that is, gift, favour or benefit as the result of a gracious act of God. By virtue of the quality bestowed, charism is also taken to mean that which makes a person or thing attractive with a compelling charm that is capable of inspiring. Nevertheless, it is important that we note what is most essential in our finding: that charism is a gift freely given and entirely unearned. Such could be said of the charism of Carmel.
By Carmel’s charism, we mean God’s gratuitous gift to the Carmelite Order which was given originally to those nameless hermits who gathered together on Mount Carmel, beside the well of Elijah, at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries; we mean the gift God has freely graced the Carmelite Order with for the benefit of the Church and the world which makes Carmel so beautifully radiant and irresistibly attractive; we mean that favour which makes the Order of Carmel outstandingly different, wonderfully unique and uniquely wonderful in the heart of the Church; we mean that gift which, having been bestowed on the hermit brothers, inspired them to founding the religious family known today as the Carmelite Order. It is this charism, understood as the particular way in which members of the Order are called to follow Christ, handed down through a period of over eight centuries and enriched by all who are called to live it, that has given rise to what is called the Carmelite Spirituality.
Turning now to the nitty-gritty of Carmel’s charism, we realize that this has been described and explained in many and varied ways. It has been described as forming contemplative communities at the service of God’s people in whose midst they live; it has always been understood as contemplative life in fraternity reaching out for service or simply put, contemplative life unifying fraternity and giving rise to service, ministry or apostolate among the people. Whatever these descriptions or explanations are, contemplation, fraternity and service are essential elements of the Carmelite charism. Of these, the charism or spiritual focus of the Carmelite Order, as we shall briefly see in delineating each of these three items, is contemplative prayer.
To start with Fraternity, Carmelites seek to form communities where each person feels accepted and valued not for what he or she has, can do or can offer but simply because he or she is. This kind of community is in itself a witness that the love of Christ can break down the barriers and walls which human beings set up through emphasizing our differences; it shows that it is possible for people of different cultures, backgrounds, orientation and nationalities to live together in peace, oneness and harmony - all having one purpose and goal. This was how the hermit brothers on Mount Carmel, who were from different European countries, lived; they taught us the possibility and beauty of fraternity. Today, it is not just the case that community living constitutes an indispensable aspect of the Carmelite life - which would not really make Carmel unique as this is an essential element of any religious Order or Congregation; but that common life in Carmel is so highly regarded and joyously lived is so because fraternal life in common, according to God’s loving plan from the very beginning of the Order, formed an intrinsic part of the origins of Carmel. Thus all Carmelites, aware of being part of an international fraternity which is present in many parts of the world, are urged on to living more faithfully, fruitfully and in a more fulfilling way.
When we come to the essential element of Service, we note that the hermit brothers, upon being forced to leave their home on Mount Carmel and settle in Europe, changed their life-style from hermits to friars. The major difference is that friars are called to serve the people of God in some active apostolate. Some Religious Congregations were founded for a specific work but the Carmelite Order tries simply to respond to the needs of the Church and the world which differ according to time and place. The kind of service which each individual friar is involved in will depend on the needs of the people in whose midst he lives and his own particular talents. Be that as it may, we point out that the word service, which is much more inclusive and apt compared to ministry or apostolate, is the main concern here and so gets the emphasis. What this entails is that all Carmelites – the friars (cleric or not), nuns and the OCDS – engage-in and are called to some form of reaching-out. This begins with firstly and primarily serving one another within the context of the community/family and then, if the need arises, being involved in some ministry or apostolate aimed at serving the people of God with which they live.
In Contemplation, we arrive at the heart of the Carmelite charism – contemplative prayer; it is the most essential and most basic value of any true Carmelite vocation. It is indeed right, and is actually said and is the opinion held by many, to simply say that the Carmelite charism is contemplative prayer. This is true because the quality of Carmel’s fraternal life and the quality of the service which its members offer anywhere are a function of the quality of our prayer life. Since the goal of the Carmelite life is union with God, we seek, through contemplative prayer, to live in God’s presence and consent to his will for us. This involves our listening to God who speaks to us in many ways and especially in the words of Scripture. It is through prayer that we relate to God and grow in friendship with Christ. But for the Carmelite, prayer and contemplation are not private matters between the individual and God but are to be shared with others since the charism is given for the whole world – for gifts are given to be given. Therefore, our constitution states that “the very nature of our charism demands that our prayer and our whole religious life be ardently apostolic and that we put ourselves at the service of the Church and of all mankind”. It however warns that “this must be done in such a way that ‘our apostolic activity stems from our close union with Christ’...we must aim at that most fruitful of all apostolates which derives from the ‘state of union with God’”. So, the Carmelite spirituality, which flows from the Carmelite charism, is not contemplative and apostolic; it is apostolic because it is contemplative. It is for this reason that there is an emphasis in the Order on the ministry of teaching prayer and giving spiritual direction.
As we follow Christ along this path of trust in God by contemplative prayer, we are inspired by the example and virtues of Mary, the mother of Jesus and the Prophet Elijah. Mary listened to God’s word, pondered it in her heart, was docile to the dictates of the Spirit and reached out to others; Elijah contemplated the face of the living God, burned with zeal for God’s Word and was fruitful in his ministry.
May the Carmelite charism and spirituality, which have guided many souls, in spite of their wide diversity, to the top of the holy mountain of Carmel – to union with God - during all these centuries, make it possible for all souls, and particularly ourselves, to realize their highest and most necessary vocation - to live for God. Amen.