-  the carmelite ngo  -


A Look at the Carmelite Tradition
and the Call for Ecological Consciousness

 Tony Mazurkiewicz, O. Carm.

Global Warming: People, Power and Politics
Dr. Robert Musil

A famous Native American proverb states: we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children. Over the past several years, ecology and the well being of the earth have been hot topics in the United States and throughout the world. Several events including the 2007 Report from the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, the 2008 Yale Conference of Governors on Climate Change and the proposed 2008 Clean Air Act addressed a variety of issues including climate change, limiting our carbon footprint and the abuse of the environment as a public health concern. Within the Catholic world, the 1991 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) document Renewing the Earth presented a solid plan for Catholics to engage the issue of the integrity of creation. Ten years later the USCCB made a plea for dialogue, prudence and the common good with respect to global climate change.  While the Catholic Church seems to be responding accordingly, the Carmelite tradition also offers us a unique perspective on the issue of the care for creation. Certain aspects and figures of the Carmelite tradition provide a solid foundation to enhance and deepen our ecological consciousness.

First, the Carmelite Rule, promulgated over 800 years ago, begins with the call for the Carmelite to live in allegiance to Jesus Christ pure in heart and stout in conscience. These first Carmelites saw a resemblance of this allegiance to Christ in the relationship between a loyal vassal and his master. Moreover, instead of joining the Crusades to win back the Holy Land from the Saracens, many felt a spiritual battle could win back the world. All in all, living in allegiance to Jesus Christ can mean emptying oneself to embody the will of God and embracing the pattern of the paschal mystery of life. Tying this to the environment, Elizabeth Johnson says, “The earth is entering into its passion and death, with newly victimized species and life-systems crying out from the depths, while too many of her disciples seem to think they can avoid what is going on by hiding in some isolated upper room.”[1]

The Carmelite Rule and the Constitutions underline the centrality of the celebration of the Eucharist. It is the source and summit of the Carmelite’s life in Christ. It is our ongoing participation in the paschal mystery and our continual building up of the body of Christ. The celebration of the Eucharist is also inherently connected with the care of creation. According to Denis Edwards, “Every Eucharist calls us to ecological conversion and action.”[2] In the same way that the Eucharist is the lifting up of creation to God, so too is our respect and responsibility for God’s creation. When we make memory or “anamnesis” in the liturgy we journey through God’s immediate presence. We gather up all of creation and pray for transformation through, with and in Christ.  Edwards continues, “Willfully contributing to the destruction of the species or to pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, must be seen as a denial of Christ. It is a denial of the meaning of all that we celebrate when we gather for the Eucharist.”[3]

While the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans and many other religious groups draw inspiration from their individual charismatic founders; the Carmelites do not share this particular relationship as part of their story. The first Carmelites were a group of lay hermits who gathered on Mt. Carmel in the late 12th century to devote their lives whole-heartedly to the love of God. The mountainside they chose contained small valleys filled with springs of water flowing from among the rocks. The particular area they settled in, the Wadi Ain-es-Sah, locates itself near the traditional fountain of Elijah. According to Fr. Bellarmino Bagatti, OFM, the Wadi “met all the requirements of the eremitical life: solitude, grottoes, water, vegetation for the domestic animals, wood for construction and heating, the proximity of a town and a village for the exchange of goods.”[4] This setting served as a sacred place for these men. They learned to develop a special relationship with the land and the resources of this sacred ground. The distinct paradigm of “sacred space” within Carmel’s foundation story challenges the Carmelite to live in partnership with whatever environment he or she lives, prays and ministers.

The Carmelites, like many others seeking a deeper relationship with God, gather twice day and pray the psalms, among other prayers, in community. These are prayers from the Hebrew Scriptures that praise God as the living God who is continually bringing the world into being. These psalms constantly allude to the power, grandeur and sacredness of God’s creation. This prayer serves as a major means of reverence and respect for the goodness of God’s creation. Moreover, Carmel’s commitment to contemplative prayer and silence effects how we view and relate with the world around us.  In a 2002 article Fr. Ernie Larkin, the Carmelite spiritual writer, said that with minds and hearts renewed this prayer of hope has the potential to expand our horizons and inspire us to think of new and more innovative ways to address the threat to the ecosystem as we know it. Larkin says that the growing interest in contemplative prayer may be due in fact to the growing concern about the environment and vice versa.[5]

An important Carmelite document titled The Fiery Arrow, written around the year 1270 by the Carmelite General Nicholas of Cusa attempted to call Carmel away from the noise and distractions of the city life and back to its original contemplative charism and desert spirituality. It states:

Was it not our Lord and Savior who led us into solitude, as a mark of his favor, so that there he might speak to our hearts (Hos 2:14) with special intimacy? It is not in public, not in the market place, nor amid noise and bustle that he shows himself to his friends for their consolation and reveals his secret mysteries to them, but behind closed doors.[6]

Nicholas uses several themes, possibly from the scenery of Mt. Carmel, to describe the blessings of solitude. In his description of the desert he highlights the glory of God’s creation through the star and planet filled heavens, the consoling birds, hymn praising mountains, life giving flowers, leafy boughs and trees, roots and grass, saving message sunbeams and rejoicing shady bushes. This document supports a mystical approach to the ecological reality. Denis Edwards describes it as, “The experience of being caught up in the utter beauty of the natural world, when this leads to a wonder and joy that seems boundless.”[7]

The prophet Elijah serves as one of the spiritual fathers and inspirational guides of the Carmelites. His example as a contemplative and a prophet, along with his role as a spokesperson for Yahweh can enhance our ecological consciousness. In the Book of Kings, Elijah calls attention to the idol worship of the people of Israel. They are placing their trust and faith in false gods. Their priorities are in the wrong place. He questions them on how long they are going to “straddle the issue” and challenges them to return to the one true God. Following the spirit of Elijah, we “must not only be faithful to the traditions of the past, but must be creative when faced with new challenges.”[8]

Is not the environment and the care for creation a contemporary problem in need of our attention? The Elijan tradition challenges us to name the fact that the United States is the leading producer of green houses gases in the world. Moreover, the ten hottest years on record have been since 1990 and many scientists conclude that the poorest countries in the world are going to be the hardest hit by global warming.  What is needed now is a strong and persistent voice of prophecy like that of Elijah calling people back to a true and authentic relationship with creation. Unless humanity acts immediately to control global warming pollutants, the world, as we know it, is in jeopardy. According to the USCCB, “Our tradition calls us to protect the life and dignity of the human person, and it is increasingly clear that this task cannot be separated from the care and defense of all of creation.”[9] Following in the footsteps of Elijah will give us the strength and the courage to honor the sacramental nature of the entire universe.           

St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Carmelite Doctor of the Catholic Church, is well known for the Teresian Reform of the Carmelite Order. She founded sixteen convents of women and assisted in the reform of several communities of men as well. Teresa wanted the houses she established to have beautiful views. In a letter to Madre Maria de San Jose in 1580, Teresa praises the house they are receiving for having an orchard and views.[10] Later in 1581, in a letter to Father Gracian, Teresa raises a concern about receiving a house that is in the middle of town. The fact that it does not have any “views or land” proved to be a major issue for Teresa.[11] Gardens, trees, flowers and pleasurable landscapes were extremely important for this 16th century saint. During her stay at St. Joseph’s in Avila, Teresa had as many as ten hermitages built in its garden. While not overly explicit, Teresa’s preference for aesthetical settings inspires us to value the sacredness of the environment.

St. Teresa also insisted on friendship as one of the most important aspects of religious life. From the beginning of her days at St. Joseph’s in Avila, Teresa presented the reality that all of her sisters could be friends with one another. She looked down upon special privileges because of honor, class and race and instead, underlined the sacramental notion of friendship. In a similar manner, we are called to befriend all of creation. Living in union with all of God’s creation should be at the center of our lives. Authentic friendship entails “laying down one’s life for another” or making sacrifices for the good of another. This approach should not be any different from the rest of God’s creation. Catholic feminist theologian Sr. Elizabeth Johnson highlights that humans are in kinship with creation. She says, “Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and the genes from the sea creatures, and everyone utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.” [12]

            John of the Cross, the 16th century Carmelite mystic and reformer also provides a prophetic dimension that can lead to a greater level of ecological consciousness. Drawing from the work of Walter Brueggemann, a prophet is one who criticizes the disordered structures of society and provides alternative solutions to the status quo of the dominant consciousness.[13] Even though John of the Cross’ critique of the Carmelite communities and the new way of living he embodied and shared with his Carmelite brothers led to his eventual imprisonment by members of his own community, he firmly stands as a profound prophet in the history of Carmel. His ability to call Carmel to a deeper sense of her identity and potential has forever changed the course of Carmel. This same prophetic and contemplative stance needs to be adopted and set forth with respect to our roles as co-creators here on earth. The USCCB says, “Saving the planet will demand long and sometimes sacrificial commitment. It requires continual revision of our political habits, restructuring economic institutions, reshaping society and nurturing global community.”[14]

The lavishing poetry and commentaries of John of the Cross also reveal his beautiful reverence for all of creation. The Spiritual Canticle, which describes our union with God, consists of magnificently described images from creation including mountains, watersides, hills, lonely wooded valleys, strange islands, tranquil nights, foxes, soft-winged birds, lions, stags and caverns in the rock. For example, in the poem the Bride  (the soul) asks, “O woods and thickets planted by the hand of my Beloved! O green meadow, coated, bright with flowers, tell me, has he passed by you.”[15] Later the Bridegroom (Christ) responds, “The small white dove has returned to the ark with an olive branch; and now the turtledove has found its longed-for mate by the green river banks.”[16] The lavishing images of creation that John uses to describe the loving exchange between a soul, the Bride, and Christ, the Bridegroom summon us to a profound reverence for all of God’s creation.

The Carmelite tradition consistently presents the interior life as central to its charism. From Elijah on the mountaintop seeking the face of God, to Phillip Thibault, the promoter of the interior life and father of the major 17th century reform of the ancient tradition called the Touraine Reform, the call to “go within” is fundamental to Carmel. Thibault claimed that the interior life and the call to meditate day and night on the law of the Lord are at the root of the spirit of Carmel.[17] The contemplative stance is about living in the midst of God and discovering God’s presence in all of reality. It is a journey within where we come to grips with who we are and whose we are. Our false self gradually peels away and we realize the tender, yet abiding love of God. Grasped by God, our minds and hearts are renewed, ready and willing to imitate Christ in our self-emptying and our love. At the core and the heart of contemplation is loving knowledge. Johnson says, “In contemplation the human spirit learns to see the presence of the divine in nature, and so recognizes that the earth is a sacred place. For such a spirit the biblical bush still burns, and we take off our shoes.”[18]

St. Therese of Lisieux, one of the most prominent Catholic saints and Doctors of the Church in the 20th century, presents us with a contemplative stance towards all of life, especially the power and grandeur of God found in nature. In her autobiography The Story of a Soul, Therese talks regularly about nature’s revelation of God’s majesty. On one particular afternoon when she was walking with her father, she describes the sky flooded with dark clouds and lightning. She says, “I was thrilled with delight because God seemed to be so close.”[19] When Therese was six or seven years old she experienced the sea for the very first time in her life. She says, “I couldn’t take my eyes of it since its majesty, the roaring of its waves, everything spoke to my soul of God’s grandeur and power.”[20] On her trip to Rome, Therese lost her breath looking at the landscapes of “enchanting beauty” that raised her “soul to heaven.” She understood the “grandeurs of God” and the “marvels of heaven.”[21] Enticed by the spirit of Therese one may more fully respond to the summons by John Paul II for Christians to respect and protect the environment, so that through nature people can “contemplate the mystery of the greatness and love of God.”[22]

Therese often recollected these experience and the attached feelings of joy at the overwhelming beauty of God and God’s creation. She especially embraced these memories “of the grandeur and power of God” during the difficult moments and struggles in religious life.”[23] In a special way, on Sundays Therese would gaze upon the stars and find herself completely captivated by the experience.[24] In the clustering of these stars, Therese notices a group of golden pearls shaped in the letter T, leaving her mark in the heavens. Therese’s choice to recollect and contemplate the beauty of creation on Sundays confronts the loss of the sacredness of Sunday as a holy day. Finding and making the time to attend the Sunday liturgy has become more of the exception than the norm. Therese challenges us to connect the celebration of the Sunday liturgy with the contemplation of creation.

            Blessed Titus Brandsma, the 20th century Carmelite prophet and martyr became a staunch defender of human rights including the freedom of the press, the right to education and a just society for all. He became a champion of Catholic education and the Dutch Catholic press. Before and during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Titus took an outspoken and hard stand against Nazism. He believed the Nazi ideology violated the dignity of the human person and by rooting his defiance of the Nazis in the Gospel, he earned himself the Nazi label “Dangerous Little Friar.”

Titus played a major role in the Church’s refusal to print Nazi propaganda in their newspapers. He drafted a letter on behalf of the local bishops to all the editors of Catholic papers ordering them not to publish the Nazi propaganda and felt compelled to personally deliver this letter to each of the editors. After Titus finished delivering the fourteenth letter the Nazi’s arrested him. During his interrogation he was asked to sign a document saying that he would never again speak, write or preach another word against the Nazis or the German occupational forces. If he did so, he would be released. His refusal to sign resulted in his being sent to Dachau where he eventually met his death by lethal injection in 1942.

Titus was convinced of the “primordial dignity of each person”[25] and fought for this conviction to his death. Even though he does not explicitly refer to the issue of ecology or the respect for creation, we can interpret how his prophetic stance could inspire others to hold strong to the respect for all of God’s creation. He is well-known for his statement that, “He who wants to win the world for Christ, must have the courage to come in conflict with it.” Authentic Christian discipleship means confronting the exploitation of the land, air, water and natural resources and preserving the well being of the earth. Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether says, “The Church’s mission of the redemption of the world cannot be divorced from justice in society or from the healing of the wounds of nature wrought by an exploitative human industrial system.”[26]

When the first lay hermits gathered on Mt. Carmel over 800 years ago, they not only set out in an inner pilgrimage, but also most likely provided some type of hospitality or ministry to those on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This pilgrim spirituality is another way in which Carmel can assist in the transformation of an ecological consciousness. We, as a planet, are on “on the way” and as we continue to embrace this liminal space, Carmel must challenge the human race to ground itself and embrace the ecological crisis as we know it. We are indeed are at an impasse, or in the mystical language of Carmel, a dark night. The earth is being stripped of its integrity and the majority of the scientific community claims human beings are the main culprits. In this dark night, God is truly at work in humanity calling us to a more authentic relationship with all of God’s creation. It is God’s love that will purify us and nourish us to respond in love. The challenge is upon us. In the words of Elizabeth Johnson, “Simply put, all of us, women and men alike, need to fall in love with the earth as an inherently valuable, living community in which we participate, and be creatively faithful to it.”[27] The daily decision is up to us and according to Carmel, God offers us a path of hope in love. How are we going to respond?


Brueggemann, Walter. Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress, 1978.

The Collected Letters of St. Teresa of Avila: 1578-1582. ed., Kieran Kavanaugh. Washington: ICS Publications, 2007.

The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, trans. Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991.

Edwards, Denis. Ecology at the Heart of Creation. New York: Orbis Books, 2006.

The Fiery Arrow. ed., Bede Edwards, OCD. Chpt, 6: 16.

Friedman, Elias. The Latin Hermits of Mount Carmel. Roma: Institutum Historicum Teresianum, 1979.

Johnson, Elizabeth. Women, Earth and Creator Spirit. New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1993.

Larkin, Ernest E. “Desert Spirituality.” in Review for Religious. 61 (2002).

Pope John Paul II. The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility. December 8, 1989.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. “Conclusion: Eco-Justice at the Center of the Church’s Mission” in Christianity and Ecology. p. 603. eds., Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Slattery, Peter. The Springs of Carmel: An Introduction to Carmelite Spirituality. New York: Alba House, 1991.

Story of a Soul, John Clarke, OCD, trans. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1996.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching. Washington, DC. November 14, 1991.

Valabek, R.M., Prayer Life in Carmel. Rome, 1982.

[1] Elizabeth Johnson, Women, Earth and Creator Spirit (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1993), 9.

[2] Denis Edwards, Ecology at the Heart of Creation (New York: Orbis Books, 2006), 107.

[3] Ibid., 104.

[4] Elias Friedman, The Latin Hermits of Mount Carmel (Roma: Institutum Historicum Teresianum, 1979), 39.

[5]  Ernest E. Larkin, “Desert Spirituality,” Review for Religious. 61 (2002), 370.

[6] The Fiery Arrow, ed., Bede Edwards, OCD. 6: 16.

[7] Edwards, Ecology at the Heart of Faith, 118.

[8] Peter Slattery, The Springs of Carmel: An Introduction to Carmelite Spirituality (New York: Alba House, 1991), 28.

[9] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching. (Washington, DC) November 14, 1991.

[10] The Collected Letter of St. Teresa of Avila: 1578-1582, Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, trans., (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2007), 290.

[11] Ibid., 379.

[12] Johnson, Women, Earth and Creator Spirit, 39.

[13] Walter Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress, 1978), 44-79.

[14] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching. (Washington, DC) November 14, 1991.

[15] The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, trans. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991), 44.

[16] Ibid., 49.

[17] Redemptus Maria Valabek, O.Carm., Prayer Life in Carmel (Rome: Institutum Carmelitanum, 1982), 96.

[18] Johnson, Women, Earth and Creator Spirit, 63.

[19] Story of a Soul, John Clarke, OCD, trans. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1996), 38.

[20] Ibid., 48.

[21] Ibid., 125.

[22] Pope John Paul II, The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility (December 8, 1989).

[23] Story of a Soul, 125.

[24] Ibid., 42.

[25] Valabek, O. Carm., Prayer Life in Carmel, 179.

[26] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Conclusion: Eco-Justice at the Center of the Church’s Mission” in Christianity and Ecology. eds., Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 603.

[27] Johnson, Women, Earth and Creator Spirit, 62.