-- carmelite ngo reflection paper --




One of the classic values in the Carmelite tradition, which has been very often discussed, is that of community. An issue, which was underlined in the last few years concerning the way Carmelites live together was the idea of the community that welcomes people from outside, or the so-called community ad extra. Despite the importance of closeness among the members, an attitude of openness to people outside the religious house has a great effectiveness in developing an authentic community. Evidently such openness to the reality must begin by hastening to the needs of the members in their own community. The issue of community emerged again in the last Chapter of the Carmelite Friars in September 2007. In the message of the General Chapter the participants were reminded to be faithful to their vocation as a Praying and Prophetic Community. It is stressed that the quality of the Carmelite community formed by the Word of God is a witness to society.

Community and Active witness

Inspired by the apostolic brotherhood of the Mendicant Orders integrated into the primitive charism with the approval of Innocent IV in 1247, the Carmelite Order has been appreciating greatly the value of a greater openness to people. This element of their living together is a sort of life, which recalls the itinerant brotherhood of Christ and the apostles; the latter was a response to a contemporary need, an attentive hearkening to the feelings of uneasiness in the world, manifesting a spirit of solidarity with the more humble people of towns and cities. The way of life, which incarnates the obsequium Jesu Christi within such community, will be a witness to the world where so many forms of slavery (social, cultural, political, religious), oppression and isolation exist. Moreover, an authentic community should be a witness of charity and justice for all - a communitarian action of sharing and solidarity, a sign that God is realizing his plan in this world.

The ideal way to live the charism of community in the contemporary situation, so that it might be more prophetic, would be through a life that is more inserted into the life of the society in which people live. Small religious communities and basic-communities[1], new forms of community within the Church, were considered as concrete ways to put this idea into effect. It has to be noticed that Religious Life before the Second Vatican Council had been characterized by communities with large number. Their life was influenced by the concept of non-relationship with the world (the famous term of fleeing from the world) and the concept of perfection, which had a rather individualistic stress. Therefore, the new movements mentioned above were considered to be an answer to the crisis that had been present for years in conventual life as well as in the life and mission of the Church. What values did they contribute to the Church?

A small community - mostly composed of five to twelve members - attempts to live Religious Life in the radical manner of the Gospel; in this new and specific way, separated from traditional structures, the community may contribute effectively to the mission of Christ towards people. This new structure of life gives priority to persons and to interpersonal relationships in community. It is based on a profound faith regarding the value of communion as the ideal and the greatest gift offered to people in Christ, and upon the value of exchange and mutual support in sharing experiences of faith for the sake of the mission.  In such community not only the voice of the individual conscience but also the opinion of others is heard.

This kind of community, living in an interpersonal and mutual supporting relationship, naturally turns into an incarnate witness to communion, and offers an eloquent sign for today’s world, with all its egotism and discord in human relationships, divisions and racial hatred, and conflicts between ideological and economic interests. Such a community rooted in the love of Christ becomes a prophetic sign of communion that says that dialogue is always possible and that communion can harmonize differences. Indeed, the polarizati on of ideas, attitudes and works would be an obstacle to  love in the community. But, going on the inspiration of St. Paul’s description of the importance of different gifts and charisms for the building up of the Mystical Body of Christ, pluriformity is enrichment (Cf. 1 Cor 12-13). For each one is called by God into union with God, to develop his own gifts for the enrichment of the whole community. Growth in brotherhood is a process of opening oneself to inter-dependence, in which the good of the individual and the meaningful reality of the whole community are approached responsibly by each one and are the object of continuous concern.

Small communities - both small religious communities and basic communities – endeavour to incarnate the Carmelite values especially that of brotherhood, which overcomes boundaries of race and status in society and the Church. This way of life is intended to continue the divine plan, because people were created to live in communion with one another, with mutual responsibility. The divine plan of salvation and liberation includes all people in equal measures. This style of life also offers a better possibility for a real and concrete insertion into society, and for a more effective witness to love in the inhuman situations of today.

Community and a Concern for Neighbor

Authentic prayer leads to concern for neighbor and for the problems of the Church, because a true union with God, brought about in prayer, reveals God as the God who saves and increases the desire to be the mediator of his salvation.[2] So, for contemplatives God is the God who creates and is working in creation. In this sense one could understand the unity of the two commandments taught by Jesus (Cf. Mt 22: 39). Hence, to dispose one’s life toward God means to dispose one’s life to the people whose lives are likewise grounded in God, and it also means to be disposed to the building up of the community of all. The positive fundamental option in contemplative life, then, necessarily includes a commitment to social and ecclesial engagement; it is not an individual or private relationship with God. Contemplative life, if it is authentic, should awaken a strong desire to render oneself to be able to understand and share the joy and hope, the sorrow and anguish of people.

Thus, for Carmelites the concern for the problems of people does not come only from a sense of compassion, nor is it merely an expression of their commitment to one another extending outside the community, but something that springs from their contemplative attitude to serve God’s people and to see God, living and speaking in them. This contemplative attitude is the fundamental element, which unites the Carmelites in community urging them to be concerned in the problems of the world and of the Church.

The prophetic contemplative attitude explained above appears very clear in the life of the prophet Elijah who lived in the presence of God and served him. He was a man of God, who lived in God’s presence in solitude as well as in the midst of his people and projected the light of God on the human situation; he was also a man, who heard the voice of God, discerned it in difficult contexts, embodied it in himself and applied it to the reality of the people of his time. As a prophet, based on his experience of God and his understanding of the covenant, he projected the light of God’s word on the existing economic, social, political and religious situation.

In imitation of the prophet Elijah, the Carmelites’ task is necessarily “to sow the seed and to leave the fruit to God’s good time.”[3] The concern for neighbour has existed among the Carmelites from the very beginning. It gets explicit expression in the letter of Innocent IV Ex parte dilectorum (1252). By this letter the Carmelites entered the rising urban culture of the 13th century, becoming more involved in the needs of the Church and society. The Carmelites in the course of the centuries were not isolated from the historical circumstances or from the problems of the Church.

The Carmelite vocation can only be understood in its relationship with the Church (Cf. LG 43), but the peculiarity of the Carmelites’ involvement in the Church’s concerns comes from its mystical approach to the Church and to the people in general, through whom God speaks and should be served. In this context the lives of the two mystical Carmelite nuns, Teresa of Jesus and Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi, could be taken as clear witnesses. For Teresa, friendship with Christ brings about a sensus of the Church and a need to expand it, by which one proclaims the Kingdom of God.[4] Mary Magdalen affirms very often that God has chosen her Order for the help of the Church, that the Order would manifest by its way of life the nature of the same love of God.[5] Consequently, based on the experience of these two Carmelite nuns, the apostolic activity aimed at building a more loving world finds its source in a contemplative attitude, a relationship with God. 

Prophetic Community in Justice and Peace

The commitment of the Church to justice and peace in a more explicit way appeared for the first time in the Second Vatican Council in which the Church was expected to be open and to respond to society and the realities of the modern world, and to make a preferential option for the poor.[6] The evangelical invitation to promote justice and peace was stressed through the work of this Council and of Paul VI by means of Pontifical documents. The invitation extended to committed believers to a life of simplicity in a service of happiness and justice among people, giving first place to the humble, poor and suffering (GS 1). This invitation emerged in the contemporary situation of the society in a time of social transformation, of crisis of religious meaning and of injustice, which brought people into the slavery of false gods and widened the areas of the marginalized at all levels.

The Carmelites paid close attention to the urging of the Second Vatican Council to be committed to the poor. They chose solidarity with the little ones of history bringing a word of hope and of salvation to these people by lives rather than lips. They also assumed their own responsibilities in the field of justice and peace. However, looking at this phenomenon, we have to ask the question about the relation of this commitment with the Carmelite charism, or in other words, why the Carmelites are convinced that they are being called specifically to this commitment?

It has been mentioned above that the Carmelite community is not limited to the members of the community, but it is an open way of life, due to their contemplative vision, which enables to see God in people. The willingness of community to accept innovation fosters a healthy pluralism within the same style of life and creates an ability to enter into the joys and anxieties of the people. On the other hand, such community formed by the Word creates a welcoming attitude to people and openness to the needs of the world. It also becomes a living example of life, which fosters freedom and human development.

The community that is open to people is not merely an effort to contemplate God’s presence in them but it also requires a commitment outside the community, which becomes an answer to the concrete situations and to the aspirations of the people in whose midst the Carmelites find themselves. The God encountered and contemplated in prayer continues in the encounter with the people and in the ability to experience God through Christ in the service of them and in the situation of oppression of the little ones. Contemplation in this case, then, is not only a discovery of the presence of Christ in neighbours, but it is also a call to action in their favour, a commitment to liberation. For the contemplation of Christ in the suffering and oppressed is necessarily a call to commitment in the favour of the poor.[7]

Therefore, for Carmelite the prophetic for the poor can only be a fruit of their contemplation in community, which necessarily opens their life into the reality of society and leads them to see God’s presence in it. The preferential option for the poor was recommended as in keeping with its charism, whose main feature is summed up in the Rule as living in the footsteps of Jesus Christ (Rule 2). This text is understood as “to live in the footsteps of the poor and of those in whom the image of Christ is by preference reflected.”[8] So, the option for the poor is a reflection of God’s option for them. It is a preference, which is not influenced by their merits nor their moral qualities but merely by a desire to restore the equality among them, to which the poor have a right. It does not mean that God loves the poor more than others, but he gives a particular attention to the inequality in which they are victims and for the urgency to establish justice. The praxis of Jesus, who loves the poor and calls sinners to conversion inviting them to a real exodus from themselves to enter the intimacy with him, sends them into the struggle against the evil and to proclaim the Good News. Here there is a need for transformation of the unjust social structures and for the liberation of the poor as a sign of the presence of God’s Kingdom in the world. 

Therefore, the preferential option for the poor is necessary not only for the poor but also for the Carmelites themselves; it is even a criterion for their success in evangelisation. Their message should reach the weakest and those who suffer most. Otherwise they are creating further marginalisation. Until they reach the poor, their message will be incomprehensible and of little significance for everybody else. Thus, the existential situation of the poor forces every bearer of the Good News to come down from the pedestal of the kinds of culture, mental-planning and reasoning that are at times so abstract, insipid and general that they become almost meaningless.

In the context of the poverty in the Third World, the poor people mean oppressed people, and the poverty of the poor is seen to be the result of injustice. Therefore, an option for the poor means an option for the oppressed, and to stand for the poor means to commit oneself to opposing the injustice as it was in the Jewish-Christian tradition. In this tradition the experience of having stood in God’s presence runs parallel to committing oneself to opposing injustice in all its forms, even in a political way.[9]

The inspiration for this concern, however, also comes from the attitude of God who is revealed in Scripture as the God who is concerned with the dignity and liberation of the oppressed, the alienated and the poor (Lk 4:16-21). By the same token, the search for justice is an essential element in the following of Christ, who is not only concerned for but even identified with the poor (Mt 25:31-46) and appeals to all of humanity through their poverty. The great mass of the neglected and of the oppressed is the depository of history in its most meaningful dimension, where God works his wonders (Lk 1:51-54).

The involvement of the Carmelites in promotion of justice and peace also comes from the inspiration of the prophet Elijah. They have a commitment to stand with those who hunger after peace and work for its coming. As the prophet Elijah criticized the misuse of power (1 Kings 21) as well as the religious decadence in Israel, so the Carmelites are called to criticize what is unjust in society in the light of the word of God, evangelising the every day lives and values of the members of society. Based on the experience of the prophet Elijah, the Carmelites should face the situation of injustice through three different approaches that are closely related: the path of justice (struggling for the transformation of society), the path of solidarity (struggling for the renewal of community) and the path of mysticism (struggling to restore the awareness that God is with us).[10]

The openness to the world of the Carmelite community, then, is not merely a matter of doing some charitable works for the poor. As a prophetic brotherhood the Carmelites proclaim the word of God on human liberation in a simple, sober style of life, being close to the people, in solidarity with the poor, and necessarily being pledged to justice and human promotion. The charism of such communion leads the Carmelites to commit themselves to the transformation of a society where many forms of slavery, oppression and isolation exist. Through this commitment they make an important contribution to a true liberation.

The contribution of the Carmelites in promoting community in society also includes an endeavour to eliminate competitiveness and every kind of threat or fear which comes in many forms. In this way, they expect to be able to create a society with justice, peace and harmony in their own environment. The proof of the credibility of their commitment will undoubtedly be the measure justice that can be found in a society where human rights are not being safeguarded. Hence, Carmelite life in community is not merely an abstract value; it is a pastoral practice, an unconditional search for the total person, the desire for justice and peace, which certainly comes first from an experience of communion among the members of the community. The commitment of the Carmelites to justice and peace, then, emerged from a style of life founded on prophetic community. Thus, it is the fruit and the witness of love in community, but it is also a life that becomes an evangelical and prophetic proclamation.

Consequently, an option for the poor or a concern for justice and peace here is not merely a sociological issue; it relates very strongly with the life of faith. For the Christian, spirituality has to enter into this perspective, that is, to sustain a life of discipleship and of openness to the Spirit, which leads one to be committed to the liberation of humankind. So, the conversion of the heart, with which spirituality is primarily concerned, is a conversion to the messianic prophet of the poor and therefore it does not dispense from but rather demands and reinforces the need of a commitment for the change of unjust structures. This identification and solidarity with the poor become the birthplace and the criteria of the true Christian spirituality today; for spirituality cannot be separated from solidarity and the quest for justice. It is an authentic evangelical commitment rooted in the work and mission of Jesus.

The really substantial novelty of the rapport with the poor is the different way of looking at them. They are no longer seen merely as objects of the works of charity but as teachers of the faith, or at least as an ideal situation for a specific spiritual experience. To achieve this there is a need for interior freedom, poverty of spirit and detachment, which prevents the inclination to build idols in one’s life. This freedom enables one to learn from the experience of life, from others, to allow oneself to be formed, particularly by the poor. These are expressions of a mature spirituality, of a consummate man or woman of God, of a spirituality that is born also in mission as well as in moments of intimacy with God. And that is a sign of interior freedom. This attitude of freedom can lead one to be involved authentically in promoting justice and peace.


The theme of community was given a central place in the Carmelite life as can be seen in the repeated discussion on the same theme in various occasions. The value of prayer, especially common prayer, has an important role in the formation of true community, but, by the same token, prayer can be developed best in a community that is mature. So, there is a reciprocal relationship between community and prayer. However, it has to be noted that community prayer is not only necessary for the fruitfulness of mission ad intra, but it is also a source of apostolate following the example of Christ. The search for God in prayer and openness to the real needs of the world cannot be kept apart, because God is present in history. Accordingly, a Carmelite community is both contemplative and prophetic, leading its members not only to an openness to the world but also to an ability to see God in history, in other words to read the signs of the times. Such a contemplative attitude of its nature leads Carmelites to a commitment to serve God who is present in people.

Faced with the situation of today’s world with its widespread egotism and discord in human relationships, divided by the hatred between races or by ideological and economic injustices, Carmelites on account of the prophetic dimension of their charism are called to make a commitment to the liberation of the oppressed. Developing the Obsequium Jesu Christi as the supreme norm for Carmelites as it is found in the Rule (Rule 2), Carmelites see the need for a commitment to continue the struggle of Jesus for the transformation of unjust social structures and the liberation of the poor in order to make God’s Kingdom known in the world.

Dionysius Kosasih O. Carm.

[1] The basic community was born in Latin America as a cell organization known as the popular church, which responds to the people’s struggle and passion. In this community, the experience of community is more important than the emphasis on societal conformity found in most parish contexts. See Matthew Fox, Creation Spirituality - Liberating gifts for the peoples of the earth, San Francisco, 1991, p.130; for further explanation on the spirituality of the basic community, see Bernard J. Lee, Community, in The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, Michael Downey (ed.), Collegiville, 1993, [183-192] 189-191.

[2] Falco J. Thuis, In Wonder at the Mystery of God, Rome, 1983, p.39.

[3] Kilian Healy, Prophet of Fire, Rome, 1990, p.100.

[4] Cf. Anastasio del SS.Rosario,  Attualitá della spiritualitá teresiana, in Invito alla ricerca di Dio, Ermanno Ancilli (ed.), Roma, 1970, (419-430) 427.

[5] Paola Moschetti - Bruno Secondin, Maddalena de’ Pazzi mistica dell’amore, Milano, 1992, p.189.

[6] Ana Maria Pineda, Liberation Theology - Practice of a people hungering for human dignity, in The Way 38 (1998) 231-239:232.

[7] Segundo Galilea, Following Jesus, Maryknoll, 1981, p.60.

[8] Congregatio Generalis (1980), Called to Account by the Poor, in Analecta Ordinis Carmelitarum 35 (1980-1981) 6-53:36.

[9] See the Declaration of the General Chapter in the Capitulum Generale (1983), The formation of Carmelite brotherhood in obedience and witness to the design of God through the promotion of justice and human development, in Analecta Ordinis Carmelitarum 36 (1983) 287-288:287.

[10] Carlos Mesters, “Camminare alla presenza del Signore nello spirito e nella forza di Elia” (Lc 1,17), in Profeti di fraternità – Per una visione rinnovata della spiritualità carmelitana, Bruno Secondin (ed.), Bologna, 1985, (15-40) 29.