-- carmelite ngo reflection paper --



Spirituality, the Carmelite Charism and the Work of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation.

The Carmelite NGO affiliated to the UN exists in order to further the work of peace and justice in today’s society around the world. It is based on the belief that the UN is an important and effective organisation in examining issues that affect people, locally and globally, and in offering ways and means to improve the human condition in places where it is most at risk.  It is based also on the believe that because of the particular nature of the Carmelite tradition as part of the history and mission of the Catholic Church, Carmelites have an important and particular contribution to make to whatever debate there may be about the well-being and destiny of the human person.

As the members and associates of the NGO go about their business, they do so with a purpose and a motivation. Both of these words define their spirituality. We are guided by what we want to achieve. We are also guided by something inside us that drives us and determines the direction we take and the way we act. Every human person has a spirituality, because every human person sets out to achieve something and does that in a particular way. Thus the terrorist can be said to have a spirituality the same as the monk in the monastery. We are distinguished by our spiritualities.

The Christian has a Christian spirituality because what he or she sets out to achieve is eternal life here and now and in the hereafter, in the way that Jesus Christ promised it. The way to achieve this is to follow the Gospel under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is not something the follower of Christ can achieve for him or herself, without any concern for the well-being of neighbour. The well-being of our neighbour is an essential part of the concerns that show that we have understood and accepted the teaching of the Gospel. That well-being of neighbour is what we hope to achieve through the work of the NGO, based on the reality of Jesus Christ and all that he represented.

The Justice That We Seek

While there is a call for justice on the lips of every human person, we recognise that there are different ways of understanding justice. It is possible to think of justice simply in terms reward for goodness and punishment for evil, or as the giving to every human person a fair share of the earths goods. If these kinds of justice were an everyday reality our world would be a much better place. Is that enough? Some other approaches to justice have emerged in recent years. After the awful suffering of the people in South Africa due to apartheid, or in Northern Ireland due to the conflict of two traditions, a call was made for restorative justice, in the belief, that it is not enough to reward the good and punish evil, and it is not enough to give people a share of goods. In fact there will not be justice where people have been maimed and wounded until their wounds are recognise and healed. The restorative justice will come about when those who commit the crime and those who suffer the crime are somehow brought together so that that they can know what has happened to each side. This is very close to another understanding of justice which appears as the building of right relationship between the various actors in our world: between the human person and other human persons, between the human person and God, between the human person and creation, between the human person and the self. Right relationship may be understood and the relationship in which the partners in the relationship are enhanced and glorified by the relationship, as opposed to being diminished by it. Finally we have been able to see justice as God’s way of acting. God’s way of acting towards humanity and all of creation is just in all the ways that we have mentioned, with the added value of gratuitousness. God’s justice knows no measure. It is abundant, overflowing and surprising. It is always salvific. Contemplation of the God of justice will lead people to possess this kind of justice. When that happens people will not measure out justice but will act in ways that reflect a belief that there can be no limit to the goodness that we can do for one another. It is not to be measure. The one who sows generously, reaps an abundance. In our society when we want to take care of people who suffer, instead of measuring out the goodness that we deem correct, we might have the attitude of placing the injured in the first place, giving them the best of treatment, in an inn where we say to the innkeeper – do everything for this injured person and more if you can. (Lk 10:35)

The Carmelite Contribution

Carmelites have their own particular spirituality which takes the Christian message and shapes it in accordance with the story of Carmel, a story that contains and expresses the charism of Carmel. The Carmelite understanding of contemplation, in prayer, community and service, after the examples of Elijah and Mary, represents a particular way of living out the Gospel and of coming to eternal life which is to be seen as a part of the mosaic that is the whole of Christian life and the life of the Church.

The Beauty of the Human Person, A Capacity for God

Our attitude to people is that of recognising their dignity as created in the image and likeness of God, destined to live in freedom and equipped with a myriad of gifts which when they are developed make the joy of humanity complete.

In her vision of the Blessed Trinity, St. Mary Magdalen saw something of the movement of understanding and love that there is between the persons of the Trinity.[1] The word she uses to describe this is looking. This way of looking reveals the full identity of the other. The Father looks at the Son, looks deeply and loves what he sees. The Spirit is in the looking and there is peace. The Son looks at the Father, looks deeply and loves what he sees. The Spirit is in the looking and there is peace.

This understanding of looking is captured for us in the image of the serpents in the desert and of the centurion at the foot of the cross. Those who had been bitten had only to look at the serpent fixed to the pole and they were cured (Num 21:9). The centurion looked at the one on the Cross and believed (Mk 15:39). Jesus in turn, looked at the rich young man and understood how difficult it was for the rich man to get into heaven (Mk 10.21).

Our looking is a part of daily life. There are people and situations around us all the time and we are called upon to take a stand. When dealing with another person we have the ability to look, to look deeply and to love what we see and to commit ourselves to what we see. We have the ability to look at situations, to look deeply and to love what we see and to commit ourselves to what we see. We do this because in our deeper looking what we see is the work of the Kingdom of God, the work of salvation going on all the time. This is the work by which God draws all things to himself and we align ourselves with that work every time we accept to commit ourselves to what we see and love. This is a contemplative gift and a contemplative approach to ordinary daily life.

The God of Our Contemplation: Jesus Christ, Mary and Elijah

Our charism, briefly stated, is a charism of allegiance to Jesus Christ, in prayer, fraternity and service, following the examples of Mary and Elijah. To say that our life is a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ, places Christ at the centre of our attention and our motivation. Our service is to him. What does he ask of us as an expression of our allegiances to him? All we have to do is accept him as he is revealed in the Gospel – not any kind of Jesus but the Christ who is poor, humble and cross-bearing[2].

While it is true that Carmelite spirituality very often concentrates on the centrality of love and the transformation of the human person, we know that it is through our appreciation of the Cross that we show our full acceptance of Jesus. While many of our saints help us to see the relationship between love and the Cross of Jesus, Edith Stein’s witness comes at a very appropriate time to show us how someone in a reasonably modern context understood the relevance of the cross, as a sign of self-emptying and of suffering for others.[3]  The cross shows us the relevance of Jesus that takes us beyond the pursuit of the tranquillity and satisfaction that marks many contemporary presentations of Christian spirituality.

Our allegiance to Jesus Christ, lets us see the full revelation of God in the humanity of Jesus, poor, humble and cross-bearing. Our tradition has taught us that humility is to be understood as nothing other than cherishing the truth – truth about ourselves and truth about God. This is the truth that sets us free. We are on a journey of discovery in which we neither claim to have the full truth right now, nor compromise the truth that we have now in the pursuit of immediate and short-term gain. Too much truth is sacrificed today, both in Church and in State in the interests of self-preservation and short-term gain. A love for truth – the truth that God loves us and our greatest happiness is in serving Him – is something that Carmelites can help to bring to the people who journey with us.

In following this path, we are guided and helped by our two principal patrons, Mary and Elijah. Much of the excitement in Carmelite circles in recent years comes from the fresh and renewed things that we say and believe about these two figures:

Mary, disciple, sister and Mother.

We are used to saying that our charism is a charism of prayer, community and service and so it is. But every Christian life is made up of prayer, community and service. It could not be otherwise. What makes our statement of charism distinctive is the inclusion of Mary and Elijah in an intimate relationship with our lives. Much has been written in recent years about Mary’s place in Carmel, notably by Emanuele Boaga and Chris O’Donnell[4]. What emerges very strongly in our speaking about Mary today is that she is disciple, sister and Mother.

As Mother she nurtures life and protects it. As sister she shows the way to full stature in Christ.  As disciple she learned from her Son by being attentive to his word.

We live in a world of great scientific progress. The shadow side of all our progress is a planet and a humanity in danger. We recognise the need to balance protection with development – safety and integrity with growth. That is the art of the mother. While she nurtures her children and exposes them to new realities in order that they may grow, she also protects them from anything that would harm them. The motherly protection of Mary is particularly relevant in the world of today. All of us want to grow and develop, yet we see everyday the threat to our environment, the potential effects of climate change, the increase in organised crime, the exploitation of sex and the awful availability, and use of harmful substances. The recognition of the need for protection for ourselves and our planet, leading to a heartfelt cry for help, gives us a new-found relationship with Mary our Mother in the world of today.

The human person, given the write environment, will grow to maturity. This growth to maturity comes as a result of the use of talents and gifts. It is a grave injustice to curb the development of God-given gifts. Mary as sister is the fulfilment of what Paul says to the Ephesians[5]:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in very way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.

Our view of Mary as sister makes her one of us and one like us. This creates a very real kind of companionship with Mary as one who has gone before us on the journey and is therefore both a leader and a helper for those who follow behind.

Mary the disciple relieves us of the burden of having to be perfect from day one. The disciple sits at the feet of the Master, intent on learning. Mary pondered all these things and treasured them in her heart. This positive learning attitude of the disciple shows us the fundamental attitude of looking and seeing, listening and hearing and accepting the truth of what we see and hear and allowing it to shape our lives. When what we see is what God is revealing and when what we hear is what God is saying the we are in union with God and this union progresses so that there is more of God and less of us. This less-of-us then becomes more-of-us because we become more in our union with God.

Elijah, Man of God, Man of the People

Elijah rose from among the people and became their champion. His story leads us to thoughts of deep-felt commitment to God and to our neighbour. We see in him the prophet who is a prophet because of his deep engagement with God and his deep engagement with the people in the world of his day.

As a tradition we used to see him as the one who stood alone in the presence of the living God. Now we see him as one who knew his people and his world intimately. The combination of the two, knowledge of God and knowledge of the world gave him the power to say important things and make important stands to save his people and point them in the direction of the one God who saves.

The commitment to justice that lies behind the work of our NGO takes much of its inspiration from this example of the prophet Elijah. That includes what we said earlier about our understanding of justice. The work of justice is the work of building right relationship, and justice itself is learned in our contemplation of God – This is a God whose justice is generous, gratuitous and overflowing. If we accept this kind of justice, a justice without measure, we enter into the world of a provident God who in creation and redemption has shown how to provide all that is needed. The person who lives by this kind of justice trusts God and shares everything so that no one is left in need. (Acts 2:44) The work of justice builds right relationship between people and God, between people themselves, and between people and the created world. This work of justice begins with the rejection of idols and the acceptance of the only God who can give life. Baal can give no life.

Carmelites rejoice in sharing the Elijan tradition with Judaism and Islam. They find in this heritage a springboard for dialogue with people of all other religious traditions. A concentration on people’s experience of God allows Carmelites to seek closer bonds with all God seeking people.

Our Way of Being With People

From the time the hermits came together on Mount Carmel and worked out their formula for life we have been living and working with others, not by accident but by choice, in the recognition that we go to God together and we become human together. Our rule by calling the brothers from their cells to gather as one recognises this and gives us what we might consider a manual for living in community.

Over the years, we have recognised the essential community nature of our lives, based on the wisdom of our Rule.  By establishing a healthy and respectful relationship between the members and the leader, by finding the right balance between solitude and gathering, by having meetings specifically to order the life of the community and correct faults if there are any to be found, the Rule provides a structure for growth and effective commitment to the way of the Gospel.

Thus we may say that the Carmelite way of life, based on the Rule, has given us the skills to live in community and to build community. The fundamental formation document of the Friars explains:

  Our joint commitment to a way of life, and our joint participation in moments of listening, of prayer, of celebration, of community and of communion, motivate us to proclaim joyfully and gratuitously the common calling to holiness and to full communion with God and among people. Thus Carmelite community becomes in and of itself a proclamation to the world. Our fraternal life becomes a prophetic sign of the possibility of living in communion, if one is willing to pay the price. Carmelites, who are also called to become experts in communion, invite others to share in their communal prayer and in their life. Listening prayerfully to the word of God, they find in it the inspiration to become a living and prophetic presence in the Christian community and in the world. From the sharing of material and spiritual goods springs the need to share with every brother and sister all that the Lord has freely given.[6]

The claim to be experts in communion is a bold one. It is something to which we are called and for which, by charism and training, we have been equipped. This essential understanding of life in community, which is a mark of our different institutions and works around the world, speaks of working with one another and with others in a partnership that is both effective and affective. We live as people who are committed to one another, have learned the skills of living in community and work for the good of others. We live, reflect and plan in community.

In addition to the dynamic of gathering and remaining in solitude the Rule points to silence and work as features by which we move away from self-centredness and dedicate ourselves to the work of the Kingdom. Silence in this case is not the absence of words but the deepest respect for words that communicate health and salvation. Carmelites practice silence by listening to what the other has to say and by carefully choosing the words with which to speak. The letter to the Ephesians makes this clear:  (Eph 4:29)  Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. Our understanding of silence improves the quality of communication that is an essential ingredient in building healthy human relationships and strong community.  In a world in which words abound and meaning is compromised, and a world in which money makes more money that human labour does, the wisdom of our Rule cannot be ignored.

Openness to Others, Working With Others

We state very clearly the principle of our allegiance to Jesus Christ. This provides the motivation, the method and the style of our endeavours. This allegiance to Jesus Christ enhances our ability to look for truth and justice wherever it is to be found. This truth means that far from being a closed fundamentalistic entity the Carmelite NGO professes a very broad view of reality, as broad as that of Jesus Christ, and just and loving. The opportunity to work in conjunction with the United Nations and with other NGOs of good will, provides a very fertile ground for the seeds of good will and concern for justice to grow and flourish. Far from seeing others as a threat, the Carmelite cherishes every human person as a gift and a resource and welcomes every new situation as being latent with the possibility of a humanity evolving towards fullness. In this way of living there is a recognition that the “glory of God is the human person fully alive”.

Professional and Caring

There is a quality in our approach to our work that goes beyond the professional. Just recently in an article in the Far East magazine [7] I read the story of a woman who took care of an expectant mother in very difficult circumstances in Cambodia. She did all she could to ensure the safe delivery of the child but alas was not successful. The child died. The woman, a professional nurse, looked at her own reaction to what had happened. At first, all she could think of was that she had failed as a nurse. She failed her profession. It was only later that she began to dwell on what the experience might have meant to the mother of the child and then she saw things very differently.[8]

Carmelites have to be professional and to take pride in their ability to be professional in their work. Even more than that they have to care for people, because being professional can at times be self-serving. Being professional can be an idol that might not meet the demands of caring. When we read the Gospel we see very clearly how Jesus allowed himself to be moved by what was happening around him. We can think of many examples, the widow of Nain, the death of Lazarus, the slavery of the rich young man, the agony in the Garden. He criticised the Pharisees, the professionals, for laying heavy burdens on people and not lifting a finger to help them. He wept over Jerusalem and its failure to accept him.

While we know that we are part of the structures that govern society in each of the countries in which we live, we do not limit ourselves to fulfilling the demands of the system. We accompany that and enrich it with our commitment to the person and our following of Christ so that we meet the demands of love – love of God and love of neighbour.

Our fundamental attitude is to desire the salvation of those in our care. In St. Therese of the Child Jesus we find that the desire for the salvation of souls means a desire for people to know the love of the Father, as she has known that love. Carmel is considered by many to be a school of prayer. It is also a school of love that enables us to know Love, to seek Love, to love Love and to offer this love to those around us.[9] In this school of love we have learned to look at people and give thanks for them. It is good that they are there – the “good, the bad and the ugly”.

In the Church

Spirituality is both a motivation and a way of life that springs from motivation. It brings together values in ways that produce schools of spirituality or recognisable spiritualities. The spirituality that lies behind the Carmelite commitment to peace and justice is a Christian spirituality that seeks justice, based on the deepest possible understanding of justice as a gift of God, pursued out of allegiance to Jesus Christ and nourished by the gift of contemplation. As the one who seeks justice is transformed by God, his or her understanding of justice becomes one that comes from God and is like that of God. This quest for justice, in allegiance to Jesus Christ, is characterised by the pursuit of right relationship and an attentiveness to the cry of the poor. Those who engage in this quest belong to a Church that has a very strong social teaching. This teaching serves as a guide for the work of Carmelites. It is also a teaching that holds a place of honour on the world stage.  The work of Carmelites is always to be seen as part of the work of a Church that is itself committed to justice, peace and the integrity of creation.


God’s work is going on all the time (Jn 5:17). It is discerned in the interaction of people with their faith, with one another and with the world in which we live. More than a teacher, the Carmelite is a discerner of the signs of God’s love. This is based on the belief that God loved us first (I Jn 4:9-13). We stand in the presence of the living God whom we serve (I Kg 17:1). Our service is a seeking of the love of God who has already wounded us by his love.[10] The more we discern the signs of God’s love and accept these signs the more we grow in holiness, that is, in our union with God. The places where Carmelites work thus become contemplative places, where the love of God is discerned in the interaction of people and place and we grow in our consciousness of God’s love for us. This is the enjoyment, even in this life of the power of the divine presence and the sweetness of heavenly glory.

We are capable of knowing the love of God to the point where we are so united with God that we “see with the eyes of God and love with the heart of God”[11]. We become God by participation. Recognition of our sinfulness is the recognition of what keeps us at a distance from God and stands in the way of our coming to union with God. This is a very lofty understanding of the human person, but one that we take to be real, and part of our tradition.

If we have this kind of understanding of the destiny of the human person will it not shape our attitude to life and to dialogue about faith and religion wherever it may take place? Might we not then seek to play our part in ensuring that people have the opportunity to see life in this way? Might we not educate in such a way that people grow in their desire for God and the things of God? Because of this kind of belief in God, which is the foundation of religion but also goes beyond religion, have we not something very important to contribute to inter-religious dialogue today, particularly between Judaism, Islam and Christianity? In a world that is becoming increasingly multi-cultural and multi-religious, the clarity of Carmel’s attention to the one God and Lord of all offers us the possibility to cut through the less essential in order to proclaim the most essential. How long will you hop from one foot to the other – If God is God serve him, if Baal is God serve him. (I Kg 18:21). This is the a commitment to give of the best of ourselves and help to bring out the best in others, in the myriad of people with whom it is our privilege and calling to work.

Míceál O’Neill, O. Carm.
Rome - 27 August 2011

[1] St. Mary Magdalen de’Pazzi, Colloquies I, pp.114-115

[2] Lumen gentium (41)                                                                                                                          

[3] Cf. Edith Stein, Essential Writings, Selected by John O’Sullivan, O.C.D., New York: Orbis Books, 128-130.

[4]  E. Boaga, The Lady of the Place, Rome: Ediz. Carmelitane, 2000.   C. O Donnell, A Loving Presence, Mary and Carmel, Middle Park, Australia: Carmelite Communications, 2000.

[5]  Eph 4:11-16

[6]  Ratio Institutionis Vitae Carmelitanae, RIVC, n.36

[7] Published by the Missionaries of St. Patrick.

[8] Takahashi Masaya, Mother and Child, in Far East, Jan/Feb 2010, p.16.

[9] St. Mary Magdalen de’Pazzi, Probationi 2, 188-189

[10]   St. John of the Cross, Living Flame of Love, 1:O Living flame of love, that tenderly wounds my soul in its deepest centre!

[11]   J. Chalmers, The God of our Contemplation, Rome: Ediz. Carm. n.10.11