-- carmelite ngo reflection paper --




Mary is a model for Carmelites and therefore a model for Carmelites who work in the area of peace and justice. Mary’s way of believing is a light and example for the work of the Carmelite NGO, as I hope to be able to explain in this article.

We read in Lk. 1: 46-52:

And Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.
For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever

This passage is a favourite of many people who work in the area of justice because it speaks of throwing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. What has the figure of Mary to say to those who actively seek justice and peace for all and who are actively concerned with the integrity of creation?

Carmelites and Mary

As Carmelites we are proud of the intimate connection between the Order and Our Lady. She is the Patroness of the Order, our Mother and our Sister.[1] In the Carmelite Rule, the hermits were directed to build a chapel in the midst of the cells: “An oratory should be built as conveniently as possible among the cells, where, if it can be done without difficulty, you are to gather each morning to hear Mass.” (Rule, 14)[2] We know that this little oratory was named in honour of Mary, the Lady of the Place, as she was called, and this was the formal beginning of the long and rich relationship between Carmelites and Our Lady. In this chapel the hermits gathered together for the celebration of the Eucharist. Each hermit came out from the solitude of his individual cell, where he had been “pondering the Lord's law day and night and keeping watch at his prayers unless attending to some other duty.” (Rule, 10) Although Carmelite life has changed quite a lot in 800 years, this movement between the solitude of the cells and the communal aspect of the chapel remains a very important element of our spirituality.

A Journey of Transformation

The Carmelite life is a journey of transformation and this journey has both a solitary and a communitarian aspect. If we do not seek God and struggle with God’s will in solitude, we have nothing to offer the community, both in the narrow sense of the community within which we live and in the wider sense of the community of the human family. On this journey towards transformation, we receive strength from our individual relationship with God but we do not go to God simply as individuals. We are members of God’s People, the Church, and by vocation, members of the Carmelite Order. We are fortified by our communal celebration of the Eucharist to return to the search for God in solitude.

Our devotion to Our Lady must not be simply emotion. We must take her as our model who “pondered all these things in her heart.” (Lk. 2: 51). One of the Order's great spiritual theologians, Michael of St. Augustine, wrote that all those who profess themselves to be Mary’s sons, servants or brothers, must make a great effort to live up to the demands of their vocation, eager to model themselves on “their holy Patroness, a Mother so worthy of love and a Sister so full of solicitude.[3] Another Carmelite author wrote in regard to the scapular that a holy heart under a worldly habit is much better than a worldly heart under a holy habit. Best of all of course would be a holy heart under a holy habit! Our living under the mantle of Mary points to our willingness to be transformed and to grow in our belief.

The transformation of the human person is usually a long, slow process. It will not happen without our co-operation. The Eucharist is food for our journey and will provide the strength to respond to the grace of God but we have to have the desire to respond. If we have no intention of changing, no matter how much damage we are doing to ourselves or to others, we are turning our back on the grace of God. What then does the daily celebration of Mass mean to us? Is it just a ritual with no effect on the rest of the day?

Our Lady urges us to “do whatever he tells you” (Jn. 2: 5). We know perfectly well what Jesus asks of his disciples. We are to carry on his mission in the world. Gandhi is reported to have said that the message of Jesus was very beautiful but it was a great pity that no one had tried to live it. We of course do try to live the Christian life but sometimes we lack a passion for Christ and a passion for humanity. We are aware of the implications of our vocation as Carmelites but fail sometimes to respond fully as if we were content to live on 50% power? There is always a need to transfer our faith into the messy reality of daily life.

The Eucharist does not only give us Christ; it demands that we become Christ. Just as Mary is the “Eucharistic woman” par excellence, so by participating in the Mass, we are to become Eucharistic people. It is not just something we do in the morning; it is something that shapes the way we live and how we relate to other people. We are aware from our Carmelite spirituality that Our Lady not only is a model for us of what Christian discipleship means, but she also guides us and helps us on our journey as our Mother and Sister. 

Just as we do not end our Eucharistic commitment by attending Mass in the morning, so we do not fulfil our relationship with Mary by singing the Salve Regina or the Flos Carmeli, or any other pious hymn.  Both the celebration of the Eucharist and our relationship with Our Lady is very demanding. We have to live the Eucharist and allow Our Lady to affect the way we live day by day.

Transformation is not just a change of one or two externals; it is a profound change of what motivates us in daily life. Our motivation is often hidden from us but it determines how we act and react throughout the day. It is this motivation that has to be purified at some point on our journey. Our external behaviour may be angelic or it may be a crucifixion to ourselves and/or to others but we really cannot change very much until such times as we have changed the root cause. Changing external behaviour is often necessary but no change will last unless the underlying motive is also changed. The latter is much more difficult.

The journey of transformation is long and arduous but it is God’s work. We simply need to respond to the grace of God that is always present to us. As St. Thérèse pointed out through her life and teaching, we must not dwell on our failings, but trust completely in the Merciful Love of God, to bring us to our goal. In the Eucharist, the Merciful Love of God is freely given to us. It is for us to respond like Mary, by pronouncing our “Fiat”, our eager acceptance of God’s presence and action in our lives.

Mary’s Prophetic Words

In the infancy narratives in Luke’s Gospel, the author is not just concerned with facts but with the meaning of the facts. He is writing history in the biblical manner, which means the story of the mighty actions of God. The infancy narrative in Luke is dominated by the idea of the messiah as the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. When she is told of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary goes in haste to the hill country to a town in Judah (1: 39). If the ancient tradition of placing Elizabeth’s home in Ain Karim is correct, this would have been a journey of about 4 days. When Elizabeth sees Mary, she is filled with the Holy Spirit, and cries out in recognition that Mary is “the mother of my Lord” (1: 43). The people of God likewise cried out when they welcomed the ark of the presence of God (1 Chr. 15: 28; 2 Chr. 5: 13). David exclaimed, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam.6: 9). Elizabeth’s welcome seems to confirm Mary’s experience of God’s love and the Magnificat is an explosion of joy in response.

The Magnificat is full of Old Testament allusions and has a special connection to the canticle of Hannah (1 Sam 2: 1-10), who rejoices in the birth of her son, Samuel: and as she worshiped the LORD, she said:

"My heart exults in the LORD, my horn is exalted in my God. I have swallowed up my enemies; I rejoice in my victory.

There is no Holy One like the LORD; there in no Rock like our God.

"Speak boastfully no longer, nor let arrogance issue from your mouths. For an all-knowing God is the LORD, a God who judges deeds.

The bows of the mighty are broken, while the tottering gird on strength.

The well-fed hire themselves out for bread, while the hungry batten on spoil. The barren wife bears seven sons, while the mother of many languishes.

"The LORD puts to death and gives life; he casts down to the nether world; he raises up again.

The LORD makes poor and makes rich, he humbles, he also exalts.

He raises the needy from the dust; from the ash heap he lifts up the poor, To seat them with nobles and make a glorious throne their heritage. He gives to the vower his vow, and blesses the sleep of the just. "For the pillars of the earth are the LORD'S, and he has set the world upon them.

He will guard the footsteps of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall perish in the darkness. For not by strength does man prevail;

the LORD'S foes shall be shattered. The Most High in heaven thunders; The LORD judges the ends of the earth, Now may he give strength to his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed!"

Whatever its origin, Luke’s attribution of the Magnificat to Mary gives us the assurance that it truly represents her sentiments. Elizabeth had blessed Mary as the mother of the messiah because she believed that the promise made to her would be fulfilled (Lk.1: 45) and Mary gives the glory to God in joyful thanksgiving. 

The Magnificat is a song of thanksgiving that celebrates the history of salvation from three perspectives. The first part (1: 48-50) is the dialogue between the holy and faithful God and the humility and openness of the believer, represented in Luke’s Gospel by Mary. In the second part (1: 51-53) there is an historical confirmation of the saving action of God. What God will do in the future is guaranteed by what He has done in the past. From that sure base there arises a firm hope for a new world where the usual schemes of this world will be overturned. All of this is founded upon the faithfulness of God who does not lead astray. The third part (1: 54-55) tells of God’s saving intervention in the forthcoming birth of the messiah. God has been faithful to the promises made to Israel.

Every Christian shares in the threefold role of Jesus Christ: priest, prophet and king. A prophet is one who proclaims the Word of God. Christ is the Word of God. As believers we allow the Word to become part of us and we allow God to speak through us. We become a word from God to our world. Mary received the Word in her heart and in her womb: Behold the servant of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word. (Lk. 1: 38). The prophets of the Old Testament were all people of great faith. It is sufficient to remember the example of our father Elijah, who proclaimed the drought (I Kings 17: 1) and then foretold when it would end (I Kings 18: 44). He gathered all the people on Mount Carmel and challenged them to stop hobbling first on one foot and then on the other, either believe in Baal or Yahweh, and then follow whoever is God. (I Kings 18: 21).

Our choices have consequences. The world in which we live at present is the result of the choices of the few often imposed on the many. Carmelites are usually not numbered among the powerful ones of the earth but our choices can have significant consequences too if we have faith to believe that God can take our insignificant gifts and transform them into something great. All the work that we do in the area of justice, peace and the integrity of creation can bear abundant fruit if we have faith. In sight of the whole people, Elijah prayed with faith and his sacrifice was accepted by the Lord (I Kings 18: 36-38).

Mary is the woman of faith and represents the faithful believer in Luke’s Gospel. Elisabeth recognises her faith and declares it to be the cause of her blessedness. Mary believed that what was said to her by the Lord would be fulfilled. In the first few lines of the Magnificat, Mary gives glory to God and rejoices in God her saviour. She declares that God has looked upon her lowliness. Therefore all generations will call her blessed. In the eyes of the important and powerful people, Mary would not have counted since she is a poor woman, but God’s way of looking is very different from the way human beings look. We tend to see the exterior and base our judgements on that. God sees the interior, the heart, and responds to that. Mary is aware that God is all-powerful and has done great things in her. She then goes on to recount the works of God throughout history.

God shows mercy to those who fear Him. Fear of the Lord is a normal biblical expression that does not refer to the emotion of fear but is a way of describing a right relationship of the human being with God, who is the Holy One. God is distinct from everything else that can exist and is the Creator of all. The person who recognises the sovereignty of God and tries to keep His commandments is the one who fears God. Such a person can depend on receiving mercy from God who is constant throughout the ages. One thing that fascinates me about the rest of the Magnificat is that the verb is in the past tense. Mary rejoices in what God has done: shown might with His arm, dispersed the proud and arrogant, thrown down the powerful and lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Is all that really true? Has God done all those things? Isn’t it a fact that the proud and arrogant continue along their path believing in nothing outside of themselves? Is it not a fact that the rulers continue to rule from their lofty thrones and the lowly are continually downtrodden? Is it not a fact that the hungry remain hungry and the rich get even richer despite the commitment of so many who work for justice?

A prophet receives a word from God for the world. The prophet must be open to receive the word and fearless in proclaiming it. A true prophet proclaims God’s word and not his or her own. Those who work in the area of justice and peace tend to have an awareness of some of the great injustices of our day and want to do something about these situations. This is very laudable but we must seek to be aware of who we are trying to help. Is it the poor and downtrodden or is it ourselves? In St. John’s Gospel, there is a famous scene where Mary of Bethany pours out very costly ointment over the head of Jesus. Judas protests about this colossal waste of money that could have been used to benefit the poor.

Jn. 12: 5-6:

"Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days' wages and given to the poor?" He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the moneybag and used to steal the contributions.”

Not all comments in favour of the poor are prophetic. We have to be careful that our work and statements on behalf of the poor are in fact for the poor.

The false self is ever ready to spoil our good intentions and to twist them to its own purposes. The false self seeks its own security, survival and esteem and will seek these wherever they are to be found. Therefore we must have a constant guard of our heart to ensure that what we say and what we do are according to the will of God and not according to what will make us look good and feel good. In the Carmelite Rule, we are warned to “use every care to clothe yourselves in God’s armour so that you may be ready to withstand the enemy’s ambush” (Rule, 18). One of the parts of this divine armour is faith: “Faith must be your shield on all occasions, and with it you will be able to quench the flaming missiles of the wicked one (Eph. 6: 16): there can be no pleasing God without faith (Heb. 11: 6); and the victory lies in this – your faith (cf. I Jn. 5: 4).”

Power and Powerlessness

Faith is not just holding the correct set of beliefs; it is a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ, in which we “fear the Lord”, in the sense of realising that God is God and that by grace alone can we enter such a relationship. Faith means to accept God as God chooses to reveal Himself to us. God has loved the world so much as to enter it in a new way in His Son, Jesus Christ. God has stooped down to us in order to lift us up. God has taken on our human weakness in order to transform it. Every human being reveals something of God to those with eyes to see and ears and hearts that are open. In Jesus we encounter the help of God under the form of poverty. God takes on our poverty and shares his own riches with us (2 Cor. 8: 9). In order to participate in the riches of Christ, it is necessary also to participate in the mystery of poverty and of self-emptying, which is fully revealed to us in the death of Jesus on the cross. God reveals his power in powerlessness (2 Cor. 12: 9-10; 1 Cor. 1: 25).

Mary was open to the transforming action of God because she recognised her own nothingness. St. Paul understood that it was when he was weak that he was strong. (2 Cor. 12: 10). He was also aware that God chooses weak vessels in order to display His power:

Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God
. (I Cor.1: 27-29).

St. Thérèse of Lisieux knew that her nothingness attracted God’s gaze and therefore she believed that her seemingly fantastic hopes to be a missionary to the ends of the earth, would be fulfilled, not because of anything she could do but because of God’s loving mercy. Mary believed in the power of God and that God’s power has already accomplished what He has promised from of old. All pride will be thrown down. Those who have trusted in God will find that their trust has not been misplaced. Those who hunger and thirst for God will be filled. However, she proclaims that this victory has already taken place because of the imminent coming of the messiah, her son, Jesus. All those promises made to Abraham and his children, have now been fulfilled in Christ.

In the rest of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims a new world order, not based on violent revolution but on a change of heart. In his inaugural sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, he sets out his programme from the Prophet Isaiah,

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord." (Lk. 4: 18-19).

Mary’s prophecy in the Magnificat is beginning to come true. Wherever Jesus goes he expels demons and sickness. He even forgives sins (Lk. 5: 20). All these things represent the bonds that have imprisoned men and women. They are now broken but people must accept the new life that is offered to them. Fallen humanity does all in its power to kill this new life but Jesus is raised from the dead to eternal life and this life is offered to all people.

Sharing in the eternal life of God means to live the life of God. It means to see as God sees and to love as God loves. God has already thrown down the arrogant, deposed the rulers and raised up the lowly. We, the followers of Jesus Christ, must carry out his vision and his programme. We must bring the Good News of the Kingdom to the poor. We can only do that with the faith that Mary exemplifies. That faith must drive us and motivate all our actions so that we do not simply hear the Word of God but like Mary also put it into practice (Lk. 8: 21). 

Joseph Chalmers, O. Carm.
Aylesford, England



1.  Is your work for justice and peace motivated by faith or by your false self?

2.  How can Mary help you in your work for justice and peace?

[1] For an overview of the place of Mary in Carmel, see, Emanuele Boaga, O.Carm., The Lady of the Place: Mary in the history and in the life of Carmel, trans. Joseph Chalmers & Míceá O’Neill, (Edizioni Carmelitane, Rome, 2001.

[2] For an in depth commentary of the Carmelite Rule, see, Kees Waaijman, The Mystical Space of Carmel: A Commentary on the Carmelite Rule, trans. John Vriend, (Peeters, Louvain, 1999). The numbering of the Rule has been changed following the guidelines of the two General Councils of the Carmelites, issued later in 1999. This can be found in John Malley, Camilo Maccise and Joseph Chalmers, In obsequio Jesu Christi: The Letters of the Superiors General OCarm and OCD 1992-2002,(Edizioni OCD, Rome, 2003),  p.127-139.

[3] Office of Readings for 16th July in Proper of the Liturgy of the Hours of the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel and of The Order of Discalced Carmelites, (Institutum Carmelitanum, Rome, 1993).