A VISION REDISCOVERED: SECULAR CARMELITES OF THE FUTURE Jane Nicholson
As we settle into the third millennium, we might stop and reflect on the real meaning of the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ. His birth was the start of the Christian journey, a journey to bring to the world the message of God's love and peace. It is surely an ideal time to focus on our own journey of faith and on the ways in which we can witness anew to our following of Christ. We must be people with a vision for the future, a vision of where we want to go and how we want to live our Christian lives to the full. One such vision has opened up for many of us in the Carmelite Secular Order.
A witness to prayer
Members of the Secular Order follow Jesus, meet him and change. We are called to live a life both contemplative and apostolic, and to carry into the world the distinctive witness of Carmel. We are called to the formation of Christian community. A Carmelite community exists not for its own sake, but for the sake of the church. To be fully human is to be in relationship, and it is in relationship that we live out our faith. The core gospel message is that God is love and the only way we can show that we are his disciples is by the love we have for one another: 'Love one another as I have loved you.' Everyone who comes to join us has the opportunity to live this life of love. Our members are deeply committed to praying for the world, witnessing prayer to others. We seek to have a deep relationship with God in prayer.
A community with one heart
One of the more enriching aspects of belonging to the secular order is the experience of being part of a family, the family of Carmel, where all are imbued with the same ideals and mission. As Carmelites, we are called to consecrate ourselves to the Church, the Order and our community. The Christian life is not sustained only by private acts of prayer, justice and virtue. It is sustained by a community which gathers, ritually, to listen to the word of God and to share in the breaking of the bread. However, it is important to understand that our meeting together monthly is not simply a social occasion. It is a gathering together as a Carmelite community, which brings about a transformation in each of us, beyond anything that we can understand or explain.
Silent prayer and the Eucharist
When we meet together as Carmelites, we spend time in silent prayer. As we sit together in silence, we try to focus on God, not on ourselves. In this way, we experience real community and intimacy with one another, at least for a brief period. Our differences, our angers, our jealousies dissolve. This time spent in silence creates a unity that is at the heart of our community experience. As Carmelites, too, we are called to celebrate the Eucharist, daily as individuals if possible and together when we meet. The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity. It is the unifying force of the Church and draws our members into an ever closer union with one another and with Christ.
Fellow seekers for truth
I have always had a profound love for Carmel and my initial attraction to it has never wavered. In the secular order, I find others who also value and experience this attraction. Here I find that I am a fellow seeker with others who are also seeking the truth. A vocation to the Carmelite Secular Order is a response to God's love. We find that we can learn more about this love in the lives of our Carmelite saints, perhaps especially in the life of St Therese of Lisieux who was utterly transformed by this love. I would like to see her attitude incorporated as much as possible into my own life and into the lives of those dear to me. The spirit of Carmel is a spirit of love and that spirit is very much alive in our communities.
A rule of life rooted in the scriptures
Members of the secular order follow a rule of life which is founded on the word of God, as it is proclaimed in the Beatitudes. It is a rule which unites us all. We meet together to encourage one another to live in the spirit of that rule, according to the ideals and example of our Carmelite saints. The scripture texts embedded in the rule inspire and enable us to live our special charism. We are all called in love to share in the holiness which belongs to God alone. 'You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect' (Mt. 5:48).
A long line of pray-ers
As Carmelites, we have our own special Saints - Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Therese of the Child Jesus and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). St Teresa's way of prayer, as she describes it in the Interior Castle, is a gradual journey into the centre of our hearts. It is a gift of the Spirit, welling up from the depths which brings enlightenment with it. It leads to a life of joyful humility, repentance and complete surrender. 'Teach me, O Lord, to do your will.'
Jesus - model of prayer and action
Edith Stein - a great Carmelite saint for our times - once said, 'Only by following Christ is it possible to hold on to him: Christ is the model of man at prayer, only from him can his disciples learn how to speak with the Father.' For her, interior prayer and external action are inseparably linked. Our task is to radiate, with a joyful countenance and in our whole bearing and actions, the compassion and love of God, made manifest in Jesus and experienced in prayer. The task of taking God to others is not simply a matter of handing them a bible. We must first assimilate the word of God ourselves in prayer and then, in turn, become 'a word of God' for others. That is what it means to be a Christian, a Carmelite.
In the spirit of Elijah
The foreword to our Carmelite rule of life speaks of the prophet Elijah as our inspiration. He appears unexpectedly on the scene in conflict with the culture of his time. He confronted and challenged the society of his day to return to God. As Carmelites, we continue to echo his words emblazoned on our Carmelite crest: 'With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts.' He lived in a land where the powers of the world were opposed to the rights of God. It is a situation all too familiar in our world today. Elijah declares that he is for God: 'The Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand.' He then challenges others who are wavering in their allegiance: 'How long' he said, 'do you mean to hobble first on one leg then on the other? If Yahweh is God, follow him: if Baal, follow him.' There can be no compromise between good and evil: 'no one can serve two masters.'
A challenge to persevere.
As lay people, the Secular Order gives us a fixed and permanent way of life. When we finally make the promise required of us, we hope that by God's grace, we will persevere faithfully to the end. Experience shows, however, that people fail to progress spiritually for lack of determination. We must resolve to be faithful to our daily practice of prayer, both liturgical and personal. Prayer is what Carmel is all about. It is the centre of our lives. Our prayer and our lives are for others.
An ancient path for new people.
The present age challenges us to turn to Christ, who is the Living Lord of the 21st century. Today new norms of contemplative living continue to emerge and there is growing interest in the spiritual life, together with a deepening desire for a renewal in prayer. As we turn again to Christ, we are challenged to review our ancient Carmelite rule of life and ask if it can continue to draw us nearer to Christ in today's rapidly changing world.
I am convinced that it can. The contemplative life is of paramount importance for the whole Church, and it cannot be confined to the enclosure, nor simply produced by enclosure. I see our Carmelite way of life as a means and an opportunity to nurture the greatest gift of all: contemplative prayer. This kind of prayer is always relevant. It is a natural development in every life of prayer, I believe, and a gospel challenge to every Christian.
************************************************************************** TO ROMANIA WITH LOVE Jane Nicholson
I have been asking myself why I should be chosen by God to work and care for abandoned children in Romania. Perhaps he just wanted the humble presence of someone whose life combined service in nursing with a commitment to a life of prayer through the Secular Order of Carmel. Perhaps this combination would help bring a little healing, both physical and spiritual.
Images of suffering
The newspapers and television here in our country are, sadly, never short of images of suffering. It was the faces of Romanian children which we saw in 1991 that touched me and left my heart troubled. For these faces were marked with terrible suffering; with expressions which said, 'I am lost.' So, in 1991 I responded to the call I felt and went to Romania. What I found there was a country ravaged by forty years of extreme communism; where responsibility for the suffering and deprived had been ignored. It was also a society where religious freedom was suppressed and where the church was divided between the Latin and Eastern rites.
Maybe it was the sight of all this suffering that troubled me and caused me to look at my own actions and attitudes towards others. But for whatever reason, I found that I wanted to make the presence of the kingdom of God real here and now, since it is a kingdom destined to be established on earth as it is in heaven.
In the beginning
In the early days of my work in Romania, 1 spent my time using my nursing skills caring for the most forgotten children. These were children who were living in the state institutions. As many as two hundred children lived in appalling conditions where adequate food and water were denied them; where all were unloved and rejected. Even so, while living and working in the midst of this environment, I became conscious that these people had their own deep awareness of God's love for them. Their gift to others was the sharing of their love for Jesus and this brought healing in the process. Here I discovered that if I too could lake the time to respect the dignity of each person, I could help provide an environment of acceptance that could be transforming. 1 also visited the adult institutions and I could see from the faces of those whom I met there what the children would become in the future. The realisation that these children would end up living unloved, as these adults lived and died, helped convince me of something that I could never forget or walk away from.
Work and prayer
The call lo Romania, I have discovered, is not for the fainthearted. Working with the poor requires endurance, patience, determination and compassion. I know the work is not something that I can do by my own strength but something that only God can do through me. As a Secular Carmelite, my prayer has helped me lo see this. And in the work I do, I try lo live the Christian life according lo our Rule which is, of course, inspired and nourished by the Teresian Carmel. I recognise that our vocation is a life both contemplative and apostolic.
After the orphanages
Now, nine years after my first visit to Romania, I no longer work in the state institutions. A charity has been founded and we have built two homes which care for the children from the state orphanages. Together with Romanian religious Sisters, we try to rebuild their lives, following the example of Jesus by showing compassion for the most rejected and marginalised in society. Our small communities are places of acceptance and love where damaged children can be restored to life. I journey often to Romania and try to be faithful to the vision set before me. Hopefully, I can grow in my ability to guide and help the children whom God has given us now and will give us in the future. We have also set up a fostering programme where children who have been abandoned in the streets, the hospitals, or the state orphanages are placed with carefully chosen foster families. There is a great need to give these many abandoned children a warm, loving family.
During the time I spend in Romania I am beginning to see other areas in need of the light of the living gospel: Romanian society and the relationship between the churches. Over the last few years Romania is slowly recovering from the years of communist rule. But now, into the twenty-first century unemployment remains a serious problem; crime, corruption, broken homes are all on the increase. Without a change in moral outlook the future still looks bleak indeed. With regard to the churches, the early 1990s was a period of religious revival in Romania. Although this was primarily a matter of return to Orthodoxy, it also saw the revival of the Catholic Church. Religious persecution had been highly organised and pursued without interruption for many years under communism. The Catholic community has suffered intensely but the faith of the people is deep, vocations are now abundant andthere is a great witness to the love of Christ, with the churches full for daily Mass.
On the edge
But the Catholic community in Romania is living on the edge of both moral as well as physical disintegration in a predominantly Orthodox country. The fear of proselytising drives a wedge continually between the majority who are Orthodox and the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II said: 'We must build new bridges so that with one heart and mind Christians may together proclaim the gospel for the world.' He added that Catholics and Orthodox should both mend whatever differences still remain between them and that where there is pain, suffering and division we must make our contribution of peace and reconciliation. So, we try to work jointly with the two communities. In the early days I was very naive, trying to pass through doors which, I discovered, cannot be opened with complete freedom and sincerity for they are a part of a history of much deep division. A sense of humour is something very much needed. On one occasion the Orthodox Archbishop turned to me and said:' I never want to see another Catholic, but you are all right as you are English.' However, we continue to dialogue in a growing unity based, hopefully, on love, prayer and respect for one another's traditions.
Carmel builds bridges
Carmel, too, is now in Romania. I recently visited a monastery of the Eastern rite at Stanceni. It is situated in a beautiful forest clearing where a central building stands, containing a chapel. It is surrounded by ten hermitages constructed in a semi-circle. The monastery owes its origins to a French woman who 'wished to burn a candle in the cause of Christian unity'. This is a very new Carmel with a mission to be a centre of reconciliation and peace between Christian traditions of east and west. The small community of Greek Catholic sisters (in communion with Rome, but retaining some Orthodox practices) live a simple life of prayer offered for Christian unity. It was here that I spent a few days last year, joining the Sisters in prayer and liturgy. It was very different to what I am familiar with as prayer, divine office and Mass together last about three and a half hours. I found it a very uplifting experience - truly Carmelite. There was a great sense of community and depth of silence.
I believe Carmel has a great role to play as a bridge between east and west; a meeting point where the waters of two spiritual rivers can be united. It combines the riches of the east where the order took its origin and the teaching of St John of the Cross and St Teresa coming from the West. Also, the great sense of the presence of God in the Romanian people is a further point of contact between Carmel and Orthodoxy.
Challenge for the future
Perhaps, then, it is my commitment as a Secular Carmelite and my training as a nurse that are the gifts I have to offer in Romania. I try to keep a daily discipline which allows me to dedicate time solely to prayer. This prayer helps to answer my deepest needs and so supports me in my work. For me, prayer is a way of life. It helps me realise that the Christian life is a journey; is truth; is joy and communion. Being a Carmelite gives me what I need, especially on my particular journey. Those of us who are called to Romania - to bring Carmel there and to bring active help - will be confronted with many destructive forces such as corruption, immorality, child abuse and the disunity of the churches. But we feel drawn to offer our presence, a witness of love, prayer and a desire for unity. I look to the future in the firm belief that Carmel has much to offer Romania. Thanks to the love, prayer and material support given by so many friends, benefactors and our own Carmelite communities, our mission continues to grow. I thank God for the gifts I have received to fulfil this vision for the suffering people of Romania.