One of the noted characteristics of Carmel's spirituality is the presence of the Virgin Mary in our Life, communion with her, imitation of her virtues and cultivating special devotion to her. We are not dealing with a footnote to our charism, but rather with one of the more intimate and cherished expressions of our tradition.
In chapter 3 of the Constitutions we find an important novelty in the legislation of the Discalced Carmelites. For the first time, a theme so basic to the spirituality of the Order, as is the Marian spirit, is brought into relief, briefly synthesised and fills out the global picture of the religious consecration and contemplative life of the Discalced Carmelites. There is no doubt that, although the consciousness of its Marian spirit has always been alive in Carmel, the doctrinal riches of Vatican Council II, in what concerns the mystery of Mary in the Mystery of Christ and the Church, and the trend of some post-counciliar documents, especially the Exhortation Marialis Cultus of Paul VI, has made possible an adequate treatment in the legislative texts of one of the basic points of our spirituality.
Chapter 3 offers us a brief, yet precious synthesis of our Marian history and spirituality, giving guidelines for a religious formation which must be, according to the purest tragion of Carmel, "moulded on Mary", imitating her. It shows how meditation on God's word forms the meeting place between Carmelite spirituality and the imitation of the Virgin who "pondered on all these things in her heart"(1). This vital and uninterrupted experience of love and veneration towards Our Lady is focussed on liturgical celebration, personal and community devotion and a special dedication to serving and honouring the Blessed Virgin which characterizes Carmel.
Number 53 of the Constitutions summarises very well the motives and aspects of this Marian life. In the course of this commentary we will select key phrases and elaborate their content from the point of view of history, spirituality and cult:
"The Discalced Carmelite Nuns are, by calling, part of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. They belong to a family consecrated in a special way to loving and venerating the Holy Mother of God; and they seek to attain evangelical perfection in union with her."
In the very title of the Order, with its explicit allusion to the Virgin, we find the full meaning of our identity in the Church as an Order bound to Mary. "Carmel is entirely Marian"(2) as the Church recognises.
The presence of the Virgin in our communities increases the sense of "family" by the constant reference to the Virgin as a maternal presence in the midst of her children. Dedication to her love and cult, as a special consecration, determines the intensity of Marian devotion, within the purest liturgical and spiritual traditions of the Church, renewed in the directives of the Second Vatican Council.
According to the spirituality of the Order, religious consecration and Christian life as lived in Carmel has as it goal the perfection of charity and love for God and neighbour. The striving for holiness which characterises our life sees in the Virgin Mary not only the highest model, but also the most helpful of companions. Our life of consecration to the service of Christ and the Church finds in the love of Mary its most enlightening example. Moreover, the teaching and experience of our Saints show Mary to be the Mother who goes with us on the road of our spiritual journey in order to lead us by the hand "to the summit of the Mount of perfection which is Christ".
The Marian stamp, connatural to our history and spirituality, ought to show itself in a life which reflects in our members the living presence of our Mother, which gives to our communities a character of spiritual depth, of personal and community simplicity, harmony and charity coming from the desire to imitate the most characteristic attitudes in the life of Mary, described so beautifully for us by Paul VI in Marialis Cultus number 57.
Among the characteristic virtues of the Virgin Mary to mould the life of the Discalced Carmelite Nun mention is made of prayer and contemplation which in Mary seem to sum up the whole Marian tradition of the Teresian Carmel. We have only to consider Mary's continual meditating on Scripture, remembering the marvels of God in her personal history and that of her people, the attentive involvement in the mysteries of her Son. This tradition of ours reaches out towards complete identity with the sentiments and the work of salvation of Christ and his Spirit.
This brings to mind that our contemplative vocation is focussed on the Church and has Mary as its exalted model. She was not only totally consecrated on earth and now in heaven to her mission as mother of the Church, but also her service of prayer in union with Christ in favour of the Church was of a hidden and fruitful nature. She is a model of fervent intercession for the salvation of everyone and of constant petition for the sending of the Holy Spirit on the Church, like a perennial Pentecost.
It is suggested, finally, that evangelical self-denial itself should have a Marian character. These words recall that the Virgin, as the first disciple of the Lord, is the model of evangelical self-denial by exercising those attitudes of a disciple of Christ that our Saints of Carmel emphasise in their Marian spirituality: humility, obedience to the will of the Father, poverty, forgetfulness of self, unselfish service, intense union with the sufferings of Christ to benefit his Body which is the Church.
It is an evangelical self-denial which in Mary was centred on what is essential because she was immaculate and Holy. Without leaving aside the essential, in ourselves voluntary mortification and austerity are also required, along with denial of everything that could cloud the totally Marian meaning of our life which seeks the purity of heart which shines from the heart of Mary, Virgin Mother and Spouse.
In these doctrinal themes, which easily find echoes in the fruitful spiritual tradition of the Order, the Constitutions lay down the general outline of the meaning of our Carmelite vocation in its essentials, in the Marian note which has remained integral and common to the history of our religious family, and has been continually enriched especially in the Carmelite lives of those who have been the most outstanding witnesses of our vocation.
Number 54 of the Constitutions gives us, in the text and the notes, a summary of the Marian spirituality of the Order, both in its origins and in the experience of St Teresa and St John of the Cross
It is a legislative text, compact and sound which sets out the principal points of Marian history and spirituality in Carmel. We will point out what is most important and valuable in this text.
1. Marian devotion at the beginning
Three key words sum up the origin of our relationship with the Virgin Mary which forms part of our charism: Mount Carmel itself, the Marian name of the Order, the explicit mention of the dedication of the Order of Carmel to the service of Our Lady.
a) a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary on Mt Carmel
An anonymous pilgrim early in the thirteenth century provides us, in a document concerning the roads and pilgrimages of the Holy Land, with the first historical witness to the Marian character of the Order in speaking of "a very pretty little church of Our Lady which the Latin hermits known as the 'brothers of Carmel' have in the Wadi 'ain es-Siah", Another redaction of the same manuscript speaks of "a church to Our Lady".
Later the Virgin's title would be given to the whole monastery, when the first chapel was notably enlarged, as we find in various ancient documents(3). This early data concerning the chapel on Mount Carmel, dedicated to the Mother of God is significant and in practice is the fact from which sprang the most ancient devotion of the Carmelites to the Virgin.
We suppose that this small chapel had an image of the Mother of God in a place of importance. Ancient tradition of the order has handed down to us antique images of Eastern influence. Some are in the style of the Virgin of tenderness or the enthroned Virgin with her Son. All this shows that the hermits of Mount Carmel wished to dedicate themselves entirely to a life of devotion to Jesus Christ under the loving gaze of the Virgin Mary. She presides at the birth of this new ecclesial experience. Hence she is recognised as its Patron, according to the words addressed by the General, Peter de Millaud, to Edward I, King of England, regarding the Virgin Mary "for whose praise and glory this same Order was especially founded"(4), an affirmation which later tradition would confirm.
b) The name: Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.
It is thus that the name of the Order appears in various pontifical documents, with an explicit reference to the Virgin Mary, as is witnessed by the Bull of Innocent IV, Ex parte dilectorum of January 13, 1252: "On the part of our beloved sons, the hermit brothers of the Order of Saint Mary of Mount Carmel ..."(5). In a later document on February 20, 1253 Urban IV in the Bull Quoniam, ut ait makes reference to the "Prior Provincial of the Order of the Blessed Mary of Mount Carmel in the Holy Land", and adds that Mount Carmel is the place of origin of this Order where a new monastery is to be erected to the honour of God and "the said Glorious Virgin, their Patron"(6). This name, "brothers", which is a sign of familiarity and intimacy with the Virgin, was thus recognised by the Church and would in the future be a source of spirituality when later Carmelite authors would speak of the "patronage of the Virgin" and of her attribute of "Sister" of the Carmelites.
c) Consecration to the Virgin
Carmel professes a total consecration to the Virgin Mary along with its total dedication to the service of Jesus Christ as Lord of the Holy Land according to the meaning of "allegiance" and "service" contained in the original text of the Rule in its historical and geographical context. This is recognised in an ancient legislative text of the Chapter of Montpellier, celebrated in 1287: "We beg the intercession of the glorious Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, for whose pleasure and honour our way of religious life was founded"(7). This special consecration united with explicit following of Christ was to have a logical consequence in the inclusion in the formula of profession of explicit mention of commitment to God and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
After giving the historical data pertaining to the dawn of the Marian experience of Carmel, the Constitutions select the most significant elements in the Marian spirituality of Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross. However, we can condense into a few guidelines the doctrinal riches of the Marian spirit of the Order as it has been lived from the beginning, enriched by the devotion and the spiritual writings of certain outstanding Carmelites.
a) Titles of love and veneration
It seems certain that the ancient tradition of Carmel expressed its bond of love with the Virgin through a series of titles relating to the mystery of Mary, but with a particular savour drawn from the experience of Carmelite life. Thus, at the beginning, the title of Patron of the Order predominated, but the gentler expression of Mother began to make its way into favour, as is apparent in ancient formulas from Chapters and Constitutions, such as: "In honour of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the glorious Virgin Mother of our Order of Carmel"; "For the praise of God and the blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our Mother", as the Constitutions of 1369 put it. The antiphon "Flos Carmeli" refers to her as "Gentle Mother" (Mater Mitis) and John of Chimineto speaks of Mary as the "fount of mercy and our Mother". These two titles are related to the mystery of the Virgin Mother of God in the extension of her maternity to all peoples. To these can be added that of Sister, assumed by the Carmelites of the fourteenth century in the devotional literature narrating the origins of the Order from the Prophet Elijah, and the relationship between the Virgin and the hermits of Mount Carmel.
From another doctrinal point of view, the Carmelites, in contemplating the mystery of the Virgin, have stressed her virginity seeing in her an admirable model for the choice of a virginal life in Carmel and its relation with contemplation. For the same reasons, Carmelites were always found among those who defended the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in the medieval controversies, either at the theological level or by introducing the feast into the calendar of the Order to be celebrated with special devotion. It is from this also that Carmelite authors derive their insistence on filial contemplation of the most pure Virgin and the commitment to imitate this spiritual attitude in the Virgin, symbolised in the white mantle which forms part of the habit of the Order.
b) The Order's Marian privileges.
The Marian history and spirituality of the Order, specially during the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, continued to be enriched devotionally, augmenting the early historical tradition. The Virgin Mary appears as the Protectress of the Order at difficult moments in its evolution and spread in the West. The Catalogue of Carmelite Saints recognised the vision which the General of the Order, Simon Stock, had in 1251, when the Virgin appeared to him and entrusted to him the habit of the Order assuring him of the eternal salvation of all those who should wear it with devotion. A document, commonly known as the Sabbatine Bull, bearing the date of March 3rd 1322 and attributed to Pope John XXII refers to a vision granted to the Pope himself in which the Virgin promised him personal protection in return for the help the Pope would give the Carmelites. In the Bull there is an allusion to the privilege of the liberation from the pains of purgatory for all those who had worthily worn the Holy Scapular through the maternal help of the Virgin who would come to free those devoted to her on the Saturday following their death.
These two facts have polarised popular attention to the Marian devotion proposed by the Order and have monopolised, in a certain sense, the spiritual vision the Order has of the mystery of Mary, which is much richer, more spiritual and based rather on the gospel.
Since the fourteenth century the Order has desired to celebrate the benefits received for the Virgin by a special feast, the Solemn Commemoration of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. This feast remembers the protection of Mary while giving expression to the Order's thanksgiving to her. The choice of date, as is known, was influenced by the partial approval of the Order obtained at the second Council of Lyons on July 17th 1274 when there was risk of the Order's extinction. Later, July 16th was chosen as the date traditionally associated with St Simon Stock's vision of Mary. Thus the remembrance of the Virgin's protection was concentrated in thanksgiving for what is the symbol of her great love for Carmelites: the gift of the Holy Scapular and its privileges.
c) Marian spirituality of the Order Mary as model and mother
A distinctive note of the attitude of Carmelites towards the Virgin Mary is the desire to imitate her virtues within their own religious profession. The well-known Carmelite theologian, John Baconthorpe (1294-1348) in his commentary on the Rule sets out to show the parallel between the life of a Carmelite and that of the Virgin Mary. Here we find an exegetical principle of great importance, for it centres devotion on imitation. Another great lover of Mary, Arnold Bostio (1445 -1449) in his work on the Patronage of Mary over the Order, has celebrated the sense of intimacy with the Virgin, the special filiation of the Carmelite, the communion of goods with the Mother, the sense of "brotherhood" with her. Blessed Baptist of Mantua (1447-1516) sings sweetly of Mary in his poetic works. Fr Michael of St Augustine (1621-1684) and his spiritual daughter Mary of St Teresa (1623-1677) are faithful interpreters of the Carmelite tradition and have united a sense of intimacy with the Virgin to the thought of her splendour.
Although this is not the place for the exposition of the doctrine of all these authors, we would like to reveal the existence of a rich spiritual and doctrinal tradition in Carmel, which would be worthily continued and deepened by representatives of the Teresian Carmel, as we shall see.
d) Liturgy and popular devotion.
Carmelites have expressed their consecration to the Virgin particularly through the liturgy. They have dedicated churches to her and venerated her image. The ancient Rituals of the Order, from the thirteenth century onwards, show the liturgical fervour of Carmel in the celebration of the Marian feasts of the Church and in the acceptance of celebrations which in other places and Orders were not received with such fervour as, for instance, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The feast of the Solemn Commemoration of the Virgin of Mount Carmel became the principal feast. The Order's ancient Jerusalem rite contained many invocations to Mary in the canonical hours, with Marian antiphons at the end of each hour and a special solemn Salve Regina at Compline. Votive Masses were celebrated in honour of the Virgin and the name of Mary was frequently introduced into the liturgical texts for Clothing and Profession. It can be said that the Carmelite liturgy has left a profound impression of Marian spirit on the Order's spiritual tradition and has formed the interior dedication professed by the Order to Our Lady the Virgin. Together with the liturgy, characteristic devotional practices have flourished, such as the Angelus and the Rosary and others proper to the Order, alongside the scapular devotion.
3. Marian spirituality in the Teresian Carmel
The second part of number 54 of the Constitutions presents the logical continuation of the Marian experience of Carmel in Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross in these words, "Saint Teresa of Jesus and Saint John of the Cross confirmed and renewed Carmel's devotion to Mary". There follows a brief and compact synthesis of the Marian thought of St Teresa and St John of the Cross. Within the space allowed by these few pages it will be worthwhile to enlarge some more on the vision offered by the Constitutions on this point, in order to see just how the Marian theme has been enriched in the two saints and how it fits into our present spirituality, beginning with the doctrine and experience of Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross and other outstanding exponents of the Teresian Carmel.
Carmel is wholly Mary's. The Constitutions stress this fundamental aspect of the Order's spirituality in all its aspects from the most profound life in communion with Mary and imitating her to the simplest personal and community devotion.
Fidelity to this aspect of our life is a guarantee of continuity with the purest tradition of Carmel. It renews the covenant of love which the Virgin has sought to have with our religious family in the Church
In Mary, Carmelites scattered throughout the world are united in a commitment to serve Christ and his Church. Thus they imitate the Virgin Handmaid of the Lord, who silently walked in the footsteps of her Son and cooperated with him for the salvation of the world, by prayer and a life surrendered to the mystery of salvation.
1. Lk 2:19, 51.
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