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The Call
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"His Disciples gathered around Him,
and He began to teach them" (Mt. 5:1-2)

The Call to Carmel

by Fr. A. Sieracki, O.Carm.


The call to Carmel is linked closely with two historical figures-the prophet Elijah of the Old Testament, and Mary, the Blessed Virgin, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in the New Testament-and with a place, Mount Carmel, a mountain range in the desert wilderness of Israel. These are the basis of the traditions of Carmel.

The earliest Carmelites were hermits, all living on Mount Carmel, who petitioned Albert, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, for a rule of life, which they received sometime in the period 1206-1214. These men dwelt in solitude on Carmel near the well of Elijah. They celebrated Eucharist daily in a chapel in their midst dedicated to Our Lady. It was only years later that circumstances would force their return to Europe.

Since that time the desert has been an important symbol in Carmelite life. It is in the harsh reality of the desert that we are stripped of all our belongings and our very selves and there encounter God as did the prophet Elijah before us. In this setting Mount Carmel also plays an important role. It is the journey up this mountain that has been symbolized so well by the Carmelite spiritual doctor St. John of the Cross in his works "The Ascent of Mt. Carmel" and "The Dark Night of the Soul." We risk all faith to climb that sacred mountain. The resolve to do so requires a leap in faith, a fiat uttered as Our Lady did at the time of the Annunciation.

Yet the physical desert and the mountain are not possible for most of us. Like the Carmelites of medieval times, we live in urban areas among God's people doing our daily work and trying to fill up our days with love. We might be fortunate to journey up some mountain in the West or walk in some desert area of the Southwest. That, however, is free time, only a pause in our daily rounds to nourish and strengthen us by the experience. We might, therefore, ask, In what ways can we encounter the desert and mountain symbolism in Carmelite life?

They are images that became symbols for part of our spiritual journey. The desert is where we encounter God, where God strips us of all that is not of Him, so that we can encounter Him in naked faith. The meeting is a contemplative touch, painful, yet full of love. The mountain stands for the goal of the journey: union with God. This union is capable of ever greater increase and so in that sense is a process. Unlike the early Carmelites who lived in the desert wilderness of Mount Carmel, we carry our desert and wherever a Carmelite lives in space and time.

The desert is a barren place. Existence there is harsh, and only the heartiest of plants and animals can live there. The water needed to sustain life is scarce. The air dehydrates your very being. Without water, a person could die within the space of a few hours on a summer day. Plants that survive in the desert have developed the capacity to subsist on little water, mainly conserving it well by their makeup. Many of them go into a dormant stage between rainfalls.

Yet the desert is alive. Water makes it flourish and turns it green. Everything comes to life after a rain. The desert washes run again, pulsating with life giving water. Dormant plants, cacti and bushes revitalize and in many cases blossom. It is a scene of beauty when this occurs.

The same process happens to us in our spiritual life. When our interior being dries up for lack of nourishment, existence is harsh and demanding. In order to survive, we must rid ourselves of all non-essentials, those possessions and attitudes formerly thought so necessary to our life. In our confrontation with God in contemplation, we see that they are not necessary for the journey up the mountain. In poverty we encounter our nothingness.

This realization in humility-that we depend on everything from God-enables God to fill us with His spirit (it, his life, so that we become alive in Jesus Christ. "The life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me. I still live my human life, but it is a life of faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).

Another symbol St. John of the Cross highlighted in his works is that of present to us in a very close fashion. However, we are unable to see Him, because we walk by faith alone. This felt experience of God's absence is seen as darkness. Yet in reality it is God flooding us with His presence. Paradoxically, we are able during this night to see many things clearly, things light prevented us from seeing before: such growth-producing realities as greater self-knowledge, our dependence on God and the ability to have great desires. It is as in the desert sky, where the stars are seen very clearly, producing a beautiful sky picture.

The "night" is a love encounter with our God. We feel His absence, and yet He is very present to us, loving us, transforming us into the image of His Son. He conceals Himself to deepen our faith as we look for Him. His felt absence increases our desire for more encounters, having been touched by His grace.

Therefore, the call to Carmel is an invitation to intimacy with the Lord, making God the center of our lives, forsaking created things, ultimately to experience them in God. It is an offer to journey up Mount Carmel, where we encounter deeply the living God. As our love grows strong, the Song of Songs in the Old Testament becomes one of the dominant themes in our lives with its imagery of the mutual love between a groom and his bride, symbolizing the love of Christ and the individual soul.

"My lover speaks; he says to me 'Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone..

The flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land'" (Songs 2:10-12).

All this, however, is in promise. It is not yet. The promise can be realized one day, since the call to Carmel has been made and answered. Yet there are many years when we must form community, render ministry and achieve closeness to God through prayer. It would be nice if we could spend all our days on Mount Carmel, living there in solitude with the God whom we love. This is not possible, and so the desert with its mountain must be within our hearts, teaching us its lessons in times of dryness and of night as it nourishes us when the rain falls from heaven.

Also, there is no chapel for us to Our Lady in the midst of all the hermits where we can sing Mary's praise. There is only her call to us to answer Yes to the divine action in our lives as she did when she uttered her fiat, in order that we might become, like her, Christ-bearers.

This process has continued over the last eight centuries wherever people have responded to the call of Carmel. It is a labor of a lifetime, a work of love. In faith and trust, we surrender everything that is not God, so that God can be all in us. It happens not in desert oases, where beautiful plants grow amid plentiful water, but in the midst of our cities, where life is hectic and hurried, and where we, like the prophet Elijah, are called to do battle with the false prophets of our day. That is Carmel's challenge: to preserve the desert in the midst of the cities, a challenge that began when the first Carmelites migrated to Europe. It continues today.

 

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