The Year of Consecrated Life, which began some months ago is for us Carmelites an occasion for reflecting on some fundamental aspects of our life and charism. On this occasion, we, the Superiors General of the Carmelites and Discalced Carmelites, Fr. Fernando Millán Romeral and Fr. Saverio Cannistrà, decided to send a brief messaage to all the members of the Carmelite Family spread throughout the world to encourage you to make this year part of your life, a year that coincides with the 5th Centenary of the birth of St. Teresa of Avila. Here we have a very important event for all of us, and Teresa, ever the mystagogue and spiritual master, comes to us even now as a model and guide in the renewal of our religious consecration and as an inspiration in facing new challenges. This happy coincidence may be an extraordinary opportunity for reflection and for deepening our sense of identity as religious and as Carmelites.
For this reflection we were given something very important to help us. In November of last year Pope Francis published his Letter to all the Consecrated. While avoiding every kind of unwarrented pessimism, the Letter calls on all of us, consecrated men and women, to be witnesses, to the Church and to the world, of the beauty of our vocation and our life. The letter contains a call that we should not ignore: “No one should feel exempted in this year from a serious evaluation of their presence in the life of the Church.” (II, no.5)
The reflections that follow are intended to be a help towards this “serious evaluation”, that it may begin, or continue with even greater commitment where it has already begun.
In the heart of the Church
1. From the Letter it is abundantly clear that Pope Francis has no desire to hem consecrated life in, limiting it to its own circle, but rather to place it at the heart of, or in the depths of the Church, against very broad horizons that draw it out far beyond itself. In the heart of the Church, because consecrated life is a gift of the Church, it is born in the Church, it grows in the Church and its directed towards the Church” as Cardinal Bergoglio said in his address to the 1994 Synod of Bishops (cf. III, no.5), moving out to very broad horizons, because, along with the Church, consecrated life is called to go to the “existential peripheries”, where, alongside the materially poor, the suffering of children and of the elderly, there are those who are “rich with goods and empty of heart” (II, no.4). It’s like as if we were hearing again the call that Saint John Paul II made to the whole church on the 6th of January 2001 at the end of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000, “Duc in altum”, Cast out into the deep. Let us go forward in hope! A new millennium is opening up in front of the Church as a vast ocean where we are to take on the adventure, relying always on the help of Christ” (Novo millenio ineunte, no. 58)
For us, who by the grace of God have been called to Carmel, inspired by the Rule of St. Albert and by the example of many saints who over the centuries committed themselves to this ideal; for us who are called in a special way in this jubilee year to walk in the footsteps of Teresa of Jesus, to see ourselves as “sons and daughters of the Church” and to respect the great needs of the Church (Relations, 3,7), to “pray for the spreading of the Church” (Foundations, 1,6) and to remain in the “heart of the Church, my Mother” (Ms B 3v), this is not a futile exercise, but a gift. The words of the Pope to the Bishop of Avila, last 15th of October, seem particularly apt: “There is nothing more beautiful than living and dying as children of this mother, the Church!” When people do not experience this maternity, that nourishes and educates, they cannot avoid, even though they may not be aware of it, being spiritual “orphans”, even within a religious family like ours.
2. In the time immediately after the Council, Hans Urs von Balthasar observed, talking about vocation, there was first a concern about asking, What are the needs of the Church, the needs of our time, or, “even worse”, the needs of the priest or the religious? and people no longer asked What might God need? Pope Francis, in his Letter, wrote: “I expect that each form of consecrated life will question what it is that God and people today are asking of them.” (Letter, II,5) This is the capital question that we also, Carmelite religious, have to ask ourselves again. “What is God asking of us at this time? A first response can be found in the Pope’s letter: “We are called to know and show that God is able to fill our hearts to the brim with happiness; that we need not seek our happiness elsewhere.” (Letter, II,1) If we say to ourselves and to others that “Only God suffices” we cannot be content to serve him in any old way (“they deal only roughly with pleasing God”, Way of Perfection 4,5). St. Mary Magdalene de’Pazzi, just a few years later, wrote in somewhat courageous terms to Pope Sixtus V, recommending to him that the Church should be more and more like Christ: “Pay attention, pay attention, Holy Father, to that kind of imitation, I mean, that you be stripped entirely of Yourself, and be clothed in Him”: “Induimini Dominum Jesum Christum” (RC, 66)
The joy that can «engolosinar las almas»
3. “Where there are religious there is joy” the Pope wrote (Letter II,2) If we do not want to build our joy on the sand of feelings, we have to found it on the solid rock of personal individual and community experience of the love of God. “Oh gentle Repose of my God’s lovers” Teresa of Jesus wrote (Solliloquies, XV,2) In speaking to the Bishop of Avila about the joy in the life of Teresa, Pope Francis wrote, “And knowing the love (of God) within her, a contagious joy sprung up in her, which she could not hide, and which she spread to all around her”” His brief but striking description of the joy of Teresa is something upon which our communities should reflect, in order to see to what extent, even allowing for the different sensitivities, it is truly present. (cf. The Sixth Mansion, 6,12)
The year just gone by saw the beatification of Pope Paul VI. Forty years after the publication of the exhortation on Christian joy Gaudete in Domino, his message is still very relevant, even more so because, as the blessed Pontiff wrote, Teresa of Avila, and other saints, in the matters of joy and holiness, have been genuine teachers. For the other Teresa, Thérèse of Lisieux, this same joy became “the courageous pathway of self-abandonment into the hands of God”. Blessed Titus Brandsma, at the time that he was already suffering the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp, kept trying to encourage his prison companions, because he was convinced that the life of a Carmelite cannot be other than a sign of joy and hope for everyone.
4. As each one of us has experienced more than once, joy, just like everything that is good, both spreads out to others (Jn 15,11) , and draws in those who encounter it and know it (cf. Ps 92,5) That too is the way it is for the Church as a whole and for consecrated life in particular. The Pope writes, “the apostolic effectiveness of consecrated life (...) depends on the eloquence of your lives, lives which radiate the joy and beauty of living the Gospel and following Christ to the full.” (Letter II,1) If for the sake of hypothesis we were to ask Teresa of Jesus to say in her words what the Pope was saying, she would say that her one purpose in life was to “engolosinar las almas” (Life, 18,8), that is to entice, nourish, fascinate people and bring them to God.
Is that perhaps not what the Pope too asks of us, and that we, as Carmelites, are called to give witness to, when we follow the example of Teresa of Jesus and the other saints of Carmel? In order to draw others we first have to be drawn. In the same way, in order to share with others the “joy and the beauty of living the Gospel and of following Christ” we must first have experienced all of that. Teresa recalled that she had heard Gracián say one time, “we must not try to win souls through the power of arms, the way we do with bodies.” (Letter of the 9th of January, 1577)
If we do not want to become simply managers of the sacred in the lives of others, and in our own, we should pay great attention to these words of Teresa: “Oh no, Lord, don’t let me be deprived, don’t let me deprived of the joy of enjoying in peace your wonderful beauty. Your Father gave you to us. Let me not, O Lord, lose such a precious gift” (Solliloquies, 14,2)
A communion for the world
5. The Pope reminded us that as religious we are called to be “experts in communion” (Letter II,3) In Christian revelation everything is marked by communion, the three Divine Persons are communion, faith is communion, prayer is communion, the Church is communion, the liturgy is communion, and, finally, consecrated life is communion. A Christianity that is not able to create communion, is no longer Christianity. If it were not so, St. John Paul II’s call, taken up by Pope Francis, to make the Church a “house and a school of communion” (Letter, II,3, cf. NMI, 43) could well be reduced to an exhortation that we take for granted and that has no effect on life, on real life, that is. In a Church that is enlivened by communion and that works in order to build communion, we Carmelite religious cannot be content to be mere spectators. As Teresa said when writing to Fr. Gracián, “love, when there is love, never gets much sleep.” (Letter, 4th of October, 1579)
There is a lot of work ahead of us: with patience, and determination, we are to live, work and pray so that communion, theological from the very beginning, may become the anthropological principle, the mentality, the habitus and criterion in the light of which the community and each individual member live and make their choices. John Paul II asked that the “spirituality of communion”, become an principle of education everywhere the faithful are being formed, and hence consecrated men and women also. (NMI 43) Pope Francis, in the message he sent to the General Chapter of the Carmelites (O.Carm.) in September, 2013, with words that were clear and direct, made a strong appeal to Carmelites to live out the contemplative dimension of our lives, as a seed of communion for the world. “Today, perhaps more than in the past, it is so easy to allow ourselves to be distracted by the cares and worries of this world and to succumb to false idols. Our world is fractured in so many ways, rather the contemplative unites and powerfully builds the call to unity. Now more than ever is the moment for you to discover again that inner pathway to love through prayer and to offer to the people today in your preaching and mission the witness of your contemplation, not easy solutions but that wisdom that comes from pondering “day and night the Law of the Lord”. The Word always brings one near to the glorious cross of Christ. (Letter to the O.Carm. General Chapter, 2013)
On the 22nd of September Teresa of Jesus recounted the vision of the Trinity that she had on the feast of St. Matthew. That account contains an indication of a pedagogic nature that may be useful to ensure that communion can turn into a way of life. Teresa wrote: These three Persons love one another, communicate with one another, know one another” (Favours of God, n.33) (Seventh Mansion, 1.6) Without mutual love communication is something merely formal, and knowing is always superficial. St. Teresa never tired reminding us of that: “I believe that we will never come to love our neighbour perfectly, if that love does not rise from the love of God as its root” (Fifth Mansion, 3,9); “Let us understand, my daughters, that true perfection consists in love of God and neighbour” (First Mansions, 2,17). Pope Francis reminded the Bishop of Avila, that the “way of fraternity” was the “providential answer” that Teresa gave to “the problems of the Church and of society in her time”.
Finally, communion will keep us safe from the “disease of self-absorption”. (Letter, II, 3) and from the “temptation to adopt an intimistic and individualistic kind of spirituality” (NMI 52) In this sense we are happy to note that the road travelled by Carmelites and Discalced Carmelites over the past decade, in a climate of collaboration, knowledge of one another, and fraternal spiritual communion, has become a sign and a very positive call in this direction.
But fraternity too has its masks. The most insidious is pretence, and appearance. In the life of our houses that takes on a certain shape, when, as Zygmunt Bauman might say, we decide to live “together on our own”.
6. Pope Francis has left us a task that at first sight we might feel is something beyond our capacity: “I expect of you that you will “awaken the world”, because prophecy is the characteristic note of consecrated life.” (Letter, II,2)
The first condition for “awakening the world” is not to be afraid of the world and of people (cf. Jn 16:33; Lk 12:4) but to want to know them in both their positive and their negative aspects, when what is good helps them to grow, and what is evil mortifies them, when they are open to the encounter with Christ and when they reject it.
In the question of taking on the world, Teresa has much to teach us. Pope Francis in his letter to the Bishop of Avila, said, “Her mystical experience did not separate her from the world or from people’s preoccupations. (...) She lived the difficulties of her time, which were so complicated, without yielding to the temptation of bitter lament, but instead accepting them in faith as an opportunity to take another step on the path.” Then he concludes, “This is Teresa’s realism, in the way she looks for works more than emotions, and for love more than dreams.”
The second condition for “wakening the world” has to do with ourselves as individuals and with our communities. In the school of the prophet Elijah and of the ancient prophets, we are called to be the “voice” of God, above all in those “existential peripheries” where the need to hear that voice is greatest. When that happens, thanks also to our witness, people come to know what mercy, forgiveness and true communion are. In our becoming the voice of God, we must never forget that Christ is the Word of truth (cf. Col 1:5), that people today just as they did in the past, so badly need. Pope Francis asks each one of us the burning question, “Is Jesus, (...) truly your first and only love, as we said he was when we professed our vows?” (Letter I,2) Turning to the words of our Rule, we might ask ourselves: “Do we want, today too, to live “in allegiance to Jesus Christ and serve him faithfully with pure heart and stout conscience”? (Rule, 2)
Looking to the future
7. After the II Vatican Council, consecrated life went through a series of profound and not always constructive changes. Today many religious families have to deal with a considerable reduction in the number of their members and a refashioning of their structures. (cf. Letter I,3). Before looking at any of the problems, the year dedicated to consecrated life is an occasion for looking at the past with gratitude” (Letter I,2) “It is entirely necessary to tell one’s own story, in order to hold on to our identity”, the Pope wrote. We look at the past, not as a way of escaping the present, but to live in the present “with passion” (Letter I,2). As it was for our saints, the criterion we use to evaluate this “passion” is always the Gospel. Those who live in the present with passion are able also to look at the future “with hope” (Letter I,3) because they know that in every age the Holy Spirit is the guide and strength of the Church. The words that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his prison before the nazis took his life, are very apt for us: The one who does not have a past for which to answer and a future to shape is a transient.”
If we as Carmelites feel that we are standing in the “heart of the Church” it is for us to feel even more in communion with the entire Christian people, to which we ourselves belong. Throughout the centuries many Christians, in their condition as lay people, chose to share the ideals, spirit and mission of our Orders, thus giving rise to what is truly a charismatic Carmelite family (Letter III,1) In the different geographical settings, may the year of consecrated life be for each one of us an occasion to be ever more conscious of belonging to this “charismatic family”, and in it, together with everyone else, give praise to God. “And believe me, the whole affair does not lie in whether or not we wear the religious habit but in striving to practise the virtues, in surrendering our will to God in everything, in bring our life into accordance with what He ordains for it, and in desiring that His will not ours be done.” (Third Mansion, 2,6)
8. A sense of belonging to the life of the Church, a joyful adherence to our vocation, a fraternal communion that is open to welcome the other: these are the fundamental points based on which we are to carry out that serious examination of our religious life that Pope Francis has called for. We wanted to recall them and emphasise them so that the celebration of this year of consecrated life may not pass us by and leave us indifferent and inactive. We have work to do on ourselves, constantly, and that is the precise counterpart of the grace we have received. It is only through the work that we do to assimilate our past and to grow to maturity in the present that our religious family may look forward to a future worthy of the hope to which we have been called (cf. Eph 1:18)
May Teresa of Avila and the great multitude of saints that Carmel has known throughout its long history, and, above all, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the star of the sea, guide our steps and give us the strength and courage to live out our consecration with fidelity, creativity and generosity ....
Fernando Millán Romeral O.Carm.
Saverio Cannistrà, OCD.
Rome, 12 March 2015