Friday, June 24, 2011

St. John the Baptist- Inviting us to 'Behold the Lamb of God'

JMJT! Praise be Jesus Christ! Now and Forever!

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Carmel-

What a beautiful solemnity we celebrate today with the birth of John the Baptist! How many wonderful reminders the Baptist can give us of our own calling in Carmel.  As the fore-runner of our Savior, Jesus Christ, John was a curious character. As one who lived in the desert, ate locusts and honey, and was compared to Elijah, he was no ordinary man.  His unusual life of obedience to Our Lord gives us the following nuggets for our Carmelite journey:

1. True humility: Although eccentric, John was not in this for his own fame, attention, or notoriety. He was truly a servant of the Lord, who was to announce the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world' and was to prepare the Jews for the one who would baptise not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit.  Two lines exemplify his profound humility and obedience to God's Will. When baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River, he states, "I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?"   Again, in his final witness of recognizing Jesus as the Messiah and after being informed that people are beginning to follow and go to Jesus instead of him, John humbly remarks, "Noone can can receive anything except what has been given in heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said that I am not the Messiah, but that I was sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom, the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. He must increase; I must decrease." (Jn 3:28-30)

As Carmelites, we are called to the hidden life. We are to bring the love and mercy of Christ to all we meet, wherever God has planted us. We must continue to strive to allow Him to shine through us, and to lose our egos, false selves, along with our plans and agendas and allow Our Lord to shift our lives as He sees fit. This is having true spiritual freedom! To be able to move and bend with Him wherever He asks us to be is to imitate St. John the Baptist, along with Our Lady and the prophets, apostles, and disciples.

2. Simplicity: OK. I don't think most of us are up for living on a diet of locusts and honey, and wearing camel hair. At least, I won't be the first to sign up! Nonetheless, the Baptist's simplicity is certainly something that we can ponder. He was not attached to earthly possessions, so he was free to go wherever the Spirit of the Lord led him.  He was able to listen to the still, small voice of the Lord, in the spirit of Our Lady and Elijah, due to his quiet and uncluttered life. Perhaps we can consider simplifying even one part of our lives. Maybe it is getting rid of a bunch of items of clothing that we no longer use, or tackling the stuff piled in the garage, or throwing away the mass of newspapers and magazines we have been storing up 'just in case.' Many times these are attachments that are hindering us from further union with God. At times, we can offer the natural, physical sacrifice of purging in an area of our lives, while asking God to purge and simplify our interior selves.

3. Truthfulness: It is probably safe to say, that for many years St. John the Baptist was living a very quiet life. But when he was called to act and to begin his ministry of baptizing to remove sins, he accepted in a spirit of obedience. Furthermore, he did not mince words when he saw injustice, hypocrisy, or moral wrongs. This man was not shy! The first word out of his mouth to the public was 'Repent!' He called many of the Sadducees and Pharisees a 'brood of vipers'. We know that the Baptist's life would eventually be ended when he refused to go along with King Herod's illicit relationship.

What would happen if we turned to someone living  a life of deep moral decay, and yelled out 'repent'?  Now I am not suggesting that we go out and shout these words to the first person on the street.  This is not our call. But perhaps someone is quietly approaching you, and asking for advice because their life is a mess. You can see that so much is due to sin or past decisions. Many of us have been there! This is a beautiful way of inviting someone to confess sins, to truly repent. If we gently invite someone to this, in what ways might their lives change? Instead, we are so often afraid to say anything. By staying silent when the Spirit might be nudging us to invite this person to healing in mind, body, soul, and spirit we are truly preventing freedom for that person.  We are helping them to remain imprisoned. The Carmelite charism is to share the Face of Christ and His love, and to do so in a contemplative and active way.

Let's consider this the next time we have the opportunity to share Jesus' Divine Mercy.  Scripture tells us that the truth will set us free! Let's not trap ourselves or others when we are given the opportunity to share the Good News! That Jesus Christ lives now and Forever! That He has taken away our sins by his Passion and Death and opened the gates to new life through His Resurrection.  'Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!' Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pentecost Sunday - the Holy Spirit in Carmel

JMJT! Praise be Jesus Christ! Now and Forever!

Pentecost is such a special day for all of us!  When we think of the Holy Spirit, maybe we think of the Spirit's seven gifts, His role as comforter and healer, the Paraclete who enlightens our minds and tongues, and assists us in the development of virtues.  So many beautiful images are used to denote the Holy Spirit in our faith: the dove, tongues of fire, the color red (or sometimes white), and the Church. We often think of Our Lady gathered with the Apostles in the Upper Room, as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, preparing them to receive His divine touch.

I would like to share a little article I wrote about the imagery of bees and honey as it relates to our Discalced Carmelite Order, and so many of the themes we associate with the Holy Spirit: the gifts of prophesy and wisdom, Our Lady, prayer, and the development of virtue. I hope you enjoy it!

Spiritual imagery abounds in our Carmelite Order, and has been used by our most beloved Carmelite saints to help describe the mystical life and how to strive for Union with God.   Indeed, the very word “Carmel” means “paradise garden”, and has been used as a rich metaphor of the Carmelite journey.   Jacques de Vitry, Bishop of Acre (1216-1228), described the religious communities of the first Carmelites that had sprung up near Elijah’s Well, as “where in beehives of small cells, those bees of the Lord laid up sweet spiritual honey."[1]  In the same time period, Joaquim Smet further expressed this image in his book on the history of the Carmelite order, by comparing the first Carmelite hermits living near the Spring of Elijah as bees of the Lord in their comb-like cells who produced spiritual honey that was sent to heaven.[2]

I would like to explore this imagery of bees producing spiritual honey, and see how it can be utilized to further our journey in Carmel.  The following will examine these religious metaphors, and how each has been widely used throughout the history of the Church to represent three things that are essential to Carmelite Spirituality.  

Bees and Honey: Symbolic of Elijah’s Spirit of Prophesy and Wisdom
Eat thou honey, because it is good; and the honeycomb, which is sweet to thy taste:
So shall the knowledge of wisdom be unto thy soul: when thou hast found it, then there shall be a reward, and thy expectation shall not be cut off.  (Proverbs 24:13 -14)

The Old Testament uses the imagery of bees and their delectable by-product of honey to describe abundance, wisdom, and prophesy.  Bees are used to denote messengers or “prophets” who speak the truth of God.  Since the Old Testament, bees were seen as symbols of prophesy and wisdom.  In fact, the very word “Deborah” can trace its meaning to “bee or small speech” and is synonymous with a messenger who speaks the truth to her people.[3]  Further evidence is seen when we reflect on the words of Solomon cited above, where he uses honey as a symbol of wisdom, and tells us that such wisdom, produces “friends of God and prophets.”  (Wisdom 7: 27b)  Indeed, prophesy is seen as speaking the honey sweetness of God, as illustrated in Ezekiel (3:3) when the prophet consumes the scroll of God, and reports that it, “was as sweet as honey.”

This is in keeping with the Spirit of Elijah, whose prophesies and defense of the one true God against Baal on Mt. Carmel (1KG 18:19-40) epitomize the essence of our Carmelite charism to know God, seek His face and witness His Divine Truth to the entire world.[4]  As a symbol of these gifts of prophesy, the Gospel of Matthew speaks of John the Baptist as imitating the ways of Elijah in that he wore “a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.” (Mt 3:4)   The school of prophets that sought to imitate the ways of their master Elijah on Mt. Carmel focused on these gifts of prophesy and wisdom, through contemplation, asceticism, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

In fact, St. Bernard de Clairvaux compared the bee to the Holy Spirit, Spouse of the Virgin Mary, in giving the gifts of spirit and understanding.   The “honey doctor” developed his doctrine of wisdom as follows, "It is the spirit of wisdom and understanding which, like a bee bearing both wax and honey, is able to kindle the light of knowledge and to pour in the savor of grace." [5]  Was it not the Holy Spirit that presented Himself to Elijah in the cave on Mt. Horeb as a “tiny whispering sound” (1 Kings 19:12b)? Furthermore, did not Our Heavenly Father generously bestow a double portion of Elijah’s spirit of prophesy upon his principle disciple Elisha (See 2Kings 2:9)?  So too, do we as Carmelites, humbly ask for this spirit of wisdom and prophesy to glorify God!

As a bee quietly delivers pollen to produce honey for its interior community hive, we are called upon to utilize these gifts to build our interior Carmelite garden.  As a consequence, our laboring for spiritual honey through prayer can result in the production of sweet honey (truth) to the greater world, as well as the sowing of seeds of love.   As God promised Moses and the Israelites “a land flowing with milk and honey”, so too does prophetic truth lead to great blessings that reflect the ultimate truth – the saving sweet grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was described by Isaiah as one who would “eat curds and honey, that He may know to refuse evil and to choose the good” (Is 7:15).   Indeed, Our Lord fulfilled all prophesies as signified when he ate broiled fish and a honeycomb with his apostles following his resurrection, and then pronounced, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled which are written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. (Lk24:44)

This image can further explain the dual call of our mendicant order to follow Elijah’s school of contemplation and active apostolic service simultaneously.[6]   Let us seek to create a secret interior garden where a honeycomb of virtues flourish, while in tandem pouring forth acts of mercy to sweeten the world with love.

Virgin Bees: Symbols of Our Lady and her Dutiful Servants

“I am the Mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope. 
In me is all grace of the way and of the truth; in me is all hope of life and of virtue. 
Come over to me, all ye that desire me, and be filled with my fruits. 
For my spirit is sweet above honey,
and my inheritance above honey and the honeycomb.
I have brought you into the land of Carmel to eat the fruits thereof, the choicest of them all “  
(Ecclesiastes 24:28-31)

Secondly, bees also have an historic association with Our Lady, the Virgin Mary.   As early as the Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Conception were symbolized by virgin bees and the beehive itself.[7]  In Eastern Europe, the Virgin Mary is the protectress of bees and beekeepers, and consecrated honey is offered on alters on the Feast of the Assumption.  Throughout Europe, hives are decorated with the Madonna to honor her queenship.[8] 

On the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the above-cited reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes is proclaimed to celebrate our Blessed Mother as the honeycomb of all virtue, gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, the Carmelites especially venerate Our Lady as the Mother of God, so often depicted by the imagery of the honeycomb itself.  Hildegard von Bingen wrote to St. Bernard de Clairvaux that the Father “sent the Word with sweet fruitfulness into the womb of the Virgin, from which He soaked up flesh, just like honey is surrounded by the honeycomb.”[9]  Indeed, we venerate our Lady as “Theotokos”, the bearer of Christ who is the very tabernacle or hive of the Christ Himself.[10]  

To further this association between honeybees and the Virgin Mary, more detailed etymology reveals that Carmelus is derived from “car” (sponse) and “melos” (laus), which mean “praise of the bride” or “song of the beloved.”   Secondly, the term “carios mellis” means “a gift of honey”, and is said to refer to our beloved Lady of Mt. Carmel.[11]    This is in keeping with the comment of Blessed Titus Brandsma, O Carm who noted in his Lectures that in the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary we approach Mary, our Mother, as bees who “fly towards this mystical flower (Mary) to behold in it the fairness of the mystical life in its highest bloom, namely God, become man in her, so that He can also be born in us who belong to her.”[12] 

It is clear that the closer we stay to Our Lady, the closer will we be to Her Son.  By imitating her ways and wearing her garment (the Brown Scapular), Carmelites can learn the ways of virtue and store up spiritual honey that unite us to Our Lord, while positively impacting  the world around us through our simultaneous call to service.  As children of Mary, are we not called to carry Our Lord in the depths of our hearts to the world, as a hive stores its sweet honey?

The Honey of Contemplative Prayer

I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride;
I gather my myrrh and my spices,
I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
I drink my wine with my milk. 
Daughters of Jerusalem
 Eat, O friends, and drink: drink deeply, O lovers”
(Song of Songs 5:1)

This leads us to our last and most pivotal Carmelite calling that is symbolized by the bee and its heavenly dew.  This is contemplative prayer and the imitation of Our Lady who fully embraced the Carmelite’s call to prayer by keeping “all these things in her heart.” (Lk 2:51)

St. Teresa compared prayer to a bee that gathers spiritual virtue through meditation and as an exemplar of how to conform our will to that of Our Triune God.  In Interior Castle, our Foundress describes the room of self-knowledge as one where humility should be “always at work, like the bee making honey in the beehive”   Such humility will be deepened in the room of self-knowledge when our soul flies upwards “to ponder the grandeur and majesty of God” just as “the bee doesn’t fail to leave the beehive and fly about gathering nectar from flowers.”[13]  

As our self-knowledge increases, our prayer-life deepens.  In the Introduction of Pope Pius XII “Address on Bees”, he quotes Saint Teresa’s Autobiography to describe the prayer of quiet and eventual union with God as she advises us to “be recollected as the wise little bee.  For if no bees enter the hive and they all went about trying to bring each other in, there would not be much chance of their making honey.”[14]  Just as the Magdalene sat at the feet of Jesus listening to his every word, so too do we “choose the better part” (Lk10:42) when we approach the Lord in prayer within the interior cell of our hearts where we seek to be united with Our Lord. 

In his sermon entitled, “The Heart of Prayer”, St. Francis de Sales compares meditative and contemplative prayer in the same way as “bees made and gather honey: They go out gathering the honey which falls from heaven upon the flowers, and extract a little of the juice from the same flower, and then carry it to their hives. Thus we go along picking out the virtues of Our Lord one after the other in order to draw from them the desire of imitation.” [15]


As Carmelites, we recognize that our call consists of both the contemplative and active life.  But the heart of the rule states that a Carmelite must first and foremost contemplate the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night and “watching in prayer.”[16]  All apostolic action begins with prayer, where we gather up honey for our interior souls or hives, if you will.   This makes our soul a garden in which the weeds are cleared out, and our cell is made receptive and fertile for the King to make His home within us.   The more we root out our sins and imperfections, while cultivating God-given virtue and mercy, the more sweet honey is gathered and stored within our interior cells.

Our spring of contemplation comes from Mt. Carmel itself, where the waters of Elijah purify our souls, and the grace of God flows in.  The two sources of inspiration for such prayer are found in our fore-father Elijah, as well as the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and Mother of God.  Elijah exemplifies the spiritual journey to Union with God, as he sought to perfect himself first, through solitary living in prayer, and then, by responding to God’s call to share His spiritual gifts with others.  Mary perfectly models the contemplative calling of Carmelites by living in quiet prayer and obedience to God’s Will, while being moved to action by His Spirit at particular moments, as seen in the Visitation, the Presentation, the Fleeing to Egypt, and the pilgrimages to Jerusalem as a member of the Holy Family.  

As the bee gathers pollen and produces honey quietly for the good of the entire hive community, so too are we called to our inner cell to seek God’s face and open ourselves to His divine movements in order to beautify our surroundings.  This results in a rich cross-pollination that flourishes within our families, Carmelite communities, and the greater world around us.  Just as the bee inserts the pollen into the hive to serve the Queen and produce honey as a form of sustenance for the winter, so too does our contemplative prayer become a means of becoming bees in Our Lord’s garden, where we can lay up “sweet spiritual honey” as Bishop Jacques de Vitry so colorfully described so many centuries ago.

[1] McGreal, Wilfrid  O. Carm, At The fountain of Elijah: The Carmelite Tradition (Orbis Books, NY, 1999)  p. 19
[2]Joaquim Smet  O. Carm,  T he Carmelites, Volume I, (Carmelite Spiritual Center, IL, 1988) pp. 5-6.

[3]  Patrick Henry Reardon, “Judge Deborah: The Hebrew Prophetess in Christian Tradition”, Touchstone Magazine, 2000.
[4] The Rule of St. Albert, The New Constitutions and the National Statutes, Carmel Clarion, Washington, DC Oct-Dec2003, Vol. XIX No.6 p. 5,9, & 11
[5] St. Bernard de Clairvaux, In Cantica, Sermon VIII, 6; Migne, P. L., CLXXXIII, 813-a, b.
[6] Jane Ackerman, Elijah: The Prophet of Carmel, ICS Publications, p. 134
[7] The Herder Dictionary of Symbols: Symbols from Art, Archeology, Mythology, Literature, and Religion Chiron Publications, Wilmette, IL  1993  p. 21

[8] Eason, Cassandra  Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters, and Animal,  Power Symbols  CT, Greenwood Publishing Company, 2008

[9] Hildegard de Bingen, The Letters of Hildegard de Bingen,  NY: Oxford University Press, 1994.
[11] Dr. Valerie Edden, “The Mantle of Elijah: Carmelite Spirituality in England and the Fourteenth Century”
[12] Bl. Titus Brandsma, Lectures of Titus Brandsma
[13] St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, p. 291
[15] St. Francis de Sales Oevres, Vol. IX (Amnecy-Nierat, 1892-1964) “The Heart of Prayer” Sermon for Palm Sunday given on April 12, 1615
[16] The Rule of St. Albert, The New Constitutions and the National Statutes, Carmel Clarion, Washington, DC Oct-Dec2003, Vol. XIX No.6 p. 2

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Blessed Anne of St. Bartholomew - Exemplar of Humility

JMJT! Praise be Jesus Christ! Now and Forever!

On this special day commemorating the life of St. Teresa's faithful companion and nurse, it is a perfect opportunity to look at the virtue of humility in this dear soul who founded the Carmelite religious communities in both France and Belgium.  From all accounts, Bl. Anne was a devout and pious soul from a very young age. She was simple and sought to please the Lord in all things, while performing manual labor and shepherding on her family's farm.  After overcoming many obstacles within her family to join Carmel, she was able to do so and quickly reached even greater perfection in her practice of charity and humility. 

Our Lord told her one day that the most pleasing of all virtues to Him is humility. In today's breviary, the second reading contains an excerpt from Bl. Anne's writings. She speaks of humility as follows:

According to St. Bernard it is the person who keeps silent and says nothing
when things go wrong who is really humble. It is very virtuous, he says, to
keep silent when people are talking about our true faults; but more perfect
when we are slighted or accused without having committed any fault or sin.

And though it is virtuous indeed to bear this in silence, it is more perfect
still to want to be despised and thought mad and good-for-nothing, and to go
on, as our Lord Jesus Christ did, wholeheartedly loving those who despise

If Jesus kept silent, it was not because He hated anyone.
He was simply saying to His eternal Father what He said on the cross:
‘Lord, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ What
infinite love burned in that sacred heart of yours, Lord Jesus! Without
uttering a single word You spoke to us; without a word You worked the
mysteries You came to accomplish– teaching virtue to the ignorant and blind.

What our Lord did was no small thing. Where should we get patience and
humility and poverty and the other virtues, and how could we carry the cross
for one another, if Christ had not taught us all this first, and given
Himself as a living model of all perfection?

Blessed silence! In it You cry out and preach to the whole world by Your
example. Volumes could be written about Your silence, Lord! There is more
wisdom to be learned from it by those who love You than from books or study.

Our Lord became a spring for us, so that we should not die of thirst among
all the miseries that surround us. How truly He said in the Gospel that He
came to serve and not
to be served! What tremendous goodness! Can we fail to
be shamed by Your words and deeds, and the patience You show with us every
day? How truly, again Lord, did You
say: ‘Learn from Me for I am meek and humble of heart.’

Where can we obtain this patience and humbleness of heart? Is there any way
to achieve it except by taking it from Christ as He taught it to us with
those other virtues we need–faith, hope and charity? Without faith we
cannot follow that royal road of the divine mysteries. It is faith that
opens our eyes and makes us see the truth; and where faith is wanting there
is no light, and no way leading to goodness.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Ascension Sunday!

JMJT! Praise be Jesus Christ! Now and Forever!

Dear Carmelite Brothers and Sisters-

Greetings on this special day dedicated to the Ascension of Our Lord, when He took His place at the right hand of Our Heavenly Father in heaven!

When I think of this special Solemnity, I think of three things:

1. Jesus' place in Heaven as our mediator before Our Eternal Father;
2. The ascent of Our prayers that reach the throne of Our Triune God;
3. The coming of the Holy Spirit, which was the beautiful gift that was released to us soon thereafter.

We know that Jesus was the Eternal High Priest who expiated for humanity's sins for all time, and stands as the eternal bridge between all of God's Children and Our Father. The Ascension is the culmination of all that He accomplished on earth through His life, death, and Resurrection.  The whole image of kingship is strongly associated with this role for me.  St. Teresa of Avila frequently referred to Jesus as King or 'His Majesty' and described prayer as coming closer to the King of kings who resides in the center of one's soul. 

Instead of being afraid to approach our King, we must learn to trust Him in all things, remembering that He promises that "All that you ask of the Father in My Name, He will grant you,"  and Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you."
Furthermore, we must remember that the Queen (Our Beloved Lady) has immediate access to the King.  Through Her motherly intercession, she can procure our deepest needs, both spiritual and temporal, as she did at the wedding feast of Cana as long as it is in accordance with God's Divine Will.

As Discalced Carmelites, we know that we have been called to this contemplative order to be in union with Our Lord and the whole of humanity in prayer.  When we pray, we should ask that our prayers ascend to the throne of Our Lord as a pleasing , pure fragrance of love and humility.  St. John of the Cross set forth the means of attaining pure union with God, in his spiritual classic the Ascent of Mt. Carmel. In it, he describes how as one slowly ascends the mountain of prayer towards union with Our Triune God, one must face an array of purifications that eventually pulverise one's passions, will and desires to the point of embracing the 'nada' or nothing.  Only at the point where one can truly say with conviction and heartfelt understanding, 'God is everything and I am nothing,' can our prayers be in complete accordance with His Will, our hearts beating as one with Our Lord Jesus, who showed us the way to the Father for He is the way, the truth, and the life.

With that, I will leave you on this beautiful day with a follow up on Pentecost as we get closer.

If you want to read more on the Ascension, I found the following post to be quite helpful:

Blessings and Peace of Our Lord Jesus,
Candida Kirkpatrick, ocds