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What Do Carmelites Do?

by Br. Robert Bathe, O.Carm.

Spiritual writers who capture the essence of the emerging kingdom of God posit charity as a defining characteristic of a life imitating Jesus. All of our Carmelite work is to be done with charity. For the Carmelite friar, work is seen in many ways. Described as service, ministry, chores, or study, our work captures a dimension of life oriented toward communion with God and neighbor.

Throughout history, religious service in the Church has taken on two distinct forms one monastic and the other apostolic. The Carmelites follow a unique tradition that calls us to live a double charism, that of action in the midst of the people, and that of a deeply intimate relationship with God in prayer and discovery. As challenging as this might sound, with self knowledge and extensive training, the young Carmelite friar is ready to work in whatever capacity is required. Carmelite Friars learn that becoming empty is a spiritual discipline which allows the spirit of God to move freely using us an instrument of God. This is the goal of a friar with an eye toward seeing our neighbors’ needs and allowing ourselves to be at Gods’ service.

When a person begins to investigate the Carmelite family and its history, one notices a tension between the ideals of contemplation with its narrative in the eremitical life of silence, study, and simple work, and the daily demands of living a life in a community of brothers and neighbors. This tension has been seen as having its root in the double spirit of Elijah and today is known as the active contemplative spirit.

The history of the Carmelite Order provides detail of how our early Carmelite brothers emerged from the land that bore their identity, with the ending of the Crusades. Their way of life having been approved originally for living in waste lands, was finally approved as an authentic rule of life by Innocent IV in 1247. This final approval contained amendments to the original rule which opened the Carmelite brothers to work and live among the people in the emerging cities and towns of Europe and beyond.

Toward the end of the thirteenth century, Carmelites were establishing themselves as mendicants. We were first known for our preaching and teaching. Our history teaches of fiery preachers skilled in stirring conviction among the people, usually in small chapels built in honor of the Virgin Mary. We moved into Universities and took on service as study and later providing teachers for major towns throughout Europe. However, all these duties had their power in the rich tradition of prayer founded and structured by the Rule of St. Albert. Carmelites began to have a reputation as prayers and spiritual masters in the Church. They were sought out for their wisdom and knowledge of scripture, along with their intimate relationship with Mary.

So, the question again is what do Carmelites do?
The Carmelite Formation Program is an intensive and demanding process in which a young man is trained to be a public minister serving the Order and Church’s various needs. Formation starts in what we call the Pre-novitiate. Candidates here do a variety of tasks seen as work. At this level of formation, the primary work is study. Each candidate is given a list of house duties and is also expected to begin doing some type of ministry in the Church. This work requires reflection, preparation, and a growing identity as a Carmelite. I recently spoke to our pre-novice director and learned that this year our candidates will work at St. Simon Stock, located in the Bronx. They will help out with youth ministry and take on teaching duties for the religious education program.

When a candidate discerns a call to move on to the Carmelite Novitiate, they receive our identity by being clothed in the religious habit. The novices spend a year of rigorous spiritual preparation by learning how to live in charity while navigating the difficult duties of self inquiry and living elbow to elbow with the other brothers in community. Each novice is asked to have some work in a ministry setting. Currently, our novices are working in a nursing home, hospital, a CCD program in a parish, and a learning center for migrant workers. As you can see, a Carmelite does not have a particular ministry for life such as teaching, preaching missions, or working with the poor as do some religious congregations. A Carmelite Friar has a strict duty to live in allegiance to Jesus Christ. We have a tradition that requires silence and prayer. Carmelites bring with them their spiritual heritage to any type of work they do, which makes them unique in the Church.

After the Novitiate, the Carmelite in formation has another six to eight years to grow in becoming a public minister. Carmelites in our province hold various professional titles including: chaplain, pastor, teacher, retreat director, administrator, as well as many others. The formation program, in training a future professed Carmelite, provides internship opportunities along with supervised ministries.

I have been with the Carmelites for fifteen years, providing me with many different types of experiences as a public minister. As a pre-novice, I worked in the classroom, teaching seventh grade CCD. In the Novitiate, we worked in a maximum security state hospital for the criminally insane. As I moved on through various internships and supervised ministries, I taught, preached retreats, worked with the poor of Washington, D.C., helped in nursing home and hospital ministries, received a clinical pastoral education certificate from Calvary in the Bronx, and engaged in various levels of religious education. With all these experiences, came intense reflection on both the experience of being a minster, and the person or group receiving the minister.
As a fully professed member of the Carmelite family, work and ministry are an integral part of religious life. Training and education are very important in facilitating a persons’ call or vocation to living a vowed life focused on God and neighbor. As an ancient religious spiritual movement in the Church, the Carmelites have a duty to train brothers in skills needed to work with the people in our schools, hospitals, parishes, and other community needs, as we most seek the salvation of our own souls and that of our neighbors’.

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