Keith J. Egan on Carmelite Identity

The following is a post written by Keith J. Egan, author of What Makes a Carmelite a Carmelite?: The 2020 Carmelite Lecture at The Catholic University of America (CUA Press 2022).  Egan is Guest Professor in Theology at the University of Notre Dame and the Emeritus Aquinas Chair in Catholic Theology at Saint Mary’s College.

The question “Who am I? has become emblematic of an age preoccupied with identity especially with psychological identity. Religious orders and congregations, on the other hand, are intent on their identity as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth whose emphasis is on the ways they have chosen to follow Jesus. Faith communities since the Second Vatican Council have explored their identities under the rubric of charism. The book What Makes a Carmelite a Carmelite? is an exploration of the meaning of charism focusing in this instance on the Carmelite Order. Carmelites have been committed to discern for themselves and for others what it means to be a Carmelite as a nun, a sister, a friar or as a lay Carmelite. Carmel struggles to know and to embrace its identity through a process of discernment that includes scripture, prayer, meditation, dialogue and always done with a firm commitment to truth no matter what it may be. On their part, the Carmelites of the province of the Most Pure of Mary have endowed a Chair and a Center for Carmelite Studies at The Catholic University of America as a way of fostering intellectual and spiritual engagement with their own tradition and with the charisms of other communities. The Carmelite Chair and Center at The Catholic University of America are pledged to foster diligence as they explore the Carmelite tradition.

In light of this commitment, it was appropriate that the first lecture in a new series be an exploration of the charism of the Carmelite Order. A Christian charism is not a recruitment slogan; nor is charism a thing. Rather a charism is a freely given gift of the personal presence of and by Holy Spirit, the eminently self-giving Spirit. A gift by its nature calls for a free response to a freely given gift. The Holy Spirit is the Love between the Father and the Son. The gift of the Spirit who is Love calls for a response that is a life lived freely and lovingly. Jesus describes this love of God to be “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and love of neighbor as you love yourself. (Mt 22:37) Saint Paul describes such a life this way: “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal 5: 22) Carmelite existence began with the migration to Mount Carmel of hermits dislodged from their hermitages by Saracen armies. On this mountain these hermits established their first foundation, but all too soon they had to migrate this time to Europe where they opened hermitages. However, the church’s need at that time was for well-educated ministers of word and sacrament. The Carmelite hermits witnessed the Franciscans and Dominicans so successfully ministering to an exploding population that was migrating to the cities of Europe. It was a time for a fruitful discernment which led the Carmelite hermits to choose to become friars. Geoffrey Chaucer includes the Carmelites in his “ordres foure” which consisted in the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Carmelites and the Augustinian Friars.

Carmel has been discerning the nature of its charism for eight centuries. Three Carmelites Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Thérèse of Lisieux, as doctors of the church, are examples of how saints have lived the Carmelite charism. Closer to our times Edith Stein, Titus Brandsma and other Carmelites, canonized or not, have enriched the growing Carmelite Charism. No charism is a one and done process, but like the reform of the church, a charism is an ongoing process of listening attentively and lovingly to the Holy Spirit who is, as John of the Cross says, the principal guide of those committed to prayer and to the apostolate. Some Carmelites by their lives of prayer further enrich the Carmelite charism. As Thomas Aquinas says, friars are followers of Jesus Christ who offer the fruits of their contemplation to those whom they serve. Teresa of Avila reminds her readers that Carmelites must not forget that their charism is and always will be prayer and contemplation. Carmel’s charism like that of other communities is a many splendored gift to humanity among the many wonderful ways women and men respond to the call by Christ: “Come, follow me.

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