The Spirituality of Service

Service is an integral part of the Carmelite charism. Carmelites are not restricted to any one apostolate but respond to the needs of the Church and the World by reading the signs of the times. Our service is informed by our 'Carmelite attitudes', and together with prayer and community-building is part of our contemplative vocation, in fidelity to Christ's commands and example as revealed in Scripture.

The following text is adapted from Johan Bergström-Allen, (ed.), Climbing the Mountain: The Carmelite Journey, (Faversham & Rome: Saint Albert's Press & Edizioni Carmelitane, Second Edition 2014), Chapter 16.

Service: a response to Love
Carmelites are ordinary people responding to an extraordinary love: the love of God. We learn how to serve first and foremost from God’s example. In the Old Testament the Lord served and loved his people through the prophets. In the New Testament God’s love for the human family was revealed in the Good News delivered in the preaching and person of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and Son of Man. Jesus said that he was sent by God ‘to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ (the Lucan Manifesto in Luke 4:16-20). Jesus came to us in a spirit not of mastery, but of service: ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve’ (Matthew 20:28).
The love which Jesus showed for all people prompts us Christians as followers of The Way to try to love others as he did, to become other Christs. By living, as our Rule of Saint Albert puts it, ‘in allegiance to Jesus Christ’, we Carmelites must engage in the same sort of service our Master was: bringing good news, freedom to the poor, release to captives, the blind, and the oppressed. The inspiration for such service is love, and love comes from God. Service is God’s love in action. When we serve our sisters and brothers we manifest God’s love, putting into practice Christ’s command to love God, and our neighbours as ourselves (Mark 12:28-34).
At our baptism we undertook to live out this double command to love God and our neighbour. Those of us who become Carmelite through Profession of promises or vows are not exempted from this command; rather, we commit ourselves to fulfil it more deeply. Being of service is as fundamental to our contemplative way of life as prayer and the building-up of community. As former Prior General, Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm., stated: ‘all Carmelites are called to some form of service which is an integral part of the charism given to the Order by God’ (quoted in the 2003 Rule for the Third Order of Carmel §46).

The charism of the Order – that gift and mission which God has entrusted to our family – is not for our personal benefit alone but for the happiness and holiness of the Church and the World.

The charism is summarised very simply in the 1995 Constitutions of the friars: ‘Carmelites live their life of allegiance to Christ through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through fraternity, and through service (diakonia) in the midst of the people’ (§14). The Greek word διακονία (diakonia) means ‘service’; it gives us the word deacon, meaning ‘servant’, and implies serving God through God’s suffering people, especially the poorest and those most in need.


Why serve, and who?
We are called to serve because Jesus, to whom we Carmelites give our allegiance, has invited us into his service: ‘Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.’ (John 12:26). The Rule of Saint Albert reminds us that we are called to serve Jesus before all else:

In many and various ways the holy fathers have laid down how everyone, whatever their state of life or whatever kind of religious life they have chosen, should live in allegiance to Jesus Christ and serve him faithfully from a pure heart and a good conscience. (Chapter 2)


But how are we supposed to serve Jesus when he is not right in front of us? We find the answer from his own lips in Matthew’s account of the Gospel:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory … the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:31-46)


If you know this Scriptural passage you will recall that those who do not care for the least of the Lord’s family are separated from him. Jesus the Good Shepherd does not judge people on their religious practices, how often they say the rosary or how many prayer books they have. No, Jesus judges us on how much we have loved, which we demonstrate in concrete action for the neediest members of society.

Service is the fruit of our faith

In the light of the Gospel, one might say that the test of a true Carmelite vocation is not whether a Carmelite is overtly ‘religious’ or pious, but whether his or her faith motivates them to serve others out of love, as Jesus commands. As Carmelites we seek to be contemplatives, open to the presence of God encountered in prayer, community, and in our service of others, usually in the ordinariness of everyday life. This is put simply by Tony Lester, O.Carm. (Prior Provincial of the British Province of Carmelites between 2002 and 2008):

In essence the reality which we call Carmel has little or nothing to do with a particular way of doing things or of wearing religious clothes or of living in special houses. Neither is it the property of a particular group of people or organisation. Carmel stands for the intimate encounter which God brings about between the person and God in the midst of all that is most ordinary in life. So, if you are seeking visions and ecstatic experiences then you are in the wrong place. This is the mystery of the ‘Word made flesh’ who ‘emptied himself to take the form of a slave... and then was humbler still…’


Jesus took the form of a slave, a servant (Philippians 2:7-9), and has given the Church – and the Carmelite Family within it – an awesome responsibility to continue his ministry of service. Jesus has asked us to continue building God’s Kingdom here on earth, taking care of his ‘little ones’. As the friars’ Ratio puts it: ‘As Carmelites we are in the Church and for the Church, and together with the Church we are at the service of the Kingdom’ (§38). Carmel does not exist for our own benefit, but for the service of God and therefore all God’s people. Not only fellow Christians but also non-Christians are included by God as his people.

Service is a Carmelite attitude
We sometime think of service as demeaning, but in truth it gives meaning and dignity to life. The Scriptures are full of examples of people who serve and are highly respected for it. If we are serious about our faith and sincere in our love for God it will inevitably show itself in the fruits of our actions and in our commitment to love and serve our neighbour. Service is not simply about what we do but about who we are. Perhaps we should speak not of doing service but rather of being at the service of God’s people. Service is a manifestation of our love, and flows from our very being.

We do good deeds of service not because we want to be saved or feel obligated but because the giving of ourselves is the natural response to the love God has given us as gift. Being redeemed and restored to a relationship with the Father is not dependent on our actions of service. Jesus has already saved us as a free gift, as the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church observes (§604): ‘By giving up his own Son for our sins, God manifests that his plan for us is one of benevolent love, prior to any merit on our part: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10, 19)’. Christianity is not essentially about what we do but about what God is doing in us:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.’ (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Being of service is therefore about being open to God working in us in whatever way God sees fit: ‘it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:13). In response to God’s love it is right for us to love in return. It is said actions speak louder than words, a sentiment which Saint James echoes: ‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? … Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.’ (James 2:14, 18).

Being equipped for service
God never asks us to undertake an act of service which God won’t equip us for, as we see in the example of Elijah who received from God what was needed to fulfil his enormously challenging missions. To enable us to be of service, God has given each person his or her own talents. Some people have more talents, others have less, and our abilities are to be used for the common good. There is no need to be unemployed in the Lord’s vineyard! In our diverse Carmelite Family everyone has a place to be and a service that God has entrusted to them. As Cardinal John Henry Newman reflected:

God has created me to do him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which he has committed to no other. I have my mission … I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught.


There will be those among us who may feel their efforts to serve are restricted by age, infirmity, lack of resources, shortage of time, or other problems. For sure, we can experience real set-backs and restrictions in our service, we can worry that we aren’t qualified or capable to serve effectively, but if we really open our hearts willingly to God in contemplation, God will show us that there are still works of service that are within our means.
It is true humility to acknowledge the gifts or talents God has given us, which are not for our own personal profit. The challenge from God, the invitation, is to try to develop our talents in the service of the Church and the World, building up the Kingdom of God in our own particular place and state of life that we are called to be in:

The gifts Christ gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13).

Quality not quantity
Not everyone in Carmel is able or asked to perform astonishingly heroic acts of service. The important thing with regard to our service is not the scale of what we do but the love with which we do it. The great Carmelite St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face (of Lisieux) said that: ‘Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.’ Thérèse didn’t even say that the action had to be done particularly well or impressively; even an act of service that fails in human eyes is beautiful to God if done with love. Thérèse spoke of ‘picking up a pin for the love of God’, and such small acts of service, of love, are open to us daily: a kind word, a reassuring smile, recycling to care for the environment, solidarity with the homeless, telephoning a house-bound friend who is lonely, helping a neighbour with chores, patiently supporting a friend with mental-health problems, listening to someone bound by addiction, giving our widow’s mite to charity. Each Carmelite has to work out for him/herself what form of service is possible, appropriate, and necessary. Any act of service that an individual Carmelite does is, in a mysterious but very real way, collaborating in the Order’s ministry.

Whatever acts of service we are called to, small or large, if we try to live our vocation authentically, the charism and collective experience of Carmel can equip us for the service. As we learn to listen more attentively to the Word of God – especially in the Scriptures, in silent prayer, and in the community – we will better discern what service it is that God asks of us. As we become more contemplative in our gaze, we will learn to read in the world around us ‘the signs of the times’ (Matthew 16:3). It is important that we develop this sense of discernment, since there is no single form of ‘Carmelite apostolate’. Unlike many religious orders, we were not founded with one particular ministry in mind, other than to develop a contemplative attitude within ourselves and others, summarised in the Latin phrase contemplatione aliis tradere, that is, to contemplate and to give to others the fruits of contemplation. The Order’s charism gives us great flexibility in our range of apostolates, and therefore also a greater need to discern God’s will.

A praying community at the service of all God’s people
Since the earliest days of Carmelite life, service has been an essential element. Even the hermits in their individual cells on Mount Carmel were to undertake some form of work, and to serve each other in community. The Way of Life they chose to follow was set out by Saint Albert of Jerusalem who deliberately modelled their fraternity on the early Christians as described in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul, in which we read that the community shared what they had in common, cared about each others’ needs, and sought to outdo each other in love. Pilgrim accounts suggest that they offered the service of hospitality to visitors, and later ordained hermits served the pastoral needs of those in the surrounding area. The nuns and hermits in the Carmelite Family today likewise look for ways to serve those around them, within the possibilities of enclosure. By living in community in an intense way, enclosed Carmelites have daily opportunities to serve those they live with. As far as the wider world is concerned, their prayer for the Church and the World is also a form of service, hidden but life-giving, which can be shared by those lay Carmelites, friars and sisters who are too ill or elderly to undertake active apostolates. Those Carmelites who are retired from active ministry still have much to contribute.

Many Carmelites, ordained and unordained, religious and lay, offer their service for the common good within the Church, as ministers of the Word and the Eucharist, as welcomers, liturgists, altar servers, and so on. Our service within the Church is not self-serving but builds up the body of Christ.

Prayer is an essential service offered by the Carmelite Family. Society today is in desperate need of people of prayer who can give a word of encouragement and the benefit of their experience to those seeking meaning in life through a relationship with God. In a world facing the uncertainties of climate change, financial and political unrest, disease and terrorism, teaching people how to pray, meditate and nurture a calm stillness in their lives can be a tremendous act of service.

A service of evangelisation
Part of the service the Carmelite must undertake is to communicate the reality of God to other people. Not everyone can be a missionary by travelling to new lands, but like St. Thérèse we can all support those engaged in mission abroad, and we all as baptised Christians have a mission at home to evangelise, that is, to spread the Good News that God exists and loves us. Jesus asked his followers to make this news known throughout the world, and we Carmelites can do this through our words and our actions. Indeed, actions can speak powerfully of God’s love, prompting St. Francis to state: ‘Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary use words’. In his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi Pope Paul VI recognised that people today ‘listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if they do listen to teachers it is because they are witnesses.’ Demonstrating our faith by our service can draw others to Carmel, and more importantly, to God: ‘Carmelites, ready to witness to their faith by their works, receive the strength to draw people to God who may become the praise of God’s glory. In times of loss and change, (Lay) Carmelites can give many people reliable direction.’ (RTOC §47).

Service in the midst of the people
For most Carmelites their vocation is to live and serve in the midst of the people. The phrase in the midst of the people recurs frequently in the Carmelite tradition and is very important to the friars because it reminds them that they are mendicants, and therefore historically live, work and pray in the heart of society, not detached from it. Involvement in social outreach was essential to the survival of the Order after 1274 when the Second Council of Lyons demanded that Carmelites prove their usefulness to the Church or face suppression. It was the brothers’ attentiveness to service of God and neighbour in medieval Europe that attracted lay people to their way of life, eventually giving birth to lay confraternities and the Third Order.

The notion of being in the midst of the people likewise applies to the Order’s laypeople, apostolic (active) sisters, and even to some extent to the enclosed nuns. Immersion in the heart of society is particularly encouraged for lay Carmelites by the 2003 Rule for the Third Order of Carmel:

Since it is the proper calling of lay people to live in the world and in the midst of secular affairs, they are called upon by God to carry out this mission of the Church so that there is a Christian yeast in the temporal activities which they are deeply engaged in. The faithful cannot renounce their participation in ‘public life’, in the many and various social, economic, legislative, administrative and cultural ventures which are meant to promote the common good institutionally (§46).


Service in the home, workplace, and beyond
For many lay Carmelites the most common place of service will be the home and the workplace: ‘Lay Carmelites understand and show in their lives that temporal activities and material work are themselves a sharing in the ever creative and transforming work of the Father. This is a real service offered to humanity and its authentic promotion.’ (RTOC §49). One description of a tertiary is ‘a Carmelite who works from home’, and most homes offer plenty of opportunities to carry out responsibilities in a spirit of love and service. As the saying goes ‘charity begins at home’, but it doesn’t end there.

Whether we serve at home or in the workplace, we are asked to see that service as part of our Carmelite vocation. After making Profession as a religious or lay Carmelite we are expected to offer service to the Carmelite Family, and on behalf of the Family. All professed Carmelites, religious or lay, represent the Order to the World. In the past there was a common feeling in some sections of the Third Order that Lay Carmel existed in order to promote the ‘personal holiness’ of its members, with little sense of looking outwards to the wider world. Yet true holiness always has an ecclesial and social element, participating in the mission and service of the Church. It is not only friars who undertake ministry on behalf of the Order, but all members of Carmel. Today there is a much broader sense that whatever service lay Carmelites undertake, they too are in ministry. That ministry may or may not be overtly ‘religious’, but by contributing to the wellbeing of humanity it contributes to the Order’s service nonetheless. Lay Carmelites no longer depend entirely on the religious of Carmel to do service within the Church; instead all join together in what we call collaborative ministry, each branch of the Family undertaking whatever it is appropriate for them to do.

The teachings of the Second Vatican Council on service in the modern world
The growing appreciation of the laity’s contribution to the ministry of the Church has been helped by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. In particular the 1965 decree on the apostolate of the laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, reminded the Church that it is legitimate for unordained Christians to immerse themselves in all kinds of works and apostolates that promote good things in life: ‘the prosperity of the family, culture, economic matters, the arts and professions, the laws of the political community, international relations, and other matters’ (§7). These are aspects of life made and blessed by God, who at the creation of the world ‘saw all that he had made was very good’ (Genesis 1:31). God is not only interested in what we might narrowly define as ‘spiritual life’, but in all aspects of life as it is meant to be lived, that is, in the Spirit. Sometimes in history temporal goods have been used and misused by men and women, but the activities and work of the world are intended for the common good, and so the role of the Christian – of the Carmelite – is to make sure that our work is done for the good of the Church and the World.

As Carmelites we are both immersed in our cultures, and counter-cultural; immersed in the world, but not belonging to the world. Like our teacher and model Saint Paul, we stand alongside our brothers and sisters in the marketplace and proclaim a message at which some will scoff whilst others will want to hear more (Acts 17:16-34). Like our brother Titus Brandsma we realise that ‘those who want to win the world for Christ must have the courage to come into conflict with it’.

The other Vatican II document which should be read by all those serious about understanding why Carmelites must go into service of others is Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Gaudium et Spes (‘Joy and Hope’) opens with a beautiful summary of why Christians cannot remain isolated from the needs of others, both Christians and non-Christians:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men and women. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man and woman. That is why this community [of the Church] realizes that it is truly linked with humankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.


For this reason our service doesn’t only have to be overtly ‘religious’; anything which contributes to the authentic building up of society is a holy work. We can serve God in any activity that is genuinely for the good of humanity because such service manifests the love of God for his people and is therefore holy. This is echoed in the Rule for the Third Order of Carmel:

There should be no conflict between temporal well-being and the realisation of God’s kingdom, given that the natural and spiritual orders both come from God (§29) … Witnesses in a world which neither fully appreciates, nor totally rejects that intimate and living relationship with God in daily life, lay Carmelites know and share with empathy the expectations and deepest aspirations of the world because they are called to be ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘light of the world’. They proclaim the knowledge of salvation to the people. (§49)


For centuries the Church saw itself in opposition to ‘the World’, though such a division is contrary to the Gospel: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16-17). Part of Carmel’s mission is to overcome any false division between the Church and the World, the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘material’, which both come from God.

Service of humanity is not a distraction from the divine
Some people fear that by engaging in the service of our fellow human beings we are somehow neglecting our relationship with God. Yet Carmelites – like all Christians – recognise in the incarnate person of Jesus of Nazareth that humanity is the way that we come to know God, and we should thus especially revere the human person. God our Father has chosen to reveal himself to us in the human form of Jesus. This is why Carmelite saints such as Teresa of Jesus rejected the idea that meditating on the humanity of Jesus was somehow an obstacle to appreciating his divinity. Carmelites look to how Jesus lived and related to people to discover what it truly means to be human, and thus know the way to God. As the 1992 Catechism puts it:

Jesus the Son of God… worked with human hands; he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin. (§2599)


Approaching the humanity of those around us – people made in the image and likeness of God – will help us to draw closer to the Creator who made them. In reaching out to the poor and marginalised, the weak, the vulnerable, and those without a voice or stake in society, it is not so much that we bring God’s presence to them; rather, God’s presence already in them is revealed to us, and we become informed and formed as a result. It is not possible to stand alongside the poor and marginalised without being changed by the encounter, because God is there.

Our service is not just of those in Carmel, or even those in the Church, but any and all of God’s people, since all women and men are made in the image and likeness of God. All human beings – simply by virtue of being human – have the capacity for God (capax Dei). Our service is always to be for the good of others not for ourselves, however Scripture tells us and experience reminds us of what St. Francis of Assisi said: ‘it is in giving that we receive’. Service must never be geared towards our own ends, or forcing ourselves and our will upon others. Service of this kind is not about sharing love but about wielding power. If our ‘Carmelite service’ is limited to making us feel safe and good then perhaps our Carmelite vocation is not being lived out as fully as it could be, and runs the risk of serving only ourselves and those we feel comfortable with.

The fundamental option for the poor
Uncomfortable though it is, the truth is that our service is especially needed by the poor and marginalised of society: ‘Through the gift of ourselves, we undertake to serve, in justice and charity, Jesus himself, who is present in all his brothers and sisters, especially in the little ones and those on the fringes of society’ (RTOC §27). This means the materially and physically poor. It also means those who are spiritually and socially poor, perhaps excluded by Society, and sadly, even by the Church. Carmel exists – as St. Thérèse put it – to be ‘love in the heart of the Church’. A heart pumps life to the rest of the body, to its very extremities, and so Carmel is given the vocation of spreading life to those on the very margins of Church and Society.

As Christians we are asked to make what the Church calls a fundamental option for the poor, since Jesus always addressed himself to the poor of his day before anyone else, often people excluded from social and religious circles. Carmelites are called to embrace poverty – one of the ‘evangelical counsels’ – as a way of living as Christ did amongst the poor, relying solely on God’s providence, and seeing the world as the poor do with the eyes of faith. Evangelical poverty responds to ‘the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9). Placing all our activities in God’s hands, a spirit of poverty and poverty of spirit help us commit to the causes of justice, peace and the integrity of Creation at local, national, and international levels (which we shall consider in the next chapter). Realising our own poverty and sinfulness before God and grateful for his generous inclusion of us in his family, we learn to be inclusive of others.

Elijah and Mary: models of service
To assist and inspire us in our journey of service the Carmelite Family upholds two of God’s great servants: Elijah and Mary.

As a prophet, Elijah the Tishbite disposed himself to God’s service, speaking truth in the Lord’s name. The spiritual father of our Order referred to himself in terms of service: ‘As the Lord God lives, whom I serve’ (1 Kings 18:15). He fearlessly proclaimed the justice and love of God in a world full of turmoil, condemning the injustice of the political rulers of the day and bringing words of comfort and tenderness to the oppressed people of Israel. He combined prayer and solitude with service of the poor and disenfranchised in the community. Elijah’s relationship with the Widow of Zarephath (or Sarepta) was one of life-giving service: out of her poverty she provided him with food and drink at a time of drought, and he brought healing to her dying son (1 Kings 17:7-24). Elijah spoke out on behalf of the dispossessed in denouncing King Ahab and Queen Jezebel’s theft of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21). One of Elijah’s final acts of service was to anoint Elisha as a prophet to succeed him, and Elisha became Elijah’s servant (1 Kings 19:21). As spiritual descendents of the ‘company of prophets’ we Carmelites seek to serve God and his people by proclaiming, like Elijah and Elisha, the truth of the Lord’s existence, by opposing tyrannical rule, and by bringing hope to the poor.

Carmelite devotion to Mary the mother of Jesus likewise inspires our service, and is always geared towards the woman we encounter in the Gospel, Miriam of Nazareth. There we find Mary is God’s ‘handmaid’ or ‘servant’ (Luke 1:38), the ‘first among the humble and poor of the Lord’ (RTOC §34). Our Lady was totally open to whatever service God asked of her because she possessed purity of heart (puritas cordis) and a spirit of openness to God (vacare Deo). The service she undertook was not of her choosing; rather, in her Magnificat song of praise to God we hear that she possessed a spirit of obedience that embraced God’s will and enabled her to stand in solidarity with the poor.

Mary was Jesus’ perfect disciple and therefore the most reliable model of all that Carmelites desire to be. Like Elijah, Mary served through her relationships, and for many Carmelites – notably lay Carmelites – a primary act of service is to care for their family members. In this Mary is again our inspiration; she was a tender wife to Joseph, a loving mother to Jesus, and a considerate cousin to Elizabeth.

Mary was at the service of her son, as mother and disciple. Mary is constantly at the service of her son’s Church, always attentive to its needs. Just as she interceded with her son at the wedding in Cana – ‘they have no more wine’ (John 2:3) – so Mary asks Jesus for all the graces we need. Writing as Prior General to the 2001 International Lay Carmelite Congress, Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm., reminded Carmelites that ‘devotion to Mary must involve the whole of life, including time for prayer and time for service of one’s neighbour’. The best service we as Carmelites can render Mary, our mother and sister, is to imitate her life of care for others.

Contemplative service
One of the challenges facing the Order in its commitment to service today is overcoming the centuries-old dualistic attitude that perceives prayer and service in opposition to one another. The term ‘contemplative’ was – and often still is – used exclusively to describe a life of prayer and meditation, and many good Christians taught that such a vocation was superior to the ‘active life’ of service. The ‘religious life’ was upheld as ‘contemplative’ and therefore superior to the ‘active life’ of the laity. The Gospel story of Martha and Mary at Bethany was sometimes cited as illustrating the difference between ‘contemplatives’ and ‘actives’:

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.* Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10:38-42)


A superficial reading of this episode might suggest that Jesus praised Mary ‘the contemplative’ over Martha ‘the active’. However, another interpretation is not to see it as about ‘contemplation vs. action’ but ‘contemplation vs. distraction’. Martha was someone whose service was not wholehearted: ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things’. Mary was not distracted; she focussed entirely on the presence of Jesus in her life, and thus had ‘chosen the better part’ (what mattered was not so much her paying ‘attention’ but rather giving Jesus her ‘intention’ of being with him). This does not mean that Mary would have spent all her time on her knees; rather her encounter with Jesus, her contemplation of God, meant that she was transformed and thus better able to perceive the needs of those around her. No doubt Mary was willing to help her sister, but she knew that the important thing at that time was not to fret and fuss over many tasks but to offer Jesus true hospitality of the heart. Martha on the other hand was not fully motivated by love but was worried and distracted. Martha’s apparent ‘service’ focussed on her own preoccupations. The result was not true hospitality but rather resentment of her sister Mary, whom she wouldn’t even refer to by name, prompting Jesus to state Martha’s name twice in gentle correction. Martha learned from the experience to open herself to Christ’s presence with an undivided heart; so effective was this that later, following the death of her brother Lazarus, Martha was able to declare complete faith in Jesus (John 11:21-22).

There is something of both Martha and Mary in most of us. At Bethany Mary was truly contemplative in that her primary focus was friendship with Jesus. She knew that being in the Lord’s presence was the ‘one thing necessary’, and from this flowed her service as well as her prayer. Contemplation is the inflowing of God into an open heart. It is God’s free gift, given when and where he wishes to a soul willing to welcome and cooperate with him.

We Carmelites try to develop a ‘contemplative attitude’ of welcome to God, and this can come about not only through prayer but also through service, and through community interaction. That is why the Ratios (formation guidelines) of both the Carmelite friars and nuns state that: ‘The contemplative dimension is not merely one of the elements of our charism (prayer, community and service): it is the dynamic element which unifies them all’. In the Carmelite understanding it is not properly possible to compare ‘action vs. contemplation’ as if they are opposites; contemplation is the dynamic which unites prayer, service and community, and it is both an active cooperation with God and a passive reception of his grace.

There are arguably certain forms of prayer and meditation that can better dispose us to a contemplative encounter with God, what is sometimes called infused prayer. But the term contemplative prayer can be misleading if we don’t set it alongside contemplative service and contemplative community living. Prayer is essential for us to receive God’s gift of contemplation, but it is not the only means by which we become contemplative. As Thomas Merton put it: ‘For a Carmelite, the apostolate in its own way encourages contemplation, just as contemplation is the source of a genuine apostolate.’ Our service must flow from this understanding of contemplation, and an attitude of being at service.

Prayer and service inform one another
Carmelites believe that becoming contemplative – being open to the presence and action of God – is a gradual process of transformation. It enables us to grow in God’s likeness, to see with the eyes of God and to love with the heart of God. The natural fruit of contemplation is therefore to go out in service of God’s people, just as Jesus did; periods of prayer and reflection gave him strength to go into service of others. To serve people properly we must pray. Prayer inspires us to go out and serve, and service of others exposes our need for prayer. Without prayer – an intimate sharing with the God we know loves us – our service will be based on our own efforts and not the inspiration and grace of God. Without prayer the problems facing us may be insurmountable and we remain ineffective as servants. Without prayer our service can become, like Martha, detached from a true relationship with those we serve.

In her reform of Carmel, Teresa of Jesus (of Avila) wasn’t seeking to marginalise the active apostolate, but to nourish it with prayer. She said that she became busiest when she was most deeply rooted in contemplation, and that prayer must show its fruits in good works. The link between prayer and service is captured well in the 2003 Constitutions of the Secular Order of the Teresian Carmel (O.C.D.S.):
Prayer and apostolate, when they are true, are inseparable. The observation of St. Teresa that the purpose of prayer is ‘the birth of good works’ reminds the Secular Order that graces received ought to have an effect on those who receive them. Individually or as a community, and above all as members of the Church, apostolic activity is the fruit of prayer. (§26)

A contemporary Carmelite likewise describes the link between prayer and service:

It is the contemplative dimension of Carmel which impels the community to pay special attention to the ‘little ones’ of the world, those left out of the world’s attention and care. Contemplation leads one into an awareness of one’s own poverty of spirit and the need to wait on God. From this self-knowledge it is possible to be in solidarity with and have concern for all who have to wait in hope for God’s mercy and compassion. Contemplative prayer should be the deepest source of concern for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized of our world. (John Welch, O.Carm., The Carmelite Tradition).


Quietism and activism
A false understanding of what contemplation is can lead to either a rejection of prayer, or a rejection of service. In the seventeenth century the notion of contemplation as God’s gift to a willing soul was distorted by a philosophy known as Quietism. The Quietists placed great emphasis on intellectual stillness and interior passivity, believing that they could become perfect on earth purely by God’s grace regardless of their own effort in collaborating with God; thus they did not feel the need to participate in the life and sacraments of the Church, or exercise any ministry of service. This idea was condemned as heresy by the Roman Catholic Church because although contemplation is indeed God’s free gift and cannot be achieved solely by human actions, the effect of God’s grace is for the Christian to cooperate with God, putting God’s love into action through service and engaging fully in the life of the community.

The opposite danger of Quietism is Activism, that is, believing that action is the only worthwhile Christian practice, and that time spent in quiet reflection and prayer is wasted. As Carmelites we have to tread carefully between these two extremes, ensuring that all we do springs from a more authentic understanding of contemplation.

Contemplation, the reign of God, and the community
The contemplative attitude which the Carmelite tradition develops in us implies living with greater awareness, a wider consciousness of the world around us. Deepening our understanding of Carmelite spirituality does not remove us from the world; rather the opposite. Carmel throws us into the cut and thrust of life, into the world which Jesus immersed himself in. Jesus chose to become human and to take on the concerns of the human family. He is the supreme example of a contemplative whose heart was open to the Father, and thus also to his brothers and sisters. In this way Jesus announced the reign, the Kingdom, of God:

To be contemplative is to live the Kingdom. It is the human response to the love that God lavishes upon us. As contemplatives we are called to have eyes that see and ears that hear. We are to be in relationship with the world and its peoples. Contemplation is not a withdrawal from the world's realities but a dialogue with them. (Damian Cassidy, O.Carm., Contemplation and the Reign of God)


Being open to those around us is a crucial aspect of Carmelite life, and the community dimension of our charism is indispensable if we are to be transformed in Christ. We are not transformed on our own but in and through our relationships with other people. Human beings need one another; that is the way we are made and it is through relationship with other human beings that we grow and develop emotionally. ‘How we relate to people on a constant basis is the test of whether we are growing in the spiritual life or not’ (Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm., Mary the Contemplative). The community is also the place where our service is inspired, tested, and – if need be – corrected.

Our Carmelite communities are places where we can be of service, even in the tiniest act of welcome, accompaniment and friendship. Forming communities is itself an act of service and a sign of hope. Those in leadership within Carmelite communities have a particular duty to foster a spirit of service, leading by example: the Rule of Saint Albert specifies that leaders must serve in the spirit of Christ, and St. Teresa of Jesus specifies in her nuns’ Constitutions that the Prioress must be the first to sweep the floor.

Service as a community
Since service is an integral element of the Carmelite charism, apostolates can also be undertaken by communities as corporate activities, not solely by individuals within the community (exactly what form this will take depends on the circumstances). There are numerous benefits in a corporate approach to service. Firstly, it binds individual Carmelites together in a common purpose, helping erstwhile solitaries to become one body, as envisioned by Saint Paul. Secondly, it can render service more effective (the Bible is full of stories of people achieving more when they put their heads and hands together). Thirdly it helps Carmelite communities to be more outward-looking towards the world God loves. Linked to this is a fourth benefit, that of attracting new vocations to