Reflection on the Carmelite Rule

The Carmelites began in the early 1200s, as a group of men living on the slopes of Mount Carmel, which is on the coast of Israel near the city of Haifa. We don’t know much about them – not even any of their names. One of the first things we do know, is that they went to their local bishop, Albert of Jerusalem, and asked him to give them a rule, or a document to guide their way of life.

Albert gave them the document that we call the Carmelite Rule between 1206 and 1214. It’s easy to find a copy of it on the internet. When we look at it, two things stand out immediately. The first is the sheer number of biblical quotations or allusions that Albert makes in it. Every paragraph is full of familiar phrases; Albert wants to make clear that their way of life is rooted in the Bible, and especially in the community formed in Jerusalem by Jesus’ followers after Pentecost.

The second striking thing is just how short the Carmelite rule is. If you’ve got good eyesight, it can be printed and read on a single A4 sheet – this is much shorter than the rules associated with other religious orders. It’s shortness means that it is very incomplete, and that there are large areas of life that it doesn’t attempt to regulate. Some people think of a religious rule as a complete description of everything that the friar, nun or monk should do during the day, but this is nothing like that. It is just a framework consisting of the very basics for community living.

I sometimes think of this as like a trellis in the garden. A rose planted at its base will climb up it, reaching upwards towards the light. Having that trellis there allows the rose to grow and flourish, and it also allows the gardener to guide it into a particular shape. The religious rule works a bit like this: it provides a structure that helps us to flourish as people, making that path upwards towards God easier.

Because the Carmelite life is about coming closer to God, the Rule encourages us to “meditate day and night on the law of the Lord”. Albert is using the word meditate in its medieval sense – he doesn’t mean the practice of sitting bolt-upright, eyes closed, hands on our knees that we might associate today with concentrating our attention on God. He means something much simpler and much more general – just thinking. We might do this by going about our daily business while mulling over a passage from the Bible, or even just a sentence. We might just repeat a particular line from a Psalm in our heads, or even under our breath.

This way of paying attention to God is something that has been very important to Carmelites over the centuries. The end result of this loving attention to God that the Rule encourages is that we become transformed. We become closer to God, and become better at seeing the world the way that God does. To see another person with God’s eyes, is to see that they are loved. To see the world in this way is to see its true beauty.

When we think about the Rule we need to see clearly what it can and can’t do. The Rule can’t transform us so that we see with God’s eyes; only God can do that work of transformation. But what the Rule provides is a framework that we can use to live our lives, that encourages us to live in a way that is open to God’s transforming work.

Richard Green, O.Carm.

Weekly Reflections

Steps on the Journey - weekly Reflections from Carmel
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