The Spirituality of the Teresian Carmel

By Father Thomas, O.C.D.

THE CONCEPT of perfection which is the basis of all that has been written on the spirit of Carmel is that the objective of the Carmelite is a state of union in which the soul is transformed by love in God.  "The state of this divine union consists in the soul’s total transformation, according to the will, in such a manner that there may be naught in the soul that is contrary to the will of God, but that in all and through all, its movements may be those of the will of God alone." (Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Bk.I, ch. 11, n.2.).  This ideal set before his fellow religious by St. John of the Cross is carried over from the ancient spiritual tradition of Carmel as found in the work called the Institution of the First Monks (towards the end of the 12th century, or certainly before the middle of the 13th). The tradition of Carmel is twofold. "Firstly it consists in offering to God a holy heart, free from every stain of actual sin; we can reach that by our labor, our efforts with the help of grace; we have reached it when we are perfected in charity .... The other end of this life is a purely gratuitous gift of God: it consists in tasting, not only after death but even in this mortal life, the power of the divine presence and the sweetness of heavenly glories." (Institutio Primorum Monachorum, ch.2.). These two elements are not separate and unrelated. "By means of purity of heart and perfection of charity one arrives at the second end, that is, experimental knowledge of divine strength and celestial glory. " (Ibid.) .

While this experimental knowIedge is a gift of God, it is not for that reason out of our reach or devoid of merit. Both St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Jesus speak of a double union with God.  The first consists in perfect conformity of the human will with the will of God, which union of conformity is crowned quite normally with the mystical union in which the soul divested of self-love is penetrated with the divine life and realizes tha.t God lives or dwells within. (Cf. Ascent, Bk.II, ch.5; Interior Castle, Mans. 6, Ch. Ill, n.3.) If few souls reach this high state, it is not because God wishes that it be the lot of a few, but because He finds few disposed for such union. (Living Flame, A, St. 2, n.23) .

Carmel has always been the implacable enemy of mediocrity and half measures. St. Teresa warns the world that God "refuses to force our will, He takes what we give Him but does not give Himself wholly, until He sees that we are giving ourselves wholly to Him.”  (Way of perfection, Ch.28, n.12.) And St. John of the Cross gives expression to the same thought by saying, "God communicates Himself most to that soul that has progressed farthest in love; namely, that has its will in closest conformity with the will of God." (Ascent, Bk. II, Ch. 5, n.4) Total love postulates total self-denial. Souls of the Teresian Carmel are called to a totality of love.

Asceticism of Carmel

If the ideal of perfection is thus clearly set forth, the development of this ideal is no less evident in the writings of the Order. For the Carmelite, sanctity is to be reached by means of two practices: detachment and recollection, OR, mortification and prayer. All the precepts of the Primitive Rule may be reduced to these. The central precept of the Rule: "Let each one remain in his cell; or hear it, meditating day and night ( on the law of the Lord, and watching in prayer, unless otherwise justly occupied, together with the prescribed recitation of the Divine Office and daily assistance at Mass, insure the primacy of prayer; while the precepts of poverty, fasting, abstinence, manual labor, silence, and humility form the background of mortification.

Detachment is the negative element in the Carmelite program, of which the Christian world today is perhaps over-conscious. Too many spiritual men of our day have taken their impression of Carmel from the nothing, nothing, nothing of St. John of the Cross’s map of perfection, forgetting that this nothing of detachment is dictated by the ALL of union with God. The saint who said to one of his penitents, "’Nothing, nothing, nothing, even to leaving our very skin and all else for Christ," (St. John of the Cross, Fr. Bruno, O.C.D., Ch..16.) was human and practical enough to realize that unless the soul is enkindled with other and greater yearnings for that which is spiritual, it will be unable to throw off the yoke of nature or enter this night of sense, neither will it have the courage to remain in darkness as to all things.". (Ascent, Bk.I, Cb. X[V, n.2.) Austerity of life must be measured according to the strength of love. When love is strong, it will want to give much; when it is perfect, it will want to give all. (St. Teresa, Way of Perfection, Cb. 32.) St. John of the Cross disavows any intention of trying to create a vacuum in the soul. As the soul is emptied of desire for creature satisfactions it is filled with desire for Christ. In fact, the saint recommends the cultivation of an habitual desire for Christ before all else. "First, let him have an habitual desire to imitate Christ in everything that he does, conforming himself to His life." (Ascent,.Bk.I, Ch. 13, n.2) Father Gabriel finds it necessary to stress the order and discretion of St. John’s treatment of this matter of detachment. "We think it well to emphasize this advice of the Saint, for it shows how mistaken is the accusation which stigmatizes his doctrine as absolute and rigid. The principle of the necessity of complete detachment is absolute, but in its application the individual must take account of human weakness and needs. The man who would banish from his life every alleviation and recreation would soon fall into a physical and moral weariness which would be detrimental to the spiritual life itself. Moreover, the pleasures of sense are not always evil; there are pleasures which are perfectly innocent; but it is a question of not letting ourselves be- come attached to them. Otherwise we shall seek them in order to satisfy our own self-love, instead of using them for the benefit of our spiritual life and for the glory of God.”, (St. John of the Cross, Doctor of Divine Love and Contemplation, p. 30, note.)

Therefore, detachment is never made an end in itself. It is always looked upon as the instrument or means by which souls arrive at union with God in prayer.

The most important point of originality in the Teresian Reform was the intensification of mental prayer. St. Teresa herself introduced the two hours of mental prayer that are part of the Carmelite day, and St. John of the Cross adopted the practice for the Fathers of the Reform. This interior prayer is the life of the vocal prayer and liturgy" of the Order, and is prolonged during the day in the.practice of the presence of God.  Carmel does not view contemplation as an extraordinary grace, a quasi-miraculous favor reserved by God for a few privileged souls.  "All who wear this holy habit of Carmel," proclaims St. Teresa,"are called to prayer and contemplation.”. (Interior Castle, Mans. V., -Ch.I, n.2.) In souls athirst for union with God, contemplation flourishes and becomes an instrument of progress on the way to perfection and the crown of its perfect fulfillment. It is not to be confused with visions and revelations which Carmel; with St. John of the Cross, sees as extraordinary accompaniments of prayer and not in any way required in order to arrive at union with God. It is the teaching of the Teresian school of spirituality that contemplation is the normal development of the soul and postulates nothing more than the theological virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit, elements of the supernatural organism of the soul, the activation of which may be called con-natural.

This is not the place for a defense of the doctrine of acquired contemplation. Suffice it to say that in the Teresian school speculation upon contemplation has arisen from" a living contact with mystical facts and is directed immediately to the utility and guidance of contemplative souls. A contemplation which we can obtain by our human manner of working by means of the ordinary light of Faith and the ordinary aids of grace (Quiroga, Don que tuao, Ch.I, p. 511.) has met with disfavor in some circles, but a conciliatory spirit will find that the differences of various schools in this regard are little more than variations of terminology. (Cf. Gabriel, op. cir., p. 178, sqq.)

Realization of Ideal

Carmel’s insistence upon prayer is made practical in the cultivation of a personal love for Christ. Prayer is conceived as a friendship, and since the cultivation of friendship follows the laws of habit formation, each meditation is looked upon as a contact with Christ which, upon being repeated, soon results in deep esteem and strong love. This friendship inspired the Reform. "All I cared for then, as I do now, was that, as the enemies of God are so many and His friends so few, these latter might at least be devoted friends of Jesus Christ." (St. Teresa, Way of Perfection, Ch.I, n.2.) The Merciful Love of God manifested in the great mystery of the Incarnation is the spiritual center of Carmel’s spirituality.

St. John of the Cross’ insistence upon having an habitual desireto imitate Christ has been mentioned. This desire inspires a persistent search for God. Creatures cannot satisfy, for they are but traces of the divine. (St. John, Spiritual Canticle, St. VII.).  Contact with Christ by way of faith in prayer brings the soul to the object of its search (Ibid. St. XII.), and then through suffering and the cross it penetrates and finds fruition in the "deep mysteries in the wisdom of God which are in Christ." (Ibid. St. XXXVI, n.2.) The progress of the soul through creatures to Christ, and through Christ to union with the Divinity is wonderfully traced by the Mystical Doctor. And we have only to read his poem beginning, "How well I know the fount that freely flows, although ’tis night!”, to realize his tremendous appreciation for the Incarnation, and especially the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. It is in the Blessed Sacrament that the Carmelite finds the daily companionship that inspires divine friendship. The tenderness and simplicity of this love shows itself in Carmel’s devotion to the Infancy of Our Lord. St. Therese of the Child Jesus is a delightful reproduction in our day of all the deep strength of the Spanish Mystics. Witness her oblation to the Merciful Love of God and the power of her thought when describing, it. (Autobiography, Cb. VIII, p. 148.) The ambition of every worthy Carmelite is to be what St. Teresa of Avila termed a devoted friend of Christ.

Another practical manifestation of Carmelite spirituality is a tender love for Mary. Carmel’ glories in the title of Order of Our Lady, but thisis not a mere empty honor; it is given substance in a Marian life that is marked by three traditional characteristics: imitation, intimacy, and consecration. The Order looks upon Mary as "More Mother than Queen" (St. Therese, Autobiography, Ch. XII.), models’ it prayer life upon her simplicity and recollection, and considers every vocation a specially established relationship with the Mother of God.  Furthermore, far from considering its Marian life as a hindrance to union with God, Carmel’s teaching is that intimacy with Mary lends greater unction to the highest mystical union. (Cf. Michael of St. Augustine, The Mariform Life and Marian Life in Mary and for Mary. Chs. XIII, XIV.) " Carmel has for seven centuries enjoyed the special protection of Our Lady through the Brown Scapular, and considers this garment a sign of its consecration to Mary.  Total dedication of the Order to the Blessed Mother is indicated by its traditional motto: Totus Marianus est Carmelus.


This paper on the Spirituality of Carmel seems to demand a final word regarding the apostolate.  After passing from the Orient and the eremitical life of its cradle in Palestine, the Order became mendicant in the West and espoused in its vocation the apostolic life, preserving at all times a leaning towards contemplation and solitude. So completely has the contemplative dominated the active in Carmel, that the Order has always looked upon its prayer life as its first apostolate.

The life of the Carmelite Nun is founded on the principle that prayer has an apostolic value.  St. Teresa placed before her nuns the very militant function of aiding God’s priests by their prayer and penance. "I think," she writes, "He prizes one soul which by His mercy, and through our diligence and prayer, we may have gained for Him, more than all the other services we can render Him.”  (Foundations, Ch. I, n.7.).  The Church has always considered contemplatives as the apostles of the apostles. Plus XI, writing about the work of the contemplatives, says, "It is easy to understand how they who assiduously fulfill the duty of prayer and penance contribute more to the increase of the Church and the’ welfare of mankind than those who labor in the tilling of the Master’s field. For unless the former drew down from heaven a shower of divine graces to water the field that is being tilled, the evangelical laborers would indeed reap from their toil a more scanty crop." (A. A. S., Oct. 25, 1924.)

The friends of Christ, therefore, obtain the greatest victories in the conquest of the world for Him. St. Thomas gives the theological reason for this in these words, "Just as the man who lives in grace fulfills the will of God, it is fitting (congruum est).  In this relation of friendship that God should fulfill the will of man by saving others” (Summa Theol. Ia IIae, q. 114, a.6.), and St. John of the Cross puts it this way. "A little of this pure love is more fruitful for the Church than all external works." (Spiritual Canticle, B. St. 29, n.2.)

Since priests of the Order exercise an exterior apostolate also, they must necessarily show the influence of the ideal of divine intimacy fostered in Carmel. Carmelite priests have the particular mission of helping souls to lead a life of interior union with God. They must find themselves at home with the problems of spiritual direction. This does not mean that the priestly ministry of a Carmelite limits itself to interior souls, since the priest of God owes his generous and zealous efforts to the whole Church, not excluding sinners and infidels. But when St. John of the Cross converted a sinner, he did not rest content with bringing about a return to the state of grace., He tried to lead this soul to a fervent life. One saint can do more than a thousand mediocre souls, and the great Carmelite Salmanticenses call attention to the great joy that is given to the Heart of Christ by leading souls to higher sanctity. (Cursus Theol. Tract. XIX De Caritate, disp. V, n. 93.)