Thursday, December 25, 2014

Carmelite Spirituality

"At the Fountain of Elijah" (1999) by Wilfrid McGreal is part of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series. In typical fashion, the book provides a fascinating and entertaining introduction and overview of the Carmelite spiritual tradition.

The book begins by providing some historical background to the Carmelite order. The Carmelites began in the 12th century when a group of pilgrims and hermits settled on Mt. Carmel in Israel seeking to live a more authentic spiritual life. Mt. Carmel was a place of historic significance and this spiritual idea took hold of many followers. Mt. Carmel after all, had been the home of Elijah the prophet and the mountain was also seen as a place of abundance and beauty. Returning to Europe, Pope Innocent IV approved their way of life which focused on contemplation but also included a deep commitment to a communal life and service to the community.

What is it about the Carmelite tradition that attracts many today? McGreal quotes an American Carmelite who writes:

"The Carmelite tradition speaks to those who long to be apart, to separate from a smothering existence. the tradition offers the lure of wilderness, mountain retreat, vast expanses of desert. In solitude, in a place apart, we searchers hope to hear our heart's desires more clearly, to reassess life, to dream, to be nourished by hidden springs, to meet the One whom others speak of with great assurance. Those who are drawn by the Carmelite tradition are often pilgrims to places unknown, trusting the testimony of others who have taken the same ancient path" (pg. 13).

That phrase a "smothering existence" strikes home! Who today cannot relate to that in our present day world filled with gadgets, noise, and our culture's maniacal stress on speed?

As in other volumes in this series, the reader is also introduced to the major spiritual figures in the tradition. Speaking for myself, I have to say that I find this one of the real strengths of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series. For the Carmelites this includes Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, John of St. Samson, Lawrence of the Resurrection, Therese of Lisieux Edith Stein and Titus Brandsma. These are fantastic chapters and provide wonderful overviews of some terrific spiritual luminaries. You get bit sized nuggets on each writer, and learn about such themes as the dark night of the soul and the practice of the presence of God.

Wilfrid McGreal has done us a great service in writing about the Carmelite tradition from the 12th century to the present. The reader gets a taste for the Carmelite Rule, history and some of its major figures. The book is well written and easy to read and I wish it was twice the size! Part of me is a Carmelite as I resonate to the themes of Teresa and St. John of the Cross.

This volume and series belongs in every seminary, church library, and students interested in the history of spirituality. Really good! A bibliography guise the reader to other important Carmelite literature.

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