A Carmelite Retreat
When the Lord Leads the Carmelite Into the Desert
“Each one shall remain in his cell or near it, meditating day and night on the law of the Lord and watching in prayer, unless otherwise justly employed.” (Rule of Carmel #8)
This direction of the Carmelite Rule sums up succinctly the life of a religious of Carmel: to meditate, to pray and to remain with the Lord alone and in silence. The first hermits of Carmel could do this, living as they did in the desert and on the slopes of the mountains. Even today, this injunction remains the ideal and true definition of Carmelite life. If this is so, then why in the world do Carmelites need a retreat?
A Romanticized Idea
Why? Because they live in the world—the world of the 21st century! Even in the restricted form experienced in the Carmelite cloister, modern-day life involves much more activity, work, and interaction than the meditative life-style and the “justly employed” activity described in the lives of the first hermits. The romanticized idea that Carmelites don’t have to do anything but to remain always “on their knees” experiencing sweetness and light in the embrace of the Lord, is just that—a romanticized idea. It is not for nothing that Carmelites wear a brown habit—the color of the earth. Like their Holy Mother, St. Teresa, who was a most practical and pragmatic woman, and their little sister, St. Therese, who preferred the “monotony of daily sacrifice to ecstasies,” Carmelites have their feet set solidly on the ground. This does not mean they do not pray, work, meditate, keep silence, and love in the spirit of those first hermit–fathers and after the example of St. Teresa. It means that they realistically face the challenges of their lives today and understand the need to “fall back and regroup” by arranging for specific times of more focused, distraction-free, intense prayer, meditation, silence and love. Hence, the mandate in the Carmelite Constitutions regarding the yearly Community retreat involving all the members, and the yearly private retreat of each individual sister.
Alone with Him
The days of retreat are some of the most longed-for times of the year. In those sacred days the Carmelite experiences more vividly the teaching of St. Teresa of Jesus; that prayer is “a close sharing between friends; taking time to be frequently alone with Him whom we know loves us.” It is a seeking of Him whom the soul loves—Jesus—and in Him, the Father. The Carmelite seeks Him “in that pure faith which causes her to be born of Him and live in Him. The heart, alone and empty, is the place of this quest and encounter.…” (CCC #2709, 2710). Her prayer is that “of a child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which she is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving more” (CCC #2712). It is her gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus, even in darkness or dryness, so that His gaze can illumine her heart and teach her to see all things in the light of His truth and His compassion. It is a hearing of and meditating on, the Word of God, assenting to it in obedience and unconditional acceptance. A Carmelite retreat, like the Carmelite calling, is neither an escape from reality nor a flight from life. It is undertaken as much for the Church and for others as for the individual person who experiences it. The retreat is a very cherished and fruitful element and, if you will, a “compressed” expression, of the entire Carmelite vocation. If the Lord leads the Carmelite “into the desert to speak to her heart” (Hos 2:16) it is not only to tell her how much she is loved, but to show her how much she must love, sacrifice, and give of herself for her brothers and sisters journeying with her through the desert of this world.
All You Have Got to Long For
“This is why he has gathered you here; this is your calling; this is what your task has got to be; this is all you have got to long for, cry for, pray for!” (St. Teresa of Jesus) A Carmelite’s retreat is truly a stimulus to live more deeply, purely and consciously her union with God, expressed in humble service, reverent worship and an ever-deepening and continual daily prayer. Knowing that she cannot have this kind of continual prayer-life if she does not concentrate on it with greater intensity at specific times, she willingly embraces the mandated retreats. And whether the days and hours of her retreat are light-filled and joyous or dark-some and difficult, she believes in the Presence and power of the One who has called her into this desert and she abandons herself to Him in prayer with all her heart and soul.