The setting of the Carmelite convent encourages, nourishes and develops this simple form of prayer. This personal, silent, solitary prayer is the backbone, the whole meaning of Carmelite life. Without it, Carmel would be nothing.
"When you have not been speaking to a person for some time," says Saint Teresa, "he soon becomes a stranger to you and you forget how to talk to him. Before long even if he is a kinsman, you feel as if you do not know him, for both kinship and friendship lose their influence when communication ceases."
Communication never ceases in the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. The Carmelite Rule bids each Carmelite, day and night, to meditate on the Law of the Lord and to watch in prayer. This watching in prayer, not only prepares us for heaven when we will behold the Lord of Glory in the face-to-face beatific vision, but it disposes us to receive graces of intimacy in this life.
"O Christian! O my daughters!" she exclaims. "Remember that He does not keep us waiting until the next life before rewarding us for our friendship. Our recompense begins in this life."
Saint Teresa of Avila was born into the respected and well-known Cepeda y Ahumada family, a name associated with nobility, influence and power. She was a spirited little one - very pretty, very smart, witty, self-willed, and ardent.
At the age of seven, she heard that the Moors were killing Christians, sending them straight into heaven as martyrs. Teresa convinced her little brother to join her on a journey to find these Moors, become martyrs and gain their tickets to heaven. Luckily, an uncle intercepted them. At the age of fifteen, she had the life-wrenching pain of experiencing the loss of her mother.
Five years later, against her fathers wishes, she entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, Spain. Her father eventually gave her his blessing. Although she still carried her noble name and title, it was not recognized in the monastery. During her first years as a Carmelite, she led a superficial life. That life satisfied her for a while, but never completely. When she became ill, God entered into that illness with Teresa. During this time, Teresa embraced the power of mental prayer and contemplation and deepened her interior union with Christ. Teresa began to live the spiritual life seriously, but found herself distracted by worldly temptations and distractions. One day, while walking down the convent hallway, she took special notice of a statue of Christ she had passed many times. On this encounter, however, her life was changed. From then on, prayer framed her life. Teresa was a mystic, a reformer, a gifted writer.
After twenty-five years as a Carmelite nun, she began her God-given mission of reforming the Carmelite order. Teresa established monasteries of Discalced Carmelite nuns. She was asked by her confessor to write about her intense life of prayer. She struggled to put into writing the depth of her prayers and the intimacy of her relationship with God. Her masterpiece, The Interior Castle (her journey through the seven stages of prayer), symbolically expresses her own interior prayer as well as her struggles to put these experiences into writing.
Saint Teresa learned that her weaknesses and faults were not obstacles to Gods powerful love. God needs only our sincere, consistent effort. He will bring us where He wants us to be. He does not need our success. He needs us to make a sincere, genuine, effort to progress on our spiritual path. He wants us to converse freely and intimately with Him. He wants us to be open to His will and to invite Him into our hearts. He is there - waiting for us.
Teresa died in 1582 and was canonized a saint in 1622. In 1970, St. Teresa of Avila was proclaimed "Doctor of the Church."
Our Lord taught Saint Teresa a simple method of prayer. It is often called mental prayer. "I never knew what it was to get satisfaction and comfort out of prayer," confesses the Saint, "until the Lord taught me this method - I beg of you to test it."
The method is this: we know God is everywhere, but He dwells in the human heart in a special manner. Close your eyes, then and look at Him, present there within you. This look is already a prayer. This simple gaze gives glory to God. The whole problem, Saint Teresa teaches us, comes from our not really grasping the fact that He is within us: "How is it, Lord, that we do not look at Thy face when it is so near us?"
"Look at Him; keep Him company; talk with Him. Do not be foolish - speak with Him as with a Father, a Brother, sometimes in one way sometimes in another."
This manner of praying brings with it a thousand blessings. "Before long," says Teresa, "you will see how you gain. There will be a gradual gaining of mastery over oneself. The soul will be stronger for the fight."
"You will be laying a good foundation so that if the Lord desires to raise you to achieve great things He will find you ready because you will be close to Him."
"Gently recall your mind when it wanders . . . unceasingly gather up again your scattered spirit. Turn your inward eye once more towards Him . . . persevere with an unconquered heart."
"During the day quietly prepare for prayer-time: in the midst of work recall, if only for a moment, your Divine Companion; go about your duties in a quiet way."
Directed to Christ and oriented to Him, Carmel is also directed to Mary and oriented to her. Completely Marian, Totus marianus est, Carmelite authors like to repeat throughout the centuries, and of all their titles none is dearer to the sons (and daughters) of Elijah than that of Brother (and Sisters) of our Lady. It is historically certain that the first hermits who retired to Mount Carmel made their center a chapel consecrated to our Lady, and from that time of the first Prior General, the Carmelites were called Brothers of our Lady of Mount Carmel. So devotion to our Lady is seen to be one of their disctinctive signs.
Despite its historical inexactitudes, the Book of the Institution of the First Monks shows that the Order is dominated by the two great figures which represent on different levels, its ideals: Elijah and our Lady. At Carmel what is true of our Lord is also true of our Lady. Contemplative life advances by assimilation and union, much more than by images, examples and models. Preserving all due proportion, what we have said of Christ, we repeat about Mary.
Our Lady is for Carmelites not only the Mother of Christ and their own mother. She also represents and expresses the souls essential attitude before God. Mary not only sums up the whole Old Testament, she represents all humanity. She is its soul athirst for God, longing for God, hoping for God. All her strength and all her faculties are turned toward God so that she may receive and fully live by Him.
Our Lady is also the place of the divine response, of the divine coming. In her, humanity becomes conscious of Gods desire and fully efficacious will to give Himself to us. Mary is the place of this meeting; better still, she is the temple in which is consummated Gods espousals with humanity, the hidden sanctuary in which the Spouse is united with the bride, the desert that flowers at the breath of God.
In Carmel God is the objective, but the soul will become more and more Mary. The reason why the Rule does not mention our Lady is clear. Carmel seeks to gaze upon God and love God with mind and heart. What Mary represents is the soul itself. As the soul is united to Christ, so Carmel is hidden in Mary. For Carmel, Mary is, beyond any doubt, the infinitely admirable and lovable Mother, the all-merciful Mother, but deeper than this, she is the one who was chosen and formed by God to be the Mother of the Savior; she is the purest, highest, and most perfect expression of the soul that is open to the divine action and lives in Marys light and in Marys love. She is par excellence, the contemplative soul.
If one is to be called a friend of Christ, a Carmelite must fulfill the obligations which even the world demands of what it means to be a faithful friend.
The four basic obligations of intimate human friendships are: