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Principles for Your Spiritual Life: Insights from the Carmelite Rule

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Here then are a few points I have written down to provide you with a standard of conduct to live up to; but our Lord, at his second coming, will reward anyone who does more than he is obliged to do. See that the bounds of common sense are not exceeded, however, for common sense is the guide of the virtues.

~Rule of St. Albert (The Carmelite Rule), n. 24.

Before going into the spiritual principles put forward at the end of the Carmelite rule, it is important to understand its historical and literary context. The rule was written by St. Albert of Jerusalem. He was the local patriarch for the Catholic Church in the Holy Land from 1204-1214 AD. Historians of the Carmelite Order believe he wrote the rule around 1207-1208. Pope Honorius III accepted the rule as one mode of religious life in the Church in 1226, but the rule, after a few alterations, was fully honored and declared The Rule of Carmel by Pope Innocent IV in 1247. The rule itself is actually a letter written by St. Albert for a hermit community on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. Through this letter St. Albert acknowledges the way of life the hermits were already living and offers them several ideas that he wished to be incorporated into their way of life. He also codified their general practices through this letter.

Carmel: Garden of the soul

The name Carmel simply means “a garden” in Hebrew. Mount Carmel in Israel is a lush and fruitful place for farmers to raise crops. Also, within the Bible, Carmel is a place of life and intimacy between God and the Jewish people. Elijah the Prophet is a perfect example of this. In 1st Kings 17, Elijah was cared for by the ravens whom God had sent to him while he was on Mount Carmel. A garden is a place for life and growth but requires work for that life to flourish. If a farmer does not work the soil, the seeds planted will never grow to their full potential.

The image of the garden as a metaphor for the soul was brilliantly articulated by St. Teresa of Avila who, in her Spiritual Autobiography, used the garden and the act of watering as a way for a person to understand the life of prayer. For St. Teresa the garden of the soul is always dependent on God, who is the foundation of the garden and the source of its existence. It is in this context of a garden that a clear understanding of the two spiritual principles from the paragraph of the Carmelite Rule above can be had. Those two principles are supererogation and common sense.

Know the Garden: Our Need for Order

We will start with the latter. Common sense in the spiritual life is the means through which a person begins to understand himself in and through God. God, through His act of creation, made beings with defined boundaries. God made these boundaries known to Adam and Eve through His prohibition of eating from the Tree of Good and Evil. The rule sees the need for necessary boundaries in the spiritual life, the primary being that of common sense. As the opening paragraph notes, common sense is the boundary that guides the virtues in our lives.

The boundary of common sense is an ordering principle that uses the good sense of the Carmelite along with his sound judgement to organize the garden that is his soul. Please note that the garden is always a gift given, and we are called to tend it as stewards. The garden is not our own. Through common sense a person begins to know this garden as it has been created by God but also impacted and shaped by family, friends, enemies, others, our own self, and finally God.

As a person matures in the spiritual life (that is, fully living out of one’s garden) he, by the grace of God, can cultivate and take the actions necessary for the garden to produce a harvest. The garden is the home of the gardener. For the gardener to become the best gardener possible he must become aware of every knowable element present within the garden he tends. This task of learning about the garden is the call for self-knowledge, which is made possible through common sense. Via that tool, a person can look at himself honestly. Common sense, as the principle of order, is necessary for life in the garden, but it is not sufficient in and of itself for the gardener.

Entering Chaos: Stepping Outside the Garden

Now, let us turn to the concept of supererogation. Supererogation is the general act of going beyond one’s mere duty. In general, this principle introduces some level of chaos into the spiritual life. What do I mean by chaos? In this context, chaos represents the unknown areas around our garden (other people, for example). Life is always growing and expanding and is never entirely for its own self. As the Israelites were told to leave their gardens and vineyards open to the poor, we are called to do the same. Going into the chaos, as seen through the Carmelite Rule, hints at going beyond the mere conduct put forward by the rule.

We see this idea lived out when Jesus told Peter to cast the net into the deep waters of the unknown where new life was waiting. When we look outside the garden given to us, we see how the fruits of it can care for those in need. We can also see how the beauty of the land around the garden is beautiful itself. We learn through stepping out of the garden into the unknown that the beauty of others does not diminish the beauty of the garden entrusted to us but accentuates it. Finally, it is only by leaving the garden, stepping out from within ourselves, that we can find the new and necessary seeds that the Lord of the garden is calling us to plant within it.

A Necessary Tension

Common sense and supererogation – order and chaos – live in tension with each other, just as Martha and Mary did in the Gospel. Yet, as St. Teresa reminds us at the end of her holy work, The Interior Castle, we need to have something of each sister in us. The spiritual life is both an interior and an exterior journey that requires a foundation made known through and cultivated by common sense. Why common sense? Common sense reveals to us that our foundation is God. God is the foundation on which we stand because through our existence we are always in relationship with Him. God is not merely one thing among many. To say that we “have” a relationship with God is dangerous because within our minds we can make God our equal, which He is not! God is our foundation, as Acts 17:17 teaches us. Common sense allows us to stay sure-footed in our spiritual life because it roots our mind in the truth that we exist because of God.

Likewise, we need the courage offered by supererogation to live deeply, through acts of charity, like God, so we can share the life offered from that foundation of our being. As we accept the invitation to enter more profoundly into our relationship with God, even though we do not know what will grow from that relationship, we know that it will be fruitful because of who God is, the Creator who created us from nothing.

Even though the process of growth is not easy, the very fact of growth in the life of God is good. As we grow we can begin to be like God and share the life of that relationship by offering the fruits of the garden that has grown in our souls. Likewise, it is through sharing that we begin to see that all life is intimately connected through God our Creator. We thus help each other to tend our own gardens.

Both principles, as taught and lived out in the tradition of Carmel, are meant to help us be prepared for the Seconding Coming of Jesus. By living out these principles as fully as possible within the totality of our being, we become open to His life, which is our foundation. Hence, when Jesus comes He will see a good and faithful servant and offer to each of us His embrace in joyful love.

Love does not consist in great sweetness of devotion, but in a fervent determination to strive to please God in all things, in avoiding, as far as possible, all that would offend Him, and in praying for the increase of the glory and honor of His Son and for the growth of the Catholic Church. These are the signs of love; do not imagine that it consists in never thinking of anything but God, and that if your thoughts wander a little all is lost.

~St. Teresa of Jesus (The Interior Castle, Chapter 1).