A unique and interesting aspect of Carmelite spirituality and prayer is that we do not look to a founder as a guide but to a place.
What do I mean? The other great mendicant orders, like the Augustinians, Dominicans, and Franciscans, look at a founder as their lens for approaching Jesus and the spiritual life He calls all people to. Franciscans look at the Poor Christ, shown and taught by St. Francis as the foundation for their way of life. For the Augustinians, the Communal Christ, as shown through their spiritual founder, St. Augustine. Then the Dominicans, who see the Preaching Christ, as highlighted and shown by the life of St. Dominic.
All these groups are important for the life of the Church, and the view they offer us on Christ. Yet, each is dependent upon the life and character of their founder, whether literal or spiritual, as the source that fundamentally shapes their way of life. An anecdotal example I can offer is from my own time in religious formation. During formation, I met many different Franciscans from the variety of different groups in the Church. One thing I always heard from these amazing men and women, was the question, “What would St. Francis do about this issue?”
That sort of question is not part of our Carmelite vocabulary. Why?
An Historical Perspective
The Carmelite Rule was written by St. Albert of Jerusalem, the local patriarch during our foundation period on Mount Carmel, in the Holy Land. A key aspect of our rule is that St. Albert within the rule supported local practices the hermits had already committed themselves to on Mount Carmel. He honored their life while also trying to regularize it. When the Order celebrates his feast day (Sept. 17), we emphasize him as a Bishop and Lawgiver, not a founder. Also, the Order does not know much about the individual hermits on Mount Carmel. In fact, our rule is written to Brother B.; we do not even have his name, even though the tradition believes it was Brocard.
Now, the Carmelite Rule focuses a lot on the physical structure of the place, the prayer life of the community within that place, and the private life of the prayer of each member. Foundationally, the Rule focuses a Carmelite on setting up a place for encounter with the Lord, where like Israel, a Carmelite can wrestle with the Lord, as he or she seeks to grow in deeper allegiance to Him. The Rule offers great flexibility based on the Carmelite’s individual need. All the work of the Carmelite is focused on allegiance to Christ, allegiance gained through a pure heart and stout conscience.
The physicality of the Rule points to a key word used to describe the Carmelite life, charism, and spirituality: incarnational.
A Movement of Prayer for Our Lives
Why incarnational? Because the rule calls the members of the community to daily communion. To move from the private place of prayer, a Carmelite’s cell, to a moment of encounter now within the community, where the group rests upon their Savior Jesus Christ, via the Eucharist. Within the communal place, they share their experiences of Him from his or her time alone with the Lord in her or his cell. In general, there is a three-point movement for the Carmelite throughout her or his day, which are dependent upon a physical location. Roughly, those three points are the cell, community space, and the world (place of ministry).
A Carmelite begins their day with times of prayer in the cell. From there they are called out to be with the community. From this communal moment, the Carmelite is called to go into the world and minister; even the hermits on Mount Carmel cared for pilgrims in the Holy Land. Near the end of the day, the three points are reversed: the Carmelite moves from the world back to the community and then to their own cell. These places of encounter in the local community and world are the nectar by which the Carmelite offers up to the Lord in their cell. Why? Because it is God alone who can transform that nectar into honey.
Honey, which itself is sweet and life-giving, not only to the individual Carmelite but their community and the people they encounter in the world. This life-giving process of the Carmelite Charism begins and ends in the cell for the Carmelite, making the cell the primary place of prayer for the Carmelite. It is in the cell where a Carmelite learns to be with, listen to, and rely on God. Thus, it is of the utmost importance for a Carmelite to craft their cell into a true place of prayer.
Crafting A Cell: Practical Concerns & Ideas for Your Life
“For prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.”—St. Teresa of Jesus
A life of prayer fosters our relationship with God. The Carmelite Rule calls a Carmelite to a life of allegiance to Christ. Saint Teresa of Jesus (sometimes called St. Teresa of Avila) offers an insight that this allegiance is expressed via friendship with God. Of course, this concept of friendship with God makes perfect sense. If a person wishes to call another person their friend, that requires the person to spend time with the other. The idea of cultivating friendship with God, connected with the importance of the Carmelite cell, offers us at least three key points to consider when crafting cell for prayer: location, time, and distractions.
It is within a person’s domicile that the person will need to find and craft their cell: a space within a space. Just as Jesus went off to pray, we to must go off and pray. In terms of location, a person’s cell needs to be in a place where there is not a lot of traffic within the house. Why? Because our journey into our cell is like a mini-pilgrimage. We leave the ordinary flow of our day to a place set apart and blessed by God.
Also, when choosing a spot, keep in mind that different parts of our homes can trigger certain emotional aspects within us. These locational triggers may cause problems as we try to rest in the cell. For example, if the dining area is where a person tends to work on his or her bills, that area might be a place that causes tension within the person. Therefore, that place may not be the ideal location for them to craft their cell to be present to God. Searching for a place to build a cell requires the person to become more aware of their relationship with their home. Self-knowledge is an important aspect of Carmelite spirituality. Thus, the search is deeply intimate to the person or the couple and requires a process of discernment.
Time is a gift given to us by God, and we honor that gift by acts of prudence about how we use it. The highest prudential act is the time we return to God in prayer. When a person finds a place to craft their cell, a question the person needs to ask themself is, “How much time will I spend there?” Now, this is where realistic expectations need to be set. If a person has kids, is married, etc., the amount of time they will spend in their cell is limited. Remember, quality time with God is always of the utmost importance in prayer, not quantity per se.
The intention is important here. One must enter their cell with the desire to become open before God; whether a minute or an hour, it does not matter. What matters is if the person puts all of their heart into the time while in the cell. In discerning one’s time of prayer in the cell, the person needs to reflect upon their daily schedule to see where a portion can be given to God in the cell. Even if it is only five minutes of the day, the intent of the heart is key, because it opens the person up to the presence of God when they enter their cell. No time in prayer is ever to minimal for God.
Every time we enter our cell, we will always bring our baggage with us; and that is okay. God encounters us where we are in our lives to take us to where we are meant to be. However, we need to reflect on what we place in our cell. I have many icons in my cell because they help my mind to focus on God. For other people, icons and images may be a distraction that keeps them from listening to God.
Distractions are unique to the person. A couple that crafts a cell in their home needs to have frank conversations about what goes into the cell. Any object can either help or hinder each one’s time of prayer. It may mean that a couple needs to have their separate times in that cell and place within it what they need to help themselves become open and attentive to the presence of God while in the cell. Couples do not always need to pray together, but they should have some time together in prayer during the week.
We all deal with distractions in our prayer life, but it is not enough to merely know them; we must avoid cultivating those distractions in our cell. A big rule I recommend is no electronic gadgets in the cell!
The Cell: A Witness to Prayer
Finally, for a family with children, having an intentional place of solitude and prayer with the Lord in the home helps a child to understand what it means to be in a sacred space. It also shows them that prayer is important for a person’s life. Thus, the cell can be a discussion point as the child grows to help them form their own life of prayer.
Also, for a single person or a family, when guests come over and they see a certain space in the house set apart for prayer, it can act as a point of evangelization. Through seeing our cell, we can speak to the person about our time and life of prayer in the cell and how this act of entering our cell has helped to strengthen and shape our friendship with Jesus. Remember, the disciples, after seeing Jesus go off regularly to pray, asked for his teaching on prayer. It is through that request that we were given the Our Father.
Our prayer lives are something private to us and need to be respected, but they must never remain a secret hidden away. The honey God gives us in the cell is meant to be shared.
Our True Joy
“Everything thrilled me; I felt as though I was transported into a desert; our little cell, above all, filled me with joy.”—St. Therese of Lisieux
Our time in the cell is not called to be a chore or a burden, but a moment of joy. It is in that place where we learn to be present to Our Lord, brother, and friend, Jesus. The desert of the Carmelite cell is not a place where we just go to die. It is the place where one discovers the new life that is waiting beneath its surface. All that our desert needs is the life-giving rain. The rain, the grace of God, is always given freely from God to us. Our cell is the place where we begin to become open to the life-giving rain that God desires to shower upon us.