What Is A Secular Carmelite?

During the last few months, I have been blessed, honored and excited to share with people that I have been accepted into the formation process with the Secular Carmelites. As I have said before, I consider this another step – a big step – in what has been a life-long spiritual journey.

People have congratulated me. They have promised to pray for me.

And they have asked a lot of questions.

Our Catholic Church is filled with all sorts of cool things that differentiate us from other faith traditions. Because we have been around so long – we are the original Christian Church as we can trace our roots back to Jesus Christ himself – we have accumulated all sorts of interesting history and unique details.

One I always have found most interesting is how through the centuries, different men and women have established groups that have certain distinct styles, rules and ways of living. These groups, usually called “orders,” can divide each day into praying a specific way, working at a unique task and living in distinct ways.

Examples of some well-known orders are the Jesuits (founded by St. Ignatius Loyola), the Dominicans (founded by St. Dominic) and the Franciscans (founded by St. Francis). You may also have heard of the Pauline Fathers, Cistercians and Trappists. There are sub-categories of religious orders which can include monks and nuns who live and work in monasteries, friars and sisters who participate in apostolic activities, and priests who take religious vows and lead very busy apostolic lives.

In responding to a query as to why there are so many Catholic religious orders, a posting at www.catholic.com says:

Basically, there are different religious orders in the Church because each order has its own purpose. For example, the Franciscans have a special love for and identification with the poor. Dominicans are especially interested in preaching, as is indicated by the fact that the official name of the order is the Order of Preachers. Other groups, such as the Benedictines, are monastic rather than active in the world like the Franciscans and Dominicans.

Not all priests are consecrated religious. Only those priests who belong to a particular order are consecrated religious, although a secular priest can join an order as a tertiary (third order) who lives in the world. Permanent deacons and laypeople can also belong to the tertiaries of a particular order of their choosing.

Feel free to ask others, but I will try to provide answers for some of the more common questions I have received:

Who are the Carmelites?

The Carmelites include friars and nuns who can trace their heritage and way of life to the prophet Elijah in the Old Testament of the Bible. They follow a “rule of life” given to the order by St. Albert Avogadro in the early 13th century. Essentially, the Carmelite Rule states it is imperative to “live a life in allegiance to Jesus Christ.”An emphasis of the order are the ministries of teaching prayer and giving spiritual direction.

The Order of Carmelites has its origins on Mount Carmel, in Palestine. As we can read in the Second Book of Kings, Elijah defended his faith in the God of Israel when he won the challenge against the priests of Baal. In the 12th century, some Christians settled in one of the narrow valleys of Mount Carmel to live as hermits after Elijah’s example. Because of their deep devotion to the mother of Jesus, they came to be known as the “Brothers of Saint Mary of Mount Carmel.”

There actually are two primary types of Carmelites: the original Carmelites and the Discalced Carmelites. The Discalced Carmelites – “discalced” means “without shoes” – came about after reformation of the order by St. Teresa of Jesus (St. Teresa of Avila) in the 16th century. There had been a relaxation of discipline in many communities, so St. Teresa tried to stop the spread of that. She reformed the order’s nuns and obtained the help of St. John of the Cross in reforming the friars.

Are there some Carmelites whose names I would recognize?

St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross likely are two of the best known. Other recognizable names include St. Theresa of Lisieux and St. Simon Stock. There are several Carmelites who have been beatified and are awaiting the Vatican to canonize them as declared saints. Oh, and St. John Paul II was a Secular Carmelite while he was a parish priest in Poland.

What is a Secular Carmelite?

A movement among the laity eventually led to the institution of the Carmelite Third Order and the Confraternities of the Scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel throughout the world. That third order now is known as the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites – which is often abbreviated OCDS, Ordo Carmelitarum Discalceatorum Saecularis in Latin. The group is composed primarily of lay persons and some accepted secular clergy.

By the way, Seculars do not consider foregoing shoes to be a necessity for living internal austerity and poverty.

Does this mean you will be a deacon?

No, I will never be ordained. For quite a while, I considered whether I was being called to the permanent diaconate. My discernment led me to believe that is not my vocation or spirituality.

Does this mean that if Donna dies, you can’t get remarried?

That is the case for ordained deacons who are married, but not for third order members of a religious order.

What do you do as a Carmelite?

Prayer is fundamental to the life of a Carmelite, who is called to pray alone or with other Carmelites several times a day, meditate throughout the day and night on the Word of God, and develop a contemplative aspect of life in dialogue with God. Carmelites also are required to love the Church and her people, do manual work and conform their will to God’s will.

Being a Secular Carmelite isn’t just something a person does; it is a way of life. Much like friars and nuns, the daily obligations of the Seculars are periods of silent, contemplative prayer, to pray Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, and to attend daily Mass and say pray Night Prayer when possible. It also important to pray with Scriptures in the style of Lectio Divina and to make spiritual retreats. There should be an intense devotion to the Blessed Mother and studying the writings of saints such as St. Teresa and St. John.

The St. Louis group meets monthly at the Carmelite Monastery on Clayton Road. We study and discuss some of those writings, enjoy some social time and generally listen to a formation talk from a priest or another source. The meeting concludes with Evening Prayer and Benediction before the exposed Blessed Sacrament in the monastery chapel.

What happens during the formation process?

The process actually began with a period of “aspirancy,” which for me lasted about a year. I read information about Carmelite spirituality, the history of the order and what is expected. I was assigned to write a few pages of reflection on what we read, then discussed it with a group of fellow aspirants and some Secular Carmelite leaders.

Now, I will begin a two-year process of deepening my prayer life and studying the writings of the saints. At the end, I will make my First Promise, or Temporary Promise.

After that, if acceptable to myself and the community, I will begin a three-year process that will end in Definitive Promises. Study and deepening the faith never ends for a Carmelite, though. It is a life-long program of deepening the vocation.

What are the “promises” you will make?

Professing promises to strive to live evangelical perfection in the spirit of the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, obedience, and of the Beatitudes, they live a “fidelity to contemplative prayer with the spirit of detachment it entails.”

To hear podcasts from the St. Louis community, click here: http://www.meditationsfromcarmel.com/Listen_Now

Posted in Your Fellow Pilgrim
One comment on “What Is A Secular Carmelite?
  1. Rene says:

    Thank you, Mike. I just finished my aspirancy and a friend asked some questions about OCDS, as well as other third orders. This article is very well-written and concise – perfect to explain to my extended family and friends exactly “what’s going on” because many ask if I’m going to become a nun! Please keep me in your prayers. God bless!

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Mike & Donna Eisenbath



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