Charism is a gift that comes from God and is given to the Church for the world. Since sometimes the gift refers to a Religious Order, it is said that such a gift has been given by God to an individual or a group, for a new religious family in the Church. This gift is passed down through the centuries and is enriched by those who are called to live it. The charism of each religious family is the particular way in which its members are called to follow Christ. Since all Christians follow Christ, the charisms have many common elements, but the way in which they are presented in the most relevant way gives each religious group its particular imprint. The Church has invited all religious families to rediscover their original charism and to make it alive in any culture and at any time.
The charism of the Carmelite Order is the gift of God given to the first hermits gathered at the fountain of the Prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel at the end of the 13th century. The Carmelite Order does not know a founder, but it was born from the desire of those first hermits to live in obeisance to Jesus Christ with a pure heart and a right conscience. They asked St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, to write for them a formula of life (c. 1206 – 1214) in conformity with their ideal.
The Rule of St. Albert and the lived experience of the Carmelites, in seeking to be consistent with it, has given a definitive form to the charism. We can say that the Carmelite charism is composed of several elements. The first, and most important, is the following of Christ with total dedication. Carmelites achieve this ideal by forming contemplative communities at the service of the people of God among whom they live. Therefore, for all Carmelites fraternity, service and contemplation are the essential values of their lives.
The heart of the Carmelite charism is prayer and contemplation. The quality of prayer determines the quality of community life and of the service offered to others. The ultimate goal of Carmelite life is union with Christ. We try to live in the presence of God and to accept his will in us. This obliges us to listen to God who speaks to us in various ways, but in a particular way with Sacred Scripture. Prayer is the way in which we approach God, and as we grow in friendship with Christ, our prayer will become more and more simple. Our relationship with Christ transforms us, impels us to leave the prison of our selfishness and to walk towards pure love for God and neighbor. We are called to achieve a journey of faith, during which we are purified of all that is not God, so that we may put on Christ. We do our best to respond to God’s call, but we are aware that in the end, only God can change our hearts. This teaches us to wait patiently for his coming. In following Christ with confidence, we are inspired by the examples and virtues of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the Prophet Elijah.
Since the charism is given for the benefit of the whole world, for Carmelites prayer and contemplation are not private matters between man and God, but gifts to be shared with the world. For this reason in the Order there is a certain propensity for the ministry of prayer and spiritual direction. The Carmelite is aware that God’s transformation of the human heart may be hidden from human eyes, but the end result is very important for our world. The way of prayer is mysterious and beyond human reason. Prayer introduces us to the Ultimate Mystery.
Carmelites try to form communities where everyone feels accepted and valued not for who they might be, but simply for who they are. This type of community is in itself a witness that the love of Christ can break down the barriers built by men and allow people of various nationalities and cultures to live together in peace and harmony. The Carmelites are also conscious of forming an international fraternity, present in various countries of the world.
The hermits were forced to leave their dwelling on Mount Carmel and settle in Europe. In this new environment they changed their lifestyle from hermits to religious. The main difference is that religious are called to serve the people of God in the apostolate. Some religious congregations have been founded for a specific apostolate, but the Carmelite Order seeks to respond to the needs of the Church and the world according to time and place. For this reason many Carmelites dedicate themselves to parishes, schools, universities, spiritual retreat centers, prisons, hospitals, etc. The service rendered by each religious depends on the needs of the people among whom they live and work.
As Carmelites, we live our lives in gift of Jesus Christ and serve Him faithfully with pure heart and good conscience through a commitment to seeking the face of the living God (contemplative dimension of life), in prayer, in fraternity and in service (diakonia) in the midst of the people. These three fundamental elements of the charism are not isolated or unconnected values, but are closely linked to each other.
We live all this under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, the Virgin of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as “our Mother and sister”.