Silence, Solitude & Prophetic Witness
The thirteenth-century hermits to whom St. Albert of Jerusalem gave a Rule of Life lived near the spring on Mount Carmel that was associated with Elijah the prophet and “man of God” of the Old Testament (1 Kings). Elijah provides a rich heritage both for Carmelites and for all people who aspire to grow in prayer. In 1 Kings, Elijah lives out the full vocation of Yahweh’s prophet. With the power of the living God he calls down fire on Mount Carmel, thereby defeating the prophets of Baal. He then flees in fear from the human power of Ahab and Jezebel and has to be rescued by an angel. Directed to Mount Horeb, Elijah hears the voice of God in solitude and in the sound of “sheer silence.” Descending the mountain, he confronts Israel’s injustice and idolatry for the rest of his days. In the end, Elijah does not die; God brings him to heaven in a flaming chariot.
We can see that for Elijah, contemplation and action were interdependent. Hearing the voice of God in contemplation, he was empowered to proclaim God’s message to Israel whatever the outcome. The original hermits began with devotion to Elijah as their contemplative model. Thus, they lived in solitude and dedicated themselves to hearing God “in the sound of sheer silence,” as Elijah had done. They saw Elijah primarily as the first hermit. In the Rule, Albert affirms their stress on silence and solitude. However, as Patriarch of Jerusalem, Albert was imbued with the spirit of the Crusades in the Holy Land. Christians were encouraged to take up the sword for Christ. Risking death in the fight for the Holy Land was considered a sure way to salvation. Of course, Albert did not envision the hermits of Mount Carmel as engaging in literal warfare. Instead, he sees their silence and solitude as necessary components of a life of spiritual warfare, undertaken in allegiance to Jesus Christ. As Christian contemplatives, the hermits are to live in silence and solitude and to be “unswerving” in Christ’s service. Their way of life expanded, and other communities of hermits were founded in the Holy Land. However, as the European crusaders gradually lost control of the Holy Land, it became too dangerous for the hermits to remain there; in stages, through the thirteenth century, they returned to Europe.
Albert’s conviction that silence and solitude go together with loving community service and that both constitute true allegiance to Christ would allow the returning Carmelites to adapt to the urban church of late medieval Europe. Now European Carmelites, the hermits allied hemselves with the mendicant movement begun earlier by Saint Francis and Saint Dominic. They served the church by preaching and teaching in a life of active poverty; yet in accordance with Albert’s Rule, they retained their emphasis on silence, solitude, and prayer. In 1247, Pope Innocent IV adapted Albert’s Rule to the hermits’ changed form of religious life while at the same time he encouraged their commitment to solitary prayer in an environment of simplicity. In its 1247 version, Albert’s Rule allows us, living today, to see prayer and service together, as a unified transforming force in a world that too often promotes division and despairs of God’s guidance and love.
Albert also linked silence and solitude to the Old Testament wisdom tradition: “Each one of you is to stay in your own cell or nearby, pondering the Lord’s law day and night and keeping watch at your prayers unless attending to some other duty.” In the wisdom tradition, “law”(torah) is not a legal system. “Law” means “way,” in particular, the way in which we imitate Yahweh, who creates and sustains us. Pondering the Lord’s law meant “holy reflection” on the Scriptures followed up by care for the Lord’s people, especially the most
vulnerable, “the widow and the orphan.” In the wisdom tradition, Yahweh’s prophets were not fortune-tellers but teachers of God’s ways.
By pondering the ways of Christ, we also follow Mary, who said “Yes!” to the Incarnation and then pondered the words of the angel Gabriel in her heart. In our own time and place, we, the sisters of Concord Carmel, take the Gospels as our guide and work together to grow in our ways of prayer and service. Prayer is not an immature and self-enclosed way of clinging to a deity “out there,” who makes no uncomfortable demands on us. Prayer means embracing the pain of God’s people. Prayer means that we take up the call of Jesus to relieve suffering. Prayer means personal purification, that in our lives we may truly be signs of the reign of God. Finally, in prayer, we enter into the compassion of God, the mystery of the God who became human that human beings might share the very life of God. This sharing of God’s compassionate love brings us into the ultimate mystery of our redemption and to our full human and personal destiny.
Thus, Carmelite prayer is prophetic because it entails both contemplative union with God and action on behalf of “the widow and orphan,” the sick, the homeless, the war-torn. The Carmelite way is a path of faith. Here in Concord Carmel, we enter into the prayer of the Church through daily Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours. We also set aside two hours daily for personal prayer. Our service takes humble, concrete form: cooking, cleaning, correspondence, scholarly writing, study, initial formation, answering the phone and the door, gardening, carpentry, and many other activities plus just listening to a sister or to a guest who needs us. As our foundress, St. Teresa of Avila said, “the world is all in flames”; the people and the Church suffer the devastating effect of human sin. We can never complacently believe that we do enough. Yet, as St. Teresa also said, the significance of our work does not lie so much in what we do as it lies in the love with which we do it. Following the model of Elijah and professing allegiance to Christ, we unite ourselves with the spirit of Christ, who in turn unites our work with his own and gives it redemptive power.