A charism is a gift from God to the Church for the world. With regard to a Religious Order, the term refers to the gift which God gives to an individual or group to inspire the founding of a new religious family within the Church. This gift is handed down through the centuries and enriched by all 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 will have many elements in common, but the way in which these elements are emphasised gives each religious group its unique feel. All religious families have been asked by the Church to rediscover their original founding charism and make it come alive in each culture and in every age.
The charism of the Carmelite Order is God’s gift given originally to those nameless hermits who gathered together on Mount Carmel, beside the well of Elijah, at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries. The Carmelite Order has no known founder but sprang from the desire of those first hermits to follow Christ together with a pure heart and a good conscience. They asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Albert, to write for them a rule of life (c.1206‑1214) which laid down certain guidelines based on the previous way of life of the hermits.
This Rule of St. Albert and the experience of the Carmelites as they sought to be faithful to it in various circumstances gave definitive shape to the charism. We can say that there are several elements which make up the Carmelite charism. Firstly, and most importantly, it is a way of following Christ with total dedication. Carmelites do this by seeking to form contemplative communities at the service of God’s people in whose midst they live. Fraternity, service and contemplation are therefore essential values for all Carmelites.
Carmelites seek to form communities where each person feels accepted and valued not for what he can do but simply because he is. This kind of community is in itself a witness that the love of Christ can break down the barriers which human beings set up and that it is possible for people of different backgrounds and nationalities to live together in peace and harmony. Carmelites are also aware of being part of an international fraternity which is present in many parts of the world.
The hermits were forced to leave their home on Mount Carmel and settle in Europe. There they changed their style of life from hermits to friars. The major difference is that friars are called to serve the People of God in some active apostolate. Some Religious Congregations were founded for a specific work but the Carmelite Order tries simply to respond to the needs of the Church and the world which differ according to time and place, and so, many friars work in parishes, schools, universities, retreat centres, prisons, hospitals etc. The kind of service which each individual friar is involved in will depend on the needs of the people in whose midst he lives and his own particular talents.
The heart of the Carmelite charism is prayer and contemplation. The quality of our prayer determines the quality of the community life and the quality of the service which is offered to others. The goal of the Carmelite life is union with God. We seek to live in God’s presence and consent to God’s will for us. This involves us in listening to God who speaks to us in many ways and especially in the words of Scripture. Prayer is the way we relate to God and as we grow in friendship with Christ our prayer will tend to become more and more simple. The relationship with Christ will change us, impelling us to move out of the prison of selfishness towards the bright daylight of pure love for God and our fellow men and women. We are called to embark on a journey of faith whereby we are gradually stripped of all that is not God so that we can put on Christ. We do all we can to respond to God’s initiative in calling us but we are very aware that in the end only God can change our hearts and so we learn to wait patiently for the coming of God to us. As we follow Christ along this path of trust in God we are inspired by the example and virtues of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the Prophet Elijah.
Prayer and contemplation for the Carmelite are not private matters between the individual and God but are to be shared with others since the charism is given for the whole world. Therefore there is an emphasis in the Order on the ministry of teaching prayer and giving spiritual direction. The Carmelite is aware that the transformation of the human heart by God may be hidden from most eyes but has far reaching consequences for our world. The way of prayer is mysterious and goes beyond our normal human categories. Prayer opens us to the Ultimate Mystery.