Summer 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 130-139.

Jude Langsam:
      The Discalced Carmelite Secular Order: One Member's View

By the practice of contemplative prayer and the transformation of life it effects, secular Carmelites witness to the power and primacy of prayer in Christian life.

Mrs. Langsam, mother, professional writer and editor in the medical field, and a secular Carmelite for ten years, is currently president of the St. Joseph Community in Washington, D.C.

TO live as a secular Carmelite is, with Mary, to hear the Word of God and treasure him in our hearts, giving witness with our lives, as did Elijah, that the Lord God lives, before whom we stand.

How is this done? By following Carmel's founders. We learn with Elijah to listen for the still, small voice, and with St. John of the Cross to choose nothing but Jesus. With St. Teresa of Jesus we discover how much God loves us, how great are his mercy and gentleness, and how much we need to love each other. With St. Thérèse, the "Little Flower," we come to see everything as a grace and to embrace the cross of our Beloved in the ordinary, everyday things of our lives.

All Christians are called to be perfect in mercy and love as our heavenly Father is perfect, but there is a Carmelite path to that goal. Although I am not qualified to offer the definitive explanation of that path, I can review my own experience of growing in age and grace as a secular Carmelite. I will make that review by considering, part by part, the statement in our rule that "secular Carmelites, by special vocation, undertake to live in the world an evangelical life of fraternal communion imbued with the spirit of contemplative prayer, in imitation of the Virgin Mary, and animated with apostolic zeal according to the example and teaching of Carmelite saints."


"By special vocation." All Christians have a basic relationship with Jesus in the bond of baptism, through which he draws us to himself and we seek to become more like him. All Christians are called to this union with Jesus. Sometimes a person does not find this basic relationship satisfying and experiences a deep need for identification with Jesus in a particular aspect of his or her life. Such a person may then be drawn to -- have a "vocation" to -- one of the religious orders dedicated to continuing a specific part of Jesus' ministry. So it is that some people are called to care for the sick, some to teach, some to minister to the poor. Carmelites feel the call to go off to the desert to pray, denying themselves and seeking the face of God.

"Undertake to live in the world." As secular Carmelites, we try to show God's love in our everyday lives, wherever they lead us and with the people God gives us. We do this as ordinary persons, not as minimonks or mininuns. Our religious habit is a small scapular worn under our clothing; our cloister is in the depths of our heart.

The original Carmelites were a community of hermits living on Mount Carmel near Elijah's wadi of Carith, who met for Mass and recreation. Our communities are hermits who come together once a month for mutual support and instruction in contemplative prayer and the loving service that flows from it, as well as in the detachment and generosity needed to stay faithful.

Our members are men and women. We are married, single, in transition. Some of us are parents and some are still, gracefully, children. Some of us work in offices, some at home, some do both. Most of us are lay people; some are parish priests.

In 1971 there were about 50,000 secular Carmelites in 375 communities worldwide; in 1982 in the United States there were 83 canonical communities with about 3,000 members.

"An evangelical life of fraternal communion." Our rule is based on gospel values, just as the Teresian "method" of mental prayer is rooted in the humanity of Jesus portrayed in the gospel. In making our promise, secular Carmelites profess to "tend toward evangelical perfection in the spirit of the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and of the Beatitudes."

A member of our Washington community was making his final promise during Mass on my very first visit to an OCDS meeting ten years ago. I was sitting toward the back of the chapel and this member was quite soft-spoken. I thought he said he was trying for angelic perfection, so I resolved at that point to sneak out at the first opportunity. I thought that if these Carmelites were serious about becoming angelic, I had no business messing up their record. But someone kindly explained to me that they were interested in perfection according to the gospel, in being changed as Jesus changed Simon into Peter his shepherd, and Magdalen into Mary his beloved.

We seek this transformation as members of a community who belong to each other and can count on each other for support, guidance, perspective, humor, and love. We share each other's sickness and healing, sorrow and joy, deaths and births. Two babies were born to members this year, and they do not hesitate to bring the babies to our meetings.

Secular Carmelites often meet at monasteries of the friars or nuns, and are often directed by Carmelite priests or sisters. We share fully in Carmelite family celebrations and receive many of the benefits of belonging to an order: support on a journey of faith, shared experience of the spiritual life, and guidance according to the principles of saints whose teaching has been endorsed by the church.


"Imbued with the spirit of contemplative prayer." Becoming "imbued with the spirit of contemplative prayer" means developing an approach to life that is characterized by striving for union with God in prayer, having as one's basic orientation seeking closeness with God through prayer, and bringing one's whole life and world into that union.

Saint Teresa defined mental prayer as intimate conversation with one who we know loves us, and little Thérèse called it a lifting of the mind and heart to God. Many writers have published many methods, many "sure ways," to win the heart of Jesus. A problem with all these methods of prayer is that we may get so busy reading about prayer that we do not have time to do it; or we may feel so insecure that we try one method for a short time, then another method, then yet another, without guidance or support for finding our own way to pray.

When I first came to Carmel in my late twenties, I still had an academic approach to many things and read about seven different books on methods of prayer. I ended up confused. I then spoke to an old Carmelite nun who told me, very gently, that one learns to pray by praying. I, of course, responded that she did not quite understand my problem. But I was given the grace to remember what she had said.

Shortly after that unsuccessful attempt at prayer, I began to make my meditations by using a "Seven-Point Guide to Ignatian Prayer" that I had resurrected from high school. (I mention it now with apologies to Saint Ignatius, who probably had a fine Spanish hand in getting me to try something else.) When I had spent about a month making meditations and checking off the points on the list with a pencil (I have never since suggested to anyone to try to meditate with pencil in hand), I called up the Carmelite priest who was the director of our OCDS community and naively explained to him what I had been doing and how frustrated I was with it. I asked him if I could not please do something else. A strange fuzzy sound came back over the telephone; Father Kieran was trying not to let me know he was laughing!

I had tried transcendental meditation a few years earlier to relieve my anxiety and liked the technique, although the emptiness of it had started my search for Carmel. When I told Father Kieran this, he said that Thérèse had prayed that way; her mantra was "Draw me." So I proceeded over the next few months to let my own mantra evolve. It has developed into being all or part of "Jesus, thank you; Jesus, yes," and has served me well for the past nine years or so.

In the beginning I had read something "official" from a meditation center that recommended a seven-syllable mantra, so I kept working at it until I had enough syllables. Now, when making prayer seems to me as simple and natural as making other kinds of love, I sometimes wonder how much our loving Father must have enjoyed the very serious work I put into getting it just right, and how patient and gentle he was in getting me to trust his love enough for him to send the Spirit to make prayer in me and make me just to be there with them.

At any rate, I keep praying as I can with this mantra. When I have sometimes become dissatisfied with it and wanted to try something different, I have quickly realized that with my old mantra comes silence inside, a sure sense of our indwelling God, and the fruit of the times I have spent struggling to be open, stay awake, not give orders or make demands, but just rest and let God love me.


Part of the spirit of contemplative prayer is the penance that is necessary to support it. When I started in this life, I had supreme confidence in my ability to do most things and would have been proud and happy to wear a few hairshirts and do a little public suffering here and there. Imagine my surprise when I kept coming to Carmel and found out that, rather than reenacting my high school misinterpretations of the nadas of St. John of the Cross, I should try more to cooperate with, rather than control, my life. It was suggested that detachment from my own will and my own interpretation of my needs might give me more freedom to embrace what God gave me -- or at least to start to tolerate it in a more or less graceful manner. This was OK when I was single, but after I was married it was a major act of mortification to smile before coffee in the morning. I discovered, however, that if I could make myself smile, somehow I was also able to keep my mouth shut until I could be civil. This does a lot for witnessing to the power of prayer and showing God's love, and is not a bad way to keep a marriage on an even keel.

The same kind of detachment from struggling for my own way, or trying to prove I am right, has given me some freedom from the power games that go on in offices and in some professional relationships. Refraining from those power struggles is a real mortification; it seems un-American not to try to win, even if I do not want the prize.

Letting go of possessions and simplifying needs have the same effect of freeing my heart from things so that I am more able to choose the Creator. Here I need to practice a little restraint; I find it much easier to let go of the toy my four-year-old left in the door to her room than to let go of acting out my "justified" anger and demands that she turn into Ms. Clean!

The old Carmelite nun who told me that one learns to pray by praying also said that the fruits of prayer are not seen -- or felt -- during prayer time itself. This is important to remember after the honeymoon stage when God begins to wean us from the sense satisfactions of making mental prayer and begins to give us himself rather than his gifts. It is lovely to be seduced into praying every day by the wonderful feelings God can give; but it is also satisfying to become a woman of faith, believing in God's love and clinging to him and his cross.

The feelings that go with the early stages of prayer were for me very selfish. When I had them I was very self-absorbed and not open for love or service. When those feelings were drawn away, I began to see more clearly my own absolute dependence on our loving Father, my need for him in every aspect of my life, and my desire to have him truly, even if it was not as pleasant as I had planned. I went through a stage when it seemed that there was no God; and if God did exist, he was just laughing at us for trusting him. Teresa at one point asked Jesus how he could hide himself just when she needed him desperately. I do not know how he answered her then, but what I learned was that under everything there is only God, and he is all that matters.


Part of growing up as a Christian and a Carmelite is to let go of a child's feelings and demands for immediate satisfaction without letting go of a child's trust and faith in the Father to work things out. When I cooperate with the joys and trials of my everyday life in a spirit of gratitude, my ego seems to keep itself on a par with all the pins I keep picking up, as in Thérèse's famous example. When I decide to work on my defects and change a bad habit or two by myself, I revert to the arrogant self-sufficiency of my pre-Carmelite days and usually realize, after a few temper tantrums, that I have been doing laps around the wilderness, demanding that God change me on my schedule, not his.

It helps at those times to remember my friend Simon Peter and Mary our mother, who said, "Do whatever he tells you." What Jesus tells me is to love him and serve him and those he has given me. This is a much harder discipline than choosing my own penance and doing it when I want to. When I started as a secular Carmelite, I planned within a few years -- five at the outside -- to be Placid the Thin. Now, ten years later, I am still worried and round, but through God's grace I am able to make it through most days with some degree of cooperation with life, some time to pray even if all I can do is leave my body in the same place for thirty minutes, some patience and humor with the way I act, and some gratitude for the mercies of my Lord in giving me so many people to love me and show me his love and help me on my way to him.

"In imitation of the Virgin Mary." When secular Carmelites are received for formation, they are given a brown scapular to wear as a sign of consecration to the Mother of God. When they make their temporary or final promise, that promise "is confidently entrusted to the Virgin Mary, Mother and Queen of Carmel." Our members who choose to make vows of chastity and obedience do so "in order to live in union with the Virgin Mary in following Jesus Christ."

Mary, the Mother of Carmel, is also our mother and sister, giving us her example of simplicity, openness, and fidelity in following Jesus. We try to follow her example of contemplative prayer, keeping all things in our heart; her instruction to do whatever he tells us; and her fidelity in following Jesus to the cross, keeping faith with him in the resurrection, and serving his people.

"Animated with apostolic zeal." Zeal is love that is strong and wants to spend itself for God and for the Kingdom. Carmelites who have been formed in prayer and follow Teresa and John will not cease offering their life and all their acts, however small they be, for the growth of God's love in the world and for more souls to find themselves in his heart.

The practice of contemplative prayer is not just for one's own perfection and growth as a person of God; it is also to help fulfill the Carmelite mission of bearing witness to the power and primacy of prayer in our lives. Most of this is done by continuing to pray and cooperating with the Lord in changing us, making us into his image and likeness, and thereby drawing others to him much more through attraction than through active promotion of prayer or the contemplative life-style.

Thérèse discovered that her mission was to be love in the heart of her mother the church. For secular Carmelites this tradition continues: to love and serve through prayer and simplicity of life, to be an open, clear, place in the world for God's love and light to flow through.


"The example and teaching of Carmelite saints." Rather than paraphrasing the teaching of our leading saints, I will simply present for reflection some of their sayings which I have found to be especially helpful in my living out the ideal of the Discalced Carmelite Secular Order. The following thoughts are from St. Teresa of Avila.

Detach your heart from all things; seek God and you will find him.

Accustom yourself continually to make many acts of love, for they enkindle and melt the soul.

True humility does not come to the soul with agitation or disturbance, nor does it darken it or bring it dryness. Rather, true humility consoles and acts in a completely opposite way: quietly, gently, and with light.

Let your desire be to see God; your fear, that you may lose him; your sorrow, that you are not having fruition of him; your toy, that he can bring you to himself. Thus you will live in great peace.

Even though they fall again, there remains a sign that the Lord was present in their prayer; and it is that they rise again quickly.

Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life, which is short and has to be lived by you alone; and that there is only one glory which is eternal. If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing.

St. John of the Cross, a close associate of St. Teresa in the sixteenth-century reform of the Carmelite order, offers much wis dom for the spiritual journey in the following words.

Your first care must be to be anxiously and lovingly earnest in your endeavors to imitate Christ in all your actions, doing every one of them to the uttermost of your power, as Our Lord himself would have done them.

Let Christ crucified alone be enough for you. With him suffer, with him take your rest, never rest nor suffer without him, striving with all your might to rid yourself of all selfish actions and inclinations.

What will it profit you if you give God one thing when he asks for something else? Consider what God wills and do it, for so will you satisfy your heart better than by doing that to which you are inclined yourself.

Wisdom enters by love, silence, and mortification. It is great wisdom to know when to be silent, when to suffer, and never to regard the sayings, doings, or lives of others.

True devotion consists in perseverance in prayer, with patience and humility, distrusting yourself that you may please God only.

Do nothing nor say any notable word that Christ would not have done or said were he in the state I am, as old as I, and with the same kind of health.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux demonstrated to the world that sanctity does not consist in extraordinary feats of asceticism or prayer. Th following observations are hers.

By always remaining very small, one can make rapid progress in the way of love.

Even if you do not feel your affection for Jesus, do not be afraid to tell him that you love him. By doing so you will compel him to help you -- even to carry you, as though you were a little infant too weak to walk.

If you are willing to bear with serenity the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.

It behooves us to practice the little virtues, even though that may be quite hard at times. God never withholds the first grace, imparting courage to conquer one's self. The soul that responds to that prompting will soon come to the light.

If the impossible should happen and God should fail to notice my efforts to please him, I would not be disheartened in the least. I love him so much I would still try to please him by my little attentions, even though I knew he remained unaware of my eagerness to serve him.

By our little acts of charity, performed in obscurity, we are effectively helping in the conversion of souls by obtaining for our missionaries the means required to build spiritual and material dwellings for our eucharistic Lord.

Finally, there are two quotations from Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, a Carmelite nun who died in 1906 in the Carmel at Dijon, France.
Spend my substance for thy glory. Let it distill drop by drop for thy church.

I have found my heaven on earth, because heaven is God, and God is in my soul . . . . From the day I understood that, everything became clear to me, and I would like to whisper this secret to those I love.

The vocation of the secular Carmelite is summed up in our Carmelite rule's statement that SS. Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross teach us "the following of Christ and the life of prayer and self-denial in the service of the church and all humankind . . . through treasuring a deep sense of faith in God's love, fidelity to contemplative prayer with the spirit of detachment it entails, and generosity in the practice of fraternal charity and the apostolate."