Often I write on themes that are relevant to both those who believe in God, those who don’t. and those who are not sure what to believe. I generally do not want to be seen as taking sides as though I think a person should believe or not believe in specific spiritual or Atheist teachings.
At other times I write about a theme that is more specifically focused either for believers or atheists as a way for people holding one of these views to gain an appreciation of what those on the other side are deeply involved with.
This is one of those times.
The idea is not to persuade but rather to give people information that is outside of their ordinary studies. A second goal is help people gain an appreciation for aspects of another culture, even if that other culture is quite foreign to them.
The Discalced Carmelites is a monastic order within the Catholic Church. It was founded by men in the 13th century who went on one of the Crusades but who choose not to go back to Europe after the fighting. Rather they settled as hermits in the desert around Mt. Carmel. They went there because that is where the Old Testament prophet Elijah went to flee the vengeance of a queen who wanted him killed.
It was a primitive contemplative order in the tradition of the Desert Fathers of Syria and Egypt from the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries.
It seems the hermits were driven by persecution from Mt. Carmel later in the 13th century and migrated, for the most part, back to Europe. Over a period of 300 years some felt the Carmelites had lost their fervor and the primitive nature of their vocation. Two of these reformers were St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross who worked together closely in the 16th century. Through various struggles and trials they formed a new branch of the order called the Discalced Carmelites. Discalced means those without shoes. Basically they wore no sandals as a sign of the primitive and austere nature of their vocation.
They were essentially trying to get back to the rigor of the original founders of the order.
While St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross are fairly well known to Catholics it is surprising to me how few Catholics know much about St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross. This is even more so with those outside of the Catholic Church especially those who are atheists.
For an introduction to St. Teresa of Avila, it is best to start with her autobiography.
For St. John of the Cross there is another way to gain a useful introduction.
Father Marc Foley is a Discalced Carmelite priest who has written a commentary on St. John of the Cross entitled “The Ascent of Mt. Carmel.” This commentary is an introduction to two of John’s principle works “The Ascent of Mt. Carmel” and the “Dark Night of the Soul.” Both are important books, but both are also seriously flawed and, in some ways, very unhealthy. This is unfortunate because the best of his insights are extremely helpful to those encountering real difficulties on the spiritual path. His best insights also form one of the most natural bridges between Catholic and Buddhist monastic cultures.
I think there are real limitations to Father Marc Foley’s book. However, it does have many redeeming qualities and while it is far from perfect it is still the best introduction to St. John of the Cross I have read. Hopefully someday a truly excellent introduction to St. John of the Cross will be written.
St. Teresa’s autobiography, on the other hand is both a thoroughly readable, enjoyable and truly inspiring story of a gifted visionary and one of the most courageous women leaders of pre-modern times.
Next week I will write a bit more as to why I think the primary teachers of the Discalced Carmelites are important as well as some of the very serious problems in their writings and beliefs.
Please let me know what you think. All constructive comments will be posted.
Will Raymond Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness” and host of MeditationPractice.com.
will at meditationpractice dot com (written out to limit spam)