Editor’s note: This is the seventh article in “Combat For Contemplative Life,” a series about the responses — inside and outside the cloister — to Pope Francis’s reforms for women religious in contemplative communities. Part one, by Mike Lewis, “A Praying Heart: How Pope Francis intends to save the cloistered life,” provides an overview of the reforms, with responses and reactions from sisters around the world. In Part 2,  “The Parting of the Ways – Reactions and Responses to Cor Orans,” Discalced Carmelite Sr. Gabriela Hicks, describes how resistance to the reforms led to the sudden departure of twelve nuns from the Philadelphia Carmel. In Part 3, “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things?” Sr. Gabriela describes the ensuing internet from radical traditionalists—including an open letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. In Part 4, “The Mice that Roar,” Sr. Gabriela responds to Archbishop Viganò with a letter of her own. In Part 5, “Welcome to the Light!” Sr. Gabriela discusses the danger of spiritual abuse in religious and contemplative communities. In Part 6, “Which Path to Follow?” Sr. Gabriela explains the unusual situation where each community of Carmelite nuns subscribes to one of two different sets of constitutions, approved in 1990 and 1991, and how each has its own approach to Teresian spirituality. 

We have seen that renewal of religious life, according to the Second Vatican Council, “includes both the constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time.”[1] But this is not at all a new idea. St. Teresa of Avila had the same intention when she founded her Reform: “We observed the rule of our Lady of Mt. Carmel and keep it without mitigation as ordained by the Friar Cardinal Hugo of Saint Sabina and given in 1248, in the fifth year of the pontificate of Pope Innocent IV… Now, although there is some austerity because meat is never eaten without necessity and there is an eight-month fast and other things, as are seen in the first rule, this is still in many respects considered small by the Sisters; and they have other observances which seemed to us necessary in order to observe the rule with greater perfection.”[2] Here we see a balanced combination of returning to the source of Carmelite life and a necessary adaptation “to the changed conditions” of Teresa’s time.

Though Teresa only mentioned the abstinence from meat, in fact we know that she did not simply return to various exterior practices, but instead she went to the very heart of the Carmelite Rule: The Rule says: “Each one of you is to stay in his own cell or nearby, pondering the Lord’s law day and night and keeping watch at his prayers unless attending to some other duty.”[3] Teresa explains this saying, “Our primitive rule states that we must pray without ceasing… – for unceasing prayer is the most important aspect of the rule.”[4] However, she does more than prescribe this to her nuns, she forms them in this type of prayer. We know how she taught her novices: ““Together with her own sublime gift of prayer, she had a great desire that her daughters be much given to prayer, not only during the hours established in the Constitutions, but that they normally live with their hearts lifted up to God. She made those who entered the Order from the world set aside all or most of their vocal devotions, and she had the mistress of novices give them points of meditation, so that they went about during the whole day ruminating in the presence of God and so that in their will they might be freer and more disposed to be possessed by God.”[5]

As we see in this passage describing Teresa’s formation of the novices, she returned to the traditional form of prayer of the hermit and the monk. What she taught her daughters was a form of lectio divina, that slow ruminating of the scriptural and other spiritual texts which leads to an interiorization of the word of God. Teresa did not despise recited prayers, far from it! “To keep you from thinking that little is gained through a perfect recitation of vocal prayer, I tell you that it is very possible that while you are reciting the Our Father or some other vocal prayer, the Lord may raise you to perfect contemplation.”[6] Her description of “a perfect recitation” of vocal prayer is not demanding: “If, when I am speaking, I understand totally and see that I speak with God, with more awareness than of the words I say, then I am practicing both mental and vocal prayer.”[7] Her description of contemplation is this: “The soul understands that without the noise of words this divine Master is teaching it by suspending its faculties…They are enjoying without understanding how they are enjoying. The soul is being enkindled in love, and it doesn’t understand how it loves…The will is enkindled without understanding how…This good is a gift from the Lord of earth and heaven, who, in sum, gives according to who He is. What I have described, daughters, is perfect contemplation.”[8]

An illustration will help. Pope John Paul I, Albino Luciani, gave a delightful parable of the different levels of prayer:

The Father is celebrating his name day: they have organized a little party at home. The moment arrives: he already knows what they have planned, and he says: ‘Now let’s see what they do for me!’ First comes the youngest of the children: they have taught him a poem that he has memorized. ‘Bravo!’ says the Father, ‘I’m so pleased, you’ve done yourself proud, thank you, my boy.’ He recited it from memory.

The little one leaves, and the second son steps forward; he is already in middle school and he disdains the thought of learning something by heart; he has prepared a polished little speech, his own stuff, out of his own thoughts. Maybe it’s short, for he gets bogged down in the oratory. ‘I would never have believed,’ says his father, ‘that you were so good at making speeches!” And his father is delighted: look at those beautiful thoughts! Then he also steps aside…it wasn’t a masterpiece, but still….

Third, the young lady, the daughter. She has simply prepared a bunch of red carnations. She says nothing. She doesn’t say a word in front of her Father, not a single word: but she’s moved, she blushes so much that it’s hard to say which are redder, she or the carnations. And her father says to her: ‘It’s easy to see that you love me, you are so rosy and so deeply moved’. But never a word. However he appreciates the flowers, especially because he sees her so moved and so full of affection.

Then there is the mother, his bride. She doesn’t give anything. She looks at her husband and he looks at her: just a glance. They know so many things. That look evokes a whole past, a whole lifetime. The good, the bad, the joys, the sorrows of the family. There is nothing else. These are the four types of prayer.[9]

It’s easy to recognize the four types of prayer: vocal and mental prayer, prayers recited with the awareness to whom I am speaking; meditation, the result of my own thoughts; affective prayer, the “surge of the heart” described by St. Therese of Lisieux[10]; and contemplation, mutual communion. There is nothing complicated, nothing esoteric. It is simply a life of growing maturity blossoming into communion with God.

But what about obedience? We saw that one set of Carmelite Constitutions focuses on obedience to a number of detailed practices. We have just seen a presentation of traditional Carmelite prayer, but what is traditional Carmelite obedience?

Let us return again to the heart of the Carmelite Rule: “meditating day and night on the law of the Lord.” We have seen that this is the essence of Carmelite prayer, but the very word “law” obviously involves obedience. A law is something that is meant to be obeyed. So how do Carmelites obey “the law of the Lord”?

For Christians, of course, the law of the Lord is the New Law of the Gospel. The Carmelite Rule, the Rule of St. Albert, was written about 1208, and, writing some 50 years later, St. Thomas Aquinas defined the New Law as being “chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Ghost, which is given to those who believe in Christ.”[11] The grace of the Holy Spirit, then, is a central subject of meditation for Carmelites. Not the grace of the Holy Spirit as a matter for theological investigation, but as the graces given to me to which I am called to respond and put in action.

This is seen more clearly when we look at another part of the Carmelite Rule. The last sentence in the Rule is “Let everything be done with discretion, for discretion is the guide of the virtues.” “Discretion” in the 13th century does not mean what it means today in English, that is, the quality of acting in a way so as to avoid giving offense. Discretion, up until the 1700s, is the ordinary word for “discernment.”[12] So Carmelites are called to meditate with discernment on the grace of the Holy Spirit. St. John Climacus says of discernment that “Discernment in beginners is true knowledge of themselves; in intermediate souls, it is a spiritual sense that faultlessly distinguishes what is truly good from what is of nature and opposed to it; and in the perfect, it is the knowledge which they have within by Divine illumination, and which can enlighten with its lamp what is dark in others. Or perhaps, generally speaking, discernment is, and is recognized as, the certain understanding of the Divine will on all occasions, in every place and in all matters; and it is only found in those who are pure in heart, in body and in mouth.”[13]

St. Teresa puts prayer and obedience to the guidance of the Holy Spirit together. “This is what prayer is for, my daughters, this is the reason for this spiritual marriage: to give birth always to good works, good works.”[14] She has already explained a few pages earlier what kind of works she means; she is referring to the interior guidance of the Holy Spirit: “And it is very easy – since the response is interior – to do what I am saying and make an act of love or to say what St. Paul said: ‘What do you want me to do, Lord?’ In many ways He will teach you there what is pleasing to Him, and when is the acceptable time; for I think it is understood that He hears us, and almost always this touch, which is so delicate, disposes the soul to be able to do what was said with a determined will.”[15]

So we see that for Teresa, the Carmelite life is an ever-deeper interiorization of obedience to the will of God. This leads us to a final question: how did Teresa understand obedience to the will of God, as perceived interiorly, and obedience to the will of her superiors? To her nuns, she insists that they must practice “the great virtues of humility and mortification, careful obedience by not in any way going against what the superior commands, for you truly know that God, in whose place the superior stands, commands it.”[16] For herself, once she began her work as Foundress, she writes “I grew certain the work was God’s and so I threw myself into difficult tasks, although always with advice and under obedience.”[17] Finally, referring to Catalina de Cardona, a famous penitent whom Teresa greatly admired, she admits “Once while thinking about the severe penance Doña Catalina de Cordona performed and about how because of the desires for penance the Lord sometimes gives me I could have done more were it not for obedience to my confessors, I thought it might be better not to obey them any longer in this matter. The Lord told me: ‘That’s not so; you are walking on a good and safe path. Do you see all the penance she does? I value your obedience more.’”[18]

When we consider the two sets of Constitutions of the Carmelite Nuns, we see that the 1990 Constitutions, with their explicit norms and detailed rubrics, provide an excellent foundation for those who seek clear directions in beginning the spiritual life. These Constitutions, however, carry the risk of keeping those who practice them at this beginning stage.

The 1991 Constitutions state at the beginning: “St. Teresa’s mystical experience led her gradually to fathom and, as it were, to interiorize the life of the Church.”[19] They also say that candidates must “undergo a long period of formation and trial” whose “purpose is to enable them to have practical experience of our life and to interiorize its spirit.”[20] With this realization of the call to interiorization, the 1991 Constitutions provide a more flexible and less detailed framework for living the Carmelite life, though with the risk of allowing too great a flexibility to dissipate its focus.

So why should any of this interest ordinary Catholics? For several reasons: First of all, we see that the word “traditional” can have different meanings. Those who follow the 1990 Constitutions consider that they are traditional because they hold to the Constitutions that Teresa herself approved in 1582. Those who follow the 1991 Constitutions consider that they are traditional because they try to put into practice Teresa’s own return to the sources by practicing the discernment called for in the Rule and seeking to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit throughout the day.

These last two practices are not reserved for religious men and women, or for some spiritual elite. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls all of us to live this way. First of all, it follows St. Thomas Aquinas in its explanation of the New Law: “The New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit given to the faithful through faith in Christ. It works through charity; it uses the Sermon on the Mount to teach us what must be done and makes use of the sacraments to give us the grace to do it.”[21]

Next, the Catechism urges all of us to prepare ourselves for contemplative prayer. “This form of prayerful reflection [i.e. mediation] is of great value, but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him.”[22]

Finally, the Catechism teaches us that “By prayer we can discern ‘what is the will of God’ and obtain the endurance to do it.’”[23]

Someone once wrote that “when people use the word ‘traditional’ they usually mean the way things were 50 years ago.” We begin to see that there is much more to being traditional than we usually think! In fact, we see that what has been called the “Carmelite Chaos” is in fact a microcosm of a certain confusion in the present Church, and especially in the Church in the United States. We will go into this more fully in our final article.


[1] Perfectae Caritatis #2

[2] “Life,” 36, 26-27. All quotations are from the Kieren Kavanaugh=Ottilo Rodriguez edition of the Works of St. Teresa

[3] The Rule of St. Albert, eds. H. Clarke, O. Carm. and B. Edwards, O.C.D. (Aylesford: Carmelite Priory, 1973), p. 83

[4] “Way of Perfection,” 4, 2

[5] Deposition of Mother Maria of St. Francis, O.C.D., Process of Alba, 1610, from “Procesos de Beatificacion y Canonizacion de Santa Teresa de Jesus,” edited and annotated by Fr. Silverio de Sta. Teresa, O.C.D., Biblioteca Mistica Carmelitana, Burgos, 1935, Vol III, p. 229

[6] “Way of Perfection,” 25, 1

[7] “Way of Perfection,” 22, 1

[8] “Way of Perfection,” 25, 2

[9][9] Albino Luciani, Giovanni Paolo I, “Opera Omnia.” Vol IX, pp. 333-4, Edizioni messaggero padova, 1989

[10] St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Manuscrits autobiographiques, C 25r..

[11] http://summa-theologiae.org/question/22501.htm

[12] Middle English (in the sense ‘discernment’): via Old French from Latin discretio(n- ) ‘separation’ (in late Latin ‘discernment’), from discernere (see discern).

[13] St. John Climacus, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” Step 26, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, MA, 1978, p. 161

[14] .”Int. Cast.” VII, 4, 6

[15] .”(“Int. Cast.” VII, 3, 9

[16] “Way of Perfection,” 13, 7

[17] Testimony #30

[18] Testimony #19

[19] 1991 Constitutions #5

[20] 1991 Constitutions #137

[21] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1966 Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Catechism of the Catholic Church . United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Kindle Edition.

[22] Catechism #2708

[23] Catechism #2826

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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