Essay by a nun of the Carmel of Birkenhead, England

st therese's clothing day

(A drawing of St. Therese’s clothing day, becoming a Bride of Christ.)

The Teresian Carmelite as Consecrated Bride
in the light of Blessed John Paul II’s Writings
Sr. Bernadette of the Heart of Mary, OCD

“The way of sanctity is reached through complete gift of self to Christ, the Crucified and Risen Spouse, on whom you ought to hold your eyes fixed always, according to the constant exhortation of your Mother Foundress, Saint Teresa of Jesus.”
– Blessed John Paul II

Vocation of Cloistered Women

“Throughout my pontificate, I have taken the opportunity to show my affection for all the Discalced Carmelite Nuns and to highlight the importance of their charism…at the same time, I strongly urge you to live every moment of your vocation with the greatest generosity, in prayer and penance, in the solitude of the cloister, under the maternal protection and example of the Virgin Mary, Mother and Patron of Carmel.”1

These words of Blessed John Paul II unpack what is effectively, the tremendous dignity surrounding the vocation of ‘woman’, chosen by God, to breathe the atmosphere of solitude and silence, which is to be found in the Carmelite cloister. In fulfilling her vocation in Carmel, John Paul has much to say about the beauty of woman’s consecrated life. Likewise, his words to every cloistered woman are both challenging and at the same time filled with encouragement. At the beginning of the third millennium, John Paul II invited all consecrated persons to cast out into the deep, to reawaken, as it were, the desire for a more passionate fidelity in their life of contemplative loving. He writes: Contemplation of God’s beauty has become your inheritance, your life’s programme, and your way of being present in the Church.2

This compelling energy which infuses the writings of John Paul II, shows us the profound concern he had in bringing to the minds and hearts of all Carmelite women, a deeper, passionate perception of their Consecration and ‘spousal’ inheritance, embraced as it were in a unique and exclusive way. For the Carmelite, the living out of her life as ‘cloistered bride’ enables her to develop in a most sensitive way, an imitation of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. That is, with the integrity of a virgin heart to become the ‘bride’ of Christ and ‘mother’ of believers.3

Mary as Model

This attraction towards Mary’s integrity enables ‘woman’ to embrace more eagerly her cloistered life, while nourishing at the same time her own true uniqueness as ‘spouse’ and mother of souls. In leaning towards Mary, the Carmelite takes her as her model, who, as John Paul tells us, consented to her motherhood being the result of her total self-giving to God in virginity. Mary consents to God’s invitation to bear the Word- made-Flesh simply because she was guided by spousal love, the love which totally ‘consecrates’ a human being to God.4 She is the ‘handmaid of the Lord’ – living out her virginity inside the enclosure of her motherhood. This likewise becomes the responsibility to which cloistered ‘woman’, in living her life in solitude and faithfulness; makes a charismatic choice of Christ as one’s exclusive Spouse.5

In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul stresses that women called to a vocation of virginity find Christ first of all as the Redeemer who ‘loved until the end’ through His total gift of self; and they respond to this gift with a ‘sincere gift’ of their whole lives.6 He goes on to explain the importance of this ‘spousal’ gift by saying that to leave everything to follow Christ (Mt. 19:27), that is to become His possession in a life of perpetual virginity, cannot be compared with just remaining uncommitted to conjugal relationships, because virginity is not restricted to a mere ‘no’, but contains a profound ‘yes’ in the spousal order: the gift of self for love in a total and undivided manner.7

This exclusivity in living out the consecrated life particularly for woman as Carmelite, is the discovery of that ‘space’ where her desire to be known by the radical nature of a ‘spousal’ existence dedicated totally to God in contemplation’, is realized.8  As a result, the Church through the inspired teaching of John Paul II authenticates woman’s selfless sacrifice, by stating that she: …sees in the face of women the reflection of a beauty which mirrors the loftiest sentiments of which the human heart of capable: the self-offering totality of love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows.9

When St Paul wrote to the Corinthians he expressed this same premise that:  ‘…if we belong to Christ, guaranteed as his and anointed, it is all God’s doing; it is God who has set his seal upon us…’ (2 Corinthians. 1:21-22).

Consecrated to the Lord

John Paul goes on to stress the importance of this ‘consecration’, this ‘anointing’ in the mission of the Church, by speaking of the special source of spiritual and supernatural energy that this particular style of life, gives witness to.10 This witness becomes for the Carmelite, her living out of the Evangelical Counsels of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, and: …this gift of spousal love to the Lord, enables her to find therein the meaning of her life.11 

John Paul thus affirms this consecration, by expressing the Church’s …gratitude for your consecration and for your profession of the evangelical counsels, which are a special witness of love.12  Moreover, In this form is contained your answer to the call of redeeming love, and it is also an answer of love: a love of self-giving, which is the heart of consecration, of the consecrated person.13  It can therefore be said, that the entire hidden life of woman within enclosure, facilitates the widening of the soul’s horizon; that is to say, woman herself attracts the advances of the Divine Spouse, ‘the Word’, through her desire to be known as such.

Consequently, this ‘transforming union’, which is the energy of redeeming love, signifies the encounter between Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride.  John Paul speaks of this in great detail in the doctoral thesis he presented on St. John of the Cross. He writes: ‘ …there is a vital, transforming union so intimate that it can be said that the Beloved lives in the lover and the lover in the Beloved… Now we see that love has a transforming power that is proper to itself. This power not only enables the intellect to acquire an intentional likeness, but the whole soul is made to resemble the Divine in the transforming union of love’. He finishes by saying that there is ‘an identity of life, a mutual possession, a unity that truly merits the name ‘union’.14

It is important to emphasize the character of enclosure in detail, for it is the very essence of Carmel, and the means whereby the woman in her life as spotless bride of the spotless Lamb…15 can live out this ‘spousal’ union. John Paul II best describes this ‘spirit of enclosure’ as …the cloister responding to a need to be with the Lord…. in this way Carmelites …in choosing an enclosed space where they will live their lives, share in Christ’s emptying of himself by means of a radical poverty, expressed in their renunciation not only of things, but also of ‘space’, of contacts, of so many benefits of creation. This…allows them to enter more fully into the Eucharistic mystery; they offer themselves with Jesus for the world’s salvation.16 Paradoxically, this denial of ‘space’ which cloistered life demands of the contemplative, frees the soul, enabling it to seek its liberty in the boundless realms of the Spiritual life. John Paul II addresses Contemplative Women directly by stating that their prayer and penance lived out in this present age …stuns, seduces or irritates the world, but never leaves it indifferent…17  Here, within the cloistered world of the Carmelite, Christ has looked upon his bride and cherished her. Here in this ‘Garden of Carmel’, …everything is directed to the search for the face of God, everything is reduced to the essential, because the only thing that matters is what leads to Him.18

1. John Paul II: Address to Carmelite Nuns Upon the Approval of Their Legislation 1991).
2. John Paul II: Address to Consecrated Persons and Cloistered Nuns, Chiavari (18 September, 1998) see Verbi Sponsa, p 14
3. John Paul II: Letter to Women (CTS Publications, 1995) p 17
4. John Paul II: Redemptoris Mater: (St Paul’s Publications 1997) p 55
5. John Paul II: Redemptionis Donum: (CTS 1984), p 31
6. John Paul II: Mulieris Dignitatem: (CTS 1988), p 79
7. Ibid., p 79
8. John Paul II: Apostolic letter: Dies Domini (31 Mary 1999), No. 12
9. John Paul II: Redemptoris Mater: (St Paul’s Publications, 1987) p 66
10. John Paul II: Redemptionis Donum (CTS Publications, 1984), p 16
11. John Paul II: Speaks to Religious, 1987-1988 Book V (published by The Little Sisters of the Poor) p 71
12. John Paul II: Redemptionis Donum (CTS Publications, 1984), p 40
13. Ibid., p 19
14. Wojtyla, Karol: Faith according to Saint John of the Cross, (Ignatius Press, 1981), page 213
15. Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life: Verbi Sponsa (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1999) p 10
16. John Paul II: Vita Consecrata: (CTS, 1996), p 101
17. John Paul II: Speaks to Religious, 1983-1984 (published by the Little Sisters of the Poor) p 81
18. John Paul II: Address to Cloistered Nuns, Loreto (10 September 1995), see Verbi Sponsa, p 13
Copyright 2011 Carmelite Monastery, Birkenhead, England

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