Up close and personal - The Carmelites
Friars and Contemplative Sisters of the Order of Discalced Carmelites
Friars and Contemplative Sisters of the Order of Discalced Carmelites
In their monasteries behind high walls, what do Carmelite nuns do all day, day after day? Sister Wendy Ooi, fsp, visits with the nuns at Bukit Teresa in Kampong Bahru to find out.
THE FRIARS AND CONTEMPLATIVE SISTERS of the Order of Discalced Carmelites take their name from Mount Carmel in the Holy Land.
Their origin can be traced to the end of the 12th century when a group of pious pilgrims settled on Mount Carmel after the Crusaders recaptured the Holy Land. Calling themselves the Brothers of Our Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, they strived to live a life of solitude, penance, prayer and contemplation in the spirit of the prophet Elijah who encountered God in the whisper of the gentle breeze.
Elijah's proclamation, "With zeal I have been zealous for the Lord God of hosts!" (1 Kgs 19:16) became and remains the motto of the Carmelite Order.
The first Carmelites eventually followed a common Rule given around 1209 by St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem.
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After the Saracen (Arab) re-conquest of the Holy Land in the mid-13th century, the Order was forced to move to Europe. As the circumstances in Europe were different, the Carmelites modified and relaxed their Rule, adapting it to their new urban environment. Many ceased to live as hermits and became mendicant friars who preached and conducted pastoral work.
In 1452 Blessed John Soreth, Prior General of the Order, founded a feminine branch of the Carmelites.
During the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, a Spanish Carmelite nun, Sister Teresa of Jesus, wishing to renew the fervour and purity of the spiritual beginnings of the Order, initiated a reform movement.
She founded a monastery, St. Joseph, in Avila, Spain in 1562. Combining silence and solitude with community living, the reformed Carmelite nuns gave their life of prayer a specific apostolic role in the church and the world. Prayer and interceding for others was to be their primary work and mission.
In 1568, Sister Teresa of Jesus and Friar John of the Cross spread the reform to the friars.
The virtue of poverty was so integrally related to the Carmelite reform that the Order became known as the Discalced - barefooted or shoeless - Order of Carmelites. (The term "Discalced" today indicates a reformed religious order.)
At present there are around 13,000 Discalced Carmelite nuns in 895 monasteries around the world, and 4,000 Discalced Carmelite Friars in 80 countries. Each monastery of the Sisters is autonomous and the nuns remain in their community for life.
Right, the brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is worn as a sign of devotion to our Lady.
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Carmelite spirituality and charism
CARMEL IN HEBREW means "orchard" or "garden" and Scripture refers to Carmel as a place of verdant beauty. For the Carmelites, Carmel also represents a spiritual garden, a place of divine beauty - and it is the hope of each Carmelite to catch sight of God's beauty, the very beauty that is Jesus Christ, God's Son and image.
Carmelite spirituality is thus primarily centred on Jesus and his invitation to love by prayer - to know, love, and seek him in all they do. St. Teresa of Avila describes this prayer journey as leading one into the soul, the temple for the Divine King. For the Sisters, silence and solitude in enclosure (just like the original Carmelite hermits) foster recollection and their commitment to a life of unceasing prayer and intercession.
Contemplation is regarded as a gift of infused love and is the highest form of prayer.
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Carmelite Sisters in Singapore
The Carmelite sisters reside within the Carmelite monastery where they live cloistered lives. They intercede with prayers for the many petitions they receive.
THE CARMELITE SISTERS first arrived in Singapore in April 1938 following a request made in 1934 by Bishop A. Devals to Msgr Perros, Vicar Apostolic of Bangkok, to invite the Carmelite Sisters to set up a monastery here. Mother Anne of Jesus, Foundress and Prioress of the Carmel of Bangkok, was approached and agreed to lay the foundation.
On Apr 21, 1938 Mother Therese des Agnes (originally from the Carmel of Floreffe in Belgium) and Sister Theresita of the Child Jesus boarded a boat from Bangkok and arrived two days later in Singapore where they were hosted by the Sisters of the Infant Jesus. A second batch of sisters and some postulants arrived two weeks later on May 8; the sisters then proceeded to their new monastery (which they called Carmel).
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Bishop Devals had generously provided a small monastery on top of a hill called Bukit Teresa in Kampong Bahru which was described then as "on the outskirts of the city so that solitude and silence could be observed". May 11, 1938 was the official foundation day of Carmel of Christ the King, the monastery, and Mother Therese des Anges was appointed Prioress and Mistress of Novices.
The sisters' life of prayer and solitude was however disrupted by the Second World War. They took refuge at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus because their monastery was converted to an anti-aircraft base by the British and later occupied by the Japanese. After the war, the nuns found Carmel looted and dilapidated. With the help of their chaplain, Father Stephen Lee, they made it habitable again and eventually added three new wings and a chapel. The Chapel of Christ the King was consecrated by Archbishop Olcomendy in December 1949.
In February 1984 a columbarium was built and the remains of some of the late sisters who were exhumed from a Catholic Cemetery, cremated, and placed in the niches. 11 sisters have since passed away in Carmel.
Today there are 16 sisters in the monastery, all Singaporeans except for one Malaysian.
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Famous Carmelite saints and Doctors of the Church
Saint Teresa of Jesus
(Saint Teresa of Avila)
(Saint Teresa of Avila)
"Let nothing trouble you, let nothing make you afraid. All things pass away. God never changes. Patience obtains everything. God alone is enough." - St. Teresa of Avila
TERESA WAS BORN in Avila, Spain in 1515 into a noble family. The charming and sociable girl entered the Carmelites at the age of 20 and after two decades she began a reform in her Order which spread to the Friars, and she became the first woman founder of a community of men - the Discalced Carmelite Friars.
Known for her energy, resolution and sense of humour, she was animated by her desire to serve the Lord as lovingly as she could and "give a thousand lives to save a single soul".
She died at the age of 67 in Alba de Tormes on Oct 4, 1582. When the bells of Avila tolled for her, the local citizens said: "The saint has gone to heaven." She was canonized in 1622 and declared Doctor of the Church in 1970 for her writings, the most famous being "The Way of Perfection" and "The Interior Castle".
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"At the evening of life, you shall be judged by love." - St. John of the Cross
Saint John of the Cross
JOHN WAS BORN in Fontiveros, Spain in 1542 into a poor family. His meeting with St. Teresa when he was a young Carmelite friar led him to abandon his plan to join the Carthusian Order for a stricter way of life.
He wholeheartedly gave himself to the Teresian reform but faced objection from his former brother friars who viewed it as a criticism of their more lax way of life. They imprisoned him in a dungeon in Toledo but he eventually managed to escape.
John continued to work tirelessly for the expansion of the reform. His great desire was to help others to know and love God through his preaching, work of spiritual direction and writing. He died in Ubeda at the age of 49 in 1591.
He was canonized in 1726 and declared Doctor of the Church in 1926. His writings and poems are considered classics on Christian mysticism. They include "Ascent of Mount Carmel", "Dark Night of the Soul", and "The Spiritual Canticle of the Soul".
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Saint ThÃ©rÃ¨se of Lisieux
"My mission - to make God loved - will begin after my death. I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. I will send a shower of roses." - St. ThÃ©rÃ¨se
THÃ‰RÃˆSE MARTIN WAS BORN in Alecon, France in 1873. Her father, Louis, was a watchmaker. ThÃ©rÃ¨se's mother died of cancer when ThÃ©rÃ¨se was four. Both her parents have been declared Venerable by the church.
At 15, ThÃ©rÃ¨se entered the Carmel of Lisieux, where she lived in humility, evangelical simplicity and confi dence in God. She defined her path to God and holiness as "The Little Way", which consisted of love and trust in God.
At the direction of her spiritual director, though against her wishes, she dictated her famed autobiography "Story of a Soul". Offering her life for the salvation of souls and the spread of the Gospel, she died on Sep 30, 1897, at the age of 24.
She was canonized in 1925 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1997 by Pope John Paul II.
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A year in Carmel
Sister Jacinta has settled down in the Carmelite monastery since her profession a year ago.
Sister Jacinta (formerly Yvonne Chew) shared on her call to the religious life in CatholicNews last year. Now, after a year within the walls of the Carmelite monastery, she shares on life as a Carmelite sister
LAST YEAR, before entering Carmel, I wrote about my vocation - how I left the church in my 20s, but God gently led me back in my 30s, and then revealed his will for me. My first year in Carmel has been rich in experiences. It is what someone called "living the paschal mystery - dying and rising with Christ - daily".
I love the silence and peace in the monastery. Simple pleasures, such as an afternoon breeze, are felt more deeply. But in this "desert", little troubles may also seem big. Prayer, confession, and daily Mass help me keep a balanced perspective and understand myself and others better.
The community chants the Divine Office prayers seven times daily. Meditation in the morning and evening has been consoling and strengthening. However, sometimes, I'm spiritually dry, but I'm told this is normal. Even in prayer, God calls us not to be successful, but to be faithful.
My work during the year consisted of sorting communion bread and making scapulars. Other sisters bake the bread, make cards, and sew baptismal garments and priests' vestments.
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Everyone cleans and cooks. I now appreciate wives, mothers and maids more. One priest said our work is like the widow's mite (Mk 12:41-44). I have been very tired on some days. But I now understand better that "the Lord is my strength, my song, my salvation" (Is 12:2). Carrying our crosses unites us with Jesus. Some people had feared my mind would degenerate here.
Above, a Carmelite sister works in a baking work room to prepare the communion wafers to be consecrated during Mass in all parishes in Singapore.
Fear not. Six Carmelite sisters, two priests and a Good Shepherd sister teach me church history, the Bible, religious life and Carmelite saints and spirituality. Furthermore, two priests and two brothers give talks to the community. During meals, we listen to spiritual readings, and the daily schedule includes time for reading.
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It's a very disciplined and balanced life, in which we all help one another. However, things don't always go smoothly.
Sometimes, sparks fly, as in any family or workplace, but forgiveness holds the community together. Trust in God helps us obey even when our opinions differ. As I surrendered my will to God's, he showed that he's working in me and in the community. He has also been teaching me to entrust my family to him, especially when they face difficulties.
Left, the sisters are engaged in chanting the Divine Office, a prayer of the Church, which they pray seven times a day.
I've been touched too by the sisters' concern for me and my family, their hospitality to guests, and care for our sick. Many people write or come to ask for prayers. The sisters share their joys and sorrows, and offer some advice. It's a privilege to pray for others. The sisters' faithful living of this life for many years is inspiring, and I am learning from them.
I'm very happy to serve the Lord in this community in silence, solitude and prayer. I thank God for my family, friends, the sisters here, and everyone who has prayed for me. I have felt supported by your love. May God, who has carried us as a father carries his child, all along the road we have travelled (Dt 1:31), continue to bless each of you.
For vocation enquiries, please visit The Carmelite Monastery of Christ the King, 98 Bukit Teresa Road, Singapore 099750.
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Carmelite friars in Singapore
FATHER JOHN MARY CHIN (the one and only Chinese Carmelite priest then) founded a Carmelite friary in Taiwan in 1983 and the first four candidates who joined were Singaporeans.
In 1996, at the invitation of Archbishop Gregory Yong, Father John Mary Chin founded a friary in Singapore. This community of Carmelite friars has attracted young men from the region including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar.
Today there are 17 friars (six priests, and 11 friars under formation) in Singapore. They reside in two Carmelite friaries - a house of formation in Punggol and at the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, a parish ministered by the Carmelite friars.
Apart from parish-based activities such as the RCIA programe, the friars also engage in pastoral work among migrants, the sick, and prisoners. Giving spiritual direction, retreats and talks on Carmelite spirituality also enable the friars to deepen the Christian life of those they serve.
Right, Brother Jeffrey Lee, a postulant (center), kneels between two Carmelite novices for this photo taken at the interior of the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul.
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The second time around
Carmelite Brother Jeffrey Tan shares his vocation story
Carmelite Brother Jeffrey Tan shares his vocation story
MY VOCATION JOURNEY originated from a desire to know more about prayer. From my youth, I was intrigued by various exhortations to pray and pray often. I began with the usual prayers like 'Our Father' and 'Hail Mary'. I recited the Rosary but without much enthusiasm. Involvement in various church organizations did not quell my hunger for the secret to prayer.
I experienced great restlessness and frustration. I knew I had not found that treasure yet. After I graduated from the university, I became a secondary school teacher for about six years. Despite earning a relatively good income, there was something missing. I began to wonder if there was something higher to life.
I did not come from a well-to-do family. My father died when I was 12. My mother had to struggle to bring up the family. However, the struggles of my childhood and youth have not made me bitter but rather they have made me appreciative of what I have. I value people rather than their educational abilities or status in life.
Brother Jeffrey Tan goes to the market to buy vegetables to cook for the Carmelite friars.
As he is still under formation, he finds that his turn to serve in the kitchen - "a duty I truly enjoy" - is a great opportunity to serve his community.
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Two religious sisters left a great impression on me. Sister Deirdre O'Loan, IJ and Sister Columba of the Good Shepherd Sisters. Sister Deirdre showed me the meaning of the word "dedication" when she was the vice-principal and later principal of CJC. If I want to do something, I will make sure it is done properly; otherwise I will not even begin. I met Sister Columba only once, but that encounter was enough for me to experience what prayer does - she exuded serenity and something that no word can describe. Later when I went up to the Carmelite Monastery for the first time, I experienced the same sensation in the monastery's chapel. I knew my quest was at an end.
My first encounter with the Carmelites was with Mother Josephine (the prioress of the Carmelite Monastery). Through her I came to know about Carmelite saints like St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of the Child Jesus. Their writings on prayer finally put my long years of search to an end.
They make me understand that prayer is not about method or extraordinary manifestations of visions or ecstasies but interior disposition. As St. Teresa says, God is to be found even among the pots and pans. The end of this first journey aroused in me a great longing for this intimacy in prayer with the Lord.
My first attempt in 1999 with the friars was not successful because I had unrealistic expectations of saintliness in the community. Also, it is one thing to know the secret to prayer; it is another to put it into practice. During these years, God has been gently guiding me into the school of prayer (and now) I can say I have achieved some degree of serenity.
I returned to the community in 2005. I have abided by this adage since -Seek not the consolations of God but the God of consolations.