“If, then, you wish to behold and commune with Him who is beyond sense-perception and beyond concept, you must free yourself from every impassioned thought.” Evagrios, the Solitary (Quoted in The Philokalia 1779)
In 1170, a group of hermits gathered on Mount Carmel, a high point above the Mediterranean Sea near the present city of Haifa (Israel). This is a holy place associated with the prophet Elijah who cried to the Lord: … with zeal I am zealous for the Lord God of Hosts.” (New Testament 1 Kings 19:14).
From this gathering of devout Christians came the Carmelite Order–the Order of the Blessed Virgin of Mount Carmel. For these faithful, two models exemplified the order: Elijah, a man of God, a prophet who sought the face of God; and Mary, the model of Christian discipleship and the truly contemplative Holy Mother.
The Carmelites believed that they were called by God to live together in Christian community by the example of Mary, who pondered the Word of God in her heart. Following Christ, they leave the world behind; prayer becomes the center of their life. These devout believers celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours in spiritual reading, work, solitude, silent prayer and a simple life that supports contemplation.
A postulant named Ada Sullivan from a pioneer family in San Francisco entered the Carmelite Monastery in Boston in 1906. The following year, Archbishop Riordan of San Francisco visited the Boston Carmel. So impressed was he by the nuns and their life of prayer for the church he wanted to found a Carmelite Monastery in San Francisco. However, he felt the time was not right because of the disastrous 1906 earthquake, which had ruined most of the Bay Area. Many parishioners were in need of his attention toward restoring their lives and providing financial support.
Ada Sullivan’s mother guaranteed the financing necessary to build a Carmel Monastery in the Bay Area of California. Thus, five nuns from the Boston Carmel made the 3,000-mile trip to San Francisco arriving in October 1908. The monastery was first housed in the old Robert Louis Stevenson house. When it came time to build a permanent monastery, a site was found in the Santa Clara Valley–near the Jesuit University of Santa Clara –about fifty miles south of San Francisco. On this site was built the Carmel of the Infant Jesus. (photo above)
During vespers, the sacraments of holy communion are replaced by the priest in preparation for the next Sunday’s service. It is a ritualistic event deeply meaningful to the Catholic worshipper; a reverent, sincere expression of the Catholic faith to the observing Protestant. The cloistered nuns hidden by arched screens on either side of the altar sing hymns of the faith a’capella and in Latin.
The chapel is made a sacred place not only by human designation but by the sanctity of the rituals practiced therein. Particularly in the service of vespers, worshippers (Protestant and/ or Catholic) are prepared for communion with the Holy Spirit in an ambience of reverent contemplation that encourages a mystic religious experience.
Mysticism is a significant part of the Carmelite experience. As defined in the dictionary, mysticism is a spiritual discipline used to make contact with the divine. However, many people have had mystical experiences without following a special discipline. Conversely, some who follow a rigorous regimen of spiritual practices through a long period of time have never contacted the divine.
At certain times of the day and certain days of the year, a single beam of sunlight from the monastery windows falls directly in the center of the altar; during vespers, it illuminates the priest behind the altar holding the host (the communion symbol.) The light is then joined by another beam of sunlight from the back of the sanctuary as the sun begins to set. The beams illuminate the screen behind which the nuns sing. The symbolism of the wandering sunlight is very much a part of the mystic religious experience in the Chapel, especially when the worshipper is in an attitude of contemplation or prayer.
In the words of Saint Simeon One day, as he stood and recited ‘God have mercy on me as a sinner,’ (Luke 18:13) uttering it with his mind rather than his mouth, suddenly a flood of divine radiance appeared from above and filled the room. The man saw nothing but light all around him. Oblivious of the world, he was filled with tears and with impossible joy and gladness.”
Excerpted from an article written for Catholic Digest, April 1996. Although I am not of the Catholic faith, while visiting the Monastery with friends during vespers one spring evening, I was immersed in and deeply impressed by the sanctity of the communion ritual. The hidden voices of the nuns amplified what was a mystic sacred experience.