Discretion and Virtue: A Carmelite Novice Reflects on Albert of Jerusalem

September 16, 2017 |


For the Carmelite, after the Holy Bible, the most important document in our lives is the Rule of St. Albert. Despite being the shortest rule of all the religious orders with under 1,500 words it has nevertheless been a bedrock for Carmelite life in all its facets for 800 years. St. Albert, whose feast day we celebrate today, was a brilliant mind who managed to fashion tremendous wisdom in such a compact text. Of all the words, and all their wisdom in the Rule, the last few have the most meaning for me: “You are, however, to use discretion, which is the moderator of virtue.”

What I appreciate the most about these last lines is their juxtaposition with the rest of the Rule’s text because St. Albert laid out how we were to pray, how to govern ourselves, and even how our community buildings should be designed. Being a bishop and a church law expert himself, Albert knew that communities would thrive within an ordered lifestyle focused on prayer, community, and penance. However, in his wisdom St. Albert knew that a set of rules was not sufficient for a religious community. At the beginning of our Rule St. Albert also says that the purpose of any religious rule is to “live in allegiance to Jesus Christ” and I believe for this reason he concluded the Rule with a command for us to best discern how to live out that allegiance

As Carmelites, we do not live for the Rule; instead we follow its precepts and allow its message to guide our day to day individual and community choices. We use discernment on how to apply the rule to any given place or situation, and this type of discerning has been a fundamental characteristic of Carmelites through history. When the earliest Carmelite hermits fled the violence in the Holy Land in the 1200s and moved to Europe, they knew they could no longer follow every letter of the Rule the way it was intended for life in a mountain hermitage. These men had to discern how to apply the spirit of the rule to the needs of their new life as mendicant friars. When Blessed John Soreth or St. Teresa of Avila knew Carmel needed reform, they had to discern how to change their lifestyles and communities to better live in allegiance to Jesus. Even Venerable Mother Angeline McCrory, then a Little Sister of the Poor, used discernment to leave her old community and found a new community dedicated to caring for the aged and infirm. Then she discerned that the Carmelite spirituality would be the best fit for her and her sisters. Finally Blessed Titus Brandsma used discernment to pen harsh criticisms of the Nazis and decided that it was better to give up his life fighting for justice than to rescind his comments and spare himself from death.

Though I’ll never be like one of those great Carmelite giants, I still strive to use discernment in my life as a Carmelite. Deciding to join a religious order, deciding to stay, and even deciding which spiritual reading I should do all require the same core of discernment that the Carmelite saints before me have used in their lives. In the future I will have to discern which ministries might be right for me, when to speak up for what is right, and how I might best serve the People of God. Relying on the assistance of God and the prayers of the Virgin Mary, going forward I am confident that Carmel and the Rule of St. Albert will help me discern the best way to “live in allegiance to Jesus Christ,” wherever and however that may manifest.

Stephan Rochefort, O.Carm.
Stephan Rochefort, O.Carm. is a Carmelite novice living in Middletown, New York.
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