Upstate lay Carmelites seek a deeper prayer life

By Rebecca Cronican Strelow

SPARTANBURG — They are men and women, young and old, married and single.

They have been brought together by the desire to develop a deeper walk with God through a life of quiet prayer.

They are Carmelites, an order that follows St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross in the contemplative spirit of Mary and Elijah.

On July 15, the St. Paul of the Cross Third Order of Lay Carmelites welcomed six candidates at the Church of Jesus, Our Risen Savior.

Four women who had already been received into the order also professed their intention to continue living as Carmelites.

Three others renewed their professions, and two women took their final vows.

Father Richard Harris of Greenwood, the order’s spiritual director, celebrated the vigil Mass. Father Basil Congro of Our Risen Savior and Father Christopher Danel of Aiken also attended.

Harris reminded those present that they are called to be authentic followers, constantly asking ‘Who am I?’ and examining what motivates them as Christians.

“Only then,” he said, “can you recognize what kind of Christian, what kind of Carmelite, you truly are.”

He compared Mary’s life with the lives of everyone today. Her life was miraculous, but she also endured dread and suffering, and lived a life of uncertainty.

“She set the example for all of us,” he said, by persevering until the end.

Life asks a lot, and how people meet those demands determines who they are as Christians, he said.

Whatever the circumstances, Carmelites are called to follow Mary into “the depths of an interior life of prayer.”

That desire for a deep prayer life is a hallmark of the Carmelites. Myrna B. Kennedy, the Upstate order’s first leader, said that is what the original four women were seeking when they formed the group.

“We all wanted to be ‘pray-ers,’ ” she said.

They take part in morning and evening prayers from the Liturgy of the Hours, and they spend time each day listening to and talking with the Lord.

“We try to withdraw from the world in our own manner,” she said.

Kennedy’s journey to the Carmelites began with her joining the Catholic Church. She and her family were Baptists and her husband and children remain in that faith. She eventually decided she wanted to be even more involved spiritually and, more prayerful and, in 1996 she went to Father Gary Dilley at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church.

At the same time, Ann Marie Rowe, who just took her final vows, was also searching. Rowe said that they both knew they wanted something more, which turned out to be the Carmelites.

The Aylesford Lay Carmelite Center in Darien, Ill. was contacted for information. By learning from books sent by the center, Kennedy, Rowe, Marlene Saad and Ann Strozzow formed the order.

“We came together for a reason — to learn contemplative prayer,” Rowe said. “It’s a deeper spiritual walk.”

Since then, the order has slowly grown. Its members don’t evangelize, Kennedy said. They try, through prayer, to be the spirit of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and those who feel called will come.

“It’s a marvelous way to commune with others who have the same objective,” Kennedy said.

Who are the Carmelites?

Three orders: The Third Order Carmelites are lay people. The First Order is priests; the Second Order is nuns. While a Carmelite nun might take a vow of poverty or silence, a lay Carmelite vows to live in the spirit of poverty. They also take vows of chastity and obedience.

“We are chaste according to the state of life we’re in,” Rowe said.

Outward signs: Members of the Third Order wear short brown scapulars. Upon taking their final vows, they receive a ring and long scapular. This serves as an outward sign and a reminder of their calling.

History: From her home in Nazareth, Mary, the mother of Jesus, could see Mount Carmel, where hermits lived beside the well of Elijah around the turn of the 12th century. They followed Christ with total dedication, and the charism they developed remains today in the Carmelite tradition.

“Carmel’s call”: From the manual for members: “The purpose of this lay branch of the Carmelite Order is to provide a community in which to live the Gospel way of life according to the Carmelite charism of seeking God in contemplative prayer, a communion of faith, hope and love, and in a spirit of service to God and the human family.”

In the Upstate: Members of the St. Paul of the Cross community come from several Upstate churches, including ones in Spartanburg, Greenville, Gaffney and Union.