By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 18, 2017
This is the third in an occasional series featuring area Catholics deepening their faith by affiliating with religious orders.
MARIETTA—Joe Herzberg and Charles Trout stood in front of the altar at Holy Family Church to accept with prayers and blessings a brown square cloth, draped over their chest and back.
For these two, the small woolen garment serves to remind them of their faith journey. Described by the faithful of the lay Carmelite community as the “yoke of Christ,” these men received this cloth, known as a scapular, and took their next steps as new members of the Holy Family Lay Carmelites on Saturday, March 18.
“It reminds me I have to get more serious. Now it is the next phase. It says I need to stiffen my resolve to live a good and holy life,” said Herzberg, 65, a grandfather of nine, as his connection with this community of Lay Carmelites deepened.
Trout spends his workday sitting alone atop one of the many cranes dotting midtown Atlanta. For years he was a seeker who left the church. After his return, he found his soul nourished by a quiet, interior prayer life.
During a visit to an Alabama monastery, a monk pointed Trout toward the numerous books authored by the saints, nuns and priests of the Carmelite religious order. What he read resonated with his personal spirituality. That experience was his introduction to a religious community stretching back centuries. He learned from the books there is more to the spiritual life than praying alone. He discovered value in sharing faith with others, particularly within the Lay Carmelite community.
“My friendships that I made here are very important to me,” said Trout, 65. “Their dedication is astounding to me. I feed off of them.”
Seven local Carmelite groups
In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Lay Carmelite communities are one way to live more deeply the Catholic faith. Believers support each other by following the same path of prayer. The heart of Carmelite spirituality is contemplation, seen as a God-given gift springing from prayer, community and service. Members are required to pray using the church’s Liturgy of the Hours at least twice a day, along with additional reflection and meditation time.
The Carmelite order and the Discalced Carmelite order, established after a reform of the Carmelites in the 16th-century, are spread across the globe. However, none of their priests or sisters is currently serving in the Atlanta Archdiocese. However, at least seven lay groups are active, four affiliated with the Carmelite order and three affiliated with the Discalced Carmelites.
Two of the local communities recently achieved milestones.
The Holy Family Church community welcomed the new members who made temporary promises and will continue their inquiry into their vocation as Third Order Carmelites.
And, at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta, a Secular Carmelite community, after meeting for more than a dozen years, was officially recognized.
The Discalced Carmelite Friars of the Province of St. Therese, based in Oklahoma, recognized the faithful members meeting at the Atlanta cathedral. A decree from the Vatican leader of the religious order granted official status to the group, which is now known as the Discalced Carmelite Doctors of Divine Love Community.
When the Christ the King group first began meeting in November 2001, seven people came.
“I just hoped someone would show up,” said Mary Shusta about the initial meeting.
A lifelong Catholic, Shusta approached Archbishop John F. Donoghue with her vision. He endorsed the idea.
“The Holy Spirit has always been in charge. The Holy Spirit has always brought people here,” said Shusta, who is the only currently active member from the original group.
Growing up in Michigan, she heard about a Carmelite convent in her native Grand Rapids. She didn’t know much, except the nuns “pray without ceasing.” Years passed and she felt called to pursue an affiliation as a lay member of a religious community. She turned to what she knew best, the Carmelites.
The monthly gatherings resemble a family, where people share experiences of prayer, she said. Community members follow the Carmelite structure with its members praying at least twice a day the Liturgy of the Hours and setting aside 30 minutes “to just be quiet and listen for what God has to say.” She’s reading for inspiration the Catechism of the Catholic Church. What is her prayer?
“I describe it as St. Teresa of Avila described it, as a conversation with God. It continues all day. God is never far away. When you are distracted, you come right back,” said Shusta, who is 55, lives in Atlanta, and works in the telecommunications industry.
“I just felt called to pray”
For her part, Dawn Kernan, another longtime member, said the Secular Carmelite community nourishes her spirit. She feels uplifted after community events.
“We live in the world, but we don’t get caught up in the materialism of it,” she said.
Kernan attended daily Mass but wanted something more. A friend told her about the many service opportunities to deepen her faith, but that prospect wasn’t appealing.
“Although I was always willing to help out, deep down I really just felt called to pray,” she said.
The mother of six learned about the Carmelite study group at the cathedral and has been participating for 12 years. Her family attends St. Jude the Apostle Church, Sandy Springs, where she and her husband, Steve, serve with the EDGE middle-school youth program.
Now, the Carmelite Doctors Community includes both Kernan parents. The family’s devotion to Mary, Mother of God, has increased, and they attend daily Mass and try to carve time out during the day to pray the rosary together.
“Today, 12 years later, the Carmelite spirituality is a huge part of my life,” she said.
“I think it is Our Lady of Mt. Carmel who guides, watches over and protects our family. Our lives are centered on Christ, so no matter what happens, we all have learned to look to him before making decisions or judgments,” said Kernan, who just welcomed the arrival of her first grandchild.
The history of the order
The Carmelite community stretches back centuries. Its family tree has roots in when the prophet Elijah took shelter on Mount Carmel, which gives the religious order its name. This mountain in the Holy Land later in ancient times became inhabited by Christian hermits. They fled to Europe in the aftermath of European crusading armies battling Muslims.
Pope Nicholas V approved the formation of the order in the 13th century. Carmelites continue to be inspired by Elijah as a prophetic voice for God. Another inspiration for the community is Mary, the Mother of Jesus, a model of contemplation and faith.
The Carmelites split in the 16th century. The original community is known as Carmelites of the Ancient Observance. Reformers St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, in Spain, sought in the 1500s to return the order to a more austere way of life, like the original hermits. This led to the formation of the Discalced Carmelites. Discalced is from a Latin word, meaning without shoes.
Both have Third Orders for lay people. Those affiliated with the Carmelite order are titled Lay Carmelites, while those affiliated with the Discalced Carmelite order are called Secular Carmelites. Both share the Carmelite focus on contemplative prayer.
Two Discalced Carmelite communities and a study group are present in the Atlanta Archdiocese. In addition to the community at the Cathedral of Christ the King, there is one at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers, titled Mary Queen of Carmel. The study group meets at St. Marguerite d’Youville Church, Lawrenceville.
Discalced Carmelite Father Bonaventure Sauer, of the Mount Carmel Center in Dallas, Texas, described the order’s focus as “spirituality of interiority.” He explained Carmelites understand a believer encounters God “within the interior depth of a person.”
“Where do you meet Christ in the world? For Carmelites, it’s very interior,” he said.
Prayer is not to be self-focused.
“It’s not just a private thing. (Prayer is) when I am alone with God, but if it’s authentic, God will change me,” he said. And the changed person goes into the world to serve.
Three decades of community
It was 1988 when the Lay Carmelite community began at Holy Family Church in Marietta, the oldest in the archdiocese with about two-dozen members. This group is one of four communities of Carmelites of the Ancient Observance here.
Cecile Bordlymay, a grandmother of three and a retired nurse, has been a member for the past eight years. She said her interest in the prayer life began in high school in Chicago when she read a book about the scapular and it moved her to visit a priest to be enrolled in the scapular, a Marian devotion. As an adult, she learned more about the Carmelites when she saw the community at prayer.
“I knew just right off the bat. Our Lady never forgot I wanted the scapular. I felt I was always a Carmelite,” she said.
The distinctive piece of clothing isn’t a “magical charm,” said Bordlymay. Instead, it is a sign of intimacy with God, a sign of humility, she said. A lay member of the Carmelites can be buried wearing the scapular.
The interior prayer nurtures a desire for closeness to God, she said.
“My desire to acquire worldly goods has diminished, I have no desire to compete with others as I see other people as having different gifts from God which I do not have,” said Bordlymay, who is a member of the Ukrainian Greek Church, an Eastern Catholic church in communion with Rome.
The well-known Carmelite authors, like St. Therese of Lisieux, led Kate Viets to the Holy Family community. “There were these bits and pieces. I didn’t put them together before I came to the Carmelites. They’re bits and pieces God put in my path,” she said.
As the mother of two school-age children, Viets has to be deliberate in finding time to pray. She turns to her bedroom for prayer in front of a crucifix and an icon of Jesus and the Blessed Mother.
“There is much going on in my life. There are two bookends of my day—morning prayer and evening prayer. That’s the part that really touched me, taking the time to sit and really listen,” she said.
Family life and work as a preschool teacher aren’t distractions to set aside. Instead they are windows to God, a perspective she’s learned from the spirituality that has enriched believers for hundreds of years.
“Wherever one is placed in life, with prayer and contemplation,” she said, “Carmelite spirituality understands God’s will is revealed.”