What’s the difference between a Carmelite and a caramelite? One is devoted to prayer, the other to candy. But the two saw eye to eye this afternoon in my religious ed class, as Fr. Mario Lopez of the North Shore Carmelite Chapel graciously agreed to teach fourteen attentive ten-year-olds. Before the class I asked him if he had ever taught children. “Never,” he said.
You would have thought he had done this all his life. The kids were eating out of his hand. I think the Carmelite father originally from Los Angeles must be a born actor. He arrived in simple black shirt and trousers, with only a collar to suggest that he is a priest. His first gesture at the start of the class was to open a suitcase, pull out his vestments, and don them. It was Clark Kent and Superman, gone Catholic.
Father Mario began with the difference between diocesan priests and those belonging to an order, like the Jesuits, Franciscans, or Carmelites. He said that a diocesan priest is like a primary care physician, while an order priest is a specialist, like an eye doctor. While the specialty (charism) of the Franciscans is poverty, that of the Carmelites is prayer—or, as Fr. Mario put it, “to imitate Jesus in prayer.” He proceeded to teach the children about the history of his order and about the different kinds of prayer. Let’s have a close-up:
The Carmelites began in about 1160 AD, when some Crusaders retired to pray in caves on Mt. Carmel, a thirteen-mile range on the coast of what is now Israel. Prophets, including Elijah, had been known to frequent the area. Let’s go to the map:
The original Carmelites had a particular devotion to the Blessed Mother and originally bore the name Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mt. Carmel. They had the simplest rule of any order: poverty, chastity, obedience—and that’s it. Life was not simple on Mt. Carmel, however. In 1291 Muslims attacked, slaughtered some of the hermits, and drove out the others. The survivors returned to their home countries of Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Cyprus, and England and set up “Carmels” there.
For his next act, Father Mario said that Carmelites are like Marines. They have a dress uniform and they have battle fatigues, or work clothes. Fr. Mario then got down to work:
Work, for a Carmelite, is prayer, and the rest of the class was taken up with the different kinds and qualities of prayer. Father Mario began with a beautiful analogy. He asked the children if they liked putting their hand out the window of a car and feeling it rise in the wind. Of course, they said they did. That is prayer, he said. The hand is like the wing of a plane being lifted by an airstream. Or like ourselves in prayer, with our hearts and minds lifted up to God. Prayer is the wind that takes us there.
Father Mario finally itemized five forms of prayer: adoration, petition, praise, thanksgiving, and intercession. He called for a vote, asking which form of prayer is most important. Several girls voted for intercession, several boys for petition—which the Carmelite said is typical, girls being the compassionate ones and boys usually thinking only of their own needs!
Before he offered a closing prayer for the class, I asked a final question: “Father Mario, what is your favorite prayer?” His answer was a stunner. “My favorite prayer,” he said slowly, thoughtfully, “is the Mass. It includes all five forms of prayer.”
Before he left, the class gave Father Mario a retablo painted by Ann Burt. It was a painting of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a Carmelite and (I didn’t know this in advance) a personal favorite of our guest teacher. In an e-mail this evening he wrote:
“Thank you, too, for the gift of the ‘retablo’ of St. Thérèse who was very instrumental in my own vocation. It's precious because it’s a gift from you and her. I will remember you to her in my prayers.”
Thank you, Father Mario!