Lay Carmelites find a home in Troy (Article from The Evangelist - The Official Publication of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany)


                                                                                                             The decade-old St. Elijah Lay Carmelite Community is a small                                                                                                                                              but active secular third order whose members say that finding                                                                                                                                            the group ended their spiritual wandering and changed their                                                                                                                                              understanding of prayer and God's presence in their lives. 

                                                                                                             St. Joseph's parish in Troy hosts the group, which has 10                                                                                                                                                        members and three observers. It's made up of men and women,                                                                                                                                        married people, single people and widows. It meets once a                                                                                                                                                  month - with an extra monthly meeting for people in formation                                                                                                                                          to enter the community - to read, say evening prayers, discuss                                                                                                                                            discernment and study the order's history and the charisms of                                                                                                                                            associated saints and holy people. 

But being a lay Carmelite is all about life outside the formal meetings, members say. 

"You learn, really, how prayer becomes like breathing," said Rebecca Romanchuk, who went through a six-year formation process before making final promises to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, attend daily Mass when possible and wear the scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, one of the order's models along with the prophet Elijah. "[The charge is] not to make prayer an oasis in our life, but rather to make it our life. It can get kind of gritty - like, 'What's God going to ask of me today?'"

What they do
The formation process, which culminates in a simple ceremony, often refers to the desert crossed by the first Carmelites, 12th- and 13th-century hermits who journeyed from Mount Carmel in Palestine to Europe. Readings use symbolism to encourage mortification, purification and silence, leading to contemplative prayer. 

"You confront yourself as you truly are," Mrs. Romanchuk explained. "There are no more illusions. You cannot truly pray and come away satisfied. You're always hungering for more." 

A vocation to a lay order, she said, is "a way of enriching our daily life."

Mrs. Romanchuk is a wife, mother, grandmother and artist who volunteers on the board of Alight Pregnancy Center in Hudson, which supports people facing crisis pregnancies. She recently found a new calling helping her daughters-in-law become community resources for Catholic homeschooling; she homeschooled her own four sons for 16 years. She may not have answered that call before she joined the lay Carmelites. 

"I feel much more at peace," she said. "I have a very clear sense of what God is asking of me. I'm trying to find His will in something I didn't expect to be doing."

Ten years ago, Mrs. Romanchuk discovered the St. Elijah community online; she spotted a Carmelite nun at her Ukrainian Catholic church the next day. She started attending meetings of what was then a newly-formed group in Troy, and immediately felt a connection.

Why they stay
"It filled in deficiencies in my personal life [like] a lack of discipline [and] a sense of community," she said. She found "people who are of like mind and share a love for contemplative prayer and sought quiet. 

"I had been feeling spiritually restless, trying different devotional things for a few months. I think God just got tired of watching me spin my wheels.

"A lot of people carry a romantic notion of Carmel," she continued. "You quickly find when you enter that it's very normal. Everything you do or offer becomes a prayer, and that for me was radical, because I tended to think I have to set the mood [to pray]. I didn't understand that you could be in the presence of God no matter what you are doing."

Jim Agnew, a temporarily-professed member who will make final promises this year, said the idea of spiritual direction similarly attracted him to the St. Elijah community - plus the fact that several doctors of the Church were Carmelites, and the community seemed to foster deep relationships with God. He had found the Catholic Church to be very diverse in its devotional offerings, but hadn't found the right style of devotions for himself yet. 

Blueprint for life
Mr. Agnew was drawn to a Carmelite priest celebrating a Latin Mass at St. Peter's Church in Troy (now closed), where he was a parishioner. "I thought [the order] had something that I could use in my life: an opportunity for a more intense spiritual life, or a more intense focus on blueprinting a spiritual life."

At first, Mr. Agnew was intimidated by the commitment of discerning membership in an order, as well as the fact that he was one of few men in the group then. But it also brought him "to another level where you have to be honest with yourself about what is attracting you to the group." 

He learned that "the Lord offers you an opportunity to sanctify the moment that you're in. So long as we provide the space for the Lord, He's very happy to take it up."

Mr. Agnew, a married father who works as a mechanic and converted from Methodism as a teenager, feels inspired by the motto on the Carmelite crest quoting Elijah: "With zeal I have been zealous for the Lord God of hosts."

"That word 'zeal' enraptures me," he said. "All he ever really wanted to do was serve the Lord and serve Him right. The Lord never leaves a person where they are. [He's] calling us to go deeper. It's an order of deep prayer, but it's also rooted in a love affair with the Lord."