The Lay Carmelite life: Prayer, community and service

Ten years ago, Bill Riner was struggling with wanting to “be better” in his faith. He attended Mass every Sunday but felt like something was still missing. He turned to spiritual reading and was drawn to St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

He went to the now-closed Archangel Books and Gifts store in St. Cloud in search of more about the two saints and ended up invited to what he thought was a book group that would be studying them that Saturday.

Once he was there, he soon realized that it was much more than a book group. It was a meeting of Lay Carmelites, a branch of the Carmelite Order, also known as the Third Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

“This was my first encounter with the Lay Carmelites,” Bill said. “I had never heard of them or any other lay group for that matter.”

The Lay Carmelites are one of a few secular religious communities in the Diocese of St. Cloud. According to the Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary in Darien, Illinois, members — though not in religious life — choose to live out their baptismal commitment according to the spirit of the Carmelite Order. They share in the same call to holiness and mission. Carmelites are known for their devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title, Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

“The 800-year-old religious order stresses a way of life that calls for allegiance to Jesus Christ,“ Bill said. “The heart of it is a commitment to the three keystones of Carmelite life: prayer, community and service.”

Bill attended several meetings and decided to enter the formation process.

“To be a Lay Carmelite is to share in the graces and blessings of the Carmelite tradition,” he said. “St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Therese of Lisieux are our role models and guides.”

Lay Carmelites are called to seek God’s will in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life, Bill said, and are rooted in a love for those with whom they live and work in recognition of God’s presence in all circumstances and in solidarity with others.

Bill completed a six-year formation process and now serves as director of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Lay Carmelite Community of St. Cloud and as formation director for the group. He wears a brown scapular as a sign of consecration to Mary.

“I firmly believe that God gave me the gift of my Lay Carmelite vocation in response to my poorly defined prayer ‘to become better,’” Bill said. “I asked God for help, and he answered my prayer in a way that I could have never imagined.”

Jori Church, a member of St. Ann Parish in Wadena, is in the first of four periods of formation: preparation for reception. The next steps are preparation for temporary profession, preparation for final or perpetual promises and then lifelong membership in the local Carmelite community. During each period the candidate meets with the formation director monthly to study lessons specific to their level of formation.

Jori said she appreciates having structure in her life around contemplation, Mass attendance and prayer, she said.

“I am living as a Lay Carmelite as part of the formation process and I love it,” she said. “They support me in living out my baptismal vows and they help me grow stronger in my faith. During the pandemic, my formation director has been calling me regularly to check on me, and that has meant the world to me as I live alone. Just knowing they are there to return to once we can gather again is comforting.”

Jori is hoping to be received into the order in November.

“I am very excited,” she said. “I love having a group of people who love Jesus and the contemplative charism as much as I do.”

Verdelle Dingmann, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Waite Park, calls the Carmelite community a blessing from God and appreciates the order’s deep history in the well as the Liturgy of the Hours every day,” she said. “Sometimes our modern world becomes cluttered and it becomes difficult to hear important things that God may be trying to tell us.”

“I relaxed more knowing that God was on this journey with me, directing me so to speak, through the Lay Carmelites.”

About a year after Bill was received into the Carmelite community, his wife, Cecilia, decided to join. Although she had some hesitation about being ready to start the journey, she continued preparing to make first promises, she said.

“I found that the steadiness of the study, the prayerful approach, the Carmelite charisms helped me to pray consistently,” Cecilia said. “I relaxed more knowing that God was on this journey with me, directing me so to speak, through the Lay Carmelites.”

She made her final profession after seven years.

“It has provided the structure I need to grow in holiness,” she said. “I have purpose to my life. The Lay Carmelites have become our family, I believe this is where God wants me.”

The St. Cloud community meets monthly for prayer, ongoing formation and discussion. Members pray the Liturgy of the Hours, “lectio divina” and selected Carmelite prayers. The discussion is on a Carmelite-related book.

Bill Riner and his wife, Cecilia, pray together in their home with a print of Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” and the Divine Mercy image behind them. (Dianne Towalski / The Central Minnesota Catholic)

Cecilia believes that the Lay Carmelites and other lay orders are needed in today’s secular world. “The world needs good people to show them God’s way. Going to Mass on Sundays is not enough time to get to know the Lord and his plan for us,” she said.

Bill and Cecilia, both 77, begin their days with prayer together, starting with the morning offering, then Liturgy of the Hours, petitions, the rosary and a few vocal prayers.

They agree that being part of the Lay Carmelite community has enriched their faith and their marriage.

“We share a wonderful gift,” Bill said. “Our lives are defined in a new and beautiful way.”

Normally they would attend daily Mass, but during the coronavirus pandemic they watch live-streamed Masses and make spiritual Communions, attending in-person Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud only occasionally.

“My wife and I [also] pray evening prayer together,” Bill said. “We say the evening Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Mercy Chaplet and some vocal prayers, which include prayers for the Church and priests.”

“This praying together increased the intimacy we had for each other, Cecilia said. “We both became stronger and eager to learn more.”

For more information about the Lay Carmelite Order, visit laycarmelitespcm.org or contact Bill Riner at 320-253- 3219 or cb48734@yahoo.com.

Author: Dianne Towalski

Dianne Towalski is a multimedia reporter for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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