Lay Member Series: Secular Carmelite

Welcome to our summer Lay Member Series on the Blessed is She blog! This week, we will hear from several different members who are lay members of various religious orders. We’ll learn about their walk with Christ, their vocation, their discernment and formation process, and what it looks like to live out their vows in the framework of their primary vocation or state in life.

Kelly, A Secular Carmelite

Today, we chat with Kelly Sheredy, a wife, mom, and  secular Carmelite.

Tell us a bit about your journey with Jesus.

I am a Cradle Catholic with weekly Mass attendance being the norm along with weekly religious education classes. So I’ve never not been in the Church. However, I did have a life-changing conversion experience in high school thanks to a LifeTeen retreat my sophomore year. Since then, I have always believed. Try as I might—and believe me, this overachiever tried—I’ve never actually been able to be sinless or perfect, but I’ve been on the journey since that epiphany.

Going to Notre Dame for college sustained my faith like a cool drink of water from the Grotto. Post-college, I was able to find community in various Catholic young adult activities all over the Cleveland Diocese: from monthly prayer events to book groups to Theology on Tap to a co-ed softball league.

Because of my passion for the Faith and love of learning about it (and a lot of miracles), after a year of being an office assistant for a LifeTeen Youth Minister, I ended up as a Middle School Youth Minister at a Catholic church. I stayed for 9 years.

The old adage that you learn the most when you are preparing to teach it to someone else definitely holds up here! In order to be ready to answer questions from curious middle schoolers, I really had to study theology that I had long forgotten or never learned. That process has really been like getting to know a Friend.

The year I began my job as a Middle School Youth Minister was the same year I received my Scapular and officially began formation as a Secular Carmelite. I don’t know what my life would be without either of those life changes.

What first drew you to the Carmelites?

I actually sort of stumbled into Carmel. Basically, the Blessed Virgin Mary came and got me! I had been the office assistant for a LifeTeen Youth Minister and was doing some research about the Brown Scapular for a retreat. On one of the websites, I had opened the tab “Secular Carmelite.” It stopped me in my tracks. I thought, “Wait… I know what ‘secular’ means… But a ‘Carmelite’ is in a religious order… How in the…”

So I read. And read. And the more I found out about Carmelite spirituality, the more I became convinced that this was a total gift from God. Everything I read seemed to resonate with exactly the place I had reached in my faith journey thus far.

The charism of Carmel is prayer without ceasing, especially listening to God in the “still, small voice” of God appearing to the prophet Elijah in the cave. Not only was my email handle kelticWHISPER exactly for that “still, small voice,” but I also had just grown in fascination with silent Adoration and just sitting with God without actually having to say a single thing.

What are the charisms and motto of your order?

Just to differentiate among orders, my particular order, OCDS (Order of Carmel Discalced Secular), is part of the Discalced (“shoeless”) branch of Carmel. This branch was reformed by St. Teresa of Avila and encompasses so many incredible Carmelite saints: St. John of the Cross, St. Thérèse of Lisieux (the Little Flower), St. Edith Stein (a.k.a. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, and so on.

The other branch of Carmel, whose friars and nuns use the letters OCarm, has their own third order, TOC. Contrary to what the name might imply, OCDS are allowed to wear shoes, though habited Discalced Carmelites will be found in sandals.

The Carmelite charism is constant prayer, especially contemplative prayer, which is a deep divine intimacy that calls us through solitude into community.

Our motto is “Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum,” which means “With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts,” which are the words of the Prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19:10.

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How did you know you had a vocation to the Carmelite order? What did your discernment process look like?

After I found out what Secular Carmelites were, like any good Gen X/Millennial, I Googled “Cleveland Carmel” and found out that there was indeed a local group which has been around since 1939!

After the very first community meeting, it just became incredibly clear that this is where God was calling me. I felt so at home with both the people and the spirituality.

Since I was a single young adult at that time, I briefly discerned whether or not I might be called to devote my life further to become a Carmelite nun. However, while everything about Secular Carmel gave me peace, the particular life of a Carmelite nun did not have such a strong pull. I just couldn’t see myself there. I spent a little bit of time at that crossroads, but in discernment (and thanks to some awesome diocesan priests giving me some spiritual direction) I really felt like my calling was very specifically to Secular Carmel.

The lengthy formation process of Secular Carmel really helped with in-depth discernment as I adjusted to the prayer life (it takes about 2 hours every day, if you are able to do everything, though some parts are optional) and learned what Carmelite spirituality really is.

Carmelite Saints

And the Carmelite Saints just speak directly to the core of my heart.

Truly, reading the words of St. Teresa, I felt so indescribably connected to her. My copy of her autobiography is so underlined, dog-eared, and sticky-noted, it’s downright silly. Her teachings about prayer and the Interior Castle resound in my soul. (For all Carmelite Saints’ writings, the best source is Institute of Carmelite Studies because of all the extra study material they include!)

St. John of the Cross’ writing makes me cry. And not just because I experienced a short Dark Night that he teaches about, but because the beauty of his poetry is beyond anything this English major has ever read.

And St. Thérèse, the Little Flower. She’s the sweet, persistent little sister I never had. She constantly pleads my case at the Feet of Jesus and then showers me with so many roses in answer to prayers. Because she’s my little sister, and she knows what will get my attention and make me smile.

Why do you think the charisms of this order are useful to you in your path to sanctity?

I see a remarkable difference in my life, not only before and after entering Carmel, but also the huge difference between when I’m having a good day of prayer and communion with God, and when I’m struggling to pray at all.

St. Thérèse says that prayer is a simple “surge of the heart toward heaven,” and St. Teresa says that prayer is spending time often with the One who we know loves us. She sys that “God walks amid the pots and pans,” meaning that not only is prayer more about relationship than words, but also that when we are doing even menial everyday tasks, we can offer up our hearts to the Lord while we do them.

So while prayer is not complicated, it does require a certain focus in everyday life. If God is not in front of me constantly, I lose that focus and get caught up in so many stressful and overwhelming situations. But when I do pray as I’m supposed to, my time feels multiplied, my head seems clearer, and life just seems so much more beautiful and downright manageable.

Each day is the chance to take a step forward on the path to sanctity. But even St. Teresa’s description of the Interior Castle (at the center of which is Jesus) speaks not of a single progression deeper inside until we reach Jesus; rather it is a wandering in and out of rooms as we live our lives. And I can relate to the wandering, but also to the hope that grace is always calling us deeper inside.

What is the formation process like? How long have you been a member of Carmel?

There is a very extensive formation process for Secular Carmel:

  • 1 year as an Aspirant as you learn about the community, the daily prayer life, and the call.
  • Then you take your Scapular, a large (usually about 8”x10”) ceremonial habit of sorts that’s midway between the Brown Scapular sacramental that any Catholic can wear and the full-length one that the friars and nuns wear. At this point, you also take a Carmelite religious name, just like the nuns and friars. (e.g. St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Jesus, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face…)
  • 2 years studying the rule of life and other OCDS documents, as well as The Way of Perfection by St. Teresa of Avila, our spiritual Mother.
  • Then you take temporary promises of poverty (simplicity of life), chastity (if you’re single, then celibate; but you can be/get married and enjoy the marital embrace), and obedience (participate in your community, commit to the daily prayer life, and do the large and small group spiritual study that is assigned) and of living the Beatitudes.
  • 3 years studying The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila, Story of a Soul by St Thérèse of Lisieux, and the works of St. John of the Cross, our spiritual Father.
  • Then you take final promises. They are the same as above, but you say “for the rest of my life” at the end!

My Carmelite religious name is Kelly of the Holy Spirit. This October will be six years since I’ve been fully professed. Praise the Lord! My first meeting was in December 2007. There were only about a dozen women and men in the community then, all old enough to be my parents/grandparents. But now we are upwards of 40-some members, including people of a wide age range (18 and over) and of all states of life, including a priest and a seminarian! (Fun fact: Diocesan priests can be members of a third order.)

What are the daily practices and other requirements/practices of lay members? How do those look lived out in your particular life and vocation?

Daily prayer:

  • Morning and Evening prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours
  • Half hour of “mental prayer,” which can take a lot of forms of quiet prayer and can be broken into two 15-minute segments
  • A Marian devotion of your choice
  • Daily Mass (optional)
  • Night Prayer from Liturgy of the Hours (optional) and a daily examination of conscience

Other requirements:

  • Monthly attendance at the community meeting
  • Monthly spiritual reading in preparation for discussion in small group formation and occasionally more for large group formation
  • Each member is also expected to seek the sacrament of Reconciliation frequently, to fast on the vigils of Carmelite feast days, and to serve in some ministry at his/her own parish or for the Church at large

These requirements and expectations have looked different over the course of my time in Carmel, obviously, especially since over the past 11 years of my journey with them, I went from being a single young adult and youth minister to a married stay-at-home-mom to a toddler.

Within the Framework of My Primary Vocation

Having a very active and attention-loving little one makes quiet, focused prayer very difficult to work into a day. But I simply have to try. In this season of life, the optional is definitely an opt-out for me. I can’t make it to Mass with my son who rarely makes it through the entire Sunday liturgy remaining in the pew, and Night Prayer doesn’t work well with mommy bed time.

But the rest of it makes a nice schedule to fit everything else into in a day: Morning Prayer with coffee (before scrolling through social media), Angelus around noon for the Marian devotion, nap time to squeeze in Mental Prayer (my favorite is lectio divina, or just sitting and silently offering up prayers followed by a time of just receiving whatever God wants… all of which occasionally has to wait until toddler bed time), toddler bed time for Evening Prayer.

Our monthly community meeting is good quality father-son time for my family while I attend. For my service to the Church, I volunteer with our parish’s LifeTeen program and our regional Blessed is She small group (which both mean more quality father-son time for my husband and son!).

A Rule of Life

As you can see, the Secular Carmelite vocation is not the same as a devotion. It does not just mean adding a couple of daily prayers or adding meetings like prayer group or retreat team. It’s truly a “rule of life” that requires an actual lifestyle change, just like the nuns and friars of our order must undergo. I could not do any of it without the support of my husband and family. Honestly, I fail early and often. But “sufficient for a day is its own evil,” no (Matt. 6:34)? I just can’t worry about failure. The worry is self-defeating, time-wasting, and devil-baiting. By the grace of God, I’ll try again tomorrow. Sincere, honest, and loving attempts to pray and have a relationship with the Lord please Him, no matter what grade we’d give ourselves at the end of the day.

How has being a secular Carmelite changed your own heart? What about your relationships with your family and friends?

On August 25th, the Carmelites celebrate the feast day of the Transverberation of St. Teresa of Avila, a mystical experience of spiritual ecstasy she had in which a fiery angel pierced her heart with a fiery “golden dart”. I’ve had many inexplicable spiritual experiences in my life, not because I’m all that wonderful, and not because I’ve lost touch with reality, but because our wonderful Lord chose to open my eyes to everyday miracles so as to serve certain purposes of His. No experiences quite so extreme, painful, or ecstatic as St. Teresa’s, but my heart has certainly been irrevocably pierced.

In terms of family and friends, I believe that submitting to a life of constant prayer and being immersed in the inspired wisdom of the Carmelite Saints has made my relationships much more other-centered, compassionate, and giving. From St. John’s “nothing but the cross” philosophy to St. Teresa’s “let nothing disturb you… God alone suffices” reminder, and rounded out by St. Thérèse’s “everything is grace” preaching, I have the words of these Saints constantly challenging my selfish tendencies and the rewards and consolations to which I’m so very attached.

I’d like to believe that my friends and family have noticed a change for the better in my relationships with them. Even if they haven’t noticed, the change certainly has happened on the level of intentionality and sincerity, and it really isn’t about their noticing, anyway.

What advice would you give someone considering a vocation to a third order?

St. Thérèse says, “My vocation is love!” So discern whether or not joining a third order would help you better love as God loves. Ask God outright where He wants you. If you feel peace and love and joy, take another step forward. If you just feel unsure or anxious, search elsewhere.

If you find that you’re really more looking for community or wanting to gain some sort of respect in the Catholic world, I would say that you’re probably called somewhere else like a women’s group, young adult group, or grad school for an extra degree.

But if you come across an order and start reading the words of their founders or their Saints and feel profound peace—as though you’ve found ancestors or a brother or sister—that, my friend, that is everything. These Carmelite Saints are now my family, kindred spirits in the Communion of Saints and sharers in the spiritual benefits promised by Our Lady to our whole order of friars, nuns, and seculars. Love.

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Kelly Sheredy, a.k.a. Kelly of the Holy Spirit, OCDS, is a wife, a stay-at-home mom (who rarely stays at home) to a toddler, and a freelance writer and editor. She also serves as a Life Teen Core Member, coordinates local meetups through Blessed is She – Cleveland, and co-directs a local chapter of the Free Forest School nature playgroup. When she grows up, she wants to be St. Teresa of Avila, Joanna Gaines, Martha Stewart, and Leslie Knope. You can find out more about her here.

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