When the community finally gathered at Mt. Carmel Center late in August of 1974, there were six of us, two priests and four students. That was a small number, but we had hopes that the following year there would be more students as novices made their professions.
That, sad to say, was not to be. Before the first month was out, Rene decided to leave. I was not too surprised, because he did not seem all that happy in the monastery. He was an outgoing, cheerful guy, involved with all sorts of church-related things. But the regimen at Mt. Carmel Center included a full community prayer schedule and daily Mass, and theology at the University of Dallas was very demanding. That did not leave enough time for Rene to do everything else he wanted, and so he moved on.
As I say, the life at Mt. Carmel Center was regimented. Our daily schedule looked almost the same as the one at Marylake, except that instead of working peacefully in the garden for three hours a day, we were taking graduate theology courses. I was a compulsives student anyway, and Russell soon found that his grades went up when he followed my routine.
One of our friends at the diocesan seminary told me one day that he had had a nightmare the night before.
“I dreamed I was a Discalced Carmelite,” he started, which encouraged me. I was hoping he might want to join the community. But then he continued, “It was awful. All I did was pray and study, pray and study.” As it turned out, he dropped out of the diocesan seminary a year later anyway.
Russell and I were studying theology. Although he had spent a year at the International College in Rome, Russell had spent most of the time trying to learn Italian and studying Latin. So we both began theology at the beginning. Richard was taking a couple of philosophy courses, but he was not at all interested in studies.
As I said, Russell and I studied a lot. Since we were in the same classes, we used our half-hour commute to and from school to review lectures and to prepare for exams. As a result, we were always at the top of every class when exam time came. Russell had struggled with studies before, but finding the discipline he needed reinforced by the routine of the house, he did quite well.
The University of Dallas was a diocesan-owned Catholic university. It had probably 2,000 students or so. It had an excellent academic reputation, but it was also considered quite conservative both philosophically and theologically. The local diocesan seminary, Holy Trinity, was adjacent to the campus and seminarians took their academic courses at the university.
I was at UD from 1974 until 1977, obtaining my MA in theology summa cum laude and an MDiv, the professional degree normally required for ordination. Most of the students in my classes were seminarians, and they were generally conservative and not terribly interested in the academic part of the program. All they talked about was getting ordained and becoming pastors of their own parish, where they looked forward to being a king in a tiny kingdom. The very fact that this was their image of the priesthood gives you an idea of what it was like.
The Carmelite students were considered wildly liberal by many of our classmates. This was so far from accurate that it is hard to explain. We were quite traditional by most measures, kept a full liturgical life up at home, wore our habits most days to school and so on.
I think what made us suspect was that we were not misogynists and we hung out with lay students. Having been founded by a woman, St. Teresa, and being close to our cloistered Carmelite nuns, we felt comfortable around women religious and had a great respect for them. Having worked alongside the Holy Ghost Sisters in San Antonio and the Daughters of Charity in Dallas, we knew how hard they worked, how committed they were to the service and education of the poor and how spiritual they were. As for the laity, the Carmelites also have a lay branch, consisting mostly of married men and women who seek to follow the spiritual tradition of Carmelite prayer while working and raising families. We took these people seriously.
Many of the seminarians, on the other hand, huddled in the safety of their clerical world, sneered at religious women who were trying to find their way in a changing world, and distrusted the laity whom they intended to teach and judge. There were a lot of nice guys in the seminary, of course, and a number of them were people we wished would consider joining Carmel. At least one exceptionally nice and normal seminarian went on to become a bishop. But the majority were not what you would want to have running your parish or hearing your confession.
This rather fancy hotbed of reactionary ultra-conservatism was also, as I learned later, a hotbed of another sort as well. There was a strong gay subculture, often consisting of the most theologically conservative seminarians. The Diocese of Dallas was forced into bankruptcy a few years after I had left Dallas due to a few highly publicized pedophilia cases. The cases had been handled in the usual inept way such things were dealt with in the 1980s, with bishops and chancery officials covering up everything they could and vaguely threatening the families of children who had been abused.One of the priests who got in trouble in Dallas had been a classmate of mine
at the University. NOT a friar, but a seminarian studying to be a parish priest for Dallas. He was a staunch archconservative as well. It is obvious that some priests of all stripes were acting out in terrible ways. Unfortunately, parents often trusted the most conservative priests and thus allowed them access to their children in a way that in hindsight was disastrous. The poor parents then found themselves accused by bishops in court of not taking good care of their children by keeping closer watch. Because the bishops were keeping no watch at all, of course.
[If I sound cynical about this, it is because my decision to leave the priesthood later was influenced by my outrage over the way the scandal had been handled by the bishops. I wound up counseling victims and families who were seriously hurt by pedophilia, and it horrified me to think that their needs had been taken so casually. The Diocese of Dallas, after the seminarian mentioned above was ordained a priest and got in trouble molesting young brothers, responded by covering it up and then paying to send him to law school so that he could become a lawyer.]
Getting back to the Carmelite student community, Richard decided to leave when his vows expired in March of 1975. I really missed him, but Russell and I got along very well. The sadder thing was that for the first couple of years we were at Mt. Carmel Center, none of the novices made profession, meaning that our community remained just two priests and two students. We had some locals who came to Morning Prayer and Mass with us each morning, which was a help. It kept things from being too confined.
Fr. Philip was chaplain to the cloistered nuns across the way and celebrated Mass for them every morning. That meant that Anthony celebrated Mass and preached every morning, even weekdays. He was an excellent homilist, most days simply doing a sort of lectio divina exercise out loud, commenting on a few verses of the readings of the Mass for that day. It would have been better, of course, to have had more variety, but it was what it was.
Anthony’s idea for Mt. Carmel Center was that it be more than a retreat center, that its programs would serve as adult education in the theory as well as the practice of spirituality. His favorite model was what he called a study-retreat, where participants shared in the community’s prayer schedule which was supplemented by lectures and discussions on the Carmelite writings, especially those of Teresa, John and Therese.
His idea proved popular, and had there been more room to accommodate participants, he might even have made money. As it was, there was very limited actual private space for non-community members, and this hampered Anthony’s efforts to get the Center on its feet financially. It had to be subsidized by the province, and the presence of the students helped the province members accept that fact.
The programs also provided excellent on-going formation for the students, who attended many of the classes and interacted with the guests. It also gave us a chance to practice a bit of ministry ourselves, giving brief presentations and getting lots of experience of reading and helping lead worship services. After a year at Mt. Carmel Center, I felt comfortable speaking in front of large groups and had some skills in putting together conferences and spiritual reflections for groups.
After a couple of years, two more students arrived at Mt. Carmel Center, shortly before Russell was ordained and moved on to his first assignment. I was there with them for a year before I graduated from the University and was sent to Washington, DC to begin doctoral studies at the Catholic University of America.