An Interview with Ernest Larkin, O.Carm


1. Please tell us something of your background and your interest in Carmelite spirituality.

I am definitely an older Carmelite, aged 79 as of August l9, 2001. I grew up in Chicago, and I belong to the generation of Carmelites who went to the prep seminary from grammar school. The system of starting "seminary" that early sounds incredible today, but in the 1930's practically all the candidates for religious orders or the diocesan priesthood in Chicago started in high school. Ours was a boarding school in Niagara Falls, Canada. It was an excellent prep school that gave a wonderful classical education. We had Latin and Greek and all the humanities and sciences, great sports, and a manly comradery that served us well through the seminary program and into life in community. My class had thirteen ordained in 1946 out of the original forty-two from l935 and we have lost six of that group by death; the rest of us are still functioning. In the seminary we had no social life, but we were too macho to notice that. We were happy in our isolation.

The novitiate year began after high school in 1939. That marked our entry into the order. So we were Carmelites when we did our college and four years of theology. The whole program took twelve years. My first assignment after finishing theology in 1947 was teaching high school in Chicago. This was a great experience for me both for the teaching and for the pastoral ministry in local parishes. I came alive that year.

My excitement was channeled in a different direction the next year, l948, when I was assigned to graduate studies in theology in Rome. I specialized in spiritual theology to the extent this was possible in the embryonic state of the discipline at that time. In the fifties and early sixties I taught dogmatic and spiritual theology in our own major seminary in Washington, D.C. and in l959 I went to Catholic University as a lecturer in ascetical and mystical theology. My study of Carmelite spirituality began in the fifties when I inaugurated reading courses in St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross in our own seminary. At Catholic University these reading courses became the basis for the graduate courses I offered there.

The Catholic University years, the decade of the sixties, were really the beginning of my specializing in spirituality for the simple reason that at last I could give exclusive attention to spiritual theology. At Catholic University I was the department of spiritual theology, though students specializing in spirituality could pick up courses from other areas of theology or psychology, much as I had done in Rome. At the university I was subject to the inexorable law of "publish or perish," so my writings date from this period. I am grateful for that pressure to write, because research and publication teach rigorous thinking and serve good teaching. I worked hard in academe in those ten good years at Catholic University. An appointment at Catholic U opened many doors in the scholarly world. But for me the cost was high and my health took a tumble in 1970. I took a one year leave of absence from teaching and went to work as "theologian in residence" in the newly founded diocese of Phoenix, Arizona. This "one year" commitment stretched out into the next thirty plus years.

I was engaged by Bishop Edward A. McCarthy, the first bishop in the new diocese, to work with clergy, religious, and laity in ongoing and continuing religious education. The style of life and teaching on the frontier proved to be a good fit for me and for the diocese, and I was prevailed upon (with no arm-twisting) to stay on indefinitely. After two years, in 1972, we began an adult education center, a "college without walls" called the Kino Institute, to serve the pastoral and academic needs of the local church. Then as now there was no Catholic college in the whole state. We called our agency Kino Institute after the Jesuit missionary, Padre Eusebio Kino, who originally evangelized this area of the world. Our purpose was to meet adult needs in the fields of biblical studies, theology and spirituality. The school has prospered and continues to offer good scripture, updated theology, and both historical and contemporary spirituality to hungry generations of adults Obviously in this new setting I had to become a general practitioner, but I struggled to maintain my special interest in Carmelite studies.

2. How did you manage to maintain that interest in the world of adult education?

The ambiance of Kino Institute put a different spin on my studies and teaching of spirituality from what it was in a university setting. I had to be more practical and pastoral than academic. I tried to maintain both elements and I nurtured my specialization by research and writing and by getting involved in summer school teaching, seminars and retreats. I taught at Creighton University and St Louis University in summers and did seminars at Duquesne, Retreats International at Notre Dame, the Carmelite Forum at St Mary’s College, Notre Dame, and workshops in the continuing education programs of my own order, both national and international.

These activities and publications dominated my life in the eighties and nineties. These were the years when I grew up in the field of Carmelite spirituality. The witness of my work can be found on the internet ( where eighty-five of my published articles are posted.

So that is an account of my professional life. I am grateful that my academic life turned out this way and I have no regrets for losing the university setting.. Frankly I feel more comfortable in the pastoral area than in the purely academic.  Rightly or wrongly I felt I had come into scholarship too late in life, that is, in the sixties when I was in my forties, with lacunae in my general knowledge and without facility in the languages needed for research. I could have buckled down and "tried harder," but I had experienced enough anxiety catching up in the ten years at Catholic University and I was happy to settle for adult education, especially since this choice did not preclude my continued interest in spirituality studies. I thank my colleagues and my Carmelite community for the wonderful opportunities that I have had.

3. Will you say more about your pastoral approach to the study and teaching of spiritualtiy?

I can answer this best by giving an account of the Carmelite Forum, because it represents my style of work in spirituality. The forum started in 1984. It is a group of eight to ten Carmelites, women and men of both orders, Ancient Observance (O.Carm.) and Discalced (O,C.D.), who came together to pursue and to promote Carmelite studies. Our major aim was to make Carmelite spirituality more available to the general public. We wanted to imitate the Jesuits, who since the 1950's had gone back to their sources and reinterpreted Ignatian spirituality for the contemporary world. We had grand schemes and dreams for research and publication. What has happened in fact is an annual seminar on Carmelite spirituality at St Mary’s College, Notre Dame, most summers since l985. We focused on the flagships of Carmelite spirituality, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, but we paid attention to earlier documents as well, such as the Rule of Carmel and later teachers of the tradition like Therese of Lisieux, Elizabeth of the Trinity, Edith Stein, and Titus Brandsma. Each annual seminar offered lectures and classes that were designed to give the student the background and the tools to interpret the classics.

These seminars demanded a great deal of research and several group meetings each year to prepare for the lectures and classes. We were a community of scholars, who learned from one another. The informal meetings were very helpful toward our own growth in appropriating the tradition; they were our own ongoing and continuing education. We believe that the seminars have been successful in spreading the message of Carmel in North American. Each year a clientele of one to two hundred have come from all walks of life to study and experience the Carmelite charism in a special way for one or two weeks. Carmelite spirituality has come of age these last two decades. An indication of this is the marvelous expansion in publications by the Institute of Carmelite Studies (ICS) and other publishers, including Inner Growth Books, the sponsor of this website. Another proof is the instant success of Carmelite programs, such as those sponsored by the more recently established Carmelite Institute, about which we will speak later.. We like to think that the Carmelite Forum has been both a factor and a beneficiary in this coming of age.

4. Would you say a little more about the philosophy behind the seminars of the Carmelite Forum?

The members of the forum were selected for their expertise, their interest, and their willingness to work as a team. Each brought a particular specialty to the group in terms of studies and experience. Our focus was the texts of the Carmelite tradition available now in excellent English translations. Each seminar addressed different texts each year and the hope was to open them up in their historical condition and move from there to their "after-life," i.e. to the meaning they can have for our time. We have tried to offer the tools to for this historical-critical reading of the texts and for the translation into contemporary meanings. Each day there were reading sessions of assigned material, and the class came together to talk about their understandings. The insights for contemporary living that emerged from these discussions were remarkable; they showed why these works were classics. In the classes after the reading sessions the teachers presented other aspects of the teaching of the saint usually from some particular viewpoint, such as philosophical underpinnings or psychological ramifications, etc. My own concern was usually the practical one of application: how do we implement the particular teaching today? I was particularly interested in the beginnings of the mystical life. This is why I tried to relate the Carmelite tradition to movements in the church like centering prayer or John Main’s Christian Meditation. I have tried to relate the Carmelite tradition to current spiritual movements of our time.

5. Has the Carmelite Forum had any other impact on the life of the order?

I am going to boast here in the spirit of St Paul in 2 Corinthians. I want to claim that the Carmelite Forum has contributed to a better climate between the two branches of order, the O.Carm’s and the OCD’s. I observe an improvement in the way we are relating to one another today that reaches all the way up to the general curias of the two orders. It is only in our own time that the general curias have met together on a regular basis on issues of common interest or that the two general superiors collaborate in writing circular letters together for all Carmelites indiscriminately. This mutual trust and collaboration has affected the American provincials of the friars in both branches. As a group they have taken initiatives like the Carmelite Institute. This institute is not to be confused with ICS, the Discalced publishing wing. The Carmelite Institute was started only a few years ago to do on wider scale what the Carmelite Forum has tried to do the past two decades. I think that the good experience of the seminars of Carmelite Forum has affected, not only the local communities and individuals who directly participated in them, but other members of the provinces as well, including erstwhile and future leaders on the provincial and general level. The provincial superiors have uniformly given their approval and support to the activities of the Carmelite Forum, sometimes by participating in the seminars and always by encouraging their members to attend. Till recent decades the two branches tended to live in isolation, even mutual exclusion. The Carmelite Forum was a countervailing trend. It has had an influence much beyond its humble accomplishments and like a gentle breeze has wafted its way into Carmelite communities in our own country and all the way to Rome. It would take too long to prove my contention, but my conviction is that the forum has had an effect in the total order beyond its limited accomplishments. Its message of common unity has reverberated in many places in both orders, first by promoting trust and collaboration, and secondly by showing our common concerns. The forum has provided opportunities to get to know one another and make exchanges of speakers and teachers for each other’s projects. The forum was a catalyst for collaborative events like the first Congress on the Carmelite Rule (Niagara Falls, l988), the celebration of the bicentennial of the Discalced Carmelite nuns in America (Baltimore, 1990), and the several offerings of the Carmelite Institute, such as the conferences on The Institution of the First Monks (1996), contemporary devotion to Our Lady (1998) and, once again, The Rule of Carmel (San Antonio, 2001). A new spirit prevails among the North American branches of the order today. The Carmelite Institute is a monument to this new reality, founded five years ago to represent "the Carmelite family," the entity that embraces all Carmelites of all persuasions and gathers them together in a unity of common purpose and outreach. These are wonderful developments of our own day. The Carmelite Forum is happy to be part of this ecumenical turn.

6.Envoi: a more personal note of gratitude to Jim and Tyra Arraj, the administrators of this website, who have given me this opportunity of sharing something of my own story in the field of Carmelite spirituality. This is not my first appearance on this website. I was interviewed a couple years ago on the subject of centering prayer and Christian Meditation. Jim and Tyra also produced a video of a longer interview on the topic of contemplative prayer and it was published by Inner Growth Books. I am proud and happy to be associated with them in their serious studies of the past and the present in the field of mysticism, contemplation, and the spiritual life. May their work prosper.

Ernest E. Larkin, O.Carm.
St. Agnes Parish
Phoenix, AZ 85020

Sept. 6, 2001



Renewing the Christian Mystical Tradition:
A Visit with Ernest Larkin, O.Carm.
- Video