The Carmelite Order is unusual in that unlike most other religious orders, it does not have a specific founder. Its beginnings, almost spontaneous in character, can be traced back to the Holy Land in the late 12th century. At that time, lay movements of individuals who wanted to live the gospel in a spirit of radical simplicity and poverty had developed in Europe. Some of these felt a particular call to a life of prayer and penance and were drawn to the Holy Land as pilgrims. Some came to the Holy Land as crusaders but were inspired to stay and devote themselves to a more prayerful life. Mt. Carmel, the place where the Prophet Elijah encountered God in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) was a particular draw. Seeking to imitate the spirit of Elijah and the early desert monks, they established themselves on the slopes of Mt. Carmel and devoted themselves to lives of prayer and contemplation.
With time, these pioneering souls decided to form themselves into a community. They approached Albert Avogadro, who was then Patriarch of Jerusalem (1206 – 1214) and himself an experienced monastic, and asked him to write a formal rule around which they could organize their community. The resulting Rule of St. Albert, as the document came to be known, was short and minimalist in its prescriptions but masterfully crystallizes the essence of Carmelite spirituality: attentiveness to the Word of God, and meditating day and night on the Law of the Lord. Thus was the order formally established.
As previously indicated, the first Carmelites drew inspiration from the Prophet Elijah who dwelt on those same slopes of Mt. Carmel with his guild of prophets. While not a founder in the technical sense of the term, Carmelites embrace him as a spiritual father. He was led into that life of deep contemplation and intimacy with God that all Carmelites aspire to. Carmelites cultivate a life of interior recollection and attentiveness to God’s continual presence, and seek divine union with him. And just like Elijah, Carmelites have an exterior aspect to their spirituality that seeks to make God and his word known and loved by others. They take the prophet’s words as their motto: “With zeal I have been zealous for the Lord of Hosts!” (1 Kings 19:10).
The other great source of Carmelite inspiration is the Blessed Virgin Mary. While not specifically mentioned in the Rule, it is clear that devotion to Mary was part of Carmelite spirituality from the very beginning. The first community was called the ‘Brothers of Saint Mary from Mount Carmel’, and their oratory was dedicated to her. Indeed, one commentary on the Rule of St. Albert says that it reflects the life and virtues of Mary. This Marian devotion should not be surprising. She lived a life of great intimacy with the three persons of the Blessed Trinity, and of her, the Bible says that she kept God’s words, pondering them in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51). This is precisely what Carmelites strive for in their own lives.
Spreading Out and Growth
Fortunes quickly turned for the nascent community. On the battlefields, the Muslims gained the upper hand against the Christian crusaders and life became increasingly insecure for the Carmelites on Mt. Carmel. They started forming new communities outside the Holy Land. This brought them in contact with the mendicant style of religious life then present in Europe, especially popularized by the Franciscans and Dominicans. The Carmelites adopted a mendicant-like lifestyle and were formally approved as an order by Pope Innocent IV in 1247. With the Bull of approval, Pope Innocent had some changes made to the original Rule to make it more suitable for the new Order and their new circumstances. The order grew rapidly and by 1287, it was divided into 9 provinces. By 1362 it had grown to 18 provinces, with about 12,000 members.
Decline and Reform
Starting in the mid-14th century, there was a period of great turmoil in Europe that took its toll on the Order. The Hundred Years War (1337 – 1435), led to much socioeconomic instability through much of Europe. The Black Plague (1348 – 1350), led to the loss of many lives, including Carmelites. The Great Western Schism, when there were multiple simultaneous claimants to the papacy (1378 – 1417), was disastrous for the life of the Church as a whole. The Order was not spared, resulting in serious internal divisions and divided allegiances. It became difficult to recruit and train suitable new members, and the existing aging membership found it hard to observe the Rule. In many instances, observance of the Rule became quite lax. The need for reform within the Order (and the Church at large) was evident.
At the Order’s General Chapter in 1430, it was decided to ask for the pope’s approval of changes in some of the Order’s practices. Permission was granted, and this stimulated some reform and renewal within the Order. However, partly because it was such a large Order, the reform was not uniform and sometimes there was friction between those who embraced reform and those who did not. This provides some of the context for the reforms introduced by St. Teresa in the 16th century.
St Teresa of Jesus
St. Teresa of Jesus (also known as St. Teresa of Avila) was born on March 28, 1515; in Avila, Spain. Thus, 2015 is the 500th anniversary (5th centenary) of her birth. Officially the centenary year began October 15, 2014, and will continue through October 15, 2015. The Church around the world is celebrating with special exhibitions, conferences, retreats, Masses and other events.Teresa was one of twelve children and she admits to feeling the most beloved by the family. Unfortunately, she was only thirteen at the time of her mother’s premature death. In 1531, her father took her to a convent school run by Augustinian nuns, and in this religious atmosphere she began to feel a calling to the religious life. But she left the school after one year due to poor health.Eventually on 2 November, 1535, Teresa left home and entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in Avila. This was a painful experience for her as her father had refused his permission and she had to leave her home secretly. She became immersed in the life of daily prayer of the community.After almost twenty years, Teresa had a conversion experience in 1554, and she resolved to undertake a stricter observance of the Carmelite Rule. Ultimately, this led to the founding the convent of Saint Joseph in Avila, on 24 August 1562. It was to be followed by fourteen more. Working with St. John of the Cross, she also had a direct role in the foundation of monasteries for friars pledged to this stricter observance. These foundations eventually became the Order of Discalced Carmelites.
Teresa wrote many books and letters in which she dealt with the life, problems and concerns of the houses she had founded. Many of her writings remain classics of the spiritual life to this day. She died in Alba de Tormes, on October 4, 1582. She was canonized by Pope Gregory XV on March 12, 1622; and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI on December 27, 1970. Her feast day is October 15th.