Though they developed relatively late in the Order's history and lead lives that are largely hidden from the public, the Carmelite Nuns are probably the best known branch of the Carmelite Family today.
The first Carmelite women
The first women connected to the Carmelite Order were inspired by the Carmelite way of life as lived by the friars, which they imitated in a variety of ways that varied from place to place.
Historical records are scarce, but we know that women such as Blessed Joan (or Jane) of Toulouse lived a form of consecrated life in close contact with the Carmelite friars, and that she instructed young novices in the Order. Other medieval women are known to have lived in their own homes, following the spirit of the Rule of Saint Albert, and wearing a form of Carmelite habit. We know that in England some women lived an enclosed life, alone or with others, as 'anchorites' under the authority of the Carmelite Prior Provincial. In the Low Countries women associated with the Order, sometimes known as 'beguines', gathered in small communities, and similar groups of women came together in Italy (known as mantellate meaning 'cloak-wearers', or beatae meaning 'blessed ones'). These communities of prayer were dedicated to meditation, work and penance.
The formalisation of Carmelite women's communities
In the mid-1400s the Prior General of the Carmelite Order, Blessed John Soreth, undertook a reform of Carmel. He wanted to formalise the position of women in the Order, seeing them as a key aid in helping the spiritual renewal of the friars.
Following encouragement from the Prior General, in 1452 the Carmelite Prior of Florence obtained a letter from the Pope (a papal bull) granting formal recognition of the women associated with the Order. This bull, known from its opening Latin words as Cum Nulla, paved the way for the development of Carmelite nuns. (To read the text, click here. In 2003 the British Province celebrated the 550th anniversary of Cum Nulla; click here to see the events archive).
The papal bull Cum Nulla, now in the state archives in Florence.
The first major communities of Carmelite nuns were founded in France and the Low Countries under the leadership of Blessed John Soreth and Blessed Frances d'Amboise. From here they spread across Europe, notably Spain and Italy, though there were never any Carmelite nuns in medieval Britain.
Whilst the friars are known as the 'first order' of Carmel (because historically they developed first), the nuns are known as the 'second order'.
Nuns and the Discalced Reform
In 1535 Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada - better known to us as Saint Teresa of Jesus - entered 'The Incarnation' in Avila, Spain. The Incarnation was a beguinage of women who had undertaken varying levels of religious commitment within the Carmelite Order. Teresa lived as a Carmelite sister in The Incarnation for 20 years, growing in her knowledge of prayer, before discerning God's call to embark on a reform and renewal of the Carmelite Order.
In 1562 Teresa left The Incarnation to establish a monastery of nuns at the convent of St. Joseph in Avila. She felt that The Incarnation community was too large and too riddled with inequalities between the sisters. She and others wanted to live a life more in keeping with her understanding of the hermit community on Mount Carmel. She wanted a monastic life that was more eremitic, more silent, simpler and poorer. She understood that such communities could be a source of spiritual renewal within the Church and the Carmelite Order.
St. Teresa of Jesus
Under Teresa's dynamic leadership, many monasteries of nuns (and eventually convents of friars) were established across Spain. They were known as 'Discalced' Carmelites, which means 'shoeless' (because wearing sandals instead of shoes with uppers was seen as a sign of poverty and a spirit of reform).
Thanks to Teresa's reforms and innovations, the Carmelite nuns became as well known and numerous as the friars.
The nuns after Teresa
After Teresa's death the Discalced Carmelites formally split from the Carmelites (known subsquently as the 'Ancient Observance'). There had, of course, been communities of Carmelite nuns before Teresa, and monasteries of nuns - of both the 'Ancient' and 'Discalced' observances - continued to develop.
These monasteries nurtured many women of great holiness. Among Teresa's followers mention can be made of women such as Blessed Marie of the Incarnation (Barbe Acarie), Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Among the Ancient Observance mention can be made of women such as Saint Mary Magdalene de'Pazzi.
An ancient painting depicting Carmelite nuns and friars
sheltering under the mantle of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
The lifestyle of the nuns
Often a monastery of Carmelite nuns is referred to as a 'Carmel'. Carmelite nuns are 'cloistered', living a life of 'enclosure'. This means that they live inside the monastery precincts, rarely venturing into the outside world, so that they can dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to God in prayer and service.
This life of obscurity can seem strange to many in today's world with its obsession with celebrity, but the deep life of prayer that the sisters immerse themselves in is for the benefit of that world. Monasteries of enclosed nuns have been likened to the rainforests; we rarely give them much thought, but in a mysterious way our survival is dependent upon these 'lungs of the world'. Carmelite nuns are like the 'lungs of the Church', breathing in God's living Spirit.
The Carmelite cloistered nuns are women who have discovered the absolute value of the Kingdom of God, and wish to realise this in their monasteries, as a praying sisterhood at the service of the Church. They commit themselves to live in intimate union with Jesus, God and man, in order to make present today the plan God has for humankind.
Every monastery of nuns varies slightly, but most will rise early for prayer, either alone in the 'cell' (bedroom) or in the community chapel. Their day will consist of periods of work, prayer, and recreation together. The type of work varies between monasteries, but many Carmels support themselves through 'monastic crafts' such as making altar breads, creating greetings cards, sewing vestments and altar linen, or making foods. Much of the day will be spent in silence, as specified by the Rule of Saint Albert. The celebration of the Divine Office and the Eucharist is an important part of the nuns' life together.
A Carmelite nun at prayer.
Though it is common to speak of the Carmelite nuns as having 'left the world', in actual fact many monasteries are at the heart of their local communities. Most Carmels do not run retreats or offer spiritual direction, but many people visit Carmelite nuns to request prayer and friendly advice. Whilst the nuns are usually not in regular communication with the outside world (so often will not have telephones, televisions or the internet), their vocation demands that they know the needs and hopes of the society in which they live, and so they are not cut off completely. Some monasteries of nuns observe enclosure very strictly, whereas others are more flexible.
Like the friars, the nuns follow the Rule of Saint Albert as interpreted by Constitutions. All Carmelite nuns, particularly but not exclusively in the Discalced Observance, find inspiration in the writings of Saint Teresa.
For more information on the nuns' way of life, please click here.
Carmelite nuns in Britain
Though there were various women associated with the Carmelites in Britain before the Reformation, there were no Carmelite nuns of the Ancient Observance until a small community of sisters from Boxmeer in Holland were established in Blackburn, Lancashire, in 1956. The sisters returned to Holland in 1996. Today there are no nuns of the Ancient Observance in Britain, but there are communities in many other countries (for a listing please click here), numbering almost a thousand sisters in about 80 monasteries.
The Discalced Carmelite nuns are present in every continent, and in Britain there are 20 monasteries housing some 300 sisters. A number of them were established in the second half of the nineteenth century, and can trace their roots back to Recusant Catholic women who formed Carmelite monasteries on the Continent of Europe during the preceeding centuries.
The British Province of Carmelites has strong links with many of the 'Carmels' in England, Scotland and Wales, especially Thicket Priory near York where the friars celebrate Mass with the sisters every week (the webpages of Thicket Priory are hosted on this website). For more information about the Discalced Carmelite nuns in Britain click here.
A Carmelite friar visiting the nuns at Thicket Priory, York.