Origins of the Carmelite Order

View of Mount Carmel today
A view of Mount Carmel today.
The Carmelites have a very unique background. Unlike most Religious Orders, we have no founder. Earliest historical accounts find the first Carmelites already settled as Christian hermits on Mount Carmel - a mountainous ridge in Israel-Palestine - around the year 1200 (i.e. some 800 years ago). The hermits lived by the fountain or well of the prophet Elijah (whose exploits on Carmel are described in the Bible's Books of the Kings).

The hermits gathered around the Well of Elijah on Mount Carmel,
painted by Pietro Lorenzetti between 1328-29 as part of an altarpiece
for the Carmelite Church in Siena, Italy, now at the Pinacoteca in Siena.

The chapel which stood in the midst of the hermits' cells was dedicated to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The process of change from a small band of hermits to a world wide family did not happen overnight. The present (1995) Constitutions of the Carmelite Order outline the basic progression from hermits to friars:

At the time of the Crusades to the Holy Land, hermits settled in various places throughout Palestine. Some of these, "following the example of Elijah, a holy man and a lover of solitude, adopted a solitary life-style on Mount Carmel, near a spring called Elijah's Fountain. In small cells, similar to the cells of a beehive, they lived as God's bees, gathering the divine honey of spiritual consolation."

Later, St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem brought the hermits together, at their request, into a single "collegium"; he gave them a formula for living which expressed their own eremetical ideals ("propositum") and reflected the spirit of the so-called pilgrimage to the Holy Land and of the early community of Jerusalem. Moved by "their love of the Holy Land", these hermits consecrated themselves in this Land to the One who had paid for it by the shedding of his blood, in order that they might serve him, clothed in the habit of religious poverty," persevering "in holy penance" and forming a fraternal community.

This way of life was approved successively by Honorius III in 1226, by Gregory IX in 1229, and by Innocent IV in 1245. In 1247, Innocent IV approved it definitively as an authentic rule of life, amending it to suit Western conditions. These adaptations became necessary when the Carmelites began to migrate to the West to escape persecution, and expressed a desire to lead a life "in which, with the help of God, they would have the joy of working for their own salvation and that of their neighbour."

As a result of the approval of the Rule by Innocent IV, the Carmelites placed themselves at the service of the Church, according to the common ideal of the Mendicant Orders...

So, we have no Francis or Dominic or Benedict (or even a Teresa as have the Discalced Carmelites) to whom we can look as a founder. This means that God's founding gift to the Order (the 'Charism') is not found in a person or a particular book but in a community of people. Being without a founder, the Carmelites have continually looked to the great figures of Elijah and Mary for inspiration - remember we settled by the Well of Elijah on Carmel and dedicated the first chapel to the Mother of God. Throughout our history, these key figures have helped us clarify our identity and renew our spirit. They provide a wonderful integration of the two streams of the contemplative Carmelite tradition: prayer blended with active service; meditation combined with prophecy; reflection informed by and informing apostolic work.

As human models, Elijah and Mary provide Carmelites with an example to imitate. Not unlike Carmelites of any era, they struggled with fear, stood in the face of very difficult questions, and felt deeply the pains of human life. Being human, they appear like us, as fragile and vulnerable. Yet they were filled with a deep conviction. It is a conviction that lies at the heart of the Carmelite spirit: God is alive! God is present! God is with us! - in the words of the Prophet Elijah "God lives, in whose presence I stand".

Between the years 1206 and 1214, the community on Mount Carmel petitioned Albert, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem for a rule of life. His response became the "formula for living" that Carmelites follow to this day as the Rule of Saint Albert. This short but profound document inspires all branches of the Carmelite Family to this day.

Hospitality was no doubt one of the original values for the early Carmelites. Mount Carmel served as a place of rest for pilgrims in the Holy Land. Some of them were so impressed by the beauty of Carmel and the simple lifestyle of the community of hermits who lived there that they stayed.

The ruins of the oratory or chapel on Mount Carmel.

Soon after they received Albert's Rule, the Carmelites were forced to leave the known slopes of Carmel and settle in Europe. In all probability many of the first Carmelites had been crusaders or pilgrims and they naturally headed for their own countries. Like ripples in a lake Carmel spread first to Cyprus, then to France, and then to England in 1242.

Adaptation and flexibility were demanded as the Carmelites not only changed their place of residence but also modified their style of life - from desert to city, from hermit to friar. Assuming the mendicant tradition, Carmelites went wherever they were needed, serving God's people and sharing the spirit of Carmel.

Prayer is at the core of the Carmelite spirit. To grow in friendship with God, to experience God's love, to ponder the mystery and wonder of life, to search for meaning - all encompass the contemplative dimension of Carmelite life.

In the solitude of prayer, we experience the compassion of God which enables us to live in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. This experience makes ministry possible. It empowers us to "suffer with" and respond to those in deed. It also enables us to be patient with and forgiving towards each other.

How Carmelites serve is not set in stone. As friars, we respond to the needs of the Church in a variety of ways. Today we can be found in parishes, schools, retreat houses, on campuses, in hospitals, in prisons, in both rural and urban settings. What we do today, we may not have done in the past. The same holds true for the future. Depending on the need, Carmelites will respond - continually following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

Carmelites are ordinary people who witness an extraordinary reality - the abiding presence of God. To live in the presence of God gives the ordinary things we do great meaning. It was the motivating force for Elijah whose spirit continues - "the Lord lives, in whose presence I stand" and "with zeal, have I been zealous for the Lord God of Hosts."