The origins of Carmel and the mendicant movement
The first Carmelites were a group of largely lay people seeking a life devoted to God and who congregated as a community on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land around the year 1200. On Carmel the community produced its own food, relied on donations from passing pilgrims, and shared goods among themselves.
With the continuing conflict of the Crusades, the hermits migrated to Europe from about 1238 onwards. In countries like Italy, France and England they formed hermitages in isolated areas. It seems, however, that two things quickly became apparent to the hermits. Firstly, their hermitages in Europe were sometimes unsuitable for producing food, and they could not rely on the alms-giving of passing pilgrims for support. Secondly, the social situation in Europe was changing rapidly. From the High Middle Ages (c.1150 onwards), towns started to grow significantly. These new urban centres provided new opportunities, but also new challenges. Many people came to towns looking for work, but were reduced to poverty in squalid conditions. As populations grew, so did the needs of the people in towns and cities. As well as physical deprivation, towns were places of social and spiritual problems. Some claimed that urban areas were more given to vice, and movements perceived by the Church as heretical, such as Catharism and Lollardy, quickly spread in towns.
In the early years of the thirteenth century, small bands of men made a radical decision to live poor amongst the poor, especially in towns and cities. The most famous of these was St. Francis of Assisi, who renounced wealth and privilege to live poor, in imitation of Jesus Christ. He and his brothers – later known as the Franciscans – went into towns preaching the Gospel, and seeing to the spiritual and physical needs of others, especially the poor. Similar groups, such as the Dominicans, sprang up, and quickly this movement began to spread. These groups considered themselves to be brothers, or fratres in Latin, from which we get the name ‘friar’.
These brothers had an egalitarian spirit, and sought to do away with privilege and prestige in their communities. This was a radical departure from the form of religious life known up till then. Monks had lived in large communities known as monasteries, often in the countryside where they could earn an income from farming the land. Some monasteries had grown very rich, and whilst many did a lot to serve the poor and needy, monks had become seen by many as remote and irrelevant to the needs of the poor in the cities.
In contrast to the monks, Francis, Dominic and other mendicant leaders wanted their communities to be smaller, less hierarchical, devoted to the poor, and largely based in towns and cities. Instead of avoiding the poor or judging the marginalised, the friars deliberately sought them out, as Jesus had done, bringing them hope and self-respect. Instead of being based in one monastery, the friars would be itinerant preachers travelling to wherever they were needed. Instead of earning money from lands and rents, the brothers would share what little they had and depend upon the providence of God, expressed through the generosity of the people amongst whom they lived and served. The brothers became known as mendicant friars – literally begging brothers – because they would ask for donations to sustain them. The mendicants took Jesus’ words in the Gospel very literally; they believed that God would provide for their earthly needs, and that ‘the labourer deserves his wages’. The medieval mendicants worked hard to serve God and neighbour, preaching and administering the sacraments, teaching and advising the poor, building infrastracture in towns, providing hospitals, and many other forms of apostolate. Many became great scholars, and revolutionised the universities of Europe. Some of the greatest thinkers of the medieval Church – men such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure – were mendicant friars.
The Mendicant Orders – sometimes known as the Orders of Apostolic Brotherhood – are credited with a spirit of renewal and revival within the medieval Church. The friars returned to reading God’s Word in the Scriptures, and the flourishing of the mendicants is sometimes known as the ‘Evangelical Awakening’.
The mendicant friars were so effective in preaching the Good News that many people were attracted to join their orders. Though women at that time were not permitted to be itinerent preachers, many became nuns following the same charism or spiritual inspiration as the men. Many lay people in mainstream society likewise sought to follow the mendicants in their spirituality, and groups such as the lay confraternities and Third Orders first began to develop.
This was the context in which the hermits from Mount Carmel found themselves when they came to Europe in the mid-thirteenth century. It seems that they discerned the signs of the times, and made a decision to embrace the mendicant way of life. The development of Carmel into a mendicant order was a gradual one. For some, this was a traumatic change because it meant abandoning a familiar way of life, and some felt that it compromised the contemplative Carmelite vocation. Others said that the Rule of Saint Albert gave them enough flexibility to become begging brothers without compromising their contemplative way of life. They would still seek to be contemplatives, that is, friends with God, but this would now be lived out in different circumstances, and through active service of others as well as through prayer and community life.
All Carmelite lifestyles are influenced by mendicancy
Today different branches of the Carmelite Family live different lifestyles. The enclosed nuns live a monastic lifestyle, and Lay Carmelites generally live a secular vocation. The friars still live a mendicant lifestyle. Because all branches of the Carmelite Family ultimately descend from the friars (who themselves began as a group of largely lay men), most Carmelites are influenced by aspects of mendicant spirituality to a greater or lesser extent.
The mendicant spirit in Carmel today
The key themes of the mendicant way of life – being a community of ‘begging brothers’ and today also sisters – is still very important to Carmelites today.
Most Carmelites, whether lay people or religious (friars, nuns, sisters, hermits), live in urban settings, or are in some other way ‘in the midst of the people’, a phrase that is often used to describe Carmelite life.
Carmelite friars in particular, but also other branches of the Carmelite Family, have a strong sense of their dependence on the providence of God.
We take the risk of trusting in God, because we believe that God is faithful. God will provide what we need for our daily living and our ministries. We also take seriously the quotation from St. Paul in our Rule that those who are able must undertake work of some kind, and so contribute to the life of the community. In return for our service to society, we invite people to support us in a variety of ways. This may be through a financial donation, or some other form of support.
In the British Province of Carmelites our principal source of income as friars is from donations received at the National Shrine of St. Jude in Faversham, and from benefactors who make bequests. We pray regularly for our benefactors and thank God that through their generosity we can continue our work.
All those who formally identify themselves as ‘Carmelite’ make profession of promises or vows, and this includes the evangelical counsel of poverty. We choose to live simply, because we know that happiness comes through relationship with God and others, not through material possessions. Though today the Order in different parts of the world has a variety of resources at its disposal, these are seen not as personal assets to provide us with a comfortable lifestyle but as gifts given us by God to be used in his service, building up God’s kingdom and alleviating the suffering of others.
We still choose to be amongst the poor and the marginalised wherever possible. This is sometimes called the ‘preferential option for the poor’, and we believe from our reading of the Bible that the face of the Lord is reflected in the poor and marginalised in a preferential way. Our mendicant tradition gives us a particular concern to speak out prophetically for justice, peace and the integrity of God’s creation.
One of the features of the mendicant movement in the Middle Ages was the promotion of learning. Friars became great teachers and preachers, and study remains an important aspect of the mendicant vocation.
Another feature of the mendicant lifestyle that is very important for the friars is that of ‘itinerancy’. We are not bound to one religious house or one particular ministry. We are free to move to wherever the Church and Society have need of us. Individual friars move between communities as they respond to the needs of the Order.
All these elements of the mendicant way of life are also shared to some extent by the Carmelite nuns, apostolic sisters, and laity.
Our mendicant tradition makes Carmelites particularly committed to promoting justice, peace, and the integrity of God’s creation.
Further resources on mendicant spirituality
- The 1995 Constitutions of the Carmelite friars make various references to our mendicant tradition (particularly Part 1 on the Order’s charism).
- Wilfrid McGreal, O.Carm., Mendicant Friars – Justice and Peace
- Wikipedia entry on Mendicant Orders