The Carmelite Order

An Introduction:

The Carmelite Order has its origins on Mount Carmel in Israel. Today the Order is found on all five continents and its apostolate is as diverse as that of the Church itself. An outstanding characteristic of the Order down through the centuries has been its readiness to accommodate itself to the needs of the People of God.

Today the Order numbers two and a half thousand (this does not include enclosed sisters and members of the extended Carmelite family) and many of them are found in the front-line of the Church’s work all over the world.

Unlike other Religious Orders, for example the Dominicans and the Franciscans who had individual founders in St. Dominic and St. Francis, the Carmelite Order had its origin in a group of hermits on Mount Carmel in Palestine or modern Israel. They followed a common Rule which was written for hermits living the kind of eremitical life common in Palestine in the thirteenth century. These hermits on Mount Carmel can be seen as a group of pilgrims who came to the Holy Land and stayed on to live a life of prayer and silence in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. A sketch of their way of life is given by Jacques de Vitry, Bishop of Acre at the time; “Others imitating the saintly and solitary man, the Prophet Elijah, lived apart on Mount Carmel . . . near the fountain of Elijah . . . dwelling in little cells in the rocks.”

The hermits choice of Mount Carmel was logical, it had caves, water and a variety of fruit trees. The name ‘Carmel’ means orchard or vineyard. The mountain is closely associated with the life of the Prophet Elijah and the hermits took him as their model and inspiration. They tried to live “as Elijah in the presence of God.”

The hermits built a small chapel dedicated to Our Lady. Archaeologists in 1968 uncovered some remains. The hermits themselves seem to have lived in caves in the hills. About the year 1210, they approached Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, to ask him for a “formula of life” to guide them. Albert gave them a Rule of Life which received the approval of Pope Honorius in 1226. The hermits were known as the Brothers of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, or Carmelites. The Carmelite Rule, though written between 1206 and 1214, is still very much in tune with the spirituality of the time. It begins and ends with Christ.

These first hermits were noted for their spiritual attachment to the prophet Elijah and to the Mother of the Lord. The motto of the Order is from the words of Elijah: “I am filled with zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts” (1Kings 19:10). The prophet who sought the face of God is patron of the Order. Carmelites see him today as a model for the task of witnessing to the presence of God in the world. In Mary, Mother of Jesus, Carmelites honor the most perfect fruit of the redemption and see in her a complete openness to the Word of God and a model for their lives (see Luke 1:38-45, 8:20, 11:28).

Following the era of the Crusades, the Saracen invaders began menacing the Christians. Being forced to flee their homes and place of prayer, to avoid possible massacre, the Carmelites agreed that any brother who wished to leave Mount Carmel and live the Rule in other countries should be allowed to do so. Some on leaving the Holy Land founded monasteries in Cyprus and Sicily about 1237. Around the same time monasteries were also founded in Pisa, Florence and Siena. Others went to France (Marseilles and Paris) and by 1240 reached England. Within sixty years the Order grew to 150 houses in many countries, the Holy Land, Sicily, England, Cyprus, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Ireland and Scotland. In Europe they adopted the mendicant way of life like the Dominicans and Franciscans.©2015