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The History of Carmel





Mt. Carmel and sea

MOUNT CARMEL! Tall, majestic, strong and spacious, this Palestinian promontory, rising out of the edge of the blue Mediterranean, was the site of many biblical events. It was the place of seclusion for early Christian monks who lived and prayed in its caves. It was also the scene of battle and bloodshed for marauding armies—Saracens, Turks, and even Napoleon’s French troops—who climbed its heights and left their destructive mark. Both mountain and symbol, it stands as an enduring and tangible testimony that the spirit of the great realities enacted there—Judaic and Christian—will never be lost. In Hebrew, Carmel means garden and expresses not only the richness of the natural verdure which covers the mountain like a multicolored tapestry, but also the grace and excellence of the many saints who flourished and flowered on its mystical summit.


Mt. Carmel caves

The origin of the Carmelite Order dates back to the middle of the 12th century on this holy Mount Carmel, when a group of pious pilgrims settled there to lead an eremitical life in imitation of the Prophet Elijah, who, with his followers, had inhabited the rock formations of the mountain centuries before Christ. Zeal, ardor and renunciation of the honors and goods of the world characterized this great man who so intensely experienced God’s living Presence and fearlessly proclaimed His truth. The main elements of Elijah’s life, totally dedicated to God—solitude, penance, prayer and contemplation—became the way of life for the first Carmelites. His provoking challenge to the vacillating people of Israel, “how long will you straddle the issue? If the LORD is God, follow Him . . . ,” continues to sound down the years and inspire his contemporary sons and daughters to a like absoluteness in their unequivocal commitment to God in their Carmelite vocation.


Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (Haifa)

A centuries-old document tells us that these first fathers built a chapel in honor of Our Lady and placed themselves under her special patronage. Their life was completely oriented and consciously modeled on her own total surrender and loving union with God. From the very beginning, Carmel experienced a unique intimate relationship with Mary of a profound interior quality. She was for these medieval Carmelites—officially known as THE BROTHERS OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY OF MOUNT CARMEL—as she is for their twenty-first century heirs: mother, sister and advocate.

                                 THE RULE

The Rule of the first Carmelites, given in 1209 by St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, is permeated with the flavor of Eastern monasticism. Biblical and evangelical, it is brief and unlegalistic. It begins by stating the following: “[You] should live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ . . . pure in heart and steadfast in conscience. . . . Be unswerving in the service of [your] Master.” All converges towards the contemplation of God. With its insistence on continual prayer, obedience to a superior, solitude and simplicity in every phase of life, its exhortation to manual work and its prescription for silence, abstinence and fasting, this first Rule has been called a “Rule of Mysticism.”

                        MIGRATION TO THE WEST

Mt. Carmel scene

After spreading throughout the Holy Land, the Order’s own growth and inner vitality indicated migration to Western Europe, the origin of many of the first Carmelites. The move was actually made imperative by the constant Saracen uprisings in Palestine. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, established by the Crusaders, fell in 1291 and in July of that year the merciless conquerors climbed Mount Carmel, massacred the remaining monks and even destroyed their dwellings. Tradition has it that these devoted Sons of Mary went to their martyrdom chanting the SALVE REGINA. For more than three centuries the Holy Mountain suffered an eclipse in Carmelite history. It was not until 1631 that it was reclaimed by the Order. Despite the patronage of some European sponsors, including St. Luis IX, King of France, adaptation to Western culture proved very difficult. The people did not really accept these strange hermits who lived in small, isolated cottages with no financial resources—so unlike the grand, wealthy abbeys to which they were accustomed. The Order was in a crisis until a prominent English Carmelite, St. Simon Stock, in 1247 adapted the eremitical life to make it practical in the new society in which they found themselves. He accomplished this without changing the essentials or detracting from its prophetic vocation. St. Simon’s adaptations inaugurated a “golden age” for the Carmelites. Through the successive centuries, the Order expanded and has given the Church many mystics, saints, poets, theologians and spiritual writers.


        “. . . the sign of total consecration. . . .” (Pope Pius XII)

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and saints

It was to St. Simon Stock, in a moment of ardent petition for the preservation of the Order, that “the most glorious Mother of God appeared . . . holding in her blessed hands the Scapular of Carmel . . .” and assured him of her predilection for those who would wear it piously. The brown Scapular is perhaps the most deeply rooted symbol in the Carmelite tradition. Throughout the centuries, many miracles and blessings have been granted through the veneration of the Scapular. In contemporary piety it is looked upon as a sure and visible sign of consecration to Mary’s Immaculate Heart and an impenetrable shield assuring her maternal protection. In a way no other devotion can, it reminds the wearer of Our Lady’s promise to help in a special way all those who live according to her spirit and who have confidence in her mission of Mediatrix of all grace.

                                            CARMELITE NUNS

The tradition of women who dedicate their lives to God’s service by a particular commitment dates from the beginning of Christianity. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a number of pious women placed themselves under the direction of the Carmelite Fathers and, individually or in groups, began to follow the Carmelite Rule adapted to their life’s situation. Frequently they were recluses living in absolute solitude and continual prayer. Others formed a kind of communal life in a loosely knit association without vows. In 1452 Blessed John Soreth, General of the Order, obtained the approval of Pope Nicholas V to organize these groups into a Second Order, thus giving them a canonical status. Blessed Frances d’Amboise, the Duchess of Brittany, was among the first to join one of the convents she herself endowed. This was the modest beginning of the 11,500 nuns of about 890 communities of Carmelite Nuns which dot the earth today.


In addition to the Second Order, Blessed John Soreth also began the Third Order of Carmel, now know as Secular Carmelites, and wrote their first Rule. The Secular Order’s profession of the vows of obedience and chastity, according to one’s state of life, is a unique factor which distinguishes its members from all other secular groups affiliated with monastic Orders. The practice of these vows has endured through the centuries even to the present. In practically every place where there is a Carmelite Monastery, and in many places where there are none, men and women in the world, attracted by this spirituality of total devotedness to God, form Communities of Secular Carmelites. In Lafayette and the surrounding areas, there are 3 dynamic Communities who pledge to live in this way of life. Throughout the world, at present, there are around 25,000 Secular Carmelites of of about 1,736 communities which encompass the globe.


A combination of political and social conditions that prevailed in Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—the Hundred Years War, the Black Plague and the rise of the Renaissance and Humanist revival—adversely affected the Order. Although Carmel itself contributed a number of gifted and respected Humanists, yet, as is typical of human nature, the trend which started out as a good thing occasioned a general decline in religious fervor. This factor, coupled with the decimation of the population and severe economic hardships, had a demoralizing effect. Many individual Carmelites, and even whole communities, succumbed to contemporary attitudes and conditions diametrically opposed to their original purpose. To meet this regrettable situation, the Rule was mitigated several times. Consequently the Carmelites bore less and less resemblance to the first hermits of Mount Carmel. From time to time a notable leader attempted reform but the efforts were generally unheeded and did not perdure. But, God’s time came in the sixteenth century through the manifestly chosen woman of wisdom and vision who would restore Carmel to its pristine spiritual splendor, St. Teresa of Jesus.


St. Teresa of Jesus

A new epoch began for the Order when the vivacious and attractive Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda, twenty years old, entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, Spain on November 2, 1535 “not so much for the love of God but as a means to save my soul.” This practical motivation was soon transformed through the experience of Divine Love and the many mystical graces God was granting her. Her heart was filled with an insatiable thirst for God and a burning zeal which propelled her forward in rapid ascent towards the heights of transforming union. As her quick and facile mind strove to appreciate or understand these spiritual favors, her ardent spirit found itself more and more in complete disharmony with the situation and spiritual decline prevailing at the Incarnation. Among the 150 nuns living there, the observance of cloister—designed to protect and strengthen the spirit and practice of prayer—became so lax that it actually lost its ver purpose. The daily invasion of visitors, many of high social and political rank, vitiated the atmosphere with frivolous concerns and vain conversations. These were violations of the solitude absolutely essential to progress in genuine contemplative prayer. St. Teresa was keenly aware of the needs of the church in the wake of the divisions and conflicts resulting from the Reformation. Moreover, she had come to realize the apostolic value of prayer and penance as a means of healing the disunity of Christians. True woman of God that she was, Teresa determined to come to the aid of the suffering Church she loved so much. At this point in her life, a missionary just returned from the West Indies made a casual observation to the nuns at the Incarnation: “There are millions of souls perishing there for lack of instruction.” This set her on fire and vaulted her into action. She “tearfully besought the Lord to make my prayer of some avail since I have nothing else to give. . . .” With penetrating discernment she saw that the surest way to secure this efficacious, salvific prayer was to return to the Primitive Rule embodying Carmel’s first ideals. With nothing except an unwavering determination to fulfill her Lord’s commands to “strive for this new monastery with all your power,” this indomitable woman set out to do that very thing. Despite almost insurmountable difficulties and often bitter opposition, she succeeded in 1562 in establishing a small monastery with the austere air of desert solitude within the heart of the city of Avila by delicately combining eremitical life with community life. Our Lord promised her that “He would be highly served in it. He said that it should be called St. Joseph and that this saint would keep watch at one door, and Our Lady at the other, that Christ would remain with us, and that it would be a star shining with great splendor” (Life Ch. 32, no. 11). St. Teresa retained in her Constitutions a distinctively Marian character, contained exacting prescriptions for a life of continual prayer, safeguarded by strict enclosure and sustained by the asceticism of solitude, manual labor, abstinence, fasting, in an atmosphere of openness and warm, fraternal charity—those same practices which brought the hermits on Mount Carmel to such eminent holiness. In addition to all this, Teresa envisioned an Order fully dedicated to poverty. She felt so strongly about this, and the virtue of poverty became so integrally related to her reform, that the Order is known as the Discalced—or shoeless—Order of Carmelites. (The term Discalced indicated a reformed religious Order.) St. Teresa cherished the deep conviction that the life she restored would obtain from God an outpouring of redemptive blessings on the whole world. She saw this as the height and crown of the vocation to Carmel. St. Therese, familiarly called the “Little Flower,” is a contemporary affirmation of this belief. Pope Pius XI called her the greatest saint of modern times, the star of his pontificate, and named her co-patron of the missions. A heap of honors for one who left the world at fifteen and died at twenty-four, without ever setting foot outside Carmel’s walls! It was St. Teresa’s intention to found just one reformed monastery, but, at the insistence of the General of the Order, she enlarged her plan to include additional houses. They added up to seventeen before her death in 1582. Called a “gadabout woman” by one who failed to appreciate her unique work, she spent her years and energy crisscrossing the roads of Spain setting up these “dovecots of Our Lady,” as she affectionately called her Carmels, often with nothing more to work with than “two ducats and God. . . .” St. Teresa had never dreamed of her Carmels extending beyond Spain. However, shortly after her death the Order began to spread throughout continental Europe. This was the impetus that led to its subsequent expansion. Teresa’s Discalced Order now encompasses the globe. Besides her talents as Reformer, St. Teresa was prolific with her pen and has left an invaluable legacy of books on prayer and spirituality written in her own inimitable style. She bears the distinction of having been declared the first woman DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Her statue, placed among those of prominent saints and founders in the Vatican, is captioned MOTHER OF SPIRITUALITY and countless are the “children” whom she has inspired to seek strength, peace and fruitfulness in the way of prayer she teaches: “To be on intimate terms with Him whom we know loves us.”


“. . . I began with a friar and a half . . . !” ~St. Teresa


(Original painting kept in  our Monastery)

In 1568 St. Teresa initiated her way of life among the Carmelite Friars, thus becoming the first woman in the annals of religious Orders to do so! The diminutive St. John of the Cross (her half a friar!), who assisted her (with Father Anthony of quite generous proportions!), occupies a major position in the history of Christian thought and mystical experience. He has the distinctive title of DOCTOR OF MYSTICAL THEOLOGY and is universally recognized as the most outstanding writer on that subject. His contribution to the spiritual patrimony of the Order is unparalleled in its history. His over-ruling concern is to guide his followers to a depth of union with God which will transform the whole person into DIVINE LOVE, LIGHT and LIFE. This man of uncompromising asceticism and profound prayer, with “the heart of a poet and the soul of a saint,” presents a vivid image of radical commitment to the original Carmelite ideals. He is, indeed, a symbol rich with the height, stature, and magnitude of Mount Carmel itself! St. Teresa’s purpose for introducing the friars to her Way of Life was to provide for the spiritual development of the nuns. She believed it was important that they have the assistance of theologians and masters of spirituality who live by their own spirit to aid them in advancing in genuine prayer. Today there are approximately 3,994 Discalced friars who continue this mission.

                                           CARMEL IN AMERICA

LOUISIANA was the site of the first formal Discalced Carmelite mission in the New World (1720)! Those zealous Carmelite pioneers distinguished themselves by their genuine apostolic service. The American historian, Rothensteiner, wrote about Father Paul of St. Peter (died 1826), pastor for twenty years of the historic parish of St. Gabriel in Iberville: “His memory still lives as one of the most remarkable men of our early days.” However, Carmel set foot in the New World even earlier when in 1602 three Spanish Carmelite Fathers sailed with the Vizcaino expedition to California as their mission territory but for some unknown reason it was never claimed. Another presence of Carmel in the early days of American history was made by several French friars who served as chaplains to the army during the war in which the Colonies secured their freedom.


It is significant that in this nation “under God” the first religious women to live under the Stars and Stripes were contemplative Carmelite nuns dedicated totally to the worship and praise of God and to intercessory prayer for the needs of all. (New Orleans was still under French rule when the Ursuline nuns from Rouen came in 1727.) Soon after the American Revolution ended, the daughters of Teresa established a monastery in the newly formed United States. Three American women, who had been sent to Europe for their education, joined the Carmelite community in Hoogstraten, Holland. In 1790 they returned with a fourth nun, originally from England, and settled at Port Tobacco in Maryland. Most Reverend John Carroll of Baltimore, first Bishop of the single Diocese of America, was very eager to have the Carmelites. He gave them a most cordial welcome and commissioned them to “offer their prayers that the faithful may increase in numbers and piety and the pastors in zeal, useful knowledge and truly Christian prudence. . . .” His genuine need of their prayer and sacrifice was quite obvious in those trying days of beginnings! The missionary Bishop Simon Bruté exclaimed after his first visit to the Monastery: “Oh, most beautiful lilies of the desert. . . !” After forty-one years the Carmel moved to Baltimore in 1831, then spread to St. Louis and on to New Orleans. At present there are sixty-three communities scattered throughout the United States, including Hawaii. In 1976, the bicentennial year of the Declaration of Independence, nuns from the St. Teresa Association returned to Port Tobacco and this historic Carmel in the United States was restored.