Unlike most 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 living on Mount Carmel in Palestine in the thirteenth century. They followed the way of life of hermits living an eremitical life common in Palestine in the thirteenth century. These hermits on Mount Carmel can be seen as a group of pilgrims who had come to the Holy Land and had 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. The hermits themselves seem to have lived in caves in the hills. About the year 1210, they approached Albert, the 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 Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, or Carmelites.
Due to a number of different circumstances life became more difficult for the early Carmelites on Mount Carmel. They left their home and place of prayer. Some on leaving the Holy Land founded monasteries in Cyprus and Sicily about 1237. Others went to France 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. Arriving in Europe they adopted the mendicant way of life like the Dominicans and Franciscans.
The Carmelite Rule
The Rule of Life, written by Albert of Jerusalem, was amended and approved by Pope Innocent III in 1247. The Rule has regulated and shaped the lives of Carmelites down through the centuries and has proved to be an excellent guide. It continues to inspire Carmelites today just as it challenged those of the 13th Century.
Simple yet radical, the Rule is still very much in tune with the spirituality of the present time. It begins and ends with Christ. At the heart of the Rule is a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ by which we are brought into intimacy with God. The Carmelite life, centred on the Word, the breaking of bread, prayer, the holding of all things in common, a moderate lifestyle and service, helps those who follow it to be themselves transformed and to bring the light of God’s message to the world. To live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve him faithfully with a pure heart and a good conscience.
The first hermits were also noted for their spiritual attachment to the prophet Elijah and to the Mother of God. The motto of the Order is the words of Elijah, “I am filled with zeal for the Lord, God of Hosts” (1Kings 19:10). Elijah, 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 honour 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).
The Carmelite Rule helps the individual Carmelites to discover who they are, encourages the building of community and service to the world. The Rule leads us to acquire an attitude of openness to God’s presence in life, teaches us to see the world with God’s eyes, and inspires us to seek, recognise, love and serve God in those around us. (Carmelite Formation: A Journey of Transformation).
The Carmelite Charism: Prayer, Community and Service
Prayer is at the very heart of our lives as Carmelites. Our Rule calls us to spend time alone reflecting on the Word of God and also to come together each day to celebrate the Eucharist and to join in praying the psalms in the Prayer of the Church.
In prayer, we begin to learn God’s language which is silence. This is not the silence of non-communication, a refusal to speak to the other. This silence is about listening to God. It is a communication that goes beyond words, that words can no longer sustain, a being together in love.
As Christians we never really pray on our own. We always pray as members of the Body of Christ and our prayer is Christ’s prayer. This is experienced in a special way when we pray the psalms together.
If our prayer is authentic, it must bear fruit in moving us to reach out in love to others. Prayer nourishes and strengthens our community life and our lives of service for others. Prayer helps us to see with God’s eyes and to love with God’s heart.
As Carmelites we try always to make time in our lives for prayer – no matter how busy our apostolate or how many demands may be made upon us. “Prayer is life, not an oasis in the desert of life” [Blessed Titus Brandsma O. Carm.].
Community is at the core of Carmelite life. The first Carmelites were inspired by the image of the early Church in Jerusalem presented in the Acts of the Apostles. – the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and nobody claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common (Acts 4:32).
In the Carmelite Rule, drawn up for those early Carmelites who lived on Mount Carmel, we read of a common refectory, common ownership and daily gathering for prayer and Eucharist (Rule 7, 12, 10, 14).
Carmelites are called to live as members of a community. They seek God not as isolated individuals but as brothers who are committed to supporting one another in prayer and in the service of other people. Living in community involves close personal interaction on a daily basis which helps each member to grow as a human being.
In community, Carmelites try to accept one another in all their diversity and to see in this reality something of the richness of God and humanity. Building community always demands commitment and generosity but it gives much in return, especially through companionship, support and solidarity in facing the challenges of human living, the needs of the Church and the world.
All Carmelite service and ministry flow from community living and prayer. Our ministries are varied and, like all Christian service, are directed towards the coming of the Kingdom of God in response to the words of the Lord’s Prayer – your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Carmelites are inspired by the Virgin Mary’s ‘yes’ to God. Carmelite ministry tries to show people the love and compassion of the God who entered this world through Mary.
As members of an international brotherhood. Carmelites are working in all five continents - in friaries and churches, in parishes, in schools and universities, in centres of spirituality, in hospitals and prisons, and among the poor especially in areas of Africa, Latin America and Oceania.
In Ireland, Carmelites have care of two parishes in Dublin: Knocklyon and Whitefriar Street – also an important and historic city centre church. In Co. Kilkenny, the parish of Ballyhale is served from the friary at Knocktopher. People come to these and to other Carmelite churches at Kinsale, Kildare, Moate, Knocktopher, Terenure College and Gort Muire to share in the celebrations of the Eucharist and other religious services.
Irish Carmelites are still committed to education at Terenure College, Whitefriar Street, at 3rd level and CIBI (Carmelite Institute of Britain and Ireland). They serve on the Boards of four Community Schools and are involved in the pastoral care of the pupils in the schools of the parishes.
Opportunities for sharing and teaching the Carmelite tradition arise through preaching, retreats and occasions of special devotion.
Irish Carmelites established a mission in Zimbabwe in 1946. This has now developed into a vibrant presence in that country, with many young Zimbabwean Carmelites living and working there.