The Origins of Carmel


The first Carmelites were laymen, probably Crusaders and pilgrims. They found a deeper way of fighting for Christ, an interior way of seeking the Holy Place. Like many lay people of their day they wanted a committed following of Christ characterised by simplicity, poverty and community. They wanted to live close to Christ, imitating his life and the life of the earliest Christians, where poverty was expressed primarily through holding all things in common.

To begin with they lived in scattered huts on Mount Carmel, first as individuals, then as an informal group before they asked St Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, to write them a Rule that is a way or formula of life – not rules & regs!

This Rule is one of only four in the Church. It is deeply biblical and close to the Rule of St Augustine in its inspiration from the early Church in Acts. The Rule combines this communal life of brotherly love with the imitation of the solitary prayer of Jesus.

Like Mary they are to ponder day and night on the law of the Lord. They are to be like her in treasuring all that Christ has done. Their earliest title “Hermit Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel” is beautifully ambiguous. They are brothers together under the motherhood of Mary but also brothers of, and with, her. She accompanies their prayer as atmosphere, as presence, as model.

An early tradition held that Elijah had founded a contemplative community of hermits on Mount Carmel. This was the Order’s way of expressing their sense of continuity with the prayer and prophetic witness of a man who seems in some ways like the desert fathers. So they didn’t see themselves as doing something new or novel but as being part of the history of the human desire to live in loving, silent attentiveness to God in poverty of spirit & abandonment to Providence.

The Rule of St Albert includes all the features expected in a rule for contemplatives – liturgical and private prayer, manual work (an aspect of poverty), sharing of goods, simplicity of life and obedience within a simple hierarchy, together with support from the community. Although the brothers lived alone they were to meet weekly for mutual encouragement and correction.

One feature of their life was new & distinctive: the one communal building was the Chapel where Mass was to be celebrated daily. This was unusual at the time and it emphasises the centrality of the Eucharist in early Carmelite life. New studies of the Rule are suggesting that the plan of the Rule also points to this centrality: the instructions on prayer and on fraternal life lead up to, and away from, the instruction on the Eucharist.

This makes it clear that the purpose of silent, solitary prayer is not to make us closed-in individuals. Our prayer stems from, and leads us into, the Easter Mystery of Christ which we celebrate in every Mass. It makes of us gifts to the Father, with and in Christ, to the Father for the life of the world.

By Heather Ward Nottingham group

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