The obvious parallels between the pre-history and early history of the Carmelite Order and the Order of St Augustine are significant, and further reinforce the fact that various historical aspects of the coming to fruition of the Augustinian Order were very much part of the ecclesiastical pattern of the time, and certainly was not an historical pathway that was exclusive to the Augustinian Order.
The Carmelite movement originated in about the year 1155 near a spring called Elijah’s Fountain on Mount Carmel in Palestine, a site associated with the Old Testament prophet Elijah. A number of Christian pilgrims and former crusaders had begun to live there as hermits, as also did other Christian hermits from the Eastern and Orthodox Churches. These early hermits were mostly laity (that is, they were not monks or canons) who lived an unofficial religious life of Gospel poverty, penance and prayer as a way of following Christ.
Between 1206 and 1214, St Albert, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, brought the hermits on Mount Carmel together, at their request, into community. He wrote them a letter, a formula for living, which expressed their own intention and reflected the spirit of the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and of the early community of Jerusalem. He asked them to provide the structures of a life in communion, to elect one of the brothers as prior and to build a chapel so that Mass could be celebrated daily.
The Carmelite Rule written for these hermits by St Albert was then approved in 1226 by Pope Honorius III, the same pope who had formally assigned the Dominican and Franciscan Orders to the mendicant movement just a few years beforehand. As Moslem incursions made Palestine increasingly unsafe, the Carmelite hermit groups scattered to Cyprus and Sicily in 1238, and to France and England in about 1240. In England and Western Europe these hermits soon took steps to transform themselves from groups of hermits into one of the mendicant orders
Photos (at left):Picture 1: Sketch of an English Carmelite, 1900. Picture 2: Our Lady of Mount Carmel. As had already been done by other intending mendicants such as Francis of Assisi in 1209, St Dominic in 1215 and the Tuscan hermit groupings in 1243, (and as also the Sack Friars would do in 1251), two Carmelites named Peter and Reginald approached the Pope in 1247, nine years after their arrival in Europe. They sought official recognition, papal protection in church law, and mendicant status. This was granted to them by Pope Innocent IV in the papal bull, Quae honorem conditorius, in 1247, which formally established the Carmelite Order. This document was a second foundational document for the Carmelites. It not only modified Albert’s Rule (for which task the pope appointed two Dominicans as supervisors), but also enrolled the Carmelite Order into the mendicant movement. The Carmelites, therefore, were officially constituted a mendicant order in 1247, which was nine years before the Augustinian Order was likewise established by its Grand Union of 1256.
Like the Augustinians, the Carmelites were placed under the threat of suppression by the Fourth Council of Lyons in 1274, and it was only decades later in 1298 that Pope Boniface VIII simultaneously removed this threat from both Orders. By the year 1274, there were an estimated twenty-two Carmelite houses in England, about the same number in France, eleven in Catalonia (Spain), three in Scotland, and others in Italy, Germany and elsewhere. Some of the earliest of these foundations were at London and Cambridge (1247), Marseilles (1248), Cologne (1252), York (before 1253), Montpelier (before 1256), Norwich, Oxford, Bristol (1256), Paris (1258), Valenciennes (before 1259), King’s Lynn, Lincoln, and Wurzburg (before 1260), Toulouse (before 1263), and Brussels and Bruges (1264-65). The Carmelites were also present in the Holy Land, but lost out to the much larger Franciscan Order that succeeded in being appointed as the Church’s official guardian of the Holy Places (Christian sanctuaries) there.
Photos (at right): Picture 1: Sketch of a medieval Carmelite. Picture 2: The Carmelite cross. Picture 3: St Therese of Liseiux, Carmelite.
An estimated census of the numbers of friars in the Carmelite houses in England between 1296 and 1347 (their period of greatest expansion) indicates a total of 720 friars. The largest houses were London (67 friars in 1347), Cambridge and Norwich (50 each in 1312-26), and Oxford (45 in 1326). Most other houses averaged between twenty and thirty friars. By 1324 the sites of studia generalia for the training of Carmelite candidates were located at London, Paris, Avignon, Bologna, Cologne, Montpelier, Toulouse and Florence.
(It is not surprising, incidentally, that the Augustinians and Carmelites were both present in many of these cities, and had arrived usually at about the same time. The Carmelites were founded in 1247 and the Augustinians in 1256, and were increasing at a similar rate. Likewise the two older mendicant orders, the Dominicans (in 1216) and the Franciscans (in 1226) paralleled one another numerically and geographically in an almost similar manner.)
But, again like the Augustinians, however, the Carmelites were motivated to promote heavily their links with the past that pre-dated the “cut-off point” of 1215 that had been reasserted in that same year by the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1274) – thereby reaffirming the previous decreeNe nimium of the Second Council of Lyons in 1215. In this context, the tradition later developed that the Carmelite habit was presented to an English-born Carmelite name Simon Stock by the Virgin Mary herself in 1287, but historical evidence in this regard is quite nebulous – even in establishing the existence of a friar of that name. Although Carmelite historical myths were first developed as a response to the threat of suppression, they increasingly came to form the basis of a distinctive ecclesiology and mission.
The only contemplative religious order to have been founded in the Crusader States in the mid-thirteenth century, the Carmelites began to develop their earlier geographical associations with the Holy Land into a complex historical tradition which proposed that they had been founded by the Old Testament prophet, Elijah. To mention one more historical parallel between the Carmelites and the Augustinians: in the final decades of the nineteenth century, both of these Orders experienced serious decline, and were possibly on the verge of extinction. With only 200 Carmelite friars remaining, the Order revived under vigorous leadership early in the twentieth century, and in 2001 had 2,100 friars (about 80% of the number of Augustinians at that time).
In 1452 the horizons of the Carmelite Order were broadened when the reforming Prior General, Blessed John Soreth, obtained permission from the Pope for the establishment of convents of Carmelite nuns and for the Order to accept laity as members of the Third Order. So, after 250 years the Carmelite Order began to welcome women members.
The Carmelite Province of Australia and Timor L’este. A web site on one of the many provinces of different sections of the international Carmelite family. http://www.carmelites.org.au
Discalced Carmelites of Australia-Oceania. This web site also contains a brief history of this observant movement of the Carmelites. http://www.carmelite.com