Carmel in the World
2019. Volume LVIII, Number 2

  • Editorial
  • The Rise of Women in Carmel’s History (below)
  • Preaching and Carmelite Spirituality
  • Carmel and Music IX: Carmel and Music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance
  • Blessed Titus Brandsma – a man of openness and dialogue
  • St Thérèse of Lisieux and Convent-Theatre
  • St Mary Magdalene de’Pazzi – A Saint for Today
  • Three Carmelite Sisters: Thérèse – Elizabeth – Edith
  • The Carmelites celebrate 600 years of Presence in Malta (1418-2018)

The rise of women in Carmel’s history

Sanny Bruijns is a Carmelite Sister of the Dutch Province. This talk was delivered at the first All Africa Carmelite Family Conference, which took place in Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania, in July 2016. The author is indebted to the courses of the Carmelite Institute of Britain and Ireland for information used.

The gospels of Luke and Matthew introduce us to Mary of Nazareth, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of Jacob, and to the female disciples of Jesus. They were there at the foot of the Cross and they went to the tomb on Easter morning. In Carmelite tradition these women are honoured as the Three Marys. It was the Carmelite John de Venetta, who introduced the legend of the three Marys into the Carmelite narrative. These Marys were and are female icons for women and men, who are called to walk the Carmelite way. Long before they were officially admitted to the Order, women were drawn towards Carmel. They were in various ways associated with the friars. Often – especially in Italy - they simply dedicated themselves and all their property to the friars, taking a vow of obedience to the local prior, but living in what had previously been their own home on an allowance from the priory, while living the Carmelite Rule as best they could. These women, who gave their all, were generally known as ‘conversae’. Conversae and Conversi were an institution of the medieval Church whereby men and women affiliated themselves to a religious community as lay members of that community, under the authority of a prior, living a life of penance. In cities, conversi were organised and developed in different ways. Some groups of Conversi evolved into a religious order. Others grouped themselves together into organised associations and took various vows, but they did not follow the Rule of Carmel. They did however seek to follow the spirit of the Order, and were allowed to wear its white mantle. For this reason they were often known as ‘mantellatae’. The conversae can be seen as the fore-runners of the cloistered nuns, and the mantellatae foreshadowed the tertiaries.

Joan of Toulouse
One of the first conversa or associate to the Order is the French lady Joan of Toulouse, who died in 1286. The Carmelites came to Toulouse in 1240 and Joan was a regular visitor to their church. According to the English Carmelite scholar, John Bale, Joan was born into a noble family. In 1527 he gives the following description of her life

Saint Joan the Virgin, according to some (and this seems the more likely account), was born in the kingdom of Navarre. She was of noble lineage, nobler still by her virtue, and refused the hand of a count in marriage. In honour of Our Lady she dedicated herself completely to God as an anchoress attached to the Carmelite convent of Toulouse. She led a life of dauntless penance; she spent sleepless nights in prayer. She continually taught the young members of the Order and always prayed for them, with the result that they made wonderful progress. She performed many miracles during her lifetime, but after her death distinguished herself by almost innumerable signs and wonders.[1]

Legendary sources tell us how she introduced herself to Simon Stock with the question: ‘May I be part of the Carmelite Order as an associate?’ As a Prior General, Simon Stock had the authority to grant her request and he said yes. Joan made a vow of chastity in his presence and she received the habit of the Carmelite Order. She continued her quiet, simple life right in her own home, went to daily Mass and filled the rest of the day with visits to the poor, the sick and the lonely. She also trained the altar boys. After her death many miracles were attributed to her and this resulted in her beatification in 1895. She is often referred to as a tertiary, or even a nun. Some sources consider her to be the foundress of the Third Order of Carmel. According to the Carmelite historian, Joachim Smet, she didn’t live in the thirteenth century, but in the fifteenth century. After studying what happened with her relics, he ironically writes that we know more about her bones than about her spirit.

Diana Buzzadelli and Donna Ghisola
In other countries like Portugal, England, Italy and Spain, we know religious women who either lived singly or in groups called ‘beaterios’. By the end of the thirteenth century, the Carmelites of Lucca in the north of Italy, made a formal agreement with some female parishioners of Lucca as a sign of their solidarity in 1284. The fourteenth century story of the Carmelite convent at Florence was and is very fascinating. In this century the Carmine of Florence had a large community of over one hundred friars but there were also a goodly number of conversi (pinzocheri/pinzochere) attached to it. The name of the earliest ‘pinzochera’ for whom records exist is Diana Buzzadelli. Diana was a widow of a benefactor of the Carmine. She made her profession in the hands of the prior of the convent in 1309. Another lady was Donna Ghisola. She was a widow. Like Diana Buzzadelli, Donna Ghisola had a long relationship with the friars of the Carmine before she made her profession as a lay sister. Her husband had been a generous supporter of the Carmelites. He left a house to the Carmine but made provisions for his wife to use it during her lifetime. After her husband’s death, Donna Ghisola remarried and, after losing her second husband, she donated her house to the Carmine in 1313. There is also the story of the married couple Salvino and Bartolomea degli Armati. Their story is quite interesting because it offers us an example of a married couple becoming conversi of the Carmelite convent at Florence in 1343. The profession formula for the couple can still be found in the Archives of the Order and it appears to be exactly the same as the profession formula of the friars. While they made profession as a married couple, Salvino and Bartolomea decided to take vows of chastity.

The beguines
In the Low Countries there were associations of women, who were called ‘beguines’. They were the predecessors, or the forerunners of the nuns and their flowering time was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They were single women who moved in large numbers from the countryside to the city to work in the textile industry. Many of these women formed living arrangements that offered safe, affordable accommodation and a life of service to their neighbours. The beguines were one of many lay groups seeking the apostolic life as a response to spiritual renewal. They lived, with the vows of obedience and chastity, in their own little houses, which were grouped together in a walled enclosure known as a ‘beguinage’. The gates were locked at night and the place included a chapel, an infirmary and a graveyard. A priest took care of the spiritual needs of the sisters. In the fifteenth century such groups were ordered by Cardinal Nicolaus Cusanus and the bishops to adopt an approved religious Rule. This made the beguines of the Carmelite parish of Guelders in the Lower Countries, a German city, which is very close to Boxmeer, Holland, apply for admission to the Carmelite Order. The Prior General at the time was Blessed John Soreth (1395-1471), whose twenty years at the head of the Order were dedicated to the reform and renewal of the Order. He had been lamenting the fact that his Order – dedicated to Our Lady – had no women among its members like other Orders had. So it seems likely that it was a real joy to him to receive this request from the beguines of Guelders. After his approval in 1452 they followed a version of the reformed Carmelite Rule, vowed obedience to the local Carmelite prior, and wore the Carmelite habit. Soreth’s reform activities inspired him to write a commentary on the Carmelite Rule around 1455. This is the first commentary which, like modern commentaries, seeks to base a Carmelite spirituality on an analysis of the actual text of the Rule.[2]

The cloistered nuns  
In the same time in the south of Europe, the lay sisters of Florence gathered in 1450 into a small community known as ‘the house of our white ladies’. At a certain stage the prior of the Carmine decided to obtain papal authorisation for their way of life as members of the Carmelite Order. He travelled to Rome and returned with the famous bull of Pope Nicholas V, Cum Nulla, dated October 7, 1452. This bull is addressed to ‘The Most Reverend Lord General of the Carmelites of St Mary at Rome’, which gave the Prior General and the provincials of the Carmelite Order permission to admit women to their Order. It is considered the Magna Carta for women Carmelites. The sisters of Florence opened a door for something far beyond the horizons of Italy. And the Guelders community was one of the first to benefit. Starting from the Guelders community foundations followed in the Low Countries. John Soreth took a particular interest in the sisters of the Order, for whom he drew up constitutions. And he was personally responsible for the foundation of a number of monasteries.

Françoise d’Amboise
The most famous of these monasteries was founded in the north of France, on the demand of Blessed Françoise d’Amboise, who was a Duchess of Brittany. She was born in 1427 as the first child of rich and noble parents. For political reasons she was betrothed at the age of three to Pierre, the second son of the Duke of Brittany and she was given to the care of his mother, Jeanne de France, who was a sister of the French King Charles VII and the Duchess of Brittany. The little Françoise seems to have absorbed very readily the religious and Christian formation of her foster-mother. At the age of fifteen, she married Pierre. She was very much loved for her warmth and gaiety. The common people loved her for her sense of justice and her generosity. When her husband became Duke in 1450 Françoise became known as the Good Duchess. She was always concerned for the common welfare and for the preservation of peace and unity. When her husband was dying, he testified to the ‘obedience and humility’ rendered him by ‘his very dear and beloved sister and companion spouse Françoise d’Amboise’. So at the age of thirty, Françoise was left a childless widow. The King of France, Louis XVI, had an eye on her, but she resisted him by taking a public vow of celibacy in the company of her servants and of the parishioners of her village. She wanted to become a nun and made two attempts to enter the Poor Clare monastery she and her husband had founded at Nantes, but her health was not up to it. It so happened that Prior General John Soreth visited Brittany and was invited to her castle, because Françoise was decided to found a Carmelite convent for nuns in Brittany. They seem to have been deeply impressed by each other. Soreth and the Duchess planned to found a Carmelite monastery for women in Brittany, where the friars already had a monastery of the ‘regular observance’. It would be paid for by Françoise and set up by John Soreth. In 1460 the Vatican gave permission for a foundation and so it happened. By that time Soreth was establishing a number of women’s monasteries in eastern Belgium, in accordance with the reforms he was promoting among the friars. He invited the nuns of Liège to start a foundation in Brittany with the result that nine nuns went to France. They arrived by boat down the River Loire and initially they lived in Françoise’s castle until their monastery, which was dedicated to The Three Marys, was completed in 1464. The townspeople gave them a huge welcome as a testimony to their affection for the foundress. It took another two years before she herself was free to enter the convent. In 1468 she received the habit from the hands of John Soreth on the Feast of the Annunciation. To the embarrassment of the community she insisted on being treated like any other novice. Two years after her profession she was elected prioress at the age of forty. As prioress she was very humble and good for the sisters. She frequently mentions the Rule in her weekly talks to the nuns. One of them begins with the words: ‘this lesson is about the Rule, which you hear read every Friday’.[3] John Soreth wrote their constitutions and although there was not a specific time for silent prayer, the practice of the presence of God was the base of their lives. A few years later a second foundation followed in Les Couets near the city of Nantes. As prioress, Françoise would often remind her sisters of the supreme importance of charity in word and deed, and of the value of silence as the atmosphere for a life of prayer. A well-remembered saying was on her lips as she lay dying: ‘Before all things, see to it that God is loved the most’. Françoise d’Amboise died in 1485 and was beatified in 1863. She is considered to be the founding mother of the French Carmelite nuns. Although her foundations did not survive the French Revolution, her memory is kept by the people of Brittany and she remains a source of inspiration.

Teresa of Avila
Fourteen years after the first foundation of Françoise d’Amboise in Brittany, the convent of the Incarnation was founded in 1478 in a Spanish city called Avila. Some decades later this town became the hometown of Teresa de Ahumada, who entered the convent of the Incarnation in 1535. At the time she lived there, the house was crowded with over a hundred women, who lived apart together. At the age of thirty-nine, Teresa reached a turning point, a kind of conversion: she wished to live more according to the primitive Rule and start a new foundation with a small group of sisters. This happened in 1562. When she was working on her second foundation in the city of Medina del Campo, she talked to the then Prior General, John Baptista Rubeus. He approved her reformation and inspired her to continue her foundational work among the friars by advising her to talk to a young promising Carmelite friar, whose mother and brother lived in Medina del Campo. Thus, she met John of the Cross and he joined her in her revival of the primitive Rule. Teresa founded seventeen convents. In 1970 she became a Doctor of the Church.

Marie de l’Incarnation
In 1601 a priest called Jean de Brétigny lived in the south of France and he translated the Life of St Teresa into French, together with three volumes of her writings. Some of his readers were members of a faith sharing group in Paris, who gathered in the house of a French lady – Madame Barbe Acarie (1566-1618). Impressed as they were by the life and work of Teresa, they decided to organise a Teresian foundation in the city of Paris. Among the group of people who met in the house of Madame Acarie were Pierre de Bérulle, Francis de Sales, Vincent de Paul, Benedict of Canfield and the young Philippe Thibault. The latter would later join the Carmelites and become a leader of the Reform of Touraine. They were inspired by the works of Teresa, the Flemish mystic Ruusbroec, and Dionysius the Areopagite, and are known as the French School. They approached a benefactress to fund the project of a Teresian foundation in Paris. They also organised permission from Rome. Two priests, Pierre de Bérulle and Jean de Brétigny, set out for Spain, accompanied by a second coach containing three French ladies who wished to become Carmelite nuns. Madame Acarie prepared a house in Paris and set about training a group of young women in a kind of pre-postulancy. The priests were determined to bring back some of the Spanish nuns to found a house in Paris, but they met with huge resistance. After a time of struggle, they finally returned to Paris with six nuns, including Anne of Jesus and a lay-sister who had been St Teresa’s constant companion, nurse and secretary: Sr Anne of St Bartholomew. Anne of Jesus became prioress of the Paris foundation in 1604. Anne of St Bartholomew became prioress of a second foundation. The French novices were quick to arrive, and foundations multiplied. Three daughters of the Acarie family joined the Carmelite nuns and, after the death of Pierre Acarie, his widow Barbe entered the Carmel at Amiens as a lay-sister. She received the name of Mary of the Incarnation. Having been the moving spirit in this whole venture, everyone instinctively looked up to her, but she was absolutely certain that it was God’s will to remain a lay-sister. She died in 1618 and was beatified in 1791 as the first sister to receive this honour after St Teresa herself.

Anne of St Bartholomew
From Paris the Carmel at Brussels was founded in 1607 by Anne of Jesus, and a few years later Anne of St Bartholomew was asked to found a monastery at Antwerp (1612), where she Ruled with a firm spirit. In one of her many letters she says that a prioress should be more a sister than a mother, since this is the way Our Lord himself behaved with his apostles. She should also let her community know that, above all, she wants love and peace to reign among them. Blessed Anne of St Bartholomew remained at Antwerp where she died in 1626 and is still lovingly remembered by the people of Antwerp, who are convinced that her prayers saved them from peril on several occasions. While Teresa’s Carmels were developing in the Netherlands, another group had set off from Brussels to Cracow in Poland (1612) at the request of the Polish Queen. At least eleven French Teresian Carmels had been founded by the time Anne of St Bartholomew died in Antwerp, and foundations continued to be made all over France. The list of foundations throughout the world, mostly deriving from Paris or Brussels, is impressive. In the countries of Latin America, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Ireland, China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Canada, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, several African countries and in many more we find Teresian Carmels.

Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi
In 1683, a year after St Teresa’s death at Alba de Tormes in Spain, the seventeen-year-old Catherina de’ Pazzi was clothed at the Carmelite Monastery of Our Lady of the Angels in Florence, taking the name of Sister Mary Magdalen. This was a Monastery of the Ancient Observance, one of those that had flourished most under John Soreth’s influence and was known for its fervour. Catherine had chosen it because the nuns had the unusual privilege of receiving Holy Communion daily. The de’ Pazzi’s were a noble Tuscan family who had become wealthy bankers. Catherine had been taught mental prayer at the age of nine and experienced her first ecstasy at the age of twelve while looking at a sunset. Her second mystical experience came at the time of her profession, and was repeated daily for forty days, at the end of which she appeared to be ill to the point of death. However, she recovered in what seemed a miraculous way. These favours gave her a deep intimacy with the Lord Jesus. But at the age of nineteen all her consolations turned to bitter desolation and temptation, accompanied by attacks of the devil. This lasted for five years, during which time she grew visibly in strength and virtue. She had a special devotion to the Holy Spirit and to the Feast of Pentecost, and she longed to suffer for Christ. This last desire was certainly fulfilled in the three years of painful illness that led to her death at the age of forty-one. She was canonised in 1669.

Maria Petyt
The writings of Teresa of Avila and of Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi were very soon edited in the Flemish language. Teresa’s companion, Gracian, died in Brussels in 1614 and Anne of Jesus and Ann of St Bartholomew founded the first Teresian Carmels in Brussels and Antwerp. So the spirit of the reformation was becoming flesh and blood in men and women who were attracted by the Carmelite way of life. The tertiary Maria Petyt (1623-1677) was one of them. She was a well-educated woman, who loved reading about the mystical life. As a so-called ‘spiritual daughter’ she went daily to the Mass in the church of the Carmelites in the city of Ghent. Her confessor was the Carmelite Michael of St Augustin, who asked her to write the story of her life. From this story we know that Maria was well guided, well-educated and blessed with special graces. She experienced a Marian presence in her spiritual life. After her death in 1677 her confessor published her letters and her biography and a beautiful treatise on the Marian life, called ‘A Maryform and Marian life in Mary and for Mary’.

Teresa of St Augustine and companions
The impressive story of the French nuns of Compiègne in eighteenth century France is well known from Poulenc’s opera Dialogue des Carmelites. During the French Revolution sixteen Carmelite nuns, with Teresa of Saint Augustin as their prioress, signed an act of martyrdom. In 1794 they were arrested, imprisoned and condemned to death for their devotion to the Sacred Heart, which was considered ‘counter-revolutionary’. As they were drawn on open cars through the city streets to the guillotine, they sang hymns of praise, and each renewed her vows before going to her death. Ten days later the Reign of Terror came to an end. They were beatified in 1906 and are commemorated on July 17.

Nineteenth and twentieth century
In the nineteenth century Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) wrote the Story of her Soul and it is beyond imagination how her story became known worldwide before the worldwide web was born. In the same century, Elizabeth Catez was born in Dijon. She became known as Elizabeth of Dijon or Elizabeth of the Trinity. She was canonised by Pope Francis in 2016. In the last century, Carmel was given a third Doctor of the Church – Thérèse of Lisieux in 1997. Edith Stein (1891-1942) walked in the footsteps of Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux by joining the Carmelite nuns of Cologne in Germany in 1934 at the age of forty-two. She is a great example of the great potential of Carmel to sanctify very different characters.

[1]     Joachim Smet: Cloistered Carmel, Edizioni Carmelitane: Rome, 1987. pp. 14-15.
[2]     Johannes Soreth: Expositio paraenetica in Regulam Carmelitarum, Ein Kommentar zur Karmelregel Übersetzt und erläutert von Leo Groothuis, Münster 2018.
[3]     Some texts of her conferences on the Carmelite Rule are published in Ascent 1965, p. 1:47-53; p.2:94-101; 1966 p.1:38-45; p.2:86-93.

Copyright © Edizioni Carmelitane