The Carmelite Order

The Carmelite Order has its origins on Mount Carmel in Israel. Today the Order is found on all five continents and its apostolate is as diverse as that of the Church itself. An outstanding characteristic of the Order down through the centuries has been its readiness to accommodate itself to the needs of the People of God.

Today the Order numbers two and a half thousand (this does not include enclosed sisters and members of the extended Carmelite family) and many of them are found in the frontline of the Church’s work both in Ireland and in other parts of the world.

Glancing at a map of the world one finds the Order engaged in preaching the Good News in several European countries, in Zimbabwe and Zaire in Africa, in North America and Canada, in Columbia, Peru, Chile and Brazil in South America, as well as in the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia.

You can meet an Irish Carmelite giving a retreat or conference; he may be teaching in a school or university or seminary; some are engaged in general pastoral work, involved with young and old people; others are caring for the sick and needy in Dublin’s hospitals. In recent years due to the creation of new parishes the Order has taken over parish work in the city and in the country. Wherever you find him, he is being given every chance to use whatever talents God has given him in the service of others.

The well-known theologian, Karl Rahner, speaking about the central role of the priest today said: “For must not some of us say something about God, about eternal life, about the majesty of grace in our sanctified being; must not some of us speak of sin, the judgement and mercy of God.”

The Second Vatican Council stressed the need for a renewal of religious life and asked each Order to re-examine its role of serving others and renewing itself for the apostolate in the modern world. Orders were encouraged to look to their origins in order to discover their original inspiration and in that way to continue to contribute faithfully and loyally to the work of Christ.

History of the Order
Unlike 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 on Mount Carmel in Palestine or modern Israel. They followed a common Rule which was written for hermits living the kind of eremitical life common in Palestine in the thirteenth century. These hermits on Mount Carmel can be seen as a group of pilgrims who came to the Holy Land and 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. Archaeologists in 1968 uncovered some remains. The hermits themselves seem to have lived in caves in the hills. About the year 1210, they approached Albert, 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 Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, or Carmelites. The Carmelite Rule, though written between 1206 and 1214, is still very much in tune with the spirituality of the time. It begins and ends with Christ.

These first hermits were noted for their spiritual attachment to the prophet Elijah and to the Mother of the Lord. The motto of the Order is from the words of Elijah: “I am filled with zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts” (1Kings 19:10). 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).
Following the era of the Crusades, the Saracen Invaders began menacing the Christians. Being forced to flee their homes and place of prayer, to avoid possible massacre, the Carmelites agreed that any brother who wished to leave Mount Carmel and live the Rule in other countries should be allowed to do so. Some on leaving the Holy Land founded monasteries in Cyprus and Sicily about 1237. Around the same time monasteries were also founded in Pisa, Florence and Siena. Others went to France (Marseilles and Paris) 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. In Europe they adopted the mendicant way of life like the Dominicans and Franciscans.

The Prophet Elijah
Elijah - with a display of remarkable courage and zeal - showed himself to be a true servant of the Lord. Elijah, the man of God, the zealous servant, has left his mark on salvation history. He is venerated by Christians, Jews and Moslems.

If Elijah has left his mark on salvation history, he has left it on the Carmelite Order. From its origin on Mount Carmel at the dawn of the thirteenth century the Order of Carmel has venerated Elijah as its model. The prophet of Carmel belongs to the roots of the Order.

What do we know about Elijah? He is a prophet, he speaks in the name of the Lord, he offers sacrifice to him on Carmel. His name means “my God is Yahweh.” He is a Tishbite from Gilead, a territory of the Jordan and west of Ammon (see 1Kings, Chapters 17 to 21, and 2Kings, Chapter 2).

St Albert of Jerusalem
We have solid historical grounds when speaking of the man who compiled the Rule. He is well-known from different sources and had a distinguished career both in Italy and the Holy Land. He was born in Parma, became a Canon Regular in Mortara, was successively Bishop of Bobbio and Vercelli and was frequently sent on delicate diplomatic missions by the Popes. He was described as “a man outstanding for his life, learning and reputation.” In 1205 he was chosen to be Patriarch of Jerusalem. The Pope ratified the choice “even though he is very necessary to us in Lombardy as one to whom we safely entrust difficult affairs.” He arrived in the Holy Land in 1206 and took up residence in Acre as Jerusalem was occupied by the Saracens. He continued in the Middle East the excellent spiritual and administrative work for which he was already distinguished. He was invited to attend the Fourth Lateran Council, but on September 14, 1214, he was assassinated by an unworthy Crusader whom he had reprimanded for his unchristian manner of living. Some time during his term of office he wrote a Rule for the group of hermits on Mount Carmel.

Working in the Community
Our religious life is a choice to share life in community so that our vocation may be strengthened and our ministry more effective. Community is not an antidote to loneliness, nor a substitute for family life. It is a commitment to live with people of our own Order in such a way that our options for prayer and for service are evident - and so we pray together, liturgically and otherwise, and we work in co-operation with each other.

Community is a strong attractive force for religious life today, but it is sometimes misunderstood. Each of us has a strong drive for intimacy, for friendship and for love. People who find this lacking in their lives can think of joining religious, and then find that their needs are not met. The community of religious life is only fulfilled in a community of giving. We live together so that we can give more to God’s people; we live together not only because of our relationships with each other but because of our common relationship with God. Our community is the achievement of a common meaning to our lives, based on the shared experience of our calling by God in Christ. Thus we try to be people whose calling in life is to share in the self-sacrificing love of the crucified Christ.

Religious commit themselves to live a life of giving to each other in their communities, but not to the extent that they are committed to the same people for life. We live in community because together we opt for service and for prayer, in a life centred on the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. While the purpose of living in community is always for the service of others and in the spirit of Christ, the actual life together is a source of great warmth, support, encouragement and prayer. It is also the source of many lifelong friendships with one’s fellow-religious, with their families and with the people we work with.

As brothers and sisters in a family don’t select each other, but come together through birth, neither do we select our religious companions. They are sent by God, and in our Order people change community as they are appointed to new works. Our commitment is not only to the people in the house in which we live but to the people of the Order wherever we find ourselves living. We live in community to share the vision of our life together, and to give and receive the support and friendship that everyone needs to grow in Christ and as a human being. The best picture for religious community of this type is the community of the apostles with Christ. He is their centre, he is the reason they are together. His mission is the centre of their lives and his friendship is what really unites them in the end.

Jesus commands us to “Love one another as I have loved you” and St John writes, “Anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him” (1John 4:10). Jesus’ ministry is a ministry of love. Throughout the world the Order is found in many different apostolates such as primary, secondary and third level education, parish ministry, hospital ministry, to name a few. The social well-being of people is of great concern to us. In all our houses we take every opportunity to care for this need through hospitality, organising clubs, pastoral visitation and arranging course and seminars.

Proclaiming the Word
Our preaching would not be complete unless it relates the Gospel to people’s lives. As Jesus spoke to the people of his day, we also try to make his message relevant to the people of ours. Before we speak we must listen to others. In this way our spoken word whether from the altar, in the classroom, in the hospital, during consultations, in visitation, becomes a living word to touch their lives.

The love of Christ is found in a special way through the celebration of the sacraments. In their celebration the priest fulfills a most important role. Thus in the sacraments of forgiveness the priest has a great opportunity to restore people’s peace and happiness and help them feel close to God. The sense of family and the joy at Baptisms, First Holy Communions, Confirmations, Marriages is a rewarding and uplifting experience. Administering the Sacraments of the Sick to people who are ill or housebound is a privilege. It always gives strength and grace. It is a sacrament of hope.

Prayer is a the heart of the Carmelite Rule, prayer which is described as conversation with God, allowing the Word to penetrate mind and heart. As the Rule itself says “meditating on the law of the Lord day and night.” As Carmelites we would be untrue to our vocation if we did not endeavour to undertake the most important task of teaching people how to pray. In the end, of course, it is the Spirit who teaches people to pray. However, the Spirit needs agents, those who encourage, who point the way, who are willing to share their journey in prayer. Many people start off praying with great enthusiasm but when they begin to flounder and to experience difficulties they need understanding, help and stimulation from one who has gone the same way. There is nothing more satisfying than teaching people to pray. Opportunities for this teaching arise during retreats, novenas, triduums, missions, special devotions and so forth.

Since the Carmelites came to Ireland in the thirteenth century members of the Order have been working to help the poor and the underprivileged especially in Dublin’s inner city. The Social Services Centre in Whitefriar Street caters for many of the essential needs by providing meals, recreation facilities, showers and washing amenities and organised social outings. This goes some of the way towards alleviating the problems of the unemployed and the needy. We reach out to the sick, the handicapped and the housebound through chaplaincies in hospitals and pastoral visits.

No Religious Order can ignore the emphasis laid on the position and talent of the laity in the work of the Church, because they are the Church. This must not be restricted to liturgy but must include a deep integration in the pastoral life of every community. The promotion of other valid parish activities like pilgrimages, penitential services, even to the training of a football team build community. All these can be done for the glory of God in the following of Christ.