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Discalced Carmelite History
We present a brief History of the 
Discalced Carmelite Order

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The History of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns.


sfera2.gif (1015 byte) Mt. Carmel, the holy mountain
sfera2.gif (1015 byte) BIRTH OF THE ORDER
sfera2.gif (1015 byte) DEVOTION TO OUR LADY
sfera2.gif (1015 byte) THE RULE
sfera2.gif (1015 byte) MIGRATION TO THE WEST
sfera2.gif (1015 byte) THE SCAPULAR
sfera2.gif (1015 byte) CARMELITE NUNS
sfera2.gif (1015 byte) SECULAR CARMELITES
sfera2.gif (1015 byte) DECLINE AND MITIGATION
sfera2.gif (1015 byte) THE REFORM OF ST. TERESA OF AVILA

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...the beauty of Carmel... Isaiah

MOUNT CARMEL! Tall, majestic, strong and spacious, this Palestinian promontory, rising out of the edge of the blue Mediterranean, was the site of many Biblical events. It was the place of seclusion for early Christian monks who lived and prayed in its caves. It was also the scene of battle and bloodshed for marauding armies -Saracens, Turks, and even Napoleon's French troops- who climbed its heights and left their destructive mark. Both mountain and symbol, it stands as an enduring and tangible testimony that the spirit of the great realities enacted there -Judaic and Christian- will never be lost.

In Hebrew Carmel means garden and expresses not only the richness of the natural verdure which covers the mountain like a multicolored tapestry, but also the grace and excellence of the many saints who flourished and flowered on its mystical summit...


...I will bring them to my holy mountain... Isaiah

The origin of the Carmelite Order was very simple. Near the middle of the twelfth century, after the victory of the Crusaders in Palestine and the recapture of the Holy Places, a group of pious pilgrims settled on Mount Carmel to lead an eremitical life in imitation of the Prophet Elijah who, with his followers, had inhabited the rock formations of the mountain centuries before Christ. Zeal, ardor and renunciation of the honors and goods of the world characterized this great man who intensely experienced God's living Presence and fearlessly proclaimed His truth. The main elements of Elijah's life, totally dedicated to God -solitude, penance, prayer and contemplation- became the way of life for the first Carmelites. His provoking challenge to the vacillating people of Israel, "how long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow Him...," continues to sound down the years and inspire his contemporary sons and daughters to a like absoluteness in their unequivocal commitment to renounce the world and "seek the things that are above."


...Virgin Flower forever in blossom... St Simon Stock

A centuries-old documents tells us that these first fathers built a chapel in honor of Our Lady and placed themselves under her special patronage. Their life was completely oriented and consciously modeled on her own total surrender and loving union with God. From the very beginning, Carmel experienced a unique intimate relationship with Mary of a profound interior quality. She was for these medieval Carmelites- officially known as the BROTHERS OF OUR BLESSED LADY OF MOUNT CARMEL- as she is for their twentieth century heirs, mother, sister and advocate.


...pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ... Carmelite Rule

The Rule of the first Carmelites, given in 1209 by St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, is permeated with the flavor of Eastern monasticism. Biblical and evangelical, it is brief and unlegalistic. All converges towards the contemplation of God. With its insistence on continual prayer, obedience to a superior, solitude and simplicity in every phase of life, its exhortation to manual work and its prescription for silence, perpetual abstinence and fasting, this first Rule has been called a "Rule of Mysticism".


...leave your land for My sake... Genesis

After spreading throughout the Holy Land, the Order's own growth and inner vitality indicated migration to Western Europe, origin of many of the first Carmelites. This move was actually made imperative by the constant Saracen uprising in Palestine. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, established by the Crusaders, fell in 1291 and in July of that year the merciless conquerors climbed Mount Carmel, massacred the remaining monks and even destroyed their dwellings. Tradition has it that these devoted Sons of Mary went to their martyrdom chanting the SALVE REGINA. For more than three centuries the Holy Mountain suffered an eclipse in Carmelite history. It was not until 1631 that it was reclaimed by the Order.

Despite the patronage of some prestigious Europeans sponsors, including St. Louis IX, King of France, adaptation to Western culture proved very difficult. The people did not readily accept these strange hermits who lived in small isolated cottages with no financial resources -so unlike the grand, wealthy abbeys to which they were accustomed. The Order was in a crisis until a prominent English Carmelite, St. Simon Stock, in 1247 adapted the eremitical life to make it practical in the new society in which they found themselves. He accomplished this without changing the essentials or detracting from its prophetic vocation. St Simon's adaptations inaugurated a "golden age" for the Carmelites. Through the successive centuries, the Order expanded and has given the Church many mystics, saints, poets, theologians and spiritual writers.


...total sign of total consecration... Pope Pius XII

It was to St. Simon Stock, in a moment of ardent petition for the preservation of the Order, that "the most glorious Mother of God appeared... holding in her blessed hand the Scapular of Carmel..." and assured him of her predilection for those who would wear it piously.

The Brown Scapular is perhaps the most deeply rooted symbol in the Carmelite tradition. Its authenticity has been confirmed by numerous miracles throughout the centuries. In contemporary piety it is looked upon as a sure and visible sign of consecration to Mary's Immaculate Heart and an impenetrable shield assuring her maternal protection. In a way no other devotion can, it reminds the wearer of Our Lady's promise to help in a special way all those who live according to her spirit and who have confidence in her mission of Mediatrix of all grace.


...your daughters rise up at your side... Isaiah

The tradition of women who dedicate their lives to God's service by a particular commitment dates from the beginning of Christianity. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a number of pious women placed themselves under the direction of the Carmelite Friars (fathersand brothers) and, individually or in groups, began to follow the Carmelite Rule adapted to their life's situation. Frequently they were recluses living in absolute solitude and continual prayer. Other formed a kind of communal life in a loosely knit association without vows. In 1452 Blessed John Soreth, General of the Order, obtained the approval of Pope Nicholas V to organize these groups into a Second Order, thus giving them a canonical status. Blessed Frances d'Ambroise, the Duchess of Brittany, was among the first to join one of the convents she herself endowed. This was the modest beginning of the almost 13,000 who make up the 895 communities of Carmelite Nuns which dot the earth today.


...many shall say: let us climb the holy mountain... Isaiah

In addition to the Second Order, Blessed John Soreth also began the Third Order of Carmel, now known as Secular Carmelites, and wrote their first Rule. The Secular Order's profession of the vows of obedience and chastity, according to one's state of life, is a unique factor which distinguishes its members from all other secular groups affiliated with Monastic Orders. The practice of these vows has endured through the centuries even to the present. In practically every place where there is a Carmelite Monastery, and in many places where there are none, men and women in the world, attracted by this spirituality of total devotedness to God, form Communities of Secular Carmelites.


...the summit of Carmel withers... Amos

A combination of political and social conditions that prevailed in Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth century -the Hundred Years War, the Black Plague and the rise of the Renaissance and Humanist revival- adversely affected the Order. Although Carmel itself contributed a number of gifted and respected Humanists, yet, as is typical of human nature, the trend which started out as a good thing occasioned a general decline in religious fervor. This factor, coupled with the decimation of the population and severe economic hardships had a demoralizing effect. Many individual Carmelites and even whole communities succumbed to contemporary attitudes and conditions diametrically opposed to their original purpose. To meet this regrettable situation the Rule was mitigated several times. Consequently the Carmelites bore less and less resemblance to the first hermits of Mount Carmel. From time to time a notable leader attempted reform but the efforts were generally unheeded and did not perdure. But God's time came in the sixteenth century through the manifestly chosen woman of wisdom and vision who would restore Carmel to its pristine spiritual splendor, St Teresa of Jesus (of Avila, Spain)


...the Lord gave me the most explicit commands... St Teresa of Avila

A new epoch began for the Order when the vivacious and attractive Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda, twenty years old entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, Spain on November 2, 1535 "not so much for the love of God but as a means to save my soul". This practical motivation soon collapsed in face of the onslaughts of Divine Love she experienced as the outgrowth of her unswerving fidelity to prayer often against all odds! Mystical graces over brimmed her great heart with an insatiable thirst for God while a burning zeal propelled her forward in rapid ascent toward the heights of transforming union. As her quick and facile mind strove to appreciate or understand these spiritual favors, her ardent spirit found itself more and more in complete disharmony with the spiritual malaise prevailing at the Incarnation.

Among the 150 nuns living there, the observance of cloister -designed to protect and strengthen the spirit and practice of prayer- became so lax that it actually lost its very purpose. The daily invasion of visitors, many of high social and political rank, vitiated the atmosphere with frivolous concerns and vain conversations. These violations of the solitude absolutely essential to progress in genuine contemplative prayer grievously distressed St. Teresa to the extent that she longed to do something to satisfy the cravings of the magnanimous and holy desires which came to her in prayer. She was keenly aware of the needs of the Church in the wake of the divisions and conflicts resulting from the Reformation. Moreover, she had come to realize the apostolic value of prayer and penance as a means of healing the gaping wounds heresy had inflicted on Christianity. True woman of God that she was, Teresa determined to come to the aid of the bleeding Church she loved so much. At this point in her life, a missionary just returned from the West Indies made a casual observation to the nuns at the Incarnation: "There are millions of souls perishing there for lack of instruction." This set her on fire and vaulted her into action. She "tearfully besought the Lord to make my prayer of some avail since I have nothing else to give..."

While penetrating discernment she saw that the surest way to secure this efficacious, salvific prayer was to return to the Primitive Rule embodying Carmel's first ideals. With no resources except an unwavering determination to fulfill her Lord's commands, this indomitable woman set out to do that very thing. Despite almost insurmountable difficulties and often bitter opposition, she succeeded in 1562 in establishing a small monastery with the austere air of desert solitude within the heart of the city of Avila by delicately combining eremitical with community life. Her rule, which retained a distinctively Marian character, contained exacting prescriptions for a life of continual prayer, safeguarded by strict enclosure and sustained by the asceticism of solitude, manual labor, perpetual abstinence, fasting, in an atmosphere of openness and warm, fraternal charity -those same practices which brought the hermits on Mount Carmel to such eminent holiness. In addition to all this, Teresa envisioned an Order fully dedicated to poverty. She felt so strongly about this, and the virtue of poverty became so integrally related to her reform, that the Order is known as the Discalced -or shoeless- Order of Carmelites. (The term DISCALCED indicated a reformed religious order.)

St. Teresa cherished the deep conviction that the life she restored would obtain from God an outpouring of redemptive blessings on the whole world. She saw this as the height and crown of the vocation to Carmel.

St. Therese, familiarly called The Little Flower, is a contemporary affirmation of this belief. St Pope Pius X called her the greatest saint of modern times, and Pope Pius XI called her the star of his pontificate, and named her co-patron of the missions. A heap of honors for one who left the world at fifteen and died at twenty-four, without ever setting foot outside Carmel's walls!

It was St Teresa's intention to found just one reformed monastery which she placed under the patronage of St Joseph. But, at the insistence of the General of the Order, she enlarged her plan to include additional houses. They added up to seventeen before her death in 1582. Called a "gadabout woman" by one who failed to appreciate her unique work, she spent her years and energy crisscrossing the roads of Spain setting up these "dovecotes of our Lady", as she affectionately called her Camels, often with nothing more to work with than "two ducats and God..."

St Teresa had never dreamed of her Camels extending beyond Spain. However, shortly after her death the Order began to spread throughout continental Europe and this was the impetus that led to its subsequent expansion. Teresa's Discalced Order now encompasses the globe.

Besides her talents as Reformer, St Teresa was prolific with her pen and has left an invaluable legacy of books on prayer and spirituality written in her own inimitable style. She bears the distinction of having been declared the first woman DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Her statue, placed among those of prominent saints and founders in the Vatican, is captioned MOTHER OF SPIRITUALITY and countless are the "children" whom she has inspired to seek strength, peace and fruitfulness in the way of prayer she teaches: "To be on intimate terms with Him whom we know loves us."

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Updated 02 giu 2003  by OCD General House
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