Carmelite_Symbol.gif (2067 bytes)

History of the Carmelites

(If you do not wish to hear the music..just press the stop button...

Our Lady Web #4 80x280.JPG (7738 bytes)

Discalced Carmelite Perspective ...
By Br. Andrew Joseph Munoz, OCD
National Shrine of the Little Flower
San Antonio, Texas


It is right before dawn on a cold November morning. The shadows of two young people can be seen running down the streets of Avila, Spain, clutching bags of clothing. Who are they? Where are they going? As the sun rises, the tired, yet excited, faces of a young girl and boy can be seen. They stop in front of a Dominican monastery. The young boy looks at his sister, kisses her goodbye, and enters. The young girl is all alone. She slowly walks to the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation. She is being torn to pieces inside at the thought of having to leave her father, but her mind is made up: she will be a Carmelite nun. As she approaches the cloister door, she begins to pray and to question herself. Is she doing the right thing? What will her father do when he finds out? She knocks and waits. The portress finally opens the door to let her in. What was she getting into ... ?

   Teresa de Ahumada entered the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation on the morning of November 2, 1535. Everybody loved Dona Teresa. Her charm and sociable character quickly won people over. For twenty seven years, Dona Teresa lived the daily life and schedule of the convent. It was an austere schedule, but it allowed for daily outings, long chats with friends, and comfortable living. The convent of the Incarnation followed the mitigated Carmelite Rule, which meant it allowed certain relaxations in religious discipline. Teresa seemed fairly happy. Suddenly, she disappeared one day and a new Carmelite convent of the "strict observance" appeared!  No one understood what happened. Sure, she had been acting a little strange for a couple of years now, but no one thought her capable of doing this. What had made Teresa found a new Carmelite monastery? What was wrong with the convent she was in?

The Problem

   When people first hear the term "Discalced Carmelite," they usually have two questions: "What does di ... dis ... discail ... that first word mean?!" and "What is a Carmelite?" Unfortunately, many people do not know about our Carmelite Order. Thus, how can they know that the word "Discalced" is a term used to recognize a member of the reformed branch of the Order? In this article, I hope to be able to shed a little light on the subject for those who do not understand. However, to be able to fully understand where the Discalced Carmelite family is coming from, it is important to start at the beginning...

The History

The earliest recorded history we have of the Carmelite Order dates back to the thirteenth century. St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, had been asked by a group of hermits living on Mount Carmel for a rule of life. The hermits were ordinary laymen, most of whom had come to the Holy Land on Crusades, who wanted to seek God in solitude and silence. They settled on Mount Carmel because of its beauty and link to the Old Testament prophet, Elijah. Elijah was a man who sought God in solitude and championed His Name against His enemies, especially the famous Baal and his prophets. Elijah was for them a model of prayer, or standing in God's presence, and prophetic action. He became the prototype of their life. The hermits also took Mary, the Mother of Jesus, for their model. They even dedicated their chapel on Mount Carmel in her honor. So devoted were they to the Blessed Virgin that their official name became "The Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel," or Carmelites.

In 1214, St. Albert presented Brocard 1 the leader of the hermits, with the new Rule of Life. Soon afterward the hermits began their migration to Europe, mostly because of the attacks made on them by the Moors trying to capture Mount Carmel. When they entered mainstream life in Europe, they quickly discovered they were out of place, both in the world and the Church. After long and hard struggles, the hermits were officially recognized by the Church and granted mendicant status, making them friars like the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Mercedarians. However, little by little, many friars felt they were beginning to lose their identity. The original charism called them to a life a solitude, silence, and prayer. Now, they were beginning to undertake apostolic works which took them out of the monastery and brought them into the world. Many felt that their prayer life was suffering. Soon after, friar after friar began returning to the desert to lead an eremetical life. As the numbers of friars in the Order began to decline, so did their morale. The religious observance began to slacken, and soon they were just as much a part of the world as those they were trying to evangelize. However, the Carmelites were not the only ones to suffer this phenomena. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are famous for various religious reforms that tried to return the different Orders to their original spirit.

Through the years, many friars tried to reform the Carmelite Order. They wanted to return to the original spirit and way of life as lived on Mount Carmel: eremetical and prayerful. Some of the most famous early reform movements are the Mantuan reform, which began in Italy, the Callastine reform, which was begun by Bl. John Soreth, and the Touraine reform. However, the reform which really took the Order, and the Church, by storm was the Discalced reform of Dona Teresa de Ahumada, also known as St. Teresa of Jesus (of Avila).

The Explanation

Earlier we had asked the question, "What made Teresa found a new Carmelite monastery?" When Teresa entered the convent of the Incarnation, the convent was home to some two hundred women, including nuns, servants, and laywomen. Life was austere at the convent. They recited the Divine Office daily, had specific days set aside each week for fasting and abstinence, and had long periods of silence. 2  However, there was no strict enclosure for the nuns, and everyone, nuns and lay people alike, were free to come and go as they pleased, a situation which distressed Teresa very much:

"Even though there were many servants of God in the house where I was [the Convent of the Incarnation], and He [Christ] was very well served in it, the nuns because of great necessity often went out to places where they could stay - with the decorum of proper religious. Also. the rule was not kept in its prime rigor, but was observed the way it was in the whole Order ... according to the bull of mitigation. There were other disadvantages; it seemed to me that the monastery had a lot of comfort since it was a large and pleasant one. But this disadvantage of going out ... was now a serious one for me..." 3

Paradoxically, the Sisters were also never taught how to pray. St. Teresa herself says in The Book of Her Life that it was not until she had read The Third Spiritual Alphabet by Francisco de Osuna that she learned about prayer and recollection. For Teresa, the problem was not that the lifestyle in the monastery was too hard, but that it was too easy! There was a constant struggle between her attachments to the world and God. She was not capable of choosing one or the other; God had not yet given her that grace. One day, after seeing a statue of Christ "sorely wounded," 4 her conversion was complete, and she gave herself completely to her God and Spouse.

After her conversion, Teresa was in her cell (in Carmel, a religious' room is called a cell) with some other nuns, her nieces, and some friends. As they were talking, one of her nieces suggested that they all go off to start a new monastery where the Carmelite spirit could be lived according to the unmitigated (or non-relaxed) version of the Rule. Teresa took this comment extremely seriously and began to pray about it. It was not long before she was answered:

"One day after Communion, His Majesty earnestly commanded me to strive for this new monastery with all my powers, and He made great promises that it would be founded and that He would be highly served in it. He said it should be called St. Joseph and that this saint would keep watch over us at one door, and our Lady at the other, that Christ would remain with us, and that it would be a star shining with great splendor." 5

Teresa worked hard to get the new monastery approved and built. She met with the provincial 6 to receive his approval. She also met with other friends who were willing to help her with finances and other necessities. She underwent many hardships and struggles, most especially from her Sisters in the convent. They all viewed her as a traitor. Finally, all her work paid off. On August 24, 1562, the feast of St. Bartholomew, the monastery of St. Joseph was canonically erected in Avila: the birth of the Discalced reform. There were four women who were clothed with the Discalced Carmelite habit that day.

The Nuns

Teresa had a definite goal in mind when she began the reform: "All my longing was and still is that since He [Jesus Christ] has so many enemies and so few friends that these few friends be good ones. As a result I resolved to do the little that was in my power; that is, to follow the evangelical counsels [poverty, chastity, and obedience] as perfectly as I could and strive that these few persons who live here do the same. 7

A deep and lasting friendship was to be the foundation of the Teresian reform. She envisioned a monastery where the Sisters would live as a community of hermits, "meditating on the law of the Lord day and night and keeping watch in prayer," 8 living in an atmosphere of charity and humility, and helping each other to develop a friendship with God. Teresa compared her monasteries to Martha's house in the Gospel. While she constantly repeated that prayer was the foundation and primary focus of the house, Teresa also insisted that her nuns work diligently as Martha did, waiting upon the Lord and Divine Guest who came to live, dine, and recreate with them. These works of love were to be the proof of a deep life of prayer and friendship with God.

These reformed nuns were called Discalced Carmelites because they wore sandals. In Teresa's time, there were various reform movements happening within religious orders. This was a response to the Protestant Reformation occurring in Europe. All the reformed orders wore sandals as a sign of their reformation and were thus called 'Discalced,' from the Spanish descalzo, which means "barefooted." The Discalced Carmelite nuns wore habits made of cheap material (in contrast to the extravagant material used by the nuns at the Incarnation), using only what was necessary to make them. They returned to the perpetual abstinence from meat and the six month fast (from the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on Sep. 14 to Easter) which were required by the Rule. They had two hours of meditation every day, laid heavy emphasis on poverty, and kept silence throughout the day. All these monastic practices were meant to provide an atmosphere of continual prayer and penance. These in turn were meant to lead the Sisters to fraternal charity and service: love of God and neighbor - the sum of perfection. In her lifetime, Teresa founded seventeen monasteries of nuns.

The Friars

After founding the nuns, Teresa decided she needed friars to be her nuns' spiritual directors. She wanted her Sisters to have Brothers, living the same spirit as they were, who could help them along the way of perfection. Not only that, but Teresa wanted a community of contemplative friars who would also be zealous apostles and prophets, just like Elijah. She wanted them to bring the spirit of prayer and love to a world devoid of these virtues.

Teresa first met John of St. Matthias in 1567, after founding a convent in Medina del Campo. John was looking for a life of prayerful solitude and was contemplating joining the Carthusians. The Carmelite monastery where he was living was not conducive to the spirit of prayer he yearned for; there were just too many liberties. Teresa convinced John not to leave "Our Lady's Order" and to help her begin a reform among the friars. After a year and two months of waiting, John and two other friars, Antonio de Heredia and Jose de Cristo, founded the first monastery of Discalced Carmelite Friars in Duruelo on November 28, 1568. It was then that John changed his name to John of the Cross. Teresa's dream had finally come true.

The Conclusion

Writing about the Teresian reform of the Carmelite Order is not easy. St. Teresa's reform meant more than just a return to various monastic exercises, such as fasting and abstinence, periods of silence, and two hours of mental prayer every day. It meant to reawaken in the hearts of Carmelites a sole desire for God. The reform's aim was to place these pilgrims on a path which led to God, and Him alone. St. Teresa wanted to return to the original inspiration which led our eremetical forefathers to seek God among the caves of Mount Carmel. However, the path she trod to realize her dream was hard and narrow. 9 It was not easy, but she accomplished the work which the Holy Spirit had set her apart to do. 9

Towards the end of Teresa's life, the discalced religious were in constant battle with the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance (in Teresa's time, they were called the 'Calced,' or shod Carmelites, to distinguish them from the Discalced). However, the Discalced Carmelites were made a separate Order from the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance. Today, the Discalced Carmelite family, made up of nuns, friars, and secular order members (lay people who live out the Carmelite spirit in their daily lives) continue to live according to the aspirations and charism of our Holy Parents, St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross. Teresa had also bequeathed her missionary spirit to her sons. Soon after her death, discalced friars were on their way to Africa and Mexico. The Discalced Carmelite friars continue their life of prayer and apostolic work among God's people in various fields, trying to live as authentically as possible the charism and spirit bequeathed to them by Saints Teresa and John. Various religious families have also joined themselves to the Carmelite spirit and live out the charism according to their own respective observances. The Discalced reform of St. Teresa has truly impacted the world, witnessing to the power of prayer: a life of friendship with the Holy Trinity.

Notes to Article:

1.    No one really knows what the name of the hermits' leader was. In the introduction to the Rule of St. Albert, only the letter 'B' is given in place of his name. Tradition accords 'Brocard' as his name.
2.   See The Book of Her Life - Introduction, pg. 19 (Kavanaugh-Rodriguez)
3.   See The Book of Her Life, ch. 32, n. 9 (Kavanaugh-Rodriguez)
4.   See The Book of Her Life, ch. 9, n. 1 (Kavanaugh-Rodriguez)
5.   See The Book of Her Life, ch. 32, n. 11 (Kavanaugh-Rodriguez)
6.    In the Carmelite Order, monasteries in a certain geographic region group together and form a province. They are all usually  founded from each other. For example, the Southwest Province of St. Therese (also known as the Oklahoma Province) is made up of the  monasteries in San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Little Rock, New Orleans, and Dallas. The Provincial is the friar in charge of the entire province. The provincial during St. Teresa's time was Fray Angel de Salazar.
7.   See Way of Perfection, ch. 1, n. 2 (Kavanaugh-Rodriguez)
8.   See The 'Primitive'Rule of The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, n.
9.   Allusion to Acts 13:2,

More About the Carmelite Order


The Carmelite Order developed from a single community of hermits, whom we first hear of living "after the example of that holy man and solitary the prophet Elijah" (as a contemporary writer tells us) on Mount Carmel in Palestine in the early days of the 13th century. They were Latin (i.e., Western European) Christians, and about the year 1210 they were given a rule of life by St. Albert, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. Their chapel, and therefore, according to the feudal mentality of that age, their whole institute, was dedicated to the Blessed Mother. Carmelites have always regarded themselves, then, as children, in a very special way, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and also of Elijah, whom the Bible associates so closely with Mount Carmel (cf. 1 Kings 18).

From about 1238 hermits from Mount Carmel began establishing communities in various parts of Europe, and in 1247 their rule of life, now solemnly confirmed by the Holy See, was adapted to meet the needs of an Order spreading throughout Christendom. In the course of the second half of the 13th century, circumstances conspired to lead the Carmelites ever further from their hermit origins, and they finally became a mendicant Order, modeling themselves in many ways on the Dominicans, though the old hermit way of life was not forgotten and never completely died out; indeed, it was ever present to them in their rule.

In 1562, however, a Spanish Carmelite nun, known to us as St. Teresa of Avila, later assisted by another great Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, established what was to become a completely new branch of the Carmelite Order, the Discalced Carmelites. ("Discalced" comes from a Latin word meaning "unshod," and they were so called because the most distinctive thing about their appearance was the fact that, in token of their more austere way of life, they wore the rope sandals of the poor in place of leather shoes.) The Discalced Carmelites, both nuns and friars, aimed at a more retired and contemplative form of life, in keeping with the spirit of the original 13th-century rule.

Thus it is that today there are two branches of the Carmelite family: the Ancient Observance (O.Carm.) and the Discalced (O.C.D.). Each branch has its own Secular Order.

The above history was taken from a brochure distributed since 1977 by Fr. Bonaventure Galvin, OCD.  Fr. Bonaventure was the Delegate General of the Western Province of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites.  He was replaced by Fr. Michael Buckley, O.C.D. due to a serious health problem and has since gone home to our Lord.

And More About the Carmelite Order


At the time of the Crusades in the Holy Land, men came to desire to follow Christ in his homeland by living lives of prayerful solitude and service. One such group settled on Mount Carmel, a place filled with the spirit of the prophet Elijah. Sometime between 1206 and 1214, St. , Albert, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, set down a way of life for these hermits in the form of a rule for following Christ and serving him faithfully with a pure heart and a good conscience. This rule of St. Albert still guides the Carmelites today.

    Wherever there was a spiritual need, the Carmelites reached out in a unique fashion as contemplatives in action.  They engaged in preaching, teaching, and spiritual direction. Others served as missionaries, as university teachers, or in pastoral care. Some became famous for their holiness and service: St. Albert of Sicily was a noted preacher; Blessed Nuno Alvares was a great leader and is honored as the George Washington of Portugal; St. Andrew Corsini was a renowned peacemaker between warring city-states; St. Peter Thomas founded a great university; Blessed Baptist of Mantua was a brilliant humanist writer; St. John of the Cross and St. -Teresa of Avila, were great mystical doctors and masters of the spiritual life; St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, became Patroness of the Missions. (Today the canonization Process of Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite martyred in Dachau for defending the freedom of the press against the Nazis, is under way.)

    The life and work of Carmel continues to flourish after almost eight centuries. Like his medieval counterparts, the Carmelite today is a contemplative in action, caring for and serving his fellow Christians. Carmelites seek to walk in the light of Christ and to help those whom god sends into their lives to see that same light.

To follow Jesus Christ as Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, called together by the Holy Spirit,
to live as Elijah in the presence of God, to serve the needs of the Church and each other in love.
This is the life purpose of the Carmelite.

 SOCIETY OF THE LITTLE FLOWER   Sm Rose.gif (186 bytes)

And Even More About the Carmelite Order


Like the Franciscans, the Carmelites were part of the thirteenth century mendicant movement of the West. Also, like the Franciscans, they had strong eremitical origins.

It seems that during the Crusades, pilgrims flocked to the Holy Land. After fulfilling their vow of pilgrimage, many took up the hermit life at a particular holy place. These places became centers for loose-knit eremitical colonies. Such places included the mountains and desert of temptation around Jericho, the Mount of Transfiguration toward Galilee, and the range of Mt. Carmel by the Mediterranean Sea. After the victory of Saladin at Hattin in 1187, the only area left to the Christians was Acre and some areas along the Mediterranean coast. Thus, Mt. Carmel became the only remaining eremitical colony in the Holy Land. It was during this period that the formal beginnings of the Carmelites is to be found.

After years of living as an informal colony of hermits, the Carmelites decided they wanted a more formal organization. One of their members, Brocard, began exercising a sort of leadership role among them. In time they approached the papal legate and patriarch of Jerusalem, Albert of Vercelli (1149-1214), who resided at Acre, to set down a formal way of life for them. Sometime between 1200 and 1214, he wrote a rule for the hermits of Mt. Carmel.

This rule stands as the only purely eremitical rule in the Christian West and is thus highly important All other eremitical communities came to profess an existing rule, and then follow their own eremitical constitutions or statutes. Only the hermits of Mt. Carmel obtained their own eremitical rule as something intentional and unique in the church. This cannot be overemphasized '

From this rule and other sources we can learn much about their life, for the rule sought not to set down a new life, but to describe, formalize, and approve the lives they were already living. We know they lived according to the classical laura or skete pattern of the desert fathers of the East. Each hermit had his own cell apart from the rest, yet there was a common oratory or church in which they came together for daily Mass. It is not clear whether they prayed the divine office in common. However, they did pray the hours and meditated on the scriptures daily in private. Jacques Devitry (c. 1170-1240), bishop of Acre and commentator on many religious communities of his time, says of them: "Others in imitation of the holy anchorite and prophet Elijah, led solitary lives on Mt. Carmel ... where in little comb-like cells, those bees of the Lord laid up sweet spiritual honey."

The hermits' connection to the tradition of the prophet Elijah is not at all insignificant. Mt. Carmel had been connected to the prophet Elijah by all pilgrims with whom he sojourned there during his life. The recognized father of monasticism and eremitism, St. Antony, viewed the prophet Elijah as the model for all Christian ascetics. Jerome contrasts the apostolic model of the bishops and priests of the church with the prophetic model of hermits and monks: "We, however, have proposed for emulation our Pauls, Anthonys, Julians, Maconos, and if I may have recourse to the authority of Holy Writ our leader Elijah, or Elisha, our sons of the prophets who dwell in the fields and solitary places and pitched their tents by the waters of the Jordon."

Perhaps with this in mind the Carmelites adopted a habit of rough, undyed wool, consisting of a tunic, a scapular, and a hood. As a cincture they used a leather belt in imitation of Elijah and John the Baptist. They also wore a distinctive mantle of white with brown stripes. This is seen frequently in Middle Age paintings of hermits in the desert.

The hermits on Mt. Carmel received papal confirmation of their eremitical rule in 1226, the year of St. Francis's death. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 had forbidden approval of any more new rules, but both Francis and the Carmelites had obtained verbal approval for their rules prior to the council.

Apparently owing to harassment by the Moslems, the hermits of Mt. Carmel were forced to leave the Holy Land and migrate West in the late 1230's and early 1240's. We can assume they did not leave their beloved Mt. Carmel without much hesitation Even though they were given support for this move by Innocent IV (120054) in 1247, they were not initially well received in Europe. It seems that in an age when the apostolic zeal of the mendicants was sweeping across Europe, people simply did not understand the presence of a new order of contemplative hermits. They were neither monks not mendicants. Nor did they belong to an established group of hermits. Despite their approval by the church, many doubted both their authenticity and their orthodoxy. Something had to be done if they where to survive.

It was in light of this dilemma that the Carmelites shifted from the strictly eremitical to the mendicant model. Following the example of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the Carmelites sought and obtained papal approval to adapt their eremitical rule to the apostolic life of mendicant poverty and itinerant preaching.

This was not easy, but it was not impossible. The Carmelite rule already encouraged an apostolic poverty that forbid the hermitage to possess "places or possessions, that is, houses or revenues." Thus, the common monastic practice of possessing much income-producing land and property was forbidden by their rule. In this the Carmelites were already very close to the strict poverty of the mendicant orders.

Furthermore, there were great debates within the community concerning this essential change in their lives. Were they hermits or friars? Were they to pray or to preach? Were they to live in isolated hermitages or in the midst of the city? These were all questions that faced this migrant community as it sought to survive in the West. It was in response to these questions that the book, The Fiery Arrow, was published to call the Carmelites back to their contemplative and eremitical origins.

After much struggle and time the Carmelites took their place within the mendicant orders of the West. Along with the Franciscans and the Dominicans, they began a life of apostolic poverty and itinerant preaching that took them from their beloved eremitical life into the bustling activity of the cities. However, even there the Carmelites held on to their hermit origins and maintained a strong contemplative tradition through the centuries. St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82) in the sixteenth century are examples of the many men and women who have propagated this contemplative core to their apostolic works. In this reform they shared much in common with the reform of the fiery Franciscan, Peter of Alcantara (1499-1562), St. Teresa's spiritual director.

Through it all the Carmelites continued to profess a rule, or way of life, that was intentionally eremitical. They adapted and mitigated it, but its eremitical core remained. In our own time as Carmelites follow the admonition of Vatican 11 to return to their origins, they join all of us who are presently discovering our eremitical and contemplative roots. Along with us all, especially those of us who draw strongly from the mendicant explosion of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they join us as we try to bring the hermitage of the past into the present and as we build for the contemplative church of the future.

Carmelite eremitism integrates the written formality of an approved rule of the church with the loose-knit informality of the Oriental, eremitical colony. It integrates the East and the West, the hermit and the mendicant, and the contemplative and the apostolic worker. In this the Carmelites speak with a profound voice in the whole eremitical movement of our time.          John Michael Talbot

   [ St. Therese of Lisieux the "Little Flower"    I   St. Teresa of Avila  I  St. John of the Cross ]
[ Sr. Francoise-Therese, V.H.M. Edith Stein--St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross ]  
[ Secular Carmelite Information  I  The Carmelite Order The Brown Scapular  ] 
[ Our Inspirational Page  I  Pope John Paul II  I  Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity
[ Elijah Prophet of God  I  Sr. Lucia, the Last Visionary of Fatima ]
The Martyrs of Compiegne   I   About Helen Carlin, OCDS   ]
[   St. Teresa of the Andes   I   Home Page

© Copyright 1998-
2014 Help Fellowship, Inc.