The exact date of the Carmelites’ origin is much-debated within the Church. It was likely founded by St. Berthold (or Bertoldus of Calabria), a 12th century crusader from Southern France who built a chapel on Mt. Carmel in Palestine when the fighting was over. St. Berthold is said to have lived out his days in hermitage like Elijah, and it’s from that example the Carmelite Order took its cue.
The Original Rule of the Carmelites started out very strict, prescribing for its members total abstinence from meat and long bouts of solitude. The Carmelites later became a mendicant order of the church (like the hermits of Augustine, Franciscan Friars Minor, and Order of Preachers), which entails a life of communal poverty and earning a living through manual labor or begging. After the sixteenth century, the Carmelite Rule began to grow lax and Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila reformed their respective male and female divisions. These reforms split the Carmelites into two distinct branches: the Shod (old observance) and the reformed, Unshod, Carmelites. Despite their differences, Carmelites devote their time to missionary work, contemplation, and theology. Their distinctive white habits earned them the nickname “Whitefriars.”
Saint Therese of Lisieux was a Carmelite nun who dedicated her life to God at the early age of 15 in 1888. Therese lived the typical life of a Carmelite: she was a cloistered nun who spent much of her time in prayer and meditation, practicing virtue. Saint Therese strove to practice her “Little Way,” which consisted of small acts of kindness and sacrifice all in God’s name. Though she lived a quiet life cloistered away from the eyes of the world, she became famous within the Church for her dedication and willingness to lay even her smallest happiness at God’s feet. For this, she was named the youngest Doctor of the Church, one of only four women to be honored with the title, and serves as an excellent example of the Carmelite Order’s growth of virtue through austerity and poverty.
If you would like to learn more about the Carmelite Order or the Carmelite brothers and sisters mentioned above, we encourage you to check out the following books:
- The Autobiography of Saint Therese by Saint Therese of Lisieux; translated by John Beevers
- Teresa of Avila by Cathleen Medwick
- Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila; Translated and Edited by E. Allison Peers
- My Sisters the Saints by Colleen Carroll Campbell
Come back next week for another look at the orders of the Church!