Monday, October 31, 2011

The Beginning of an Ideal: Background and Formation

Ruins of Early Carmelite Church in Mount Carmel


The year 2007 marked the 800th anniversary of the Rule of Carmel given to the Carmelites by Saint Albert.  This “Rule” is a formula of life given between 1206 - 1214 to the early Latin lay hermits dwelling in the caves of Mount Carmel in Palestine.  At the request of these hermits, Saint Albert drafted for them a document which was to become the heart and soul of the Carmelite way of life. (The formula of life became an official Rule in 1247) Many generations later, the Rule of Saint Albert of Jerusalem inspired many future Saints and Blessed and set them out on a journey of faith, hope and love in their individual and collective pursuit of holiness.  In our day and age, the Rule of St. Albert still continues to speak to the hearts of many men and women who long to live a life of intimacy with God.  Its simplicity and brevity hides a spring bubbling with wisdom and practicality that a person intent on finding God can much appreciate. The spirituality of the Rule lies in its simple approach to God.  It speaks explicitly about the things of the spirit rather than impose [s] structure and rigidity.  Simplicity does not imply easy.  For in the final analysis, the Rule challenges a person to go deeper into one’s self, confront one’s demons and aspire to bring our lives in conformity with Jesus Christ.

The story of the Carmelites is a story that spans 800 years.  It is a story that began in the hearts and souls of medieval men of the early 13th century as they searched for ways to serve Jesus Christ and to follow Him in the land of his birth.  It is a life that began amidst the turmoil and spiritual restlessness of medieval Europe and took shape in the mountains of Carmel in the Holy Land. (Mount Carmel is a low range of a mountain that begins where modern Haifa is and runs south east.)  This life was given structure and approbation by the Church through its representatives at the time.  It is a story of adventure.  In a land beset with constant strife and political upheavals, the early Carmelites were forced to move from the cradle of their existence and sail back to Europe to save themselves from the attacks of the Saracens.  With this move back to their country and society of origin came changes in many ways.  (took place beginning in 1238.)

The following pages will devote themselves to tracing the journey of the Carmelites from the early periods in history to the present.  They will attempt to follow the movements of these our holy forefathers as they began their search for God.  Their journey from a life that was purely eremitical, to a life of communion with the brothers, was also a journey of participation in the full life of the Church as it plays itself out in the midst of the historical- socio-political life of medieval Europe.  It is both this eremitical and apostolic zeal that will characterize a creative tension in the Carmelite way of life.

II. The Foundation History

The Carmelite Spirituality is very much influenced by the Desert Spirituality.  We call our tradition monastic, but this word “monastic” needs to be placed in a context.  Monastic life involves monks, but the Carmelites were never monks.  The early Carmelites of Mount Carmel in the early 13th century were lay hermits.  They were men of the world who were seriously searching for God in their lives.  They were Crusaders of noble, knightly and common backgrounds, penitents, pilgrims and pious people, who left the increasingly evolving complex religious climate of medieval Europe to find the simplicity and poverty of life that the Gospels teach.  It might be beneficial to take a look at the developments of the monastic culture to better understand the forces involved in the events that landed the early hermits in the Holy Land. (They could well have been the sons of Europeans who had settled for various reasons in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.)

Saint Anthony the Abbot

In Father Patrick McMahon’s conference on the “Monastic Background of Carmel”1, he indicated two distinct phases of monastic culture.  The first is what he calls “The Pre- Benedict” phase and the other the “Benedictine” phase.  Before Saint Benedict (c. 480-543) was known to be Founder of Western Monasticism, there was a man named Anthony.  He was born in Heracleus, Egypt in 251 and died in 356.  At the age of 20, he heard a sermon in Church quoting the words of the Gospel: “If you want to be perfect, go and sell what you have, give it to the poor, then come and follow me.”  Anthony was deeply moved by these words for he was a man of possessions.  He began thinking about the life of the apostles and the early Christian community in Jerusalem after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  How they loved each other and shared everything, and read the Scriptures.  He made arrangements for his sister’s care and went off in the desert to live a life of a hermit.  He lived in silence and solitude, meditating on the law of the Lord day and night, and lived a life of poverty.  It wasn’t long after before his life drew the attention of the common people and they began to seek his spiritual counsels.  Among them were future followers who were drawn to this life of naked and radical witness to the Gospels.  This spiritual relationship of an “Abba” (Father) to his spiritual son characterizes this rapidly growing movement in the East.  The spirituality of the Desert Fathers was a spirituality immersed in the Word of God.  For a hermit, the purpose of his life is to acquire a pure heart open to the touches of God.  (Saint Athanasius wrote a Life of Anthony that spread enthusiasm for monasticism.) It is a spirituality of physical and spiritual disciplines intended to prepare him for an experience of God, not just in the life to come, but an experience of God in the here and now.  All the fasts and vigils, toils and physical sufferings, are tools to be used to subject the power of the flesh and give way to the reign of the spirit.  One thing worth mentioning is the fact that the study of Scriptures to a Desert Father means reading the Word of  God in the light of his life events.  In other words, a Desert Father is not concerned with the historical-critical approach that we employ in our modern study of Scriptures.  They were not engaged in text criticism approach and hermeneutics of our time.  The methodology of their prayers had the following components: lectio (reading) ,  Meditatio (meditation), Oratio (prayer). –(then contemplation.) The hermits read a word or passage of Scriptures, dwelt on this passage, chewed and masticated it, and engaged in a prayerful and spontaneous conversation with God.  Their day was spent in individual caves or huts, engaged in manual tasks, in silence and solitude.  One hermit might engage in a spiritual consultation with the Abba on certain days.  They ate in solitude, prayed the psalms individually.  The radical following of Christ meant not having a stable place to be but to live as Jesus said “Foxes have dens and birds their nests, but the Son of God has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58).


It wasn’t long before these hermits spread out into distant areas and formed other hermit communities.  They began to live in communion with their fellow hermits in a coenobitical lifestyle. They came together for meals in silence, praying the psalms at different times of the day, met together for community meetings to discuss observance and their spiritual welfare, but always went back to the solitude of their individual cells or huts. The life and spirituality of the Desert Fathers in the East will serve as an inspiration to the early lay hermits in Mount Carmel and will color their original vision of the Carmelite way of life.

To be Continued.....

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