Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Beginning of an Ideal: Background & Formation (Part 3)

Early Carmelites receiving their Formula of Life from St. Albert


As was mentioned above, the 12th century was a time of great spiritual revival as a reaction to the settled monastic life of the time.  The changes that were unfolding in society, cultural, political, educational and religious spheres were creating a deep vacuum in the lives of the people.  Spiritual fervor has increased and was being manifested in the formation of different Christian lay movements.  The life of the Apostles (Vita Apostolica) as described in the Gospels [Book of Acts] became the ideal and the standard of true following of Jesus.  The ideals of poverty, identification with the poor in society, itinerant lifestyle, and fraternal life with the brothers and complete abandonment to Divine Providence, were the hallmarks of the mendicant movement.  This century also saw the rise of lay hermits. They lived lives of penitence and solitary prayer.  They did not always renounce their properties. They were not bound by any official Rule of Benedict, Augustine or Basil.  They placed themselves under the guidance of a priest or bishop.  They were sometimes known as “solitary wanderers” because some of them took vows of visiting holy places.  The Holy Land was foremost among these places.  This vow of undertaking pilgrimages had a canonical status of stability.  They made the pilgrimage with the intention of remaining in the place permanently.  The hermits on Mount Carmel were a group of lay hermits who had come from Western Europe on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, probably bound by a vow to stay there permanently. 5  [Perhaps they were also sons of settlers in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.] They gathered themselves around a certain “B” as a small community of penitents.  Jacques de Vitry, an eye witness, gives this description: “From various parts of the world, and, according to their various affections and wishes and their religious fervor, chose places to dwell in suitable to their object and devotion... Some in imitation of the holy anchorite the prophet Elijah, led solitary lives on Mount Carmel, especially on that part thereof which overhangs the city of Prophyria (the present day Accon) and Haifa, near the well called Elijah’s Well, not far from the convent of St. Margaret... They lived in solitude, where in little comb-like cells, these bees of the Lord laid up sweet spiritual honey.” 6

Between the years 1206 - 1214, these hermits approached Albert of Jerusalem, Patriarch of the Jerusalem Church, for a “formula of life” (formula vitae).  Different historians of the Order will say that the hermits' move to seek out Albert of Jerusalem was not a move to acquire a “Rule” in the tradition of Benedict or Augustine.  This move of the hermits is seen as an initiative on their part to obtain approbation to a lifestyle that they already were living. This was hinted in the statement: “It is to me, however, that you have come for a rule of life in keeping with your avowed purpose, a rule you may hold fast to henceforward.”7 St. Albert, in drafting this “rule” was emphatic in situating it in the eremitical tradition of the Desert Fathers, but also placed a heavy stress on community life.  The eremitical spirituality clearly shows in the language of the text:  emphasis on each brother having a separate cell (Chapter III), staying in one’s cell meditating on the law of the Lord day and night (Chapter VII), fasting (Chapter XII), life of man on earth being a time of trial and persecution, spiritual warfare with the devil, in which one is preserved by holy meditations, a life of faith and chastity (Chapter XIV), manual work (chapter XV) and the practice of silence and solitude (Chapter XVI).  The formula of life drafted by St. Albert curiously structured a community life contrasting the Desert Fathers in Chapters I - XIII.  Election of a Prior by a common consent or greater majority (I), community consultations with the brothers pertaining community matters (II , III & V),  meals in common (Chapter IV), common prayer (Chapter X), common ownership IX).  Here we can see that Albert was already infusing elements of the mendicant lifestyle.  This is easy to understand if we remember that St. Albert also was commissioned by Pope Innocent III to draft a rule for the Humiliati, another mendicant group,[semi-mendicant perhaps]  in Europe. It is also worth remembering that the rule of life he wrote for the Humiliati was heavily based on the Benedictine Rule.  Nevertheless, we can see how St. Albert retained the eremitical spirituality as the early hermits in Mount Carmel lived it but gave a new perspective and structure on community life.

Carmelites in Europe

Around 1238 groups of Carmelites started leaving Mount Carmel to return to Europe.  The political life in the Holy Land gradually became hostile with the invasion by the Saracens.  Most of the hermits in Mount Carmel gradually returned to their country of origin in Western Europe.  But the Europe they left behind did not stand still.  There was now the new spiritual climate of the “Vita Apostolica” which gave rise to the mendicant movements.  The Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians were in the center stage of this spiritual movement.  The Carmelites, with their “desert ways” and different traditions, were out of place in this new world of evangelization and ministerial life.  Although St. Albert gave them a formula of life somewhat comparable to the mendicants, the early Carmelites only had this in principle and not in practice.  The urban culture and change in the social-religious needs made the mendicant groups very popular with the people.  The Carmelites fell into the prevailing mendicant movement.  This unavoidable confrontation with the Europe of that time created internal conflicts among the brothers.  The heavy stress on fraternal brotherhood and itinerant lifestyle of the mendicants threatened the individuality and solitude of the hermit. 

Changes in the Rule of St. Albert

 A General Chapter held at Aylesford, England, sent two representatives to the Holy See to seek revisions in their formula of life.  The work of revision was entrusted to two former Dominicans, Cardinal Hugh of St. Cher and William of Reading, bishop of Tortosa. 8 The selection of these two former Dominicans and other unknown factors determined that the Carmelites would develop constitutions very similar to those of the Dominicans.  On 1 October 1247, Innocent IV approved the revised formula of life, which, with his approval became a formal rule (regula). 9 

The changes in the text of the formula of life set the Carmelites full sail into the mendicant identity.  Some of the changes made were: permission to have foundations in solitary places or where they are given a site that is suitable and convenient for the purpose of the Order, permission to eat meat, the recitation of the canonical hours, property in common, common ownership and adding the vows of chastity and poverty.   These changes in lifestyle of the Carmelites created internal conflicts among the brothers.  With a very strong eremitical orientation, the move to the city and full participation in the evangelical exercise of ministry of the Church among the masses, created tensions within the Order.  The original identity of solitary search for God in silence and solitude would constantly assert itself amidst the apostolic demands of ministry.  These seemingly polarizing orientations would occasion many internal debates and reforms in the Order in the succeeding years.


The Carmelite Order is a product of socio-political-religious changes originating from the early Middle Ages. (And a product of God’s grace!) It began as an ideal of holiness among simple individuals.  They followed the Lord in the simplicity of the Gospel teachings and ended up with a total commitment to follow him in the land made holy by his earthly presence.  In allegiance to Jesus Christ, in holy meditations, silence and solitude of Mount Carmel, they sought him.  But because “we do not have here below a permanent dwelling place (St. Peter) these holy hermits had to finish their journey in the land they first started in- Europe. [See comments above]  As part of the Church still on a “journey towards the new Jerusalem” these hermits participated in full in the life of the Church in the 13th century, with all its upheavals and spiritual renewals.  Theirs was a call to respond to the signs of the times as they were played out in Medieval Europe.  Theirs was a call to adaptability, a seeming giving up of an established collective identity for something different and new.  Theirs is a Rule that has the power to create something new out of the old.  Theirs is the blend of the active life and contemplative life that creates a perpetual tension capable of giving birth to something mystical.

1 Monastic Background of Carmel, Audio Cassette ,Pentecost 1999, Fr. Patrick McMahon, O.Carm.
            2 Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 2, Hugh Edmund Ford, “Saint Benedict of Nursia”
            3 Dialogues,  Saint Gregory, II
4 Classic Encyclopedia, 11th Edition Encyclopedia Britannica, “Mendicant Movement and Orders”
5 Carmelite Rule, trans. Theodulf Vrakking and Joachim Smet, Almelo (Netherlands): 1979
6 Historia Orientalis, F 85, cc.51/The History of Jerusalem; fr. Aubrey Stewart, London, 1896, p. 26 -27)
            7 The Rule of Saint Albert, Prologue,  Fr. Bede Edwards, 1973
            8 “An Essay” 91, Keith Egan
9  “The Spirituality of Carmelites” Keith Egan , page 52, Jill Raitt, Christian Spirituality, Volume 2. New           York: Crossroad, 1988

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