Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Carmelite Order

"The Carmelite Order was born of a gesture made by a group of friends who had fought and suffered together for months, perhaps even years, in the wars to regain and defend the Holy Land. They had fought for Christ and now decided to go the whole way and devote their lives wholly to him. So they settled on the western slope of Mount Carmel, determined to live in obedience to him after the fashion of the monks of old who in the solitude of the desert sought to live the Christian life to the full in imitation of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps because none of them had had any experience of monastic life, they approached the Patriarch of Jerusalem for rules around which they could organize their lifestyle. The Patriarch at the time (1206-1214) was Albert and he lived in nearby Acre. Being himself a Canon of St. Augustine, over fifty years of age and quite experienced in the monastic life, he drew up for them a short document setting forth the characteristic features of the new lifestyle they wished to embrace. This is what has come to be called The Carmelite Rule, a document which was to become the basis and point of reference for all who subsequently joined this new religious family founded by crusader hermits early in the 13th. century.

If we might recall them very briefly, the elements of monastic tradition recalled by Albert in response to the desires of the hermits of Mount Carmel were:

1. Since they had decided to embrace the eremitical life as a group (and not as individuals) they must elect one of themselves to preside over them. The Superior elected will then govern with the agreement and collaboration of all; he will live in the cell nearest to the entrance to their settlement so as to be more easily accessible to anyone seeking to join the group; and he will be responsible for assessing candidates and making due provision for their admission to and initiation into their particular way of life. He is to regard himself as the humble servant of the rest, while they in turn are to honour and obey him as the representative of Christ in their midst.

2. Each hermit is to live in a cave or cell of his own.
3. They are to spend their time meditating on the word of God and watching in prayer, unless
4. other duties require their attention.
5. Every morning they are to come together to celebrate the Eucharist.
6. All they possess is to be held in common and distributed to each according to his age and needs.
7. At least once a week, they are to come together to discuss the observance of the main points of the Rule and what concerns the salvation of their souls. This is the time to draw attention to any fault, be it in an individual or in the community as a whole, with a view to its correction.
8. They are to be austere in their eating habits: no meat at any time, a fast from the Exaltation of the Holy Cross to Easter. It was accepted that delicate health, illness or any just cause could excuse one from the fast or abstinence, as necessity knows no law.
9. The Patriarch then goes on to exhort them to live by faith, hope and charity and never to forget that life is an ongoing battle. Their whole energy must be directed, he said, towards loving God above everything else and loving their neighbour as themselves; and they were to look to the Lord alone for their salvation.
10. Work, something essential in the whole monastic tradition,is to be an integral part of their way of life. Following the example of St. Paul, it can be a means of earning their livelihood as well as a means of avoiding idleness - the occasion of so many temptations.
11. If they are to ponder God's law day and night, then silence is indispensable. During the day they must avoid all unnecessary speech and at night - from Vespers till Terce next morning - all communication is forbidden.
12. Should anyone wish to do even more than is required here, concludes Albert, he may do so, and the Lord will reward him when he comes. Let everything be done with that moderation which is the hallmark of all true virtue.

As you can see, the little Rule is a perfect synthesis of the most important points of monastic community living, and these are expressed as explicitly as any adult fully committed to the monastic ideal would need.

This is the first historical document we have of the crucial coming into being phase of the Carmelite Order. That little group of men was to be followed by an uninterrupted chain of people, all enthused by the same ideal, all supporting one another in their pursuit of it. Each generation would conceive of this ideal in its own way, and historical circumstances would play their part too in how it found expression and in the way it was passed on down the centuries.

Two elements which very soon became characteristic of the group were not even mentioned in the Rule, but they were in evidence very early in their history: the presence of Mary, enthroned as patroness from the beginning (their first church was dedicated to her), and of the Prophet Elias, whose memory was preserved in the fountain which bore his name and in the souls of the hermits.

The Patriarch of Jerusalem's approval was followed by papal approval, that of Honorius III in 1226 and of Gregory lX in 1229, a step which marked the juridical consolidation of what was now a living firmly established reality capable of coping with any kind of difficulty.

Just as well, for soon circumstances changed and tested their resilience: Mount Carmel grew increasingly insecure as the Saracens regained their control. To the hermits one mountain or cave was as good as another, and they began to look for alternatives. Thus it was that from 1238 "Carmelite" communities began to appear in various parts of the West: Cyprus, France, England, Germany, and Italy.

This change of environment brought with it an internal evolution and, if we may so express it, a broadening of horizons for the Carmelites. Europe brought them into contact with the latest development in religious life called Mendicant Orders. They quickly adapted to the spirit and structure of this new form of Order and were officially recognised as such by Pope Innocent IV in 1247.

When the hermits had presented their request to Patriarch Albert forty years earlier, the thought of founding an Order had probably never entered their heads; all they wanted were some guidelines for just one community. Now the Bull of Innocent IV turns the revised Albertine Rule into one of the monastic rules and established the Carmelites as a Mendicant Order. That is the chief significance of Pope Innocent's approval.

We have no completely reliable text of the Rule as originally given by Albert, but it can be reconstructed accurately enough by comparing that transmitted by Ribot with Pope Innocent's text, which has come down to us intact. Those clauses originating with Pope Innocent are: perhaps the requirement to recite the Divine Office in common, according to the Church's usage; certainly those clauses referring to a table, not eating outside the monastery, the right to make foundations in places other than the desert, the specific definition of the period of night silence.

The rapidity with which the Order spread and grew gives us some idea of how well it flourished under the Rule as amended by Pope Innocent IV: in 1287 it was divided into 9 provinces, by 1318 it had 12, there were 14 in 1321, and 18 in 1362, by which time it numbered some 12,000 religious.

Those who achieved the greatest fame for sanctity were: Albert of Sicily (late 13th century), Blessed Franco of Siena (d.1291), Peter Thomas (d.1366), Andrew Corsini (d.1373), and Blessed Nuño Alvarez Pereira (d.1431). From the end of the 13th century the Carmelites also became very involved in sacred learning, reaching the high point of that involvement during the 14th century.

The various factors which contributed to the decline of the Church in the second half of the 14th century affected the Carmelites as well as the other religious Orders. First there was the Black Plague (1348-50). This so decimated communities and even entire provinces that tradition was entirely broken; when it was over, the communities were frequently built up again with people who had no vocation or were merely sent scurrying thither by the panic which the plague had caused in them; those who had a vocation could not always find someone to train them in the Carmelite way of life. The Western Schism (1378-1417) aggravated the situation: Carmelites were divided in allegiance between two popes - one in Rome, the other in Avignon. Besides, bad example in the upper echelons of the Church did nothing to improve the atmosphere in its lower reaches. To complete the picture, one must add that the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337-1435) coincided largely with the factors just mentioned. One can readily imagine what this meant in terms of fire, pillage and general disruption of that peace and stability which studies and the monastic life need in order to flourish.

If we are to understand the 15th and 16th centuries to any degree all these elements must be borne in mind. From the Council of Constance (1414-1418) to that of Trent (1545-1563) the most urgent problem facing both the Church and the religious Orders was that of Reform. The Carmelites were no exception, and they persevered until success finally crowned their efforts.

The situation in which the Order found itself at the beginning of the 15th century prompted its superiors to petition the Holy See to adapt the Rule once again. This, they felt, would serve as a basis for the renewal or restoration of the Order. The regulations concerning fast and abstinence contained in the old Rule were inhibiting the youth of the 15th century from entering the Order, and without youth there was no hope of revitalising it. Besides, they found that those already in the Order either observed these regulations and injured their health or did not observe them and then suffered from scruples. The passage in the Rule ordering the religious to meditate on the law of the Lord day and night in their cells and to be watchful in prayer also gave rise to some difficulties of interpretation, particularly when taken too literally.

For these reasons, the General Chapter held at Nantes in 1430 decreed that the pope was to be asked to clarify or mitigate these points. As a result, Pope Eugene IV granted the Bull Romani Pontificis; it was dated 15 February 1432 and promulgated in 1435.

What this Bull did, in effect, was to allow meat to be eaten three times a week and permit the friars to leave their cells at suitable times to walk in the cloisters or to spend some time in the church. Eugene IV did not amend the text of the Rule in any way; these were marginal glosses which left the text itself, as approved by Innocent IV, intact.

This latest papal approval gave fresh impetus to the work of renewal which, thanks to the lead of successive Priors General and sometimes stimulated by those grass-roots initiatives which led to the phenomenon of reformed Congregations, was already

making steady progress. These "Congregations" were features of practically all the Orders at that time. The most important to emerge within the Carmelite Order were that of Mantua (1413-1783) and that of Albi (1499-1602). What happened was that, faced with the inability to reform the Order as a whole, the superiors allowed reformed monasteries to group together, with a superior who was directly responsible to the General; that gave them sufficient freedom to proceed with their intent. It was looked upon as a temporary expedient, which would cease to be necessary as soon as the rest of the monasteries embraced the same measure of reform. Obviously, self-government would then be no longer necessary. What happened in reality, however, was that after variously lengthy periods of independence these Congregations were simply re-incorporated into the main body of the Order.

Not surprisingly, relations between the reformed Congregations and the central government of the Order were not always cordial, and this did nothing to help the effectiveness of the intended reform. Such dissension, quite understandable when a new group forms within an institution, sometimes arose from the rather excessive privileges granted to the reformed members, sometimes from the exaggerated zeal with which the reformed tried to take over further monasteries and disturbed the peace of those brethren who preferred a more leisurely pace. There were also those who joined reformed groups for their own selfish reasons rather than from a genuine desire for greater perfection; these only complicated matters still further.

The Priors General who won most acclaim for their promotion of reform within the Order were: Bl. John Soreth (general 1451-1471), Bl. John Baptist of Mantua (1513-1516), Nicholas Audet (1514-62) and, finally, John Baptist Rossi (or Rubeo, as he was known to St Teresa). He became vicar general in 1562 and was general from 1564 to 1578.

Then came the Council of Trent and its reform of religious life generally. The Carmelite Order's response to its measures renewed its ancient vigour, so that by the time of the various suppression which took place in the 18th and 19th centuries it had reached a membership of 15,000.

Ever since Pope Innocent IV combined apostolate with contemplation for them, the Carmelite ideal had never changed, though the forms in which it has found expression have had to be adapted to changing circumstances, and the brief Rule has been explained and developed in the commentaries which the various Constitutions and spiritual treatises have made upon it.

The characteristic Carmelite devotion to Our Lady and St Elias has also found a variety of expressions down the centuries, but its development has retained continuity with the past. In Mary they found the perfect personification of the union with God to which the whole of Carmel aspires: «Mary is the Carmelite ideal come to life: a life of listening to God's word, of total commitment to His service in the work of salvation». The figure of Elias, exemplar of the man of prayer, served as a model and inspiration to the whole monastic tradition from its very beginnings. Its influence on Carmelite spirituality increased steadily until it reached a point at which Elias was regarded for several centuries as the literal founder of the Order."

-- Teresian Carmel: Pages of History by Fr Idelfonso Moriones, ocd

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