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Religious Life

Carmelites rooted in ancient hermit tradition

When Anthony of Egypt took to the desert in the late third century, he initiated a major movement of men and women fleeing to the desert to live in ascetic isolation and contemplation. Although Christian hermits certainly existed before Anthony, his story is one of the church’s earliest written records of those Christians who rejected urban life to seek God.

The Carmelite order is one of many to inherit Anthony’s legacy. The Carmelites began some time between 1206 and 1214 when a group of Crusaders put down their swords to devote themselves to prayer and solitude. They used a Rule written by St. Albert of Jerusalem and modeled themselves after Elijah the hermit and prophet. Living in caves on Israel’s Mount Carmel, they spent most of their time in solitary contemplation.

Warfare caused the hermits to leave Israel, and by 1238 the Carmelites founded houses in Sicily, England, Cyprus and France. As they moved to more populated areas, they developed a more communal lifestyle and also undertook apostolic works, such as teaching and preaching. Most modern Carmelites now follow a communal, or cenobitic, lifestyle. Some groups, like the Spiritual Life Institute, seek an eremitic, or hermit-like life.

Groups of women followed the Carmelite tradition as early as the 13th century. John Soreth founded the first official female branch of the order in 1452.

The strict Carmelite rule was difficult, and Pope Eugene IV approved an easing or “mitigation” of it in 1432. In the 16th century, St. Teresa of Avila sought a return to the older model. She was supported by St. John of the Cross. Dissension sprang up between those following the mitigated and unmitigated rules, and in [1580] Pope Gregory XIII separated them into two orders, the Calced, or Ancient observance (O.Carm.), and the Discalced (O.C.D.). St. Teresa’s followers called themselves “discalced,” meaning “without shoes” since they wore only homemade sandals.

Another seminal Carmelite figure was St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “The Little Flower” who Pope John Paul II named a doctor of the church for her “little way’ of spirituality.

-- Melissa Jones

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003 [corrected 03/14/2003]