Some Background On The Carmelite Order

"Our mission as Carmelites is to form evangelical workers who will save thousands of souls."

The Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles

Since our beloved St. Therese was in the Carmelite order, I would like to explore the background and spirituality of this order.

The name Carmelite comes from "Carmel," which is a mountain in northwestern Israel. In the Old Testament, this was where Elijah sometimes went for solitude, and also where he had his encounter with the priests of Baal (see 1Kings 18). Since those earliest times, this mountain has been called the garden of Palestine and symbol of fertility and beauty -- we sometimes hear the term "the springs of Carmel." In the 12th century, hermits gathered there, beside the well of Elijah, to pray quietly and follow Christ together. They asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem to write a "rule of life" for them, and this is called the Rule of St. Albert. Much of the early history is uncertain, but the order grew, especially in the 14th and 15th centuries.

A ”charism” is a talent or gift from God; most orders have a charism that is the main focus of that order. The Carmelite charism has several elements, but the main one is contemplation. Contemplation is quiet, meditative prayer.

Through contemplation, a Carmelite is called to prayer and union with God. Many Carmelites’ monasteries are cloistered, and the members seek to minimize the distractions of the outside world, but at the same time they lift up the needs of the world in their prayer. Some Carmelites (both priests and nuns) serve as teachers of prayer and as spiritual directors, and can serve in “outside” assignments such as parishes and hospitals.

St. Teresa of Avila

Over the long life of the order, there have been some bumps in the road, and reforms were made. The most notable was carried out by St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. In the sixteenth century they formed the "Discalced Carmelites," which focused on a renewed asceticism, meaning a way of simple living (discalced literally means “shoeless”). Thus, even today there are two orders: a Discalced Carmelite has the letters O.C.D. after the name, whereas the letters O. Carm. refer to a member of the older Carmelite tradition (sometimes called "Calced" or "Carmelites of the Ancient Observance"). St. Therese was a Discalced Carmelite.

St. Therese, wearing the Carmelite habit of a professed sister.

Each of those groups also has a “third order” of Carmelites, which is for laypersons who are drawn to the Carmelite spirituality, but do not take vows. They can be married or single, and after a period of instruction, they can be officially received as "tertiaries" or Third Order Carmelites. These members usually live as normal co-workers or neighbors of yours. But unmarried tertiaries sometimes live together in communities or have special apostolates such as a house of charity for the needy or infirm.

The Brown Scapular

An important part of the Carmelite habit (garment) is the brown scapular, also called the scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. This large cloth goes over the shoulders of a Carmelite (the word “scapular” means shoulder) and it is a sign of their special relationship with Mary. The smaller version of the scapular is simply two small rectangular pieces of brown cloth -- one hanging over the chest and the other over the back -- that are connected by two straps or strings which hang over each shoulder. This smaller scapular is a common sacramental that can be worn by anyone, although it is best to be invested or "enrolled" by a Catholic priest.

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