In the last years of the twelfth century a number of Latin rite pilgrims and crusaders chose to love a life of prayer and solitude on Mount Carmel, in the Holy Land. Mount Carmel was a sacred mountain because it was the location of the acts of Elijah. The first hermits looked to the withdrawal into the desert of the prophet Elijah as their ideal of life. The desert is a rugged place of awesome simplicity, solitude and beauty. It is the right place for an encounter with God. Elijah stood before the living God on behalf of his people. The words of Elijah, "I am burning with zeal for the honour of the Lord God of Hosts" were later inscribed on the Carmelite crest.
In time these hermits joined together in a loose form of community life. Between 1206 and 1214 they were given a rule of life by St Albert, who as Patriarch of Jerusalem was their bishop. The rule short and simple. Deeply scriptural and centred on Christ is set out a way of life based on constant meditation of the word of God. Silence and solitude were balanced with daily liturgy, work and care for the other commmunity members.
These first Carmelites placed themselves under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. An early Carmelite document, the Rubrica Prima of 1324 states that the community constructed on Mount Carmel a small chapel in honour of the Blessed Virgin, they chose for themselves Mary as their titular head and called themselves "Brothers of the Blessed Mary".
They saw here as their Patroness. The times were feudal. Having someone as patron meant having an advocate. It also meant belonging totally to that person. So in seeing Mary as Patroness they saw themselves as belonging totally to her and that she was their advocate. This gave rise to the expression: Totus Marianus est Carmelus - Carmel belongs totally to Mary. Devotion to Mary as Mother and as a "sister in the Faith" would later become characteristic of Carmelites.
The simple and austere life of the hermits was disrupted by the break up of the Latin kingdom. Those who could fled to Europe where they adapted themselves to their new conditions. While holding on to their contemplative ideal they reorganised themselves as an order of friars (literally meaning brothers). They began to open houses in towns and became preachers, confessors and teachers.
The Carmelites needed reform in the 16th century and this was led by Sts Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. The new Reformed Order was known as the Discalced Carmelites, the word discalced coming from the Spanish word for barefooted, which was a title given to reformed religious orders.
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