The Carmelite friars managed to log over two centuries in Europe before there was any serious attempt to establish a structure for communities of women. And yet, there were women who wanted to follow the spirituality and rule of the hermits of Mt. Carmel. To be sure, there had often been individual people, both women and men, who had associated themselves with existing Carmelite communities, and participated in a variety of ways with both their spirituality and their ministry. But there was never any official structure or pattern for attracting women to the Carmelite family, and assuring good formation in that way of life.
One of the most typical of these individuals may have been Blessed Joan of Toulouse, who lived around the year 1400. She was a woman of noble birth who lived close to the large Carmelite community in Toulouse, and spent her nights and days in prayer and penance to support the work done by the friars. She ate as little as possible, and did without even the simplest comforts. She made it a point to teach and encourage the younger members of the community, and joined her powerful prayers to their own works. Although she was only one person, her support was generally seen as the principal reason why the community was so popular and successful in that city.
During the middle ages, it was fairly common to have communities of women who lived virtuous lives without actually belonging to any religious order. Especially in northern Europe, there were informal groups of unmarried women or widows, called “beguines,” who lived together for security and mutual support. They often prayed together, and sustained themselves by caring for the sick and the infirm, or by doing other charitable works which were vital to a well governed city or town. Many municipal councils supported these women with free housing, or subsidies for their food. In the long run, these were people who might become a burden to the state, but actually helped others instead. So for a busy commercial city with limited funds, it made more sense to pay an allotment to these beguines, as they took care of others who needed more help than themselves.
During the 15th century, the vigorous reformer Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa promoted the affiliation of these loosely organized communities with established orders. His motives were both better formation and control, and the greater sense of identity which would follow. So it was fortunate that this was the exact time when Blessed John Soreth, prior general of the Carmelites from 1451 to 1471, was planning to open membership to both religious women, and to lay people of both genders. John had already established a strong reputation as a zealous reformer. To his way of thinking, expanding the Carmelite family to include other people of strong faith could not fail.
John was in the Netherlands in 1452, working out the details of one affiliation, when he got some unexpected help. The community of Florence wanted to regularize their partnership with several devout women, but felt that they needed more authority to make it legal. The prior of the community, Bartolomeo Masi, rode off to Rome to ask Pope Nicholas V for permission. The Pope responded by giving him the sealed document (or “bull”) Cum Nulla which authorized the Carmelite prior general and provincials to establish and regulate convents of religious women. Although the Florentines had only asked for one single case, the Pope had given them a very broad document which amounted to a blank check! John Soreth now had all the power he needed.
The basis of the life in these convents, of course, was the Carmelite Rule. But there were other considerations as well, which took some trial and error to work out. Because the ancient spirituality of the Carmelites focused on the powerful presence of God, and the need to pray and reflect continually, only strictly cloistered convents were considered for the early nuns. Each house was required to have an enclosure or cloister which no men were allowed to enter. A parlor or visiting room was built outside the enclosure, where the superior of the house could receive visitors and transact business. The chaplain had contact with the sisters only through this parlor or the chapel. Since the cloistered sisters never left the cloister, there were other non-enclosed sisters, or externs, who took care of errands, shopping, begging, and the many practical tasks required to sustain the life of the convent.
Within the enclosure, each nun lives in a small, bare cell, which was to be the primary place for her encounter with God. Carmelite heritage underscores the importance of the cell, and its decisive role in meeting the God of the universe. The community chapel is another pivotal space, since most of the formal prayer takes place there. By their vows, the sisters pledge to live their lives in common, not merely as good individuals under the same roof. They commit themselves to eat together in a common refectory, usually in silence, as they listen to reading from some spiritual book. They promise to work and recreate together in common rooms, according to the timetable established by the community.
As John Soreth established each of his new convents in the Netherlands, the process became more refined, and more women came forward to ask for entry. One of the most successful houses was at Liege, the Convent of the Three Marys, which evoked the powerful image of silent women praying at the foot of the Cross. The times were so good for spiritual renewal that many vigorous communities spread throughout the Low Countries and northern Europe.
With these successes fresh in his memory, John moved on to visit the province of Touraine, in north-western France. There he met the young Duchess of Brittany, Frances d’Amboise. Her husband had recently died, and she was under heavy pressure (heavy enough to include the King of France) to marry again. She had already been a popular and benevolent duchess, helping the poor and promoting the happiness of her people at every occasion. But Frances wanted to remain free to pursue her stronger religious sentiments. She and John struck up one of those classic friendships between noble, holy people with similar ideals.
With John’s encouragement, Frances wrote to Pope Pius II for permission to found a convent at Bondon, where there was already a house of Carmelite friars who could support the nuns. The Pope applauded her efforts, and John sent a band of nuns from Liege to support the foundation in 1463. The new convent also took the name of the Three Marys, and shared the popularity of its parent house, as women of every class asked to enter. In short order, one convent was not enough – other foundations were created throughout France.
Within 5 years, Frances herself requested admission. She who had enjoyed rich clothing, beautifully styled hair, and gracious living, ringed by servants, now asked to live with nothing. It was not easy for a duchess to become a simple nun. She insisted on the radical equality of all sisters, but that was a hard lesson for most of the other nuns. They elected her prioress for the rest of her life. Though she asked again and again for release, her natural leadership served them well.
With convents springing up throughout Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, it became a serious priority to assure good formation for the new sisters. One place where the new communities found great popularity was Spain, but there was also an inborn weakness. John Soreth never managed to visit Spain, and the houses established there were founded by good people with lesser ability. Some of the Spanish convents tended to be large and enthusiastic, but with little or no sense of the enclosure which set the nuns apart from the secular world. Teresa of Avila entered this world during the following century. She found the way of life to be a fine opportunity to love God, but not much in harmony with the original Rule of St. Albert. Her Reform was a strong drive to recapture that vigor.
But that is another story.