The Hermits of Mt. Carmel
Most religious orders can point to a specific time and place when they were founded. Most can name their founder, and provide plenty of details about his or her life. The Carmelites have no such capacity. They come about as close as any religious community can to being a “spontaneous” order, which began to grow and flourish without anyone being able to say exactly when and how.
What we do know for sure was that this mysterious community was already operating at the beginning of the 13th century in the Holy Land. Individual men began to assemble on Mount Carmel during the Crusades, largely because that place was associated with the great prophet Elijah. We know that most of these individuals were Europeans who had come east with the crusaders, but there is no evidence how many may have been knights, hermits, pilgrims, merchants, sailors, or ordinary soldiers.
Whatever they had been previously, they banded together as a loose association of hermits, who lived simple lives on the mountain side, and spent their time in prayer and contemplation. The strong memory of Elijah certainly inspired their reflection. Their mere presence in the Holy Land made it easier to recall the presence of Jesus, Mary, and other biblical figures in their immediate vicinity. For all practical purposes, they had evolved into an informal community of contemplatives, without a monastery or a formal structure for their lives.
The little band clustered in a broad wadi, or dry canyon alongside the mountain. Although each individual lived separately, their shelters were easy to construct. A simple cave, hut, or lean-to was all that was required. The weather was mild for most of the year, allowing for the simplest protection from occasional rain or sun. There was plenty of fresh water from a natural spring, which they called the “fountain of Elijah.” Fruit and flowers grew there naturally, and it was easy to cultivate grain or other crops. The beautiful shores of the Mediterranean were within sight, recalling Elijah’s contemplation of the small cloud rising from the sea, at the end of the long drought. As a place to ruminate on the mercy of God, the wadi seemed nearly perfect.The life of these early hermits attracted so many others from outside, that there was a general consensus in favor of formalizing their way of life. Sometime shortly after the year 1200, the general pattern of their prayer took its final shape. It was customary for the hermits to meet each day to celebrate the Eucharist together, so at least some of them were priests. They also imitated the pattern of the divine office by reciting certain psalms at the proper times of day. Choir books would have been expensive, and therefore rare. Since some of the members could not read, they also prayed in the same structure by substituting so many Our Fathers at the proper times.
By common consensus, the diet was simple and sparse, with no need for meat. Each hermit would prepare and eat frugal meals on his own. There was also agreement that talking was kept to a minimum, in the interest of preserving the reflective atmosphere. Visitors from the outside were welcomed, but generally shown to an area where their needs could be met without disrupting the overall spirit of quiet prayer.
The desire to regularize their formula of life led them to contact the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Albert Avogadro of Vercelli. As the senior bishop within the crusader states, Albert was in a position to lend considerable authority (and plenty of good advice, as well) to the hermits’ practices. Since the Muslims controlled Jerusalem at this time, Albert’s residence was in the coastal city of Acre, which put him much closer to the wadi community. He was near enough to make a personal visit there without much trouble, and we are sure that he did so. The result of this consultation was the Carmelite Rule of St. Albert.
The Rule’s traditional date is 1209, which is probably fairly accurate. Albert arrived in Palestine as Patriarch in 1206, and died in 1214 – so if the date is not precise, it is at least close. Albert’s Rule specifies that an elected superior, a prior, should lead the community. It is he who determines the living space of each individual, distributes material goods fairly, and looks after visitors to the community. A balance between respect and service is taken for granted. The entire tone of the Rule is practical and flexible. Ideals are established, and good advice is provided, but exceptions or variations are allowed whenever necessary. This overall spirit of understanding and suppleness is one outstanding feature of Albert’s Rule.
Central to the Rule is the provision that each hermit should have an individual cell, which is to be his primary point of contact with God. Unless there is some compelling reason to the contrary, each member is to remain in or near his cell, tending to his prayer, and living in the full realization of how the mercy of God has blessed the world and its people. There is very little said about ministry or service to the world outside the wadi, but it was a distinct possibility. The coastal road which passed by the mouth of the valley was the principal highway of the crusader kingdom, and people were free to stop for any reason. Sometimes they were just looking for water, or at other times for more spiritual refreshment.
In time, the simple shelters were augmented with the construction of a larger chapel, as well as a cell for the prior, complete with a reception area for visitors. But it was not in use for very long. As the century proceeded, the overall military situation deteriorated for the Christian forces. Muslim columns made life dangerous for isolated communities; so many Christians fell back toward the coast, and then made plans to return to Europe. It was not an easy decision to make, since the hermits’ entire way of life seemed to be built around that specific place. Could it be the same anywhere else?
Before the final end came, significant numbers of hermits had emigrated to Cyprus, Sicily, France, and England. Those left behind had to scramble for their lives when the fortress of Acre finally fell in 1291. Tradition says that those left behind were massacred in their little chapel, while singing the Salve Regina. Archeological evidence supports an event of substantial burning and destruction in the wadi, including some human remains. So the old legend may indeed be accurate.
The Carmelite hermits would need to undergo a substantial transformation for their new life in Europe. They quickly grew into a mendicant order of friars, right in step with the most popular movement of their day. But while their new ministry took place in cities, towns, and universities, their soul never seems to have moved. Carmelite spiritual writings remain works of the desert, as though still rooted on the green slopes of Elijah’s mountain.