Although most commonly referred to as the Carmelites, this mendicant order’s full title is the Order of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Founded by Saint Berthold in 1154, they are known to be one of the more contemplative mendicant orders. According to tradition, Saint Berthold first established the community in Palestine, on Mt. Carmel, in the year 1154. Former crusaders, hermits, and pilgrims were said to have made up the group.
In 1209, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem laid down the first rule for the community. All members were to adhere to a strict regimen of self-mortification, abstinence, and poverty. By the thirteenth century, many of the Carmelites were forced to leave the area because of the downfall of the Crusader States in the Holy Land. In 1247, a majority of them regrouped in England under the influential leadership of Saint Simon Stock. (However, in 1291, all of the Carmelites who had remained in Palestine eventually became martyrs.)
With the election, at the first chapter at Aylesford, Kent, of Saint Simon as prior general of the order, the Carmelites experienced a new wave of vitality and growth. Simon played a very instrumental role in the increase in popularity of the order throughout Europe. He modified the rule to fit life in the West, designed the brown scapular (after a vision of the Blessed Virgin), and encouraged his community members to enter the university. Under his leadership, the Carmelites became a mendicant order which enabled them to spread more quickly throughout all of Christendom. In 1452, the Carmelite nuns, who lived a cloistered life, joined the friars by following the same rule.
By the 1500s, the Carmelite nuns and friars were both in need of a general reform since many of the communities had become too relaxed in their rules and lifestyles. Hence, two prominent figures, Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), initiated reform efforts. Teresa set out to restore the Primitive Rule to the Carmelite cloisters, while still promoting the contemplative life. John of the Cross attempted to accomplish similar reforms within the communities of friars.
However they were met with strong opposition by those members who preferred to keep the less severe Mitigated Rule. In 1593, their resistance led to the division of the Carmelites into two congregations, the Discalced
Carmelites (those who would adhere to the Primitive Rule) and the Calced Carmelites (those who would follow the Mitigated Rule).
As part of their charism, the Carmelites focus most of their effort and activities on prayer, theology, and missionary work. They possess a special love for the Virgin Mary, are dedicated to praying for priests, and wear a brown habit. Recently, they have come back into the spotlight because one of their members, Saint Therese of Lisieux, was named a Doctor of the Church. Today, throughout the world, many laypeople belong to the third order of the Carmelites.