The Carmelite Order takes its name from Mount Carmel in the Holy Land (Israel) and traces its origins back to the ancient hermits living on that mountain. There in the 12th century were to be found a group of hermits, mostly former crusaders and pilgrims, calling themselves the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and striving to live, in the spirit of the prophet Elijah, a life of solitude and prayer.
Standing always before the Living God on behalf of His people, and totally dedicated to His worship and glory, these hermits had heard the call of Jesus Christ to leave everything and to follow him.
From its very beginning the Order of Carmel always had a special love and veneration for Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She is the Mother and Patroness of all Carmelites and the scapular which they wear as part of their habit is a sign of their dedication to her and a reliance on her protection. They see in Mary one who, in her simplicity, was totally open and receptive to God's action and took her as their model and sister in their search for God.
They also took their inspiration from the prophet Elijah who was a man on fire with love of God. His basic message was "the Lord lives in whose presence I stand". His cry of triumph: "I have burned with zeal for the Lord God of hosts" has been adopted as the motto for the Carmelite Order.
The First Carmelites

This group of hermits living on Mount Carmel were given a Rule of Life by Saint Albert of Jerusalem between 1206 and 1214. The Rule of Saint Albert is perhaps the least known of the existing monastic Rules. It is a Rule noted for its shortness, simplicity and its rootedness in the Bible. It sketches out a way of life based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, stressing continual prayer, in silence and solitude, self-giving and life in community.

After the Saracen conquest of the Holy Land the Order moved westward to Europe, reaching Britain as early as 1242. Certain modifications were introduced to adapt the Rule to the changed conditions in which the Carmelites found themselves. For the most part they ceased to live as hermits and became friars, giving themselves to preaching and pastoral work, though prayer and the eremitical spirit remained the basis of their lives.

Until the 15th century the Order consisted only of friars, priests and lay brothers, although there were several groups of pious women living according to the Carmelite spirit. The Second Order, of nuns, was founded in 1452 by Blessed John Soreth, Prior General of the Order who also founded the Secular Order of Carmel for lay people.

The Reform of Carmel

Then in the 16th century at the time of the Reformation, the great Spanish Carmelite, St. Teresa of Avila, wishing to renew among the nuns the fervour and purity of the spiritual beginnings of the Order, initiated a reform movement, which later, with St. John of the Cross as her collaborator, spread also to the friars.

After her death monasteries of her reform were established in France and Belgium, and from these two countries nuns came to found houses in England and thence in Scotland and Wales. Now there are Carmels in almost every country of the world with the nuns numbering around 13,000.

There are, then, since St Teresa's times, two branches of the Carmelite Order:

  • Carmelites of the Ancient Observance
  • St Teresa's Reformed Carmelites, known as the Discalced Carmelites.

These two branches live the same Rule of St Albert and share much in common. Today there is a strong movement of mutual support and co-operation between the two stems of Carmel's vine.