A brief history

The cradle of the Carmelite Order can be found in the Wadi ‘ain es-Siah on Mount Carmel, near the modern city of Haifa, Israel, where the ruins of the Chapel and dwelling places can still be found.  There, in the 11th Century a group of hermits came together to live in the spirit of the Prophet Elijah, the great witness of God’s living presence.  Around 1205 they approached Albert, the Patriarch of Jerusalem to give them a Rule (Formula of Life).  Familiar with their way of life, he wrote a short Rule in the form of a letter.  It is simple, flexible and deeply rooted in Scripture.  It is still the foundational text for Carmelites today, adapting to different times and circumstances.  The Rule in summary is as follows:

  • To live in allegiance to Christ by serving him faithfully with a pure heart and an upright conscience, by placing our sole hope of salvation in him, and by paying him obedience, in the person of the Prior, in a spirit of faith;
  • To remain in one’s cell, meditating day and night on the law of the Lord, and fortifying the spirit with holy thoughts, so that the word of God may abound on our lips and in our hearts, and everything be done in the word of the Lord.
  • To celebrate every day in community the Eucharist and the Prayer of the Church.
  • To practice evangelical asceticism and to be clothed with the divine armour in order to live devotedly in Christ; to imitate the Apostle Paul in generous application to work; and to practice constant mortification with prudence which is the guide of the virtues.
  • To establish a communion of life that is sustained by familial relations, by the charity of mutual correction, by the common possession of goods and by mutual spiritual solicitude under the guidance of the Prior who is placed at the head of the community to serve it;
  • Above all, to promote unceasing prayer in solitude, silence, and in a spirit of evangelical vigilance.

The Carmelites did not remain long on Mount Carmel due to political unrest and persecution.  Some of the early Carmelites were killed and the others migrated back to Europe.  In the 15th Century the Carmelite General began the first monasteries of nuns.  These evolved from groups of pious women (Mantallatas or Beguines).  These women now imbibed the spirit of Carmel, living lives of prayer in various European towns and cities.

Teresa de Ahumada de Cepeda was born in Spain in 1515 and entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila about 50 years after its foundation.  The community was however overcrowded and struggling to maintain itself, forcing the nuns out of enclosure to go begging.  In this situation Teresa rediscovered the Primitive Rule of St Albert and embarked on a reform and refounding of the Order going back to the essentials.  All this happened after the Protestant Reformation.  Teresa saw the need for Church reform – she began by reforming herself.

After her death in 1581, the nuns spread her charism from Spain to France and the Lowlands (Belgium and Holland).  English Catholic women persecuted in their own country founded Carmels in Antwerp, Lierre and Hoogstraet.  They returned to England after the upheavals of the French Revolution.  The Carmel of Lierre settled in Darlington and it was from that community in 1931 that six sisters set sail for South Africa and founded the Carmel of Rivonia near Johannesburg and remained there for 60 years.  The community moved to the East Rand in the early 1990s and finally built a new monastery in Benoni in 1995/6.

Here we still breathe the spirit of Carmel, living a life of allegiance to Christ, earning our living by the work of our hands, living as sisters sharing a common vision, witnessing, as the Prophet Elijah did, to the fact that God lives in whose presence we stand (cf. 1 Kings)