What are Carmelite nuns? (origin, history, lifestyle)

During my time in seminary school, I was quite enthusiastic about learning the rich identities of various Christian groups. The nuns particularly captured my interest due to their uniquely set-apart way of life. I was thrilled when I got a golden opportunity to visit a convent of Carmelite nuns in Cleveland. I made insightful interactions with them and obtained an in-depth understanding of their origin, history, and lifestyle. Last Sunday, one lady in our online Bible study forum raised a question seeking to know more about the Carmelite nuns. Having had a preceding experience in engaging with various Carmelite nuns, I was up to the task of providing the scoop on the matter. So, what are Carmelite nuns?

Carmelite nuns refer to nuns that belong to the Order of Mount Carmel. They commenced in the 12th century and are predominantly from the Catholic religious order. They mainly focus on contemplation, prayer, and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In this article, I will dissect the origin, history, and lifestyle of Carmelite nuns and so much more. Welcome aboard as we cruise through this subject matter together.

History of the Carmelite nuns

The Carmelites refer to a religious section with inception from Mt. Carmel which is considered a Holy Land within the Catholic Church. Toward the culmination of the 12th century, a segment of Latin hermits gathered on the slopes of Mt. Carmel during the Crusades for solitude in order to emulate the Prophet Elijah. They led a life of quietude and isolation, followed the caverns of the mountain, and reflected the Word of God. From 1206 to 1214, the Prior requested Albert the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem to acquiesce the hermits to have a decree of life. Thus, they acquired formal recognition as a group within the local Church which became a preface to their acknowledgment as a religious order by the Pope. In 1226, they constructed a small church adjacent to their caverns that was devoted to Our Lady whom the hermits deemed as a patroness, matriarch, and inspiration for prayer and life. In 1240, pioneer monasteries were established in Europe. In 1254, King Louis of France returned to Europe from a Crusade with several Carmelites and advanced their growth. In 1291, the Carmelites were coerced to leave Mt. Carmel for approximately 250 years thanks to the obstruction and invasion by the Mamluks at St. John of Acre.

In 1562, a notable crusader of Carmel, Teresa of Avila, asserted that the surefire way to live their calling would be to restore the original order. Accompanied by several passionate nuns who were inspired by robust principles and devotion, St. Teresa established a small monastery in Spain. They utilized various resources and endured numerous sufferings that were characterized by poverty and silence because they merged the eremitical life with society. In 1568, due to her vibrant affiliation with Carmelites such as Anthony of Jesus and John of the Cross, they established the first monastery of Discalced Carmelites in Spain. In 1580, the Discalced Carmelites attained a decree from Pope Gregory XIII that granted them the green light to become an independent province within the Carmelite Order, therefore safeguarding their distinctiveness. In 1831, thanks to the opus of Father Prosper, the Carmelites’ dream to return to the origin of their order was fulfilled. He established a small monastery on the peninsula of Mt. Carmel adjacent to a lighthouse that neared the sea.

Foundation of the Carmelite nuns

What are Carmelite nuns?
Foundation of the Carmelite nuns. Image source: Pinterest

In 1452, Pope Nicholas established the first institution of Carmelite nuns in France. Under his auspices, the Duchess of Brittany, Francoise d’Amboise, instituted the first monastery for Carmelite. In 1463, he constructed a house in Vannes to contain the original monastery where nine nuns arrived from Liege and resided there. Afterward, Carmelite monasteries developed very rapidly in Spain and Italy.

In 1562, the most significant and comprehensive movement in the Carmelite Order was the streamlining performed by St. Teresa of Avila. After approximately three decades in a Carmelite monastery, she established a small abbey in which a stringent lifestyle was to be adhered to. This order was identified as the order of Discalced Carmelite Nuns whose purpose was to reinstate and underline the self-denial and reflective nature of the archaic Carmelite life. Because Reformed Carmelites put on sandals rather than shoes and leg coverings, they were identified as the Discalced Carmelites to differentiate them from the initial division of the order.

Life in the Carmelite Monastery

Life in the Carmelite Monastery involves nuns having a community lifestyle with each other. The nuns pray, dine, and have recreational activities together two times a day. Their community lifestyle resembles a miniature version of a family whereby all nuns are considered equal evangelically, interactions are genuine, happiness and troubles are shared, and the nuns are devoted to each other as sisters for the rest of their lives. All nuns are required to be friends as they love, cherish, and help each other in order to create a cheerful atmosphere that makes everybody calm. Additionally, they maintain silence and establish a conducive environment for intimacy with God that cultivates concentration and the reception of the Word of God in their hearts.

What are the three vows that the Carmelite nuns take?

What are Carmelite nuns?
What are the three vows that the Carmelite nuns take? Image source: Pinterest

The three vows that the Carmelite nuns take include the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience which are deemed the evangelical guidelines of excellence in Christianity. They assert that they are counsels for nuns who yearn to attain perfection.

Vow of Chastity

The vow of chastity refers to celibacy whereby Carmelite nuns neither marry nor participate in sexual behavior or romantic activities of any form. The vow liberates them from the need for exclusive personal relationships so that they can devote all their affection fully to God. By taking this vow, the nuns equally affirm that their lives are not about sex and hence do not label them as individuals. It is illustrated through their affiliation with their religious community and vocation. Being celibate makes the nuns religiously available to go where their community and God call them as having a spouse with children can render this more difficult.

Vow of Poverty

The vow of poverty means that Carmelite nuns relinquish the ability to manage or benefit from individual property and dedicate themselves to living independently in society. They live a life of labor and restraint in order to mimic Christ who became poor for humanity’s sake even though He was wealthy. The vow of poverty encompasses all material things and induces nuns to live modestly and not become attached to worldly riches so that they are available to serve the community.

Vow of Obedience

The vow of obedience means that Carmelite nuns submit to their leaders according to the statutes of their order or congregation. This vow is taken so that the nuns can emulate the obedience of Jesus Christ in their vocation. As members of a religious community, Carmelite nuns seek the will of God not in arbitrary orders but in prayerful meditation and conversations with other people.

What do the Carmelite Sisters do all day?

The Carmelite sisters devote themselves to a life of contemplation and prayer to God all day. They participate in the celebration of the Eucharist which represents harmony and unity in charity. They also engage in personal prayers and supplications which Christ and spend two hours in meditation. Additionally, the sisters designate one hour of spiritual reading to keep God’s word in their hearts and minds incessantly. They study theological and religious writings, meditate on the scriptures, and nourish themselves with the writings of the saints.

In compliance with their respective orders, the Carmelite sisters commit themselves to the common law of work. Through their services and talents, they acknowledge that labor is also a way to affiliate their lives with the redemptive work of Christ. The work comprises cooking, gardening, sewing, and selling altar bread, among others. They commit around two and a half hours to work in the morning and afternoon.

The sisters also dine and have their meals together where they listen to a reading from the scriptures and show gratitude to God. To joyfully communicate with one another, recreation is conducted in common, twice after dinner and supper. During this time, the sisters chat and unwind together, and wait for the Prioress to convey any announcements or prayer requests.

Do Carmelite nuns still exist?

Yes, Carmelite nuns still exist. Today, Carmelites globally are categorized into two main segments. The first ones are the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance who abide by the original Carmelite order. The second ones are the Discalced Carmelites who abide by St. Teresa of Avila’s streamlining that commenced in the 16th century.

Where are the Carmelites located?

The Carmelites are located all over the world. Carmelite provinces are located in the United States, Brazil, India, Germany, Canada, Australia, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, Croatia, Poland, Chile, Hungary, Indonesia, Malta, and Singapore. Carmelite delegations headed by the Prior General are located in France, Portugal, Argentina, Lebanon, the Czech Republic, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic. Carmelite missions are located in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Bolivia, Romania, Tanzania, Trinidad, Burkina Faso, Peru, Cameroon, Lithuania, Colombia, India, Venezuela, and Mozambique. Carmelite monasteries comprising nuns are located in exist in Israel, Kenya, Brazil, the United States, Croatia, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Portugal, the Dominican Republic, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, Spain, Germany, the Philippines, Hungary, Peru, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Iceland, Norway, Ireland, Australia, Italy, and the Netherlands.

How many Carmelite nuns are there?

In 2001, there were 700 Carmelite nuns living in 70 walled monasteries all over the world. Their membership increased throughout the years with the growth of various affiliated Carmelite institutes and congregations. Additionally, the Third Order of lay Carmelites comprises 25,000 to 30,000 adherents globally. According to statistics, there are 11,500 Carmelite nuns globally. They form a women’s Cloister Order within the Catholic Church.

Do Carmelite nuns get to see their family?

What are Carmelite nuns? 
Do Carmelite nuns get to see their family? Image source: Freepik

Yes, Carmelite nuns get to see their family. The frequency or allowance of the Carmelite nuns to visit their family members varies according to the monastery and the liturgical calendar. The nuns are allowed to write to their kin or receive a visit from them in the convent once every month. Overall, they do not depart from the convent but in the event of dire circumstances such as the imminent demise of a parent, they may be permitted to visit their family.

What is the meaning behind Carmelite nuns’ habit and scapular?

Carmelite nuns wear a habit of their respective orders as a symbol of their consecration to God and being called to meditation and prayer. The habit signifies living in a state of greater perfection, being determined to carry out virtues, and yielding their will to God in everything. Additionally, it brings the nuns’ lives into accordance with what God commands and to yearn for His will to be done. The habit is an indicator of their objective and promise to dedicate themselves wholly to God in a life of prayer and self-sacrificing philanthropy. It serves to remind the nuns of the magnitude of their pledged vows and to endeavor for great devotion in their blessed vocation and extraordinary service to God. Thus, the habit acts as a garment of righteousness that necessitates the nuns to strive for perfection with all their capacity.

Carmelite nuns equally wear the scapular as a symbol of their profound relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary. It acts as a representation of Mary’s love and protection and portrays their desire to emulate her in the Order of Carmel during their fidelity to Jesus Christ. Carmelites view the scapular as a divine reward, a sincere type of devotion, and an indication of their consecration to Mary. Thus, it signifies that the nuns pay homage to Mary and that they endeavor to be attired with her virtues to reflect the beauty of her godliness to the world.

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