The Order of Discalced Carmelites and the Carmel
The ancient Carmelites trace their origins to the Prophet Elijah
(9th century BC), who taught and lived at Mount Carmel in Israel. Hermits have lived there for many centuries.
They were organized into a community with a rule by Saint Albert of Jerusalem around 1200 AD . The
Order of Discalced Carmelites was founded as a reform movement in the 1500's AD by Saint Teresa of Avila in Spain. There is plenty of information about Saint Teresa available online along with several decent biographies,
plus she wrote a number of compelling works of her own and many letters that have been preserved and compiled in several
Suffice it to say here that by all accounts,
Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada was an extraordinary person, a precocious and preciously vibrant child, extraordinarily
beautiful and engaging as an adult woman, and extraordinarily eloquent. There are so many stories about
her and so many things that she said and did that we remember and carry with us.
As a young adult, Saint Teresa entered the Carmel of the Incarnation, a large community of over 100 Sisters. In
that period of history, war and conflict were never long absent. Most of the young men fell victim to the times and
the violence. Many of the young women, especially like Teresa who were from families of means, found their way to the
convent partly and sometimes mainly as a matter of safety and provision. After a lengthy period there and
now in her middle years, she felt compelled to separate herself from some of the laxity of the Incarnation and start
a new convent that was more in keeping with the religious life and the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. She
wrote a rule of life and obtained permission to found the Carmel of Saint Joseph in a small dwelling along with a few other
Today's monasteries of discalced Carmelite sisters continue to follow that
rule. The nuns of the Carmel are contemplatives, according to the original model of Saint Teresa. They
live in quiet contemplation and prayer, largely separate from the world. They are there everyday praying for everybody
and everything. They have no possessions except what is held in common as part of the community.
Saint Teresa liked to teach her sisters that all things are possible
for God, that all things are passing, and that patience obtains all things. At the same time, she reminded
them that all lives are short and offered encouragement to try to use their time here well.
The Founding of the Carmel
This brings us indirectly to the founding Prioress of the Carmel in Eugene, born Mary
A. Quinn in 1911, but known to most of us as Sister Miriam of Jesus, OCD. Sister Miriam passed away, returning to God,
in 2006 at the age of 96, after 73 years within the cloister as a contemplative Carmelite nun. Her biography is posted
here in a following page.
Sister Miriam and 5 other sisters founded
the Carmel in Eugene in 1957. The story of the founding is available at the gift shop in a book, Carmel in
the United States 1790 to 1990. This book contains entries about some 70 Carmels in the USA. Here is an excerpt
about the Carmel. "The first few nights spent in the deep silence of the wilderness, as it seemed to us, used to
the roar of the big city, were a bit intimidating and we kept the outside lights on all night against possible incursions
of the wild animals we thought lurking behind every tree."
Miriam was another bright and beautiful young woman who was called to Carmel. The calling began at a time when she was
an athlete at UCLA, captain of the swim team and an excellent tennis player, not-to-mention a rifle sharpshooter who
could demonstrate trick shots while riding horseback. Miss Quinn was suddenly taken ill with acute appendicitis, and
very nearly passed from this world.
Over 70 years later, we
asked Sister Miriam about her vocation. She answered, simply and to-the-point, that after her illness with appendicitis
she became focused on "what was important".
What is Important? Faith and Love as Gifts.
The Venerable Mary of Agreda wrote in The Mystic City of God that the Holy Trinity, themselves the essence and embodiment of love, sought to
increase love in the only way possible. This was by bringing into being creatures that themselves were capable of love,
namely us. Because by its nature love must be freely given, we were endowed with free will. In short the purpose
of life is to love and be loved in return.
Sometimes this is so very
clear, as when watching a mother and father with their newborn child. These feelings of love, themselves evidence of
the presence of God, are passed from generation to generation as in the special relationships between grandparents and grandchildren.
In Dicken's story, The Old Curiosity Shop, the narrator remarks that one of the kindest things that
God has done is to give us grandchildren to love, and that they in turn love us.
Saint Teresa writes about these and even more trancendent feelings that are accessible in the
religious life to those who are called and who freely accept the call towards a union with God in this life. She
speaks of how "His Majesty" bestows his favors including the Faith itself on select loved ones in mysterious
but incomparably tender ways even though none of us deserve it and in some cases upon those who definitely don't deserve
it, and who tragically may freely reject it.
Hence with free
will comes the main challenge.
Spiritual Warfare and the Power
There are good and evil, and the
challenge of selecting between them. With original sin, it is too often easier for us to select evil. That is
one of the definitions of original sin, the tendency to choose harmful rather than helpful behaviors and things.
Even a casual observer of the world stage can see that life is a struggle between good and
evil. To stay on track and resist the tendency and temptation to stray, we need help. To obtain help, it is a
good idea to ask for it and to be made worthy of it. This is one of the main purposes of prayer.
Edith Stein, now Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, also among the all-time greats, was another of the bright and intensely fetching young
women who came to Carmel as her life progressed. Besides an innate feminine beauty, she was gifted with a towering intellect.
Her life story is also available in a variety of sources both online and in print, including an unforgettable though
unfinished autobiography that ended abruptly when she was seized from the convent and taken to Auschwitz. There are
some 17 volumes of her work available in print, including more than 10 in English. Some favorites are: The Hidden Life,
Knowledge and Faith, and Woman.
Her heritage was German/Polish
and Jewish, and not notably religious in any particular way. In her words, as an adult, she "read herself into
the Faith". She was already exceptionally accomplished as a teacher and lecturer with a Ph.D. summa cum laude from
Gottingen University in philosophy when she embraced Catholicism. If you like Saint Teresa of Avila, you'll like
Edith wrote that the profession of the Carmelite nuns
was "praying". She said that it is only with difficulty that God declines the prayer of a Carmelite.
In the battle of good and evil, the Carmelites are spiritual warriors. They sacrifice
their lives, daily in small ways in a quiet and ongoing immolation, and sometimes in martyrdom even as a burnt offering
if that is what is asked of them. In that way, the Carmelite monasteries in the USA and worldwide are national and international
Another of the all-time greats, not a Carmelite but adopted
by the Carmelites as a model and one to whom they often look with devotion, is Joan of the village of Domremy in France.
She was a young girl who had never even ridden a horse, much less received any training related to armed conflict. Yet,
still a girl, leading the first army she had even seen, she became known as Joan of Arc. We tend to think of her military
campaigns today as legendary rather than historical even though there were many thousands of eyewitnesses. The
verbatim record of her trial was painstakingly recorded by various attorneys and record keepers of the royal courts of
the day, along with most details of her astonishing life (1412 to 1431).
For an exhaustively researched and masterfully presented biography of Saint Joan, see Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. This is perhaps his least publicised book (he wrote it anonymously because he was concerned that the public might
not take it seriously otherwise). By his own words, it was by far his personal favorite.
At one point in the trial, the court attorneys attempted to trick Joan into a "blasphemy"
by asking her if she thought that she was in "a state of grace". This was something at the time that even
an ordained priest would not be expected to presume to know, much less a peasant girl, because such knowledge only resides
in the mind of God. Her answer, unassisted by any court counsel assigned to her (she had none), struck the otherwise
rowdy assemblage silent: "if I am, may God keep it so: if I am not, may God make it so." Although virtually
all present knew otherwise, she was none-the-less condemned as a witch, in league with Satan, and sentenced to death
by burning at the stake.
By the testimony of eyewitnesses,
as the flames engulfed her, she died with her hands folded, her mouth moving quietly in prayer, and her eyes raised