Illustrated Catholic Family Annual – Saint Teresa and the Carmelites

Saint Teresa of AvilaArticle

Towering fifteen hundred feet above the Mediterranean Sea is the famous promontory formed by the northwestern end of the Mount Carmel range. Along the northern base of these mountains winds the little brook Kishon, and stretching for some miles thence is the plain of Esdraelon. These mountains are crowned with pines and oaks, and their sides are covered with olive trees and laurel-bushes.

It was in these mountains that Elias destroyed the prophets of Baal, and here, along with his disciples, he then made his own abode. Tradition says that from the days of Elias Mount Carmel continued to be the dwelling place of the prophets, and that at the time of Peter’s preaching some of them, going up to Jerusalem, returned to their hermitage devout believers in Christ. If this tradition be founded on truth the Christian hermits of Mount Carmel could boast of a greater antiquity than even the cenobites of the Thebaid in Egypt.

At all events, the hermits of Mount Carmel are said to have been subjected to some sort of organization and to have received a rule of life from the patriarch of Antioch in the twelfth century. Another rule, or the same rule modified, was afterward drawn up for them by Saint Albert of Parma, the patriarch of Jerusalem, and this rule was confirmed by Pope Honorius III, 1226.

It was in England that the first Carmelite foundation in Europe was made. Ralph Freeborn, who had gone to Palestine as a crusader and had laid aside his armor for the coarse robe of a hermit of the sacred mountain, returned with one of his brethren in religion, and in 1240 founded the priory of Hulne, near Alnwick. Here in 1245 the first general chapter of the Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was held, and Saint Simon Stock was chosen first prior-general of the institute. At this chapter the rule was mitigated so as to render the Carmelites friars rather than monks, and thus adapt them to the more active life of preachers and missionaries rather than to that of contemplatives, as they had been hitherto. For this was the period that saw the rise of the great mendicant orders – Dominicans, Franciscans, and Augustinians, to which were now added the Carmelites. The monks were men of prayer, contemplation, study, and manual labor. They were recluses, never going beyond their monastic bounds, except when driven out by lawless invasion, or when called out by urgent needs of charity. The friars, on the other hand, while also cultivating prayer and meditation, went out among men to preach and to evangelize all classes. Monks, by the very fact of their constant industry, enriched their own houses and all the country about them. For it ought to be remembered that it was the monasteries of Europe, with their laborers gathered about them and their wise attention to agriculture, that were really the beginnings of most of the cities and towns of modern Europe. The monks had been missionaries at the first; they had converted the barbarians to the faith. Now it was the turn of the new orders to perfect and carry on the work begun by the monks. The friars, therefore, disowned wealth, made themselves beggars, and began the work of preaching in the cities and teaching in the universities. This distinction between monks and friars is often forgotten even by Catholics.

The Carmelites, under their mitigated rule, spread all over Europe, and were already in a tolerably flourishing condition at the outbreak of the so-called Reformation. At this time there were many houses of the Carmelite friars and nuns in Spain, and in one of these, the convent of the Incarnation at Avila, a young woman was received as a novice who was destined to become famous as the reformer of the order. This was Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, known to the Catholic world as Saint Teresa of Jesus.

Teresa was born at Avila, in Old Castile, on Wednesday of Passion Week, March 28, 1515. Her parents were Don Alfonso Sanchez de Cepeda and his wife, Beatriz de Ahumada y Tapia. She was the third of nine children, and was brought up in a home where the good instincts she inherited from both sides were developed by virtuous example and teaching. When Teresa was about twelve her mother died, but an older sister took the mother’s place in the household. At sixteen she was sent to an Augustinian convent to complete her education, and she left it, after a year and a half, with a vague desire of becoming a nun. This desire took definite shape after an illness of some months, and in her nineteenth year she was received, on 2 November 1533, into the Carmelite community at Avila. The life of the community was exemplary in every particular, but the very numbers and the lack of strict enclosure rendered intercourse with the world both easy and frequent. Visits were constantly made, of friends from without, and of nuns to friends beyond the cloister. Teresa herself, in obedience to the prioress but against her own inclination, made a prolonged visit to a lady of rank who was a friend of the convent, and she then became more than ever determined to found a community of Carmelites under the primitive rule given by Albert of Parma. She met with opposition, was treated as a visionary, and was asked if she could not lead a holy life in the way trodden by her sister nuns. But Teresa knew her mind. She was not a visionary. At last she obtained a papal brief addressed to the bishop of Avila, under whose jurisdiction the new institute in his diocese was to remain temporarily, authorizing her to found communities, and with four novices she had the happiness, on 24 August 1562, of installing the Blessed Sacrament in the little house of Avila which she made the convent of Saint Joseph.

The old rule, which Teresa revived, was severe in the extreme. It required abstinence from meat at all times, except in case of sickness; fasting from the feast of the Holy Cross (14 September) to Easter Sunday; and among other things poverty was enforced to an extent not observed under the mitigation. The cloister also was strictly maintained, and, along with this, silence, which was passed in prayer and contemplation. The Carmelite nuns of this strict rule became, in fact, contemplatives.

In 1566 the father-general of the Carmelites came to Spain, and he readmitted Teresa to his jurisdiction. Teresa then broached her new project of founding communities of friars, also of the strict observance, and at last obtained his consent. Two friars of the mitigated Carmelite rule offered themselves to Saint Teresa. One of these, Fray Juan de Saint Mathias, then but twenty-five, was destined to become celebrated in Church annals as Saint John of the Cross. The Bare-footed Carmelites had to face many difficulties, and even to undergo harsh treatment at the hands of those of the mitigated observance. Finally, under a brief of Pope Sixtus V, the first general chapter of the Eeform was held at Madrid in 1588, and from that time the new order has continued in spite of Wars and revolutions, communities flourishing now in various parts of Europe, as well as in Ireland, England, and the United States.

After forty-seven years of the religious life Saint Teresa of Jesus died at Alva, 4 October 1582, but, owing to the change of the calendar, the 15th of that month is the day of her feast. Saint Teresa was canonized in 1622. She left four books which have placed her in a high rank among the writers on mystical theology, principal of which are her Life, which is really an account written for her confessor of her soul’s communion with God, and the Way of Perfection, which sets forth her ideas of the spiritual life as she thought it ought to be lived by her nuns. The other two books of which she is the author are The Book of the Foundations and the Interior Castle. All these works have been rendered into English several times.

MLA Citation

  • “Saints Teresa and the Carmelites”. Illustrated Catholic Family Annual, 1884. CatholicSaints.Info. 7 January 2017. Web. 19 October 2020. <>