Here is an introductory history on Carmel wrote about a year and a half ago which appeared on the now defunct Our Lady of Lorreto Carmelite Chapel blog.
The Carmelite Order is unique among orders since the founding of the start of the order is shrouded in history. Every other order that I know of you can point to a founder or founders as to the establishment of that religious order. The names of the various orders have been chosen by the founders themselves or were later named based on the founders. It does not take long to discover who the founders of the Dominicans, Benedictines, Franciscans are but the Carmelites are a different story.
The Crusades were in a period of time from 1095-1291 and were conducted mainly to free the Holy Lands from Islamic control. The majority of the people in the crusades contrary to the modern view were pious landowners who joined the crusades in order to free the Holy Lands. Many of them already had significant land ownings and were not seeking more wealth in conquest. These men were betrayed in multiple occasions by some men among their leaders who used the Crusades as a front for power.
I can well imagine the disillusionment of some of these crusaders. The vocation of a soldier is an important one when conducted to save lives and to protect others. The vocation of the contemplative life is an even higher calling especially when souls are saved and protected. The history of the Carmelites contains many instances of military men coming into the order. During the time period of Third Crusades some of these crusaders and pilgrims started to live on the western slope of Mount Carmel. We do not have any details as to who these first men were or how many of them there were. Somewhere around 1150 or a bit earlier these settlements must have occurred since from historical documents we have no mention of hermits much earlier than this.
Mount Carmel resonates with the history of the Old Testament and there was no greater prophet than St. Elijah in the history of Mt. Carmel. We can imagine the influence that mighty figure had on those who first lived in hermitage there. St. Elijah was a great model of both prayer and action. Around 1190 these Christian hermits living on Mt. Carmel constructed and dedicated their first chapel to Our Lady, demonstrating the important Marian character of the Order from the beginning. Carmelite spirituality has seen the small cloud that appeared at St. Elijah’s beckoning to end the three years of drought as a sign of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The ruins of this chapel still stand today. These hermits became known as the Brothers of St. Mary of Mt. Carmel.
From historic documents all that is know is of a prior with the initial "B", this person has normally been attributed as Berthold. Unfortunately much of Carmelite history is mixed with pious traditions and little historical basis. What we do know is that this Prior went to St. Albert of Jerusalem in the year 1206 to have a rule drawn up and to petition Rome for the acceptance of this new order. We do not know how much of this first rule was written by St. Albert or how much might have been contributed by then prior of this community. The Rule of St. Albert is a wondrous document which is both simple and direct but also contains greats depths pertaining to living the monastic life. Reforms of the order most always looked back at this document as a starting point and the rules written today also reflect much from to this document. This rule can be summarized as:
* Each hermit is to live in a cave or cell of his own.
* They are to spend their time meditating on the word of God and watching in prayer, unless other duties require their attention.
* Every morning they are to come together to celebrate the Eucharist.
* All they possess is to be held in common and distributed to each according to his age and needs.
* At least once a week, they are to come together to discuss the observance of the main points of the Rule and what concerns the salvation of their souls. This is the time to draw attention to any fault, be it in an individual or in the community as a whole, with a view to its correction.
* They are to be austere in their eating habits: no meat at any time, a fast from the Exaltation of the Holy Cross to Easter. It was accepted that delicate health, illness or any just cause could excuse one from the fast or abstinence, as necessity knows no law.
* The Patriarch then goes on to exhort them to live by faith, hope and charity and never to forget that life is an ongoing battle. Their whole energy must be directed, he said, towards loving God above everything else and loving their neighbor as themselves; and they were to look to the Lord alone for their salvation.
* Work, something essential in the whole monastic tradition,is to be an integral part of their way of life. Following the example of St. Paul, it can be a means of earning their livelihood as well as a means of avoiding idleness – the occasion of so many temptations.
* If they are to ponder God’s law day and night, then silence is indispensable. During the day they must avoid all unnecessary speech and at night – from Vespers till Terce next morning – all communication is forbidden.
* Should anyone wish to do even more than is required here, concludes Albert, he may do so, and the Lord will reward him when he comes. Let everything be done with that moderation which is the hallmark of all true virtue.
The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel was officially recognized by the church in 1222 by Pope Honorius III who approved the rule given by Saint Albert. These original Carmelites attempted in their mode of dress to approximate that of what St. Elijah wore. This was a long black tunic reaching to the ground, girded by a leather belt. Over this they wore a a cloak in imitation of Elijah’s mantle. They also added a cowl in initiation of European religious dress. Attached to this cowl was two pieces of cloth which hung down to the knees. This scapular was a practical addition which was used to protect the monk’s habit while they worked, but it was to become an article of deep religious significance in the Carmelite Tradition.
These first Carmelites spent most of their time in prayer but would come off the mountain at times to preach and to involve themselves in charitable endeavors. Over time living on Mt. Carmel became increasing difficult. Moslems invaded the community in 1263 and vandalized the small chapel at wadi ‘ain es-sich without destroying it. Pope Urban IV granted an indulgence to whomever would contribute to the restoration of this chapel and in 1264 this chapel was restored and enlarged. In 1291 with the fall of Acre this put a end for the time being of the Carmelite Order being able to stay on Mt. Carmel.