The Secular Carmelites are a Catholic lay movement within the Discalced Carmelite Order devoted to learning how to pray and serve the Lord in the spirit of Carmel. This involves us both in shared prayer and study in local groups and in a commitment to a personal prayer life.
Together we sit at the feet of the great Carmelite spiritual writers like our foundress St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, St Thérèse of Lisieux, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), St Elizabeth of the Trinity, Blessed Marie-Eugene, and many other spiritual guides less well known but sources of holy wisdom and spiritual nourishment.
The writings of the Carmelite saints offer an immense treasury of wisdom and experience available to all who want to know how to draw closer to God. Our purpose is to absorb their spirit in our daily lives as laypersons living in the world.
We are called ‘Seculars’ to distinguish us from the Discalced Carmelite Friars and Sisters (OCD) who take monastic vows and live under discipline in religious communities. We are part of the same Carmelite Order and are distinguished by the letters OCDS. We do not take monastic vows but we make promises – involving a commitment to living in allegiance to Christ, to be worked out through contemplative prayer and apostolic activity in the service of the Church.
Carmel – a gift to the Church and to the world
Carmel is not just about individual spiritual growth.
The treasures of the Carmelite spirit, Carmelite communities, Carmelite prayer, and Carmelite wisdom are also a gift to the wider Church.
Countless Catholics benefit from all this without actually being Carmelites themselves.
Our goal is to absorb as deeply as possible the spirituality of the great Carmelite saints.
Carmel is a fundamentally Catholic spirituality and as such it does not differ substantially from other traditions within the Church. Perhaps we can discern certain emphases – and they are only distinctions of emphasis – that guide us on our path.
Finding God in the dark – an idea very characteristic of St John of the Cross. He constantly reminds us that God is always there no matter how difficult or even terrible our lives are. God’s presence doesn’t depend on our feelings or our emotions, it is something objective and we hold out our hands in the dark to hang on to him as a child hangs on to its parent.
Divine Providence – along with this trust in God’s objective presence goes the conviction that, as St Thérèse teaches, ‘everything is grace’. We learn to discern God’s grace in whatever happens to us, whether it pleases us or consoles us or cheers us or not. God is in what happens to us and our task is to look for the graces in the tough experiences as much as in the pleasurable ones.
Wanting God and not God’s gifts – our foundress St Teresa of Avila has gone down in history for her ecstasies and the miraculous experiences she was granted, but she herself never tires of warning us not to look for these things, and with this St John of the Cross is in total agreement. We should not be put off our spiritual journey by any amount of aridity or low spirits or lack of any personal awareness of God – it is all about loving God for himself, not for what he can give us.
Silence and listening – the great Carmelite teachers are teachers of contemplative prayer and so they encourage us to listen for the voice of the Spirit by silencing our own inner voices and our own worries and hopes and fears and letting Him speak to us. This of course is a discipline that has to be learned, and the fact that we do it together in our meetings is a great asset to us on our journey into silence.
Passion – Carmel is for those who are not afraid to embark on a passionate love relationship with God, the kind of love relationship that is pictured in the Old Testament Song of Songs. Teresa, John of the Cross, and Thérèse all speak of their love for Jesus in these terms.
Our Lady, Mother of Carmel, and the scapular
The first friars living on Mount Carmel were known as the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.
Our Lady has been a patroness of the Order since the beginning and we are accustomed to look to her as a model of service to Our Lord through prayer. Her special care was embodied in her gift of the scapular to St Simon Stock in the early days of the Order’s establishment in Europe.
Seculars wear the scapular under their clothes as a sign of their allegiance to Carmel and to Our Lady.
Our history – or at least the history that matters – is the history of the Carmelite Order.
The origins of the Order are shrouded in the mists of time but we do know that it is the only Order in the Catholic Church that was actually founded in the Holy Land; and our name reflects not the name of a founder but the place where we originated – Mount Carmel.
History records that a community of hermits living on Mount Carmel asked Bishop Albert of Jerusalem for a rule in some time between 1206 and 1214. When or how they came to be there is not known; it is generally assumed that they came to the Holy Land with the Crusaders at some point after the First Crusade of 1096.
Carmelites cherish a delightful legend which connects them to St Elijah, for he lived in caves on Mount Carmel and had a school of prophets, from which this community of hermits is said to have been descended.
The community on Mount Carmel had to leave the Holy Land in 1291 when it was eventually conquered again by the Muslims. They took refuge in Europe where they embarked on a new form of life.
Originally the Carmelites were all friars and it was not until the mid-fifteenth century that an order of nuns was established, along with the Secular Order. Barely more than half a century later St Teresa of Avila was born (1515), and she entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in her home town. It was a very large institution with well over 100 religious sisters and although there was an established prayer routine, things were complicated by the fact that townsfolk were allowed in and out and there were paying guests alongside the nuns.
Teresa had a vision to renew the Order by creating small communities of sisters observing strict enclosure and dedicating themselves to a life of prayer. Although some did follow her, the Order as a whole did not and the result was the creation of a new Order, which became known as the Discalced Carmelites (OCD). ‘Discalced’ means ‘shoeless’ and it should be taken as symbolic of devotion to poverty, as the Discalced do in fact wear sandals or indeed shoes nowadays.
The existing Order continued and was known as ‘Calced’ (wearing shoes) or O.Carm. They entitle themselves the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance, and they have their own lay followers similar to ourselves known as the Carmelite Third Order.
Teresa founded seventeen convents in Spain, and the Order spread subsequently across Europe and eventually around the world. In addition to her work as foundress of the OCD Sisters, Teresa also founded the OCD friars, an enterprise in which she was ably assisted by the young St John of the Cross.
Since Teresa's time the Order has produced a great number of lesser-known but much-loved saints like the Pole St Raphael Kalinowski , St Mariam Bouardy from the Holy Land, and the Chilean St Teresa of the Andes. It has also produced martyrs like the Carmelite Sisters of Compiègne guillotined during the French Revolution and Spanish Sisters murdered during the Spanish Civil War – not to mention St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) murdered at Auschwitz. Edith, Jewish by birth, became a Catholic partly under the inspiration of St Teresa’s Book of her Life.
Our spirituality has touched multitudes both directly from the foundress and the founder but also indirectly through their disciples – especially the hugely inspirational Thérèse of Lisieux.
In modern times Pope St John Paul II wrote a doctoral thesis on St John of the Cross and as a young priest expressed a desire to be a Carmelite but was refused permission by his bishop. He wore a scapular all his life.
St Teresa continues to be a source of inspiration to many today and she is an object of fascination among feminists for her astonishing leadership qualities, her creativity, and her success in negotiating a male-dominated world.
St John of the Cross wrote poetry which found its way into the canon of classic Spanish literary works.
There are two dimensions to our commitments – the communal and the individual.
The communal and the individual balance each other and feed into each other.
We support each other in prayer as communities and each member’s spiritual growth nourishes the community.
Those of us who have been in Carmel for some time have discovered in these commitments a source of immense grace and nourishment for spiritual growth. Over the years, the rich teachings of our beautiful Carmelite saints infuse our lives with hope and purpose.
But spiritual growth takes time and may require great patience.
The Communal Dimension
This involves first of all attendance at local monthly meetings for prayer and study of Carmelite texts.
The times and formats and content of these meetings vary from place to place, but they usually include recitation of Morning or Evening Prayer; half an hour or so of silent prayer; study of a Carmelite text; a prayerful reading of Scripture; a time of socialising either over coffee or a shared meal. Depending on the circumstances, they may also involve attendance at Holy Mass.
Annual retreats are available at the Boars Hill Carmelite Priory outside Oxford or at Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire.
There are annual Regional Day conferences where members of the communities in each region meet together for shared prayer and spiritual refreshment and exchange of ideas.
There are also annual Carmelite Pilgrimages to Walsingham in which Seculars are encouraged to participate.
The Individual Dimension
The bedrock of our daily prayer is our commitment to a period of silent prayer each day.
We also commit ourselves – united with the communion of the faithful everywhere – to the private recital of the Morning and Evening Prayer of the Church at home – and to Night Prayer whenever possible.
In addition we engage in regular spiritual reading, and we attend weekday Eucharistic celebrations as far as work and family commitments allow.
If you would like to know more about the Seculars, please fill in the form on the Contact page and you will be contacted by a member of the Order. They will be able to give you further information and talk on the phone or arrange for someone to meet with you if you so wish.
Be assured that any information provided will be treated as confidential. Inquiries made in this way involve no commitment and you will not be contacted further unless you so wish.