The Carmelite Order began around the start of the 13th century, when a small group of Western pilgrims settled on Mt Carmel in Palestine. They lived a simple life of prayer and manual labour, and followed a ‘rule’ or ‘formula for life’ given to them by St Albert of Jerusalem.
When the situation in Palestine became unstable, the hermits moved back to Europe. They adapted to their new conditions, adopting the lifestyle of itinerant preachers alongside other orders of friars such as the Dominicans and Franciscans.
Women too were attracted to the Carmelite values of prayer and community, silence and solitude. At first they gathered in small informal communities, but from 1452 they were allowed to form proper monasteries and became official members of the Order.
In 1535 St Teresa of Avila entered one of these monasteries in Spain. The community had grown large, and Teresa recognised that some of the original Carmelite ideals had become lost. In 1562 she established a new house of just 13 nuns (although this was later increased to 21). They were to live as a small community of friends entirely dedicated to prayer, silence and solitude.
Over the next twenty years Teresa founded another 16 of these monasteries. She visited them regularly and wrote several books outlining her understanding of prayer and how the nuns should live.
After Teresa’s death in 1582, her reform spread across Europe and the New World, and Teresian Carmelite monasteries are now found throughout the world. Times and conditions have changed, but Teresa’s basic vision has proved to be as relevant in the 21st century as it was five hundred years ago. It is this life that the Carmelite nuns live today.
The Carmelite crest is shared by all members of the Carmelite Family. It first appeared at the end of the 15th century and has subsequently developed with the addition of new features.
There are various interpretations of the symbolism of the crest, but the basic elements can be understood in the following way.
The mountain at the centre of the shield represents Mt Carmel and the original home of the Order. It is sometimes topped with a cross, representing Christ as the goal of our spiritual journey.
The three stars have been variously interpreted as representing Christ, Mary, and Elijah; or Mary and the two prophets Elijah and Elisha. Other interpretations suggest that the two stars at the top symbolise Mary and Elijah, while the star still ascending the mountain stands for Carmelites still journeying to God.
The crown above the shield symbolises the kingdom of God, from which emerges the fiery sword of Elijah who burned with zeal for God. His statement, ‘Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum’ (I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts), surrounds the shield.
Finally, the twelve stars surrounding the shield represent the queenship of Mary as envisioned in the book of Revelation 12.1; ‘a woman clothed with the sun […] and on her head a crown of twelve stars.’