The cornerstone of formation for the members of the Carmelite Family today as in centuries past is the Rule of St. Albert. The text was originally in the form of a letter, a formula vitae written by the hand of Albert, patriarch of Jerusalem and subsequently mitigated, corrected, and approved as Regula bullata by Innocent IV in 1247. It is the ideal and most practical reference for anyone called to “live in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.” The various reforms of Carmel throughout its long history are nothing other than attempts to reread the Rule itself, to reinterpret and update it, according to the current cultural and religious environment.
Not one of the so-called “four great Rules” within the Church, the Rule of the Carmelites is nevertheless a powerful document with multilayers of interpretation. The authentic text of the formula vitae from Albert has not come down to us. The most ancient text of the primitive Rule without adaptations is found in the Institutio primorum monachorum. However, this a compilation of many texts— some dubious, other no doubt fake— by Philip Ribot dating from the 14th century. The 1247 modification of the Rule, granted with the letter of Innocent IV Quae honorem Conditoris omnium, contains the full text of the Rule.
The text was originally solid but was broken into separate paragraphs to facilitate speaking about the Rule— as early as the bull of Alexander IV in 1256, ornate initial capital letters were added. These text divisions have been periodically revised over the years, the most recent being in 1999. Today the Rule consists of 1600 words, divided into paragraphs, the shortest of which is just 22 words long.
Some of the very scarce historical details known about the founding of the Carmelites comes from the Rule itself. The origins are in the Holy Lady, on Mount Carmel, “near the well” connected by biblical and popular tradition to the prophet Elijah. The person who received the formula vitae is unknown, simply listed as “B” in the document. Later he would be called Brocard but continues to be unknown. The lack of a known founder (Albert was not a Carmelite and the group existed before Albert’s involvement) saves the Order from being forever linked to a particular charismatic person. Rather the group is linked to Mount Carmel, where they lived.
The original project on Mount Carmel brought together men with a deep dedication to non-negotiable realities which are essential for the eremitical calling: prayer, solitude, silence, and some form of manual labor. Even after the mitigation of the Rule, elements of the eremitical lifestyle remained: living in uninhabited places, construction and assignment of separated cells, etc. Until the second half of the 13th century, the only title applied to Carmelites was “hermit.” Other structures in Carmel were equally applicable to mendicants. This would be silence, manual labor, meditation on the Law of the Lord, continual prayer, spiritual armor, fast and abstinence. It is worth noting that the Rule of Carmel still guaranteed possibility of eremitical life even after its mitigations.
Albert’s “formula vitae” is very scripture centered. Obviously, Albert was a man who read and prayed and meditated upon the Scriptures. Scripture penetrates his very thinking and writing; Scriptural references and analogies come naturally to him. He is a man who lived his life focused on the Word of God and Gospel values.
He did not impose his own ideas on the group of hermits who would become the Carmelites. He listened to what they told him about their current way of life, and he adapted it and gave it structure—a man of wisdom and discernment. He is careful not to be too demanding or rigid—he stresses the importance of common sense, interpreting what has to be done. This openness and flexibility give a great “human feel” to the Carmelite Rule. It also suggests that one can achieve new heights in spirituality by following one’s common sense.
The Rule is extremely flexible: the norm is clearly stated but allowances are made alternatives when necessary. For example, the Rule calls for the Carmelites “ to live in solitary areas – or where they are given to you as long as they are suitable and convenient for the observance of your religious life;” (#5) or “listen in common to some reading of Sacred Scriptures, where this can be done conveniently” (#7) or “all are to remain in their cells (rooms) or near them … unless they are occupied with other worldly activities” (#10). Rigidity is not required for one to find God.
The Rule promotes rather democratic practices within the community, even for today. What cave or cell to live in is a decision for the “the prior and the brothers (the community)” (#6). It is not the decision of one. The Rule also promotes responsibility towards each other: “excesses and faults of the brothers should be corrected by means of love.” (#15)
With his codification of the life to be lived on Mount Carmel, Albert deliberately created “open spaces” in his Rule— areas where God could come into the person and reside. He allows for exceptions, some of which are mentioned above. When writing about the fast, Alberto outlines the ideal and then permits the exception, “unless sickness of bodily weakness or some other worthy reason suggests the fast be broken.” He then explains that this exception is permissible “for necessity has no law.” Albert also allowed for adaptations of the ideal: while everything is to be held in common, it is to be “distributed to each according to his need … taking into account the age and needs of each” (#12). He also lays out alternatives to what he proposes in the Rule: Those who know how to say the canonical hours (the Office) are to say them; however, “those who do not know them are to say the Our Father 25 times for the night vigil.” (#11) The search for God is open to all, regardless of situation and ability.
In reality, Albert was interested in providing these men with a set of practices and exercises to be interiorized: obedience, remaining in the cell, meditating on the Scripture, saying prayers, keeping vigil, praying psalms, sharing goods, coming together for the Eucharist, fasting and abstinence, working in silence. All of these exercises are oriented towards “purity of heart” (“Purity of Heart” is perhaps better thought of or visualized as a vacare Deo, a heart emptied of everything but God.)