A Discalced Carmelite friarprepares to take his vows.
“They seem to be very good monks, but they aren’t Carmelites” I was at a forum celebrating the fifth centenary of the birth of Saint Teresa of Avila when a member of the audience asked the panel of speakers about the “Mystic Monks” coffee producers of Cody Wyoming. The speaker went on to explain: “Carmel is a family of religious friars, cloistered nuns, and various congregations of Third Order Sisters as well as affiliated laity that date back to the early 13th century when Saint Albert of Jerusalem wrote a “Formula for Life” (Formula Vitae) for a small band of lay hermits who lived on Mount Carmel. Within a few years of their foundation, the lay hermits had become formal religious; their Formula Vitae, a religious Rule; and they themselves aggregated into the Mendicant Friars along with other Lay hermit groups such as today’s Franciscans and Augustinians. For two and a half centuries there were only Carmelite men but then in the middle of the fifteenth century the Order began receiving women as nuns as well as Laity into a “Third Order.” In the nineteenth century groups of apostolic women affiliated with one or the other branch of the Carmelite Order. In the last decade of the sixteenth century the Order was split between the reform movement led by Saints Teresa and John of the Cross and the original branch of the Order. The reformed group became known as the Discalced Carmelite Order, the original group is known simply as “The Carmelites.” To be a Carmelite, part of the Carmelite family, you must be affiliated to one of these two Pontifically recognized families, even if your group is not a Pontifical Right Community but a local diocesan community. The monks in Cody are not affiliated with either group and are not recognized by the Carmelite family as authentic Carmelites. But they do make great coffee none the less.”
I took the speaker’s suggestion and I called each of the Provincial Offices of both the Carmelite Order and the Order of Discalced Carmelites and each gave me the same response that the “Carmelite Monks” of Cody Wyoming are not affiliated in any way with the Carmelite Order or with the Discalced Carmelites. One of the Provincial Offices gave me this description of the origins of the Monks:
“In the late 1980’s a diocesan priest with ties to the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Lake Elmo MN wished to establish a community of Carmelite hermits. The nuns gave him some land on which to build their hermitage and the good Father gathered his community. Although they enjoyed the good will of the nuns they had no canonical ties to the larger Carmelite Order and their founder more or less pieced together what he thought Carmelite hermits should be, borrowing a lot of the customs from the nuns. Their hope was to be received into the Discalced Carmelites but when they approached the Discalced Carmelite authorities in Rome they were rejected because while the Discalced Carmelites value the tradition of hermits they do not see it as a permanent vocation. In the Discalced Carmelite Tradition, friars go to a hermitage for a period of between two and five years but then return to a more apostolic life. Being turned down by the Discalced Carmelites, the founder approached the Carmelites who were more open to the idea of an eremitical life. They were received into the Carmelite Order in the early 1990’s, but the subprior of the group was not happy with the proposed affiliation to the Carmelite Order and left with several of the brothers to form the Carmelite Monks. They had never received a proper novitiate in the Carmelites before they left and their subsequent development indicates that while they know some of the “fluff” in the Carmelite Tradition, they miss the substance of Carmelite Life and Spirituality.”
I was referred to a Carmelite historian who for many years taught Carmelite history and spirituality and I asked him “If the original hermits on Mount Carmel were monks, why is it so impossible for these monks to be considered to be authentic Carmelites?” The professor explained:
“The hermits on Mount Carmel weren’t monks. There never have been “monks” in the Carmelite tradition. There were two types of hermits in the 12th and 13th centuries. There were monastic hermits such as the Camaldolese or the Carthusians or even individual monks in cenobitic abbeys who had permission to live as hermits on the monastic grounds or one of the abbey’s granges. And there were lay hermits who were men who consecrated themselves to live without personal property and support themselves by manual labor and alms. They also dedicated themselves to live without corporate wealth and shunned big monasteries and the sort of institutions the monks had for support. Lay hermits tended to live in smaller groups, often attached to an insignificant church which other priests did not want. Their convents (they called their houses “convents” or friaries or priories and avoided the word “monastery” to describe their home) were functional but very simple compared to the great monastic abbeys. The lay hermits gave themselves to prayer and to a limited apostolate of what we would call today “street-corner preaching” as well as work with lepers and others on the margins of society. The hermits on Mount Carmel were of this lay hermit sort, not of the monastic model. Other religious orders today who have their origins in the lay hermit movement are the Franciscans and Augustinians. The Monks at Cody seem to have adopted the Monastic Model, notably the Carthusian idea of a large Church surrounded by a cloister containing the “hermit houses” or multi-room cells of the Carthusian or Camaldolese or Vallambrosian models. This is totally foreign to the Carmelite tradition which both on Mount Carmel and in the Teresian Reform avoided display in favor of a simplicity that testified to the corporate poverty of the Mendicant movement.”
“Another difference—and an essential one—is that Carmelite men were never enclosed or “cloistered.” Carmelite nuns are traditionally enclosed because at the time the first houses of Carmelite women were established, it was canon law for all religious women in vows to be cloistered. I always tell the nuns when I am doing workshops that they are cloistered not because they are Carmelites, but because they are women. To “cloister” the men is a bit of an historical anachronism, a sign that these fellows in Cody are “making it up as they go along.” They have this romanticized version of the Carmel and its heritage that is more Sir Walter Scott’s novels than Saint Albert’s Rule. I am not saying that they aren’t good men or that they don’t make great coffee or even that they are good monks: but they aren’t Carmelites. They don’t understand the heritage.”
Another idiosyncrasy that was pointed out is that while the Carmelite Monks claim to be attached to the Discalced Carmelite Tradition, they use—without any canonical authority—the post-Tridentine version of the Carmelite Rite. The Discalced Carmelites, from the time of their separation from the Carmelite Order, renounced the distinctive Carmelite Rite for the Roman Rite as found in the 1570 Missal of Pius V. While some Carmelite friars have been given permission to use the old Rite, this authorization has not been extended to the Discalced Carmelites since it never was part of their heritage. The Local Bishop can, of course, give any priest authorization for the 1570 Roman Missal, and indeed according to some interpretations of Summorum Pontificum, such permission is not even needed. Permission to use the medieval or Tridentine versions of the specific religious orders is restricted to members of those Orders and so is not available to the Monks at Cody since they are not recognized as members of the Carmelite Order.
“What the Monks seem to have grabbed at are the particular customs of the Order in the sixteenth century—things like having a skull on the tables in the refectory to remind us of our mortality, or the use of the ‘discipline’ (the scourge or small whip used on penitential days for self-flagellation). They like customs such as ‘kneeling out’ when late for choir or refectory or the monastic tonsure or the Solemn Salve Regina on Saturday evenings. There is nothing wrong with much of this stuff, but it isn’t at the heart of Carmel. The Cody monastery is more about playing at Religious Life than the serious spiritual heritage of Carmel.”
What is going on here is what is going on in much of the Church where neo-traditionalism has set in. there is an attempt to refashion the present into an idealized and romanticized version of the past. It reduces the Church to an ecclesiastical Colonial Williamsburg rather than a community of Disciples with the Divine Mission of heralding the Kingdom of God. It betrays a lack of historical knowledge and an ability to critically evaluate the data of the past in determining the present and charting the future. It is no way for our Church to go. It is not what Pope Francis is about and it isn’t even an authentic interpretation of the agenda that Pope Benedict had for the Church. But the boys in Cody do make great coffee. Ya gotta give ‘em that.