John de Yepes joined the Carmelite friars in Medina del Campo, Spain, in 1563. After studying at Salamanca and ordination, John of the Cross joined some members of his convent in Durelo in 1568 to minister to the nuns of Teresa’s reformed order. They wore a habit of rough undyed wool and discarded their shoes. As a spiritual director and writer, he earned a reputation for deep holiness and for leading people into mystical experiences of prayer.
A great influence on the development of the Carmelite Order and spirituality was Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, better known as Teresa of Avila, who joined the Convent of the Incarnation in Avila, Spain in 1535 when she was 20 years old. When she was 39, influenced by her natural inclination for a simpler life, her study and reading of the Confessions of St. Augustine, felt a closer, more personal relationship to God. In 1562, she opened the Convent of St. Joseph in Avila, which was to have only 13 nuns and closely imitate the life of the hermits of Mount Carmel. She later founded 14 more of these reformed convents. For Teresa, Carmelite communities were to have no divisions, hierarchies, or special privilege. “All must be friends, all must be loved, all must be held dear, all must be helped,” she wrote.
During her short 24 years of life from 1873 to 1897, a Carmelite nun from Normandy, Therese of Lisieux, expressed amazing insights into life and a simple recipe for holiness. Her meditations on being a “little one” of God and putting all her trust in God led to an abandonment of her own way and desires, an emptying process that allowed space to be filled with God’s gifts.
Edith Stein, another martyr of the Holocaust, was an unlikely Carmelite. She grew up in an observant Jewish family in Wroclaw, Poland, but during her college years she could not believe in a personal God and called herself an atheist. Her studies included philosophy, psychology, and medieval Christian writers. She also read St. Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, which touched her deeply. In 1922, she was baptized in St. Martin Church, Bergzabern. In 1933, she joined the Carmel of Cologne and took the name Teresa Benedict of the Cross. Edith and her sister, Rosa, were both killed at Auschwitz in 1942. Edith was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1999.
The year after Therese died, Anno Brandsma joined the Carmelites in his home province of Friesland, Holland. Taking the name Titus, he delved into Carmelite history and brought his deep prayer practice to his studies at the Gregorian University in Rome and later, teaching assignments. In 1923, he helped Dutch bishops found a Catholic University in Nijmegen, Holland, where he later became rector. Titus was also a journalist and leader in the Catholic press. In 1940, German troops invaded Holland. By 1941, they had made it illegal for any priest or religious to direct a school or university; they were also placing severe limits on publishers. Titus remained an outspoken advocate for the Catholic press and religious freedom, and as a result was arrested in January 1942. He died in July that same year in Dachau. He was made Blessed by Pope John Paul II in 1985.