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St. Albert of Jerusalem: A Father Figure for Carmel

fr. Giovanni Grosso, O.Carm.

In St. John of Acre, on the northern tip of the Gulf of Haifa, on September 14, 1214, during a procession to celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, in which the whole “frankish” community, i.e. the Latin Christians, took part, along with other inhabitants of the city attracted by the event,

the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Albert Avogadro walked in the procession flanked by the canons of the Holy Sepulchre and other clerics. At a certain moment a figure jumped out of the crowd and lunged at the bishop beating him to death. The murderer, the master of the hospital of the Holy Spirit, wanted to take revenge for having been deposed by the bishop on the grounds of immorality.

Thus the patriarch Albert died, a victim of his commitment to a Church that is faithful to the Gospel. He was born of the Avogadri, a family of the middle nobility, sixty years earlier, around 1150. The place of his birth was most likely in Castel Gualtieri, now in the province of Reggio Emilia, then in the imperial territory of Piemonte, called in several ways: Lombardy, Italy ... Still a young man, in his early twenties and after initial studies of law, he chose religious life; not, however, a convenient, promising and rewarding career in the church, but the austere community life of the Canons Regular of Mortara, a common life of poverty, combining choral liturgical prayer and pastoral care. He became an authoritative interpreter of their rule of life, enough to gain the confidence of superiors and confreres and thus become master of novices and then prior in 1180.

Albert’s reputation grew to the point that, in 1184, he was elected bishop of Bobbio, where, however, he remained only a few months, because the following year he was assigned to lead the church of Vercelli, where he remained for twenty years. This period for him was very rich in pastoral and diplomatic activity, two very strong features in the life of Albert. In fact, he not only presided over the diocese but also represented the emperor in whose name he ruled the county of Vercelli. As bishop he worked with the Eusebian Church in the celebration of a diocesan synod (1191), from which sprang new Statutes, in large part the result of the foresight and expertise of the Bishop himself. This ancient legislation, unfortunately lost, would remain in force at least until the beginning of the seventeenth century, a sign of its concreteness and flexibility. Another concern was the formation of the diocesan clergy. Albert was praised by different popes, who on the occasion of disputes between bishops and canonical chapters or between neighboring diocese sent him as a mediator. These were also years of intense political activity; by all accounts the bishop always maintained good relations with the emperors Frederick I "Barbarossa" and his son, Henry VI , whom he accompanied several times on his travels in Italy. He did not have easy relations with the municipality of Vercelli, the consciousness of whose authority was increasing. Albert’s qualities of wisdom and legal expertise could be seen also during the reform of the Statutes of the chapters of the canons of Biella and those of St. Agatha and St. Mary Major in Vercelli. The bishop was also called to assist in the revision of the constitutions of the Umiliati, a new religious order, composed of lay people, religious and priests.

All of these activities, in addition to his fame as a spiritual man, meant that the canons of the chapter of the Holy Sepulchre would suggest his name to the Pope for Patriarch of Jerusalem. Innocent III (1198-1216) accepted the request and, having overcome the resistance of the candidate, sent him as patriarch of Jerusalem and the papal legate for the province of the Holy Land. In early 1206 Alberto arrived in Acre, the provisional seat of the patriarchate given that entry and residence in Jerusalem, then in the hands of the Saracen, was precluded. He busied himself immediately with improving the situation of the Latin Church in the Holy Land. As papal legate he intervened in the appointment of bishops and encouraged dialogue with the Saracens among the various factions and Christian authorities.

At that time the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem was reduced to little more than the coast of the Gulf of Haifa, the Lebanese territories and the island of Cyprus. After the battle of Hattin (1187), the Saracen control had been restored to almost all of the Holy Land. The promontory of Carmel was still among the territories controlled by the "Franks", and on its south-western slopes, in the Valley of the Pilgrims (Wadi 'ain es Siah), among the ruins of an ancient Byzantine laura, a group of Latin pilgrims, wanting to live as hermits in holy penance, settled sometime after 1189.

It was one of the many communities born in those years in the fertile soil of a society on the move and a church buzzing with questions about simplicity, the essence of things, and radical approaches to life. Western society was undergoing profound transformation: the old feudal structures, closed to outsiders, based on subsistence agriculture, with not much exchange with the locality, were giving way to new urban areas where the market was the centre of vitality as well as the bishop's palace, the mayor’s palace, the university. New social groups composed of merchants, artisans, professionals, were replacing the old social stratification of knights and peasants. Even in the Church movements of the poor and of evangelicals were spreading. Popular preachers, often lay people, travelled long distances covering vast spaces, fueling the hunger for the word of God. Hermits, on their own or in groups, settled in the wilderness or semi-deserts, becoming a point of attraction for many people. This was a time when the  yearning for a spiritual and religious Christian life, more essential and more rooted in the word of the Gospel, combined with the population explosion, the growth of wealth and, consequently, of social distinctions, the increase of university culture, social mobility, and other causes, produced a striking movement in the direction of the Holy Land, which accordingly gave rise to the crusades. The desire to travel to that land to meet the Lord by visiting the site of his earthly life, resulted in an intense movement of people, which was partially transformed into the armed pilgrimage that became known as the crusade.

In that context, the community of the Carmelite friar hermits came into being. For them, Alberto wrote the Formula of Life, the nerve centre of the Carmelite way of life that would in time become the Carmelite Rule. It is a short letter in which he described with rapid strokes their proposal, namely, the decision they took regarding their life and the nature of the group. They wanted a brotherhood of hermits obedient to a prior, gathered around Jesus Christ, in constant prayerful meditation on His word, fed by the Eucharist, in silence, work, poverty, discernment and fraternal dialogue.

In it appears for the first time the DNA of the group (what would technically be called charism). It was composed of the essential elements of Christian and religious life, but combined in an original way. Charity, prayer, the centrality of Christ, service, all of this and every other element of the spiritual life was moulded into a harmonious shape that gave the group and its members the grace to remain in constant pursuit of the face of Christ, to be transformed by the Spirit and live in full communion with the Father and, therefore, with the brothers. The ideal image of the first community of Jerusalem, as described in the Acts of the Apostles (2:42-47, 4:32-35, 5:12-16) formed the strong structural beacon for the first Carmelites; it is difficult to determine if the idea had been suggested by themselves or by Albert, but certainly the patriarch included it in the composition of the Formula of Life and therefore the articulation of all its elements.

Alberto, once again, and we don’t know exactly how, but it must have been in dialogue with the hermits themselves, managed to bring together a variety of aspirations as they appear in the Formula of Life. First of all, we find the strong injunction to follow Jesus, right in the place where he lived and sacrificed himself and gave new life in the resurrection. It was the ideal of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a recurring theme in the Christian tradition. It meant a journey of progressive transformation in which the hermits came to an experience of the resurrection from the dead and passed from a carnal way of life to a spiritual way. In that way the Carmelites became brothers, capable of building the kind of community in which it is possible to encounter the Lord, and be willing to serve the sisters and brothers in the people of God. there was a desire to follow Jesus in apostolic poverty s a sign of what is essential in life and of a radical dependence on God, characteristic of many poverty movements at that time. There was a call to the solitude of the desert, somewhat mitigated by community or cenobitic elements, that expressed the desire to seek the Lord as the one absolute and to live in intimacy with him. The need for spiritual combat is expressed in the invitation to put on the armour of God (cf. Eph 6:11-17), which gives us an interesting reading of the mentality of that time, with its notions of chivalry and its interest in crusades.

The desire to contribute to the reform of the Church is expressed in chosing to venerate Mary, the Mother of the Lord, the Lady of the Place, of Carmel itself, and or the entire Holy Land, won by the blood of her Son: the oratory that the brothers built in the midst of the cells was dedicated to her. Right from the beginning this devotion to Mary contained all the elements that would evolve with time throughout the Order’s many centuries of history. The same was true of the choice of Elijah as an ideal model. There was a strong link between him and the place where the hermits  chose to live, (near the spring, commonly known as the spring of Elijah). It became the reason for the identification and for the call to a prophetic life, understood as the call to freely and frankly proclaim what God wants for human history.

Some authors have attempted to define Albert’s specific contribution and his role in the foundation of Carmel; these are hypotheses based on what are often fragile proofs and not always fully verified. If it is plausable to attribute to Albert the writing of the letter that contains the formula for life (something that the sources have never put in doubt), if we can, in addition, give Albert credit for the biblical quotations and references, both direct and indirect, (so many that someone was inspired to say that the formula of life is the result of a lectio divina), we still cannot say with total certainty what parts or what ideas are exclusively the thought or the feeling of the patriarch and what comes from the wishes of the hermits themselves. They in fact already lived on Mount Carmel and they had seen their propositum take shape from the beginning (Rule 3). Nevertheless I think we can attribute to the experience of Albert, canon of the Holy Cross of Mortara, at least the indication of St. Paul as a model (Rule 20): a very special gift of the patriarch to the Carmelites.  

Mention of the apostle would prove, consciously or otherwise, to be of great help to the friars when they began to think about their apostolate, explicitly and directly, without taking anything away from the original charismatic contemplative dimension that was proper to them. On the other side, Paul was a mystic (cf 2 Cor 12,1-10), a man of deep prayer (Rm 16,25-27; 2Cor 2,14; Eph). 3,14-21). Similarly we might see as the legacy of Albert the strong ecclesial nature of the text of the Formula of Life, that supported the commitment of the Carmelites of the time to the life of the Church and the work of evangelisation.

All of this meant that the Carmelite eremitical community on Mount Carmel would not be close in on itself, in some kind of jealous narcissism around their own choice and their own lifestyle. The friars opened up to the world and to history, without forgetting their origins, or their own DNA. Encouraged by the growth in their numbers and by the pressure coming from the Saracens and from the dangerous nature of the place, they decided to begin their migration towards the West from where the first penitent-pilgrims had originally set out. Thus, in addition to the foundations in the Holy Land and in Cyprus, Carmelite houses were opened in Sicily and in Italy, (Messina and then Pisa), in England (Aylesford in Kent, Hulne in Northumbria), in Provence (Les Aygalades and Valenciennes) and in Germany (Koln).

 The Formula of Life of St. Albert continued to shape the life of the friars and then it became a Rule recognised and approved with some important additions and modifications by Pope Innocent IV, (1st of October, 1247). The attention to essentials, the flexibility and the dynamism of the text make it an attractive point of reference, one capable of providing nourishment and inspiration to many groups among the faithful, religious and lay, who together make up the Carmelite Family.

Now the letter that Albert gave to the friar hermits who lived near the spring of Elijah is more than 800 years old, but it has lost nothing of its freshness, and as it is the child of times of change, it has been possible to adapt it to all kinds of new situations, with an openness to the hope that God has for humankind.

shieldOCarm

As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."