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The History of the Carmelite Liturgy

Bartholomew Quinn, O.Carm.

It is often true to say that the present is deeply rooted in the past; it is certainly very true to say so of the Carmelite Rite as we have it today. For that body of liturgical books — the Missal, the Breviary, the Ceremonial, and the rest — which directs the liturgical life of the Order, has not remained unchanged in the course of centuries. Rather, the Carmelite Rite as we know it today is the result of seven centuries of development,

modification and revision. So it is, that, if we wish to understand and appreciate the present state of the Carmelite Rite, we must follow it in its history. And surely, to know, love and appreciate the Rite of our Order is a duty incumbent upon every Carmelite; for our Rite is a family treasure, an heirloom that has ever been dear to the hearts of Carmelites in centuries past, and which is now handed on to us to be preserved and cherished. And so, this article on the history of the Carmelite Rite has been written in the hope that it may be of some assistance to our Carmelite Sisters who wish to know and appreciate better the Rite of their Order. Needless to say, the subject matter contained in this article is not original. On the contrary, it is almost entirely dependent on the scholarly research of Fr. Gabriel Wessels, O. Carm., Fr. Benedict Zimmerman, O.C.D., and Fr. Augustine Forcadell, O. Caren.; but the fact that for many of our Sisters Latin works are of little use seemed to justify an English article on the Carmelite Rite.

I. The Rite of the Holy Sepulchre, the first official liturgy of the Carmelites

The one thing that almost everyone knows about the Carmelite Rite is that it is somehow derived from the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre. An examination of a passage in the Rule given by St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, to the hermits on Mt. Carmel about 120o, explains just how the Carmelites came to adopt this ancient liturgy. In his chapter on the Divine Office, St. Albert prescribes: " Let those who know how to read and to recite the Psalms, say, for each of the Canonical Hours, those Psalms which, by the institution of the Holy Fathers and the approved usage of the Church, have been assigned to the various hours".

Thus, the norm which the Rule imposed upon the Carmelites for the direction of their liturgical life was " the approved usage of the Church ". For the Carmelites, this "approved usage of the Church " meant the liturgical uses of the ecclesiastical province in which they dwelt, namely, the province of Jerusalem; and since the metropolitan church of this province or diocese was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Carmelites, in following the prescript of their Rule, received the liturgy of the Holy Sepulchre. This conclusion is confirmed by some of the most ancient Carmelite liturgical documents we possess. Thus, in the Ordinal (1) written by Sibert de Beka at the beginning of the fourteenth century, we read: " Here begins the Ordinal of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, extracted and drawn from the approved usage of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, within the boundaries of which the Order of the aforesaid Brothers had its beginning ". Again, the Constitutions of the Chapter of Barcelona (2324) prescribe: "Let them celebrate the Divine Office uniformly, according to the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre ". Furthermore, the fact that the Carmelite liturgy is derived from the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre is confirmed by a thorough analysis of the contents of both Rites. Thus, the first step in our study of the history of Carmelite liturgy will be to examine the Rite imposed upon the Carmelites by their Rule, namely, the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre.

II. The Rite of the Holy Sepulchre: a. Gallican Liturgy

It is natural, when hearing the words, "Rite of the Holy Sepulchre", "Rite of the Church of Jerusalem ", to imagine an Oriental liturgy. However, this is an altogether false concept, for the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre was an almost purely Gallican liturgy (a term we shall explain later), as we know from both external and internal testimony.

For outside evidence of this fact, we have the testimony of William of Tyre (2) who, writing about Godfrey de Bouillon, describes the birth of the Holy Sepulchre liturgy: "Thus, a few days after he had received the kingdom, religious man as he was, he began to offer to the Lord the first fruits of .his solicitude for the matters that concern the splendour of the house of God. For he at once established Canons in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and in the Temple of the Lord, preserving the order and arrangement which the wealthy and extensive churches beyond the mountains (3), founded by pious rulers, observe ". In this passage which gives us the key to the beginning of the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre, the author is speaking of the capture of Jerusalem by the crusaders in 1099. Godfrey de Bouillon was a French Duke who played a prominent part in the crusade which culminated in the taking of Jerusalem on July i5th, 1099. Godfrey was placed in charge of the newly-formed, but short-lived kingdom of Jerusalem, although he refused the title of king. The important thing for us to notice is the fact that the Canons whom Godfrey established to perform the divine services in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and who were, for the most part, of French nationality, continued to observe in their duties, the liturgical uses of the churches of Gaul.

This fact is confirmed by internal evidence, by a comparison of the contents of the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre and the Rites of the churches of Gaul. From such an analysis, it seems that the liturgy of the church of Paris (4) exercised the greatest influence on the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre; for, besides various ceremonies identical in both Rites, we find many Parisian Saints in the Jerusalem calendar, and it is interesting to note that there are Parisian names among the lists of the first Canons of the Holy Sepulchre. However, the Church of Paris was not the only Gallican church to influence the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre; on the contrary, we find in this Rite sequences and tropes (5) originating from Nevers, as well as Saints from the calendar of various other churches of Gaul, such as Angers, Rheims, and Limoges. Moreover, from the similarity between the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre and that of the church of Salisbury in England (the Sarum Rite, as it is called), it would seem that the church of Rouen in Normandy, from which the Sarum Rite originated, exercised a considerable influence on the liturgy of the Holy Sepulchre. Thus, we may designate the twelfth century Rite of the Holy Sepulchre as a typical medieval Gallican liturgy, a statement which calls for a rather long, but necessary, explanation of the term " Gallican liturgy ".

According to an ancient philosophical method, we may begin by saying what we do not mean by the term "Gallican liturgy". When we use these words we do not mean the ancient Gallican Rite in use until the eighth century, no more than we wish to signify the ancient Rite of Rome when we speak of the " Roman Rite ". Concerning the origin and history of these two ancient liturgies there is very little known, and liturgical historians propose various theories about them. At all events, we can describe the ancient Gallican Rite, or rather the Gallican family of Rites, as the liturgical usage employed in Gaul and the surrounding territories up to the time of Charlemagne, i.e., the eighth century; while the ancient Roman Rite may be considered as the liturgy in use at Rome until the tenth century, and perhaps even later.

Historical circumstances before the eighth century did not favor a healthy development and preservation of the ancient Gallican liturgy. In the first place, there was no outstandingly predominant church in Gaul, no authority sufficiently powerful to direct the development of the Gallican Rite, to prevent the entrance of abuses that spring up so easily and severely damage the spirit of the liturgy. (We must remember that, in these ages, the rigid liturgical legislation which we take for granted today was unheard of, and that, consequently, the liturgy was far more flexible and changeable than it is today). Because of •this lack of central authority, endless variations sprang up in different regions, with the result that, as time went on, the widespread lack of uniformity in the non-Roman liturgies demanded that something should be done to remedy the situation.

At the same time, circumstances favored the diffusion of the liturgy in use at Rome; as has always been the case, Rome was a center for pilgrims from all parts of Europe, and many of these pilgrims, impressed by the manner in which the divine services were carried out at Rome, and wishing to imitate it, took back with them to their own countries masters of liturgy and chant. Moreover, many rulers, who, for religious and political motives, wished to be in closer union with the Holy See, strove to promote the adoption of the Roman liturgy, while the Pontiffs themselves were eager that liturgical uniformity should be instrumental in safeguarding uniformity in faith and discipline. All these circumstances paved the way for the changes that began under Charlemagne. Anxious to remedy the widespread lack of liturgical uniformity in his kingdom, Charlemagne obtained from Pope Adrian (who reigned from 771 till 79,5) a Gregorian Sacramentary, a book which contained the authentic Roman liturgy as it was being used in Rome at the time of Adrian. At the command of Charlemagne, Alcuin, who was master of the Palatine school at the court of the Emperor, provided a supplement for the Gregorian Sacramentary, in which he prescribed many additions from various Gallican sources, in order to adapt the Sacramentary to the character of the Gallican peoples. The result was a compromise between the ancient Roman and Gallican liturgies, a certain " Gallico-Roman " liturgy. This liturgy became extraordinarily popular, and all over Gaul and the surrounding territories it succeeded in supplanting the ancient Gallican usages; its popularity invaded even Rome itself, and eventually it came to take the place of the old Roman usage, and became the basis of the Roman Rite used by the Latin Church today.

However, the Gallico-Roman liturgy did not succeed in establishing complete uniformity, for local varieties soon began to spring up. This may seem strange to us, but we must remember that in the Middle Ages the liturgy was not governed by hard and fast rules, but was rather the spontaneous expression of the devotion of the people. And so it was that there arose such Rites as those of Rouen, Sarum, Cologne, Paris and many others, — Rites, which, while they remained fundamentally the same as the Gallico-Roman liturgy as it was used in Rome, nevertheless added to it many accidental, local varieties. And it is in this sense that we speak today of the Roman Rite and the Gallican Rite; namely, by the Roman Rite we mean the Gallico-Roman Rite as it was observed at Rome; by the Gallican Rite, we mean this same Rite as it was observed in the churches of Gaul.

Thus, the conclusion we came to above, namely, that the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre, established as it was by French Canons after the crusade, was a typical Galilean liturgy, should now have more meaning. However, in the course of time, this Rite at Jerusalem was, in turn, embellished by certain local influences. This was quite an understandable development, for, when the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre celebrated in their Divine Office the mysteries of Christ, of His Passion, Death and Resurrection, they were doing so in the very places where these Mysteries were first enacted. So it was natural that this fact should encourage the Canons to celebrate the Mysteries of our Redemption — and more especially the Resurrection — with great solemnity. Hence the Canons instituted various processions and other ceremonies on the principal feasts of Our Lord, such as Easter, the Ascension, etc. Two of the processions proper to the Carmelite Rite, and still prescribed in our Missal, namely, the processions before the Conventual Mass on the feasts of the Ascension and the Assumption, are precious relics of the solemnities performed by the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre in the very places where these Mysteries actually occurred. Suffice it to mention this fact in passing, as we hope to speak about it more fully later.

Throughout the liturgical year, the presence of Christ's tomb in the Church where the Canons held their choir services, influenced the structure of the Divine Office. Thus, every Saturday from Easter to Advent, a solemn procession to the chapel of the Resurrection was held; and on Sundays (unless it was a great feast or the Sunday within the Octave of the Ascension), a Solemn Mass of the Resurrection was sung, the proper Mass of the Sunday being sung with less solemnity earlier in the morning. Moreover, from the Sunday after the Octave of Pentecost, the gospel of the Resurrection was read during Matins of the Divine Office, and, finally, on the last Sunday before Advent, a Solemn Commemoration of the Resurrection was celebrated with a proper office and a major rite. From this solemn devotion to the Resurrection, we retain in our Breviary the commemoration of the Resurrection, Et valde mane, which we recite at Lauds on certain Sundays of the year.

Apart from these solemnities, introduced by the Canons because of the sacred memories attached to the holy places, the Latin liturgy of the Holy Sepulchre does not seem to have undergone any influence of the Oriental liturgies. This was natural enough, for the Oriental and the Latin minds were entirely diverse, and there could be little in the Oriental liturgies, expressions of Oriental sentiments and devotion, that would appeal to the Latin mind of the French Canons. And so, to sum up all that we have said about the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre, the liturgy imposed upon the Carmelites by the Rule, we may describe it as a typical Gallico-Roman liturgy, established in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the French Canons who accompanied Godfrey de Bouillon's crusade, and enriched by devotions and ceremonies that naturally sprang up in the holy places where the Mysteries of the Redemption had been performed.

It is interesting to trace the subsequent history of the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre. When some of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre returned to Europe, they established their Rite in many places. Thus — as Papebroch, the seventeenth century writer of the Acta Sanctorum, observes — they gave back to Europe what they had received from it. According to the same author, the diocese of Utrecht (in Holland) alone had twenty four houses of these Canons of the Holy Sepulchre and seven houses of their nuns. Likewise, for many years the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre flourished among the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, in the islands of Rhodes and Malta. Today, however, our Carmelite Rite is the only one that preserves vestiges of the ancient liturgy of the Holy Sepulchre, which, in spite of the many changes and developments it underwent in the hands of the Carmelites, remained the underlying foundation of the Carmelite Rite.

III. The Holy Sepulchre Liturgy on Mount Carmel

It is natural to expect that the hermits of Mount Carmel, when they adopted the liturgy of the Holy Sepulchre, would be unable to carry it out in its entirety. They were men accustomed to a simple life of solitude and silence, and moreover, their hermitages on Mt. Carmel were not equipped with all the facilities for liturgical splendor that were available in the large Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. The original Albertine Rule explicitly prescribed at least one liturgical assembly each day: " An oratory sufficiently large, shall be constructed in the middle of the cells, where you shall gather early each day to hear Mass, where this can be conveniently done " (Chapter 8). The recitation of the Divine Office was also prescribed: "Let those who know how to read and to recite the Psalms, say, for each of the Canonical Hours, those Psalms which, by the institution of the Holy Fathers and the approved usage of the Church, have been assigned to the various hours " (Chapter 6). But whether this recitation was choral or not, we are not certain. According to the Chronicon of WilLiam of Sanvico, the Divine Office was being recited chorally on Mount Carmel in 1254, and it would seem from Chapter 14 of St. Albert's Rule, where Vespers and Terce are assigned as the beginning and the end of strict silence, that choral recitation was the custom from the beginning. Thus, in the lack of more definite information concerning the liturgical life of the hermits on Mount Carmel, we may state as probable that, while they accepted the general outline of the Holy Sepulchre liturgy, they introduced whatever modifications were necessary to adapt this liturgy to the circumstances of their life.

IV. The Carmelite Liturgy in Europe

As is well known, the thirteenth century was, for the Order of Carmel, a century of great change, a period when the Order underwent a transformation which had tremendous effects upon its whole life, and, naturally, upon its liturgy also. This great change was the transplanting of the Order from Palestine to Europe. The increasing danger of Saracen persecution in the first half of the thirteenth century had prompted some of the Carmelite hermits to leave the Holy Land, and in the Chapter held on Mount Carmel in 1237, general migration wa3 permitted. How quickly this migration took place we cannot judge, but we have definite evidence that Carmelites settled at Valenciennes in 1235; moreover, at the time of the Aylesford Chapter in 1247, the Order had houses in England, France, Sicily and Cyprus, besides the older hermitages in various parts of Palestine. Thus, the Order suddenly found itself invested with a certain international character, and placed in circumstances which demanded radical changes. The simple, inexpensive life of the Palestinian hermitages was no longer possible in the populous regions of Western Europe, and the Carmelites found themselves face to face with the fact that they must adopt some way of life that would bring concrete support. Given the conditions of the Europe of that age, the one way of life that presented itself as the obvious pattern according to which the Carmelite hermits must adapt themselves, was the way of life of the mendicant friars. Everything pointed to this. Already in 1229 Gregory IX had established among the Carmelites the mendicant principle of poverty, forbidding them the limited rights of possession enjoyed by the monastic communities. Moreover, when the Carmelites came to Europe, the mendicant Orders were enjoying an extraordinary popularity; the Dominicans, especially, were flourishing, and from 1239, this Order possessed a complete, detailed set of constitutions, fully describing the spirit and administration of their life; in 1256, the liturgy of the same Order had been carefully revised and stabilized by the famous Dominican liturgist, Humbert of Romans (a place near Valence, France). Such efficient organization in administration and liturgy must have attracted the admiration of the Carmelites, new, as they were, to conditions in Europe, and we are not surprised to find a marked mendicant, and especially Dominican, influence on the life and liturgy of the thirteenth century Carmelites. The part played by the mendicant Orders in the formation of the general pattern of Carmelite life in Europe is well known, and is especially demonstrated by a comparison between the early Carmelite constitutions and those of the Dominicans; such an analysis shows that the Carmelite constitutions, while leaving out everything that was purely Dominican, accepted the framework, the machinery of administration of the Dominican constitutions as a guiding model. But what is not so well understood is the influence of the Dominicans on the liturgy of the Carmelites. As we have said, circumstances must have made the Carmelites regard the well-established Dominicans somewhat as objects of admiration and imitation, not only in the general structure of their life, but in their liturgical usages also. And it would seem from the thirteenth century Carmelite Ordinal, the only one still preserved, that in some parts of the Carmelite Order at least, the liturgy of the Friars Preachers exercised a considerable influence on the Carmelite liturgy of the thirteenth century.

A manuscript of this thirteenth century Carmelite Ordinal was accidentally discovered by Fr. Patrick of St. Joseph, O.C.D., in Trinity College, Dublin, and was published by him in 1912. In his preface to the Ordinal, Fr. Patrick makes some odd statements about its contents; on the principle that every Ordinal is a revision of a previous one (just as the thirteenth century Ordinal was to be replaced by the Ordinal of Sibert de Beka), Fr. Patrick claims that the thirteenth century Carmelite Ordinal must be merely a revision of an older one, and thus he wishes to see in the thirteenth century Ordinal traces of the ancient liturgy used by the sons of the prophets on Mount Carmel. However, an analysis of the contents of this Ordinal proves such claims to be impossible, and reveals that the rubrics have been taken almost word for word from the Dominican Ordinal. Often whole sentences and paragraphs have been adopted without change, so that we can say that the liturgy embodied in this thirteenth century Carmelite Ordinal is almost entirely conformed to the Dominican liturgy. Thus, the thirteenth century Carmelite Ordinal represents a corruption, a departure from the official Carmelite liturgy, the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre; therefore, says Fr. Wessels, this Ordinal is of no use for the study of the Carmelite Rite, namely, the ceremonies, etc., of the authentic Carmelite liturgy, but is merely helpful in studying the history of the vicissitudes through which that Rite has passed. We do not know whether our thirteenth century Ordinal was ever officially approved by the Order, nor can we determine how widely it was used. Whatever the value of this Ordinal was in the thirteenth century, and however widely used was the fundamentally Dominican liturgy contained in it, in the following century it was completely replaced by the Ordinal of Sibert de Beka. This great Carmelite, seeing that his Order, in its liturgical uses, had gone astray from the true path, as one writer expresses it, set about the task of restoring the true Carmelite liturgy, expunged of Dominican encroachments. The result of his work was the monumental Ordinal which has ever since remained the principal font of Carmelite liturgy. This Ordinal will be the subject of our next article.

Bartholomew Quinn, O.Carm.

Just as men consider it an honor to have others wear their livery, so Our Blessed Lady loves to see her clients wearing her Scapular, as a sign that they have consecrated themselves to her service, and that they form a part of her retinue. The wicked and the indifferent ridicule this devotion, but Holy Mother Church has approved it by innumerable Bulls and Indulgences. Happy are they who, devoid of human respect, wear the Scapular with devotion and perseverance until death. Our Blessed Lady will recognize them as her devoted clients, and will deliver them from eternal damnation, indeed from temporal harm, and even from the pains of Purgatory.


*In Spirit of Carmel No. 1 - 1951


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."