In the "Carmelites: History" category of this blog, there are a few posts done last year on the stories of Mt. Carmel, with a look to how much truth may be found in a few of the old stories about the history of the order. The Carmelites trace their history back to European hermits living on Mt. Carmel during the Crusades, but we do not know the name of a founder of their order, nor can we identify a specific date when they began to settle there. St. Albert of Jerusalem, the bishop who gave them a rule, is the one name best known from that era. However, he was not a Carmelite.
Hermits had lived on Mt. Carmel as far back as anyone could know, and the hermits of St. Albert's day lived near the well of St. Elijah, seeking to pattern their lives on the life of Jesus and on the lives of the hermits of the Early Church who were known from the writings of St. Jerome and John Cassian, among others.
In the absence of a biography and specific founder's name, stories sprang up attributing their founding to Elijah, Mary, and also to St. John the Baptist, among others. Thus, Abbot John Chapman makes an amusing reference to the Carmelite connection to St. John the Baptist in a footnote in his scholarly biography Saint Benedict and the Sixth Century. In his text, the abbot is describing St. Benedict's familiarity with the work of Dionysius Exiguus, whose work was known and quoted by St. Benedict:
"I think St. Benedict knew also Dionysius's translation of the Invention of the Head of st. John the Baptist, for his two churches at Montecassino were dedicated to St. John and St. Martin, the latter the most celebrated Father of monks in the West, the former the patron (one would think) of solitaries rather than of cenobites. But the preface of Abbot Dionysius, addressed to another Abbot, Gaudentius, seems to explain why St. Benedict regarded the Baptist as the Patron of monks. It was a divinely ordered coincidence, says the Abbot, that monks should have discovered the head of the saint, and that an exiguous monk should publish the story for Roman ears: [Latin text omitted] . . . Here St. John the Baptist is definitely the founder of monasticism, his disciples being the first monks."
In footnote, Abbot John Chapman comments:
"Dionysius therefore ignores the Carmelite view that St. John was not a monk but a friar: that the Carmelites founded by St. Elias were (like Benedictines) separate communities without a common head, in the days of the schools of the Prophets and of Pythagoras (the author of the multiplication table) and of other celebrated friars, but that the Baptist united them and became the first General of the order."
Abbot John Chapman's biography of St. Benedict was first published in 1929. Today's Carmelite historians would not draw from those legends in writing the order's history. Compare the summary here of the presentation made about a week ago by Fr. Patrick McMahon, O.Carm., on the order's early history. Nor is much mention of that story made in the writings of Carmelite saints (none that I know of, anyway). The attribution to St. John the Baptist of a role as the order's founder is one of the stories of Mt. Carmel, a legend from the order's heritage.
Yet, in the sixth century, according to Abbot John Chapman, Dionysius Exiguus and St. Benedict of Nursia considered St. John the Baptist to be the father of monasticism. Certainly, St. John the Baptist and his life as a hermit, as described in Scripture, became an example for the early Christian monks and hermits and for the early European Carmelites.
St. Teresa of Avila mentions St. John the Baptist -- but not as the order's founder -- in her Meditations on the Song of Songs (translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD):
"What can do you great harm is praise -- for once it starts it never ends -- if you are not careful, so as to humble yourselves more afterward. . . . You should never let a word of praise pass without it moving you to wage war interiorly, for this is easily done if you acquire the habit. . . . Look at the esteem [the world] had for St. John the Baptizer, for they wanted to take him for the Messiah, and how and why they beheaded him."
Image: A panel depicting St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, once part of an altarpiece by Mariotto di Nardo, made in 1408. Museum information. (Photo by me.)