What is an OCDS?

I get the question in various contexts what the initials “OCDS” stand for, and when I say I’m a “Third Order Carmelite,” that, too, comes with a need for explanation.

First of all, the name: OCDS. Comes from Ordo Carmelitarum Discalceatorum Saecularis in Latin, or “Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites” in English. We’re also sometimes called “Third Order” Carmelites.

Now, let’s talk about some basic terminology.

What is an Order?

An Order is an association of the faithful who try to grow together in spirituality. Normally, we speak of “religious orders.” Technically, “monks” and “nuns” are religious men and women, respectively, who live in “cloistered” monasteries, meaning that they live all the time within the confines of monastery property. They rarely, if ever, leave, and they rarely, if ever, encounter outsiders. However, we often informally use the term “monk” to refer to any male religious, and informally use the term “nun” to refer to any female religious. Other forms of religious life include hermits (people who live alone or in very small isolated communities in the wilderness); stylites (in the Eastern church, stylites are/were a kind of hermit who lived in cities but on high towers); anchorites and anchoresses (people who lived inside special cells in the Church walls). The other large (and perhaps now largest) category of religious life is “mendicants”–beggar orders. Franciscans and Dominicans, for example, were the first “mendicant” orders. They didn’t live in cloisters but walked among the people and begged, trying to live the rules Jesus laid out in the Gospels for the “seventy-two”.

An Order usually has a Founder, such as Benedict, Francis, Dominic, etc., and a Rule of Life (usually written by its founder).

What is a “Third Order”? What is a “Secular Order”?

Some orders are just priests, or just brothers, or just sisters. Since historically the Founders have been men, male orders came to be known as “First Orders,” while the women’s orders were the “Second Orders.” Benedict literally founded his male order first, before his sister Scholastica founded her “second” oder of nuns. Francis literally founded his male order first before Clare founded the “second” order of “poor Clares”.

Near the end of the first millennium, the term “third order” began being used for laity who supported an Order. Originally, a “third Order” member was just a layperson who helped support a monastery or attended services at the monastery rather than a parish church.

However, when the “new” form of spirituality promoted by St. Francis of Assisi swept Europe, and lots of people wanted to join the Order of Friars Minor, the concept of a “Third Order” was refined. The Franciscans began a more formal “Third Order” as a way for laypeople to live their lives in the world while practicing the spirituality of St. Francis in accordance with their states without some of the more radical steps taken by religious.

In the Franciscan tradition, there were two kinds of Third Orders: Third Orders Religious and Third Order Secular. The third Order Religious might wear the habit, and they may or may not have lived in community with other members of the Order, but they practiced many aspects of religious life without some of the stricter rules. A third order secular was a regular layperson who prayed with the Order and studied its spirituality.

St. Catherine of Siena, for example, was a Dominican Third Order Religious. She wore the habit and lived basically like a nun but she lived in her parents’ home. St. Louis of France, however, was a Third Order Secular Franciscan and was, quite obviously, a king.

In the Carmelite tradition, there never really was a Third Order Religious, though diocesan priests may be members of the Secular Third Order (since, technically, a diocesan priest is “secular” because he lives in the world and is not a member of an Order).

Those are three separate terms, therefore, often used simultaneously. There’s really no such thing as a “Lay Order,” since priests can be members of a Third Order. The term “Third Order” refers to sequence of founding but has been downplayed since Vatican II to avoid a sense of superiority or inferiority. The term “Secular Order” is preferred.

Many orders founded in the last few centuries follow models that don’t quite fit any of the older forms and may even be closer to “Third Order Religious” than anything else.

What is a Carmelite?

Mt. Carmel was an important location in ancient Israel, because it’s one of the biggest mountains (actually a range of mountains), and it’s a strategic location right by the Sea and in the northern part of the Holy Land. Mt. Carmel was an important location for St. Elijah the Prophet, and, following Elijah’s assumption into Heaven, his successor St. Elishah founded a guild of prophets who lived on Mt. Carmel.

Tradition tells us that a school of prophets following in the school of Elijah and Elishah remained on Mt. Carmel for centuries, that even St. John the Baptist was a member of that school, and that Mt. Carmel remained a popular place for Jewish and Christian hermits to live for thousands of years.

In any case, by the 13th Century, there were a group of men (many of them former European Crusaders turned hermits) living on Carmel, particularly near a particular spring. They called themselves the Brothers of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. For various reasons, particularly that the Crusaders were losing control over the Holy Land, some of the Carmelites considered going back to Europe. Canon Law at the time forbade the founding of new Orders. The Franciscans and Dominicans had already been founded as exceptions to that ban, since they were new forms of religious life. Further, the Franciscans and Dominicans were so popular that people were trying to start new orders all over the place, and the Pope wasn’t budging anymore.

The Carmelites had the Latin Rite Patriarch of Jerusalem, now known as St. Albert of Jerusalem, write them a Rule, now known as the Rule of St. Albert. When they returned to Europe, they told the Pope that a) they had a Rule already in place and b) they were not a new Order, but actually the oldest of *all* orders, since they traced their history back to St. Elijah the Prophet in the Old Testament!!

The Pope bought the story and the Carmelites took priority over the Benedictines in the honors given to the “oldest” Order.

When the Carmelites arrived in Europe, however, they couldn’t really live as mountain hermits anymore. They began living as a Mendicant Order like the Francsicans and Dominicans.

Over the next few centuries, various changes happened in their Order. And, like most Orders, as time went on, they got rather worldly.

In the 16th Century, during the movemenet known as the Counter Reformation (movements to both fix the authentic problems in the Church Luther had pointed to while also responding to the rise of Protestantism), a Carmelite nun named Teresa of Jesus had a major spiritual conversion after 18 years living in the convent as a rather lukewarm nun. She felt it was necessary for the Carmelites to return to following their “primitive” Rule of St. Albert (which had by then been modified and given many exceptions). She felt they needed to go back to being more eremetic (hermit-like).

She also had received so much confused advice in her own spiritual growth that she sought out holy teachers, particularly from the Jesuit and Franciscan traditions, and she formed a new variant of spirituality from their guidance.

Her two most notable spiritual mentors were themselves ultimately canonized. One was St. Francis Borgia, SJ–yes *those* Borgias–the great-grandson of the infamous Rodrigo Borgia aka Pope Alexander VI. His mother was the illegitimate child of an archbishop, who was himself the illegitimate child of King Fredinand II of Christopher Columbus fame. Francis was always devout. He was married at a young age (as common for the time) and had some children before his wife died. He was moved by viewing the corpse of Empress Isabella of Portugal to reevaluate his life. He handed over his estate to his kids and joined the recently formed Society of Jesus. The spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola permeates the teachings of Teresa of Avila on prayer.

Another influence was the Franciscan reformer St. Peter of Alcantara, who did a lot of the same kinds of reforms in his order and encouraged Teresa to reform the Carmelites. He was known for his great austerity of living, as well as his mysticism. and was in many ways similar to the modern St. Padre Pio.

Teresa ended up founding a stricter observance that came to be known as the “Order of Discalced Carmelites.” “Discalced” means they didn’t wear shoes, a symbolic gesture of being more like hermits or cloistered monks and nuns than mendicant friars.

Teresa was joined in her reform by a much younger priest named John of the Cross. In addition to founding their own order (or “reform” of an order), they also were two of the greatest mystics and spiritual masters in the history of the Church, and the Order they founded, the OCD (NOT “obsessive compulsive disorder”), came to be known for being “experts” at prayer and contemplation. “The Carmelites” (usually meaning the nuns) are popularly regarded among laity as the best and most efficacious “pray-ers”.

Over time, the OCD has produced many other writers. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, never canonized a saint, wrote a book called _Practice of the Presence of God_ which is even popular among Protestants for its explanation of everyday spirituality. The Carmelite nuns of Compiegne, a monastery whose primary purpose was, ironically, to provide a convent for English Catholic women (since it was illegal at the time to be a Catholic nun in England), were martyred as the last victims of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. A nun in France named Therese of the Child Jesus lived at the Carmel of Lisieux with 3 biological sisters and a cousin from the age of 15 till her death at 24 of TB. Her autobiography, written under obedience, became an instant best-seller when the nuns thought it was worth publishing, and John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the Church, along with her order’s founders.

A Jewish atheist philosophy professor named Edith Stein read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila one night at a friend’s house–she picked it up off the night stand and stayed up all night reading it. This inspired her to both convert to Catholicism (becoming ostracized by her Jewish family) and become a Carmelite nun. She died in a Nazi concentration camp, along with another Carmelite friar, Titus Brandsma.

In 1917, three children at Fatima, Portugal, received apparitions from the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph and an angel who presented himself as the Guardian Angel of Portugal. Two of the children, Bl. Jacinta and Francisco, died in childhood. The third grew to joined the Order of Discalced Carmelites as Sr. Lucia de los Santos, dying in 2005, a month before John Paul II (who, it is commonly believed though not 100% documented, was a Third Order Carmelite).

The Teresian Carmel, or OCD, has thus produced much fruit in the Church. The Carmelites also oversee 2 popular devotions. A religious habit has an outer layer called a “Scapular.” The Scapular is basically an apron worn over the rest of the habit, and its original purpose was to protect the habit when the nuns and monks were working–Scapulars were not worn in church, originally. One of the first Carmelites in Europe, Simon Stock, an Englishman, received a vision of the Blessed Mother where she presented him with a smaller version of the Scapular for laity to wear, with the promise that this fragment of the habit of “her” Order would protect the person who wore it with her mantle, and that anyone who died wearing this brown scapular would die with her protection.

It used to be a common practice for all Catholic children to be inducted into the fraternity of the Brown Scapular (NOT to be confused with the Third Order of Carmel) as part of First Communion, though this practice was dropped after Vatican II as part of the effort to clarify the difference between liturgy and private devotion.

The Carmelites also oversee the devotion to the Infant Jesus of Prague and its Confraternity.

So, what is an OCDS?
As an OCDS, I pray with the Carmelite Order, and I try to live out Carmelite spirituality in my life as a layman in the Church. In my case, Carmelite spirituality helps me to deal with my sufferings from Marfan syndrome.

Prior to the twentieth century, the Third Order only existed where there were Carmelite priests or nuns, but the Third Order was solidified as an organization in the Twentieth Century, even before Vatican II but especially since. Now, there are OCDS communities all over, whether they are in association with monasteries or not. Some OCDS live as “Isolates” because they have no local community, but this status is mostly reserved for fully professed members who move out of range of a community.

I presently attend a community in Columbia, SC, that has been in existence since 1994. Interestingly, Columbia has 2 secular Carmelite communities. The original Carmelites (“old Observance”) from whom St. Teresa of Avila “broke off” are known today as the Order of Carmel (O.Carm.), and their Third Order is the “Third Order of Carmel” (T.O.Carm). Columbia has both OCDS and TOCarm communities.

As an OCDS, I have to live out the spirituality of John and Teresa and the Rule of St. Albert–again, in accordance with my state in life. I attend my community’s monthly meeting, which consists of prayer, a spiritual talk, fellowship, a business meeting, a lesson on the Catechism by our “spiritual advisor”, and small group classes for those at various stages of formation, where we we study the works of the Carmelite masters.

Currently, I have made my temporary promises, and in three years, if I live long enough, I hope to make my definitive promises that will bind me to the Order for life. At that point, the only way to leave the Order would be to file a formal Canonical process.

I am not permitted, as a Carmelite, to be a member of any other organization or spirituality in the Church that requires a vow or oath or consecration. We are greatly discouraged, and older versions of our statues required, from being involved in “too much stuff.” The general guideline is one form of spirituality (covered by Carmel) and one “apostolate.” Our local communities are strongly advised to have a community apostolate (for example, a local community might choose to gather once a month to pray at an abortion clinic for an hour, or a local community might get together to volunteer at a soup kitchen once a month). If we don’t, individuals can and must choose an apostolate. This blog, and my Facebook page, are my apostolates.

I am expected to pray daily: Morning and Evening Prayer of the Divine Office, 1/2 hour of meditation, some kind of Marian devotion like the Rosary, and Mass, if possible.

Third Orders are often misunderstood, even by those who have some level of understanding. People think of them like they’re social clubs, or “merely” lay associations like Cursillo. However, a Third Order is a binding commitment to membership of the Order’s spiritual family, just as much as membership in a monastery or convent. I am not just in Carmel for my own spiritual benefit, but I owe a certain duty to my local community and to the Order as a whole.

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2 responses to “What is an OCDS?

  1. As a religious [nuns] haibt maker I am approached by many Religious ladies [ hermits ] who have a disability asking if I would make them Monastic Habits as they yearn to be a bride of christ but have been declined a descernment by regular orders of nuns, ? why I ask? therefore they resort to become hermits following christ within their own homes

  2. Hi, Sister,

    My original Carmelite group down in Georgia was dissolved due to lack of interest, and the president is now a consecrated hermit with the Diocese of Savannah.

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