THE HERITAGE OF CARMEL
“Fidelity to Mary is a guarantee of continuity with the purest tradition of Carmel. It renews the covenant of love which the Virgin has sought to have with our religious family in the Church.”
The Order of Carmel, its roots plunged deep in the Old Testament, has its origin on the remote and inaccessible heights of Mount Carmel, a prominent landmark in Palestine. Through the successive centuries, the Order expanded and has given the Church many mystics, saints, poets, theologians and spiritual writers.
SAINT ELIJAH – FATHER OF THE CARMELITES
The entire recorded history of Mount Carmel is one of a place of worship. It is on the heights of Mount Carmel that Elijah wages the great battle for the worship of the people of God, whose hearts had strayed to Baal. The story of the contest is told with great drama in I Kings 18. Elijah calls the people of God to stop their wavering and dithering, and to return to the God of the covenant. His prayer is heard and Elijah emerges from this as a great model of the person of prayer; it is only after this personal encounter with God in the prayer of silence that Elijah, whose heart is filled with ‘zealous zeal for the Lord, the God of hosts’ (I Kings 19:10), returns to the ministry of proclaiming God’s holy word.
A COMMUNITY OF HERMITS – THE FIRST CARMELITES
In the late twelfth century, another group of hermits (ordinary laymen, most of whom had come to the Holy Land on Crusades) were drawn to seek God on the holy slopes of Carmel, and in imitation of the holy and solitary prophet Elijah, lived in solitude in the caves that are to be found there. Elijah was for them a model of prayer, or standing in God’s presence, and prophetic action. He became the prototype of their life. Over time, these hermits came together in the desire to share their journey to God as a community. They sought the approval of the Church, and received a Rule from Saint Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem. They took Mary, the Mother of Jesus, for their model. They even dedicated their chapel on Mount Carmel in her honour. So devoted were they to the Blessed Virgin that their official name became “The Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel,” or Carmelites.
THE RULE OF SAINT ALBERT: A RULE OF LIFE FOR THE CARMELITES
The Rule of the first Carmelites was given in 1209 by Saint Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem. According to the Rule, the Carmelites principal work was to ‘ponder the law of the Lord by day and night.’ The Rule is permeated with the flavor of eastern monasticism. Biblical and evangelical, it is brief and unlegalistic converging towards the contemplation of God. With its insistence on continual prayer, obedience to a superior, solitude and simplicity in every phase of life, its exhortation to manual work and its prescription for silence, perpetual abstinence and fasting, this first Rule has been called a “Rule of Mysticism”. This Rule of Saint Albert still guides the Carmelites today.
OUR LADY OF MOUNT CARMEL : PATRONESS OF THE CARMELITES
Three key words sum up the origin of the Carmelite relationship with the Virgin Mary which forms part of the charism: Mount Carmel itself, the Marian name of the Order, the explicit mention of the dedication of the Order of Carmel to the service of Our Lady under the title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Carmel is wholly Mary’s. The Carmelite Constitutions stress this fundamental aspect of the Order’s spirituality in all its aspects from the most profound life in communion with Mary and imitating her to the simplest personal and community devotion.
In Mary, Carmelites scattered throughout the world are united in a commitment to serve Christ and his Church. Thus they imitate the Virgin Handmaid of the Lord, who silently walked in the footsteps of her Son and cooperated with him for the salvation of the world, by prayer and a life surrendered to the mystery of salvation.
THE CARMELITES MIGRATE TO THE WEST
After spreading throughout the Holy Land, the Order’s own growth and inner vitality indicated migration to Western Europe, origin of many of the first Carmelites. This move was actually made imperative by the constant Saracen uprising in Palestine. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, established by the Crusaders, fell in 1291 and in July of that year the merciless conquerors climbed Mount Carmel, massacred the remaining monks and even destroyed their dwellings. Tradition has it that these devoted Sons of Mary went to their martyrdom chanting the SALVE REGINA. For more than three centuries the Holy Mountain suffered an eclipse in Carmelite history. It was not until 1631 that it was reclaimed by the Order.
Despite the patronage of some prestigious Europeans sponsors, including St. Louis IX, King of France, adaptation to Western culture proved very difficult. The people did not readily accept these strange hermits who lived in small isolated cottages with no financial resources – so unlike the grand, wealthy abbeys to which they were accustomed. The Order was in a crisis until a prominent English Carmelite, Saint Simon Stock, in 1247 adapted the hermitical life to make it practical in the new society in which they found themselves. He accomplished this without changing the essentials or detracting from its prophetic vocation. Saint Simon’s adaptations inaugurated a “golden age” for the Carmelites.
SAINT SIMON STOCK – FATHER GENERAL OF THE ORDER
On July 16, 1251, it was to Saint Simon Stock, in a moment of ardent petition for the preservation of the Order, that “the most glorious Mother of God appeared… holding in her blessed hand the Scapular of Carmel…” and assured him of her protection for those who would wear it piously. Mary stated the following promise to him concerning the Scapular: “Whosoever dies wearing this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire…it shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger, and a pledge of peace.”
The Brown Scapular is perhaps the most deeply rooted symbol in the Carmelite tradition. Its authenticity has been confirmed by numerous miracles throughout the centuries. In contemporary piety it is looked upon as a sure and visible sign of consecration to Mary’s Immaculate Heart and an impenetrable shield assuring her maternal protection. In a way no other devotion can, it reminds the wearer of Our Lady’s promise to help in a special way all those who live according to her spirit and who have confidence in her mission of Mediatrix of all grace.
[ Enrollment in the Brown Scapular makes a person part of the Carmelite family throughout the world. They therefore share in all of the prayers and good works of the Carmelite Orders. Participation in the Carmelite family also, of course, places one in a special relationship with the Carmelite saints, especially St. Elijah, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux, and, most importantly, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. ]
TERESIAN REFORM – BIRTH OF THE ORDER OF THE DISCALCED CARMELITES
Enriched by its long past and bearing its precious heritage, Carmel was eventually to reach the period of its reform.
Over the centuries, as the Carmelite Friars (and later the Nuns) lived their lives in the rapidly changing world, some aspects of the original vision of those first hermits on Mount Carmel was slowly lost. Many tried to reform the Order, to return it to its original focus of prayer and contemplation, but none were as successful as the great sixteenth century Spanish mystic, Saint Teresa of Jesus (of Avila). She received great inspiration from gazing back at the ‘holy fathers on Mount Carmel, who in such great solitude and with such contemplation of the world sought this treasure (prayer and contemplation), this precious pearl.’
Aided by Saint John of the Cross, together they shaped what was to become a new Order, whose reform was marked by a simpler habit and sandals (thus the new Order became known as Discalced Carmelites). Thus it is that today there are two branches of the Carmelite family: the Ancient Observance (O.Carm.) and the Discalced Carmelites (O.C.D.). The reformed Order rapidly spread across the globe, to encircle it today, wrapped in a rich tapestry of cultures.
SAINT THERESE OF LISIEUX – A MODEL FOR CARMELITES AND THE WORLD
In modern times, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus (of Lisieux) brought a maximum of depth and supernatural efficacy to the spiritual life of the Carmelites. A Carmelite and an apostle, a teacher of spiritual wisdom for numerous consecrated and lay persons, patroness of the missions, this saint “occupies a place of primary importance in the Church, and her doctrine merits finding a place among the most effective.”
One is amazed to discover through her, not only the purest Gospel teaching, but Christ Himself. In the Gospel-like simplicity of her message of “the little way of childhood” is hidden a spiritual structure both strong and perfectly balanced, so detached, so simply reduced to the essential and so supple in its absolute surrender to love. Her life, lived in God is a reality that is so near to us, that to breathe the fragrance of this flower of Carmel is to breathe the fragrance of eternal life.
Today as areas for greater participation in society and church open up for women, they can find encouragement in Therese of Lisieux to live as John Paul II said, ” a culture of equality between men and women.” She opened the whole field of theology to feminine reflection: “The theology of women has never been taken seriously nor integrated by the establishment. However, after the message of Lisieux, it must finally consider it in the present reconstruction of Dogmatic Theology.” (Thérèse de Lisieux et les Missions by G. Gaucher)
CARMELITE SPIRITUALITY : A CONTINUING TRADITION
CONTEMPLATION: A direct and intimate experience with God in a spirit of contemplation, is the basis of Carmelite spirituality and is required of those who wish to lead the life of Carmel. It is to Christ that the Carmelite turns, offering Him prayer and love. And it is followng Him that the Carmelite intends to walk “with a pure heart and a good conscience”.
PRAYER: The exercise of prayer at Carmel is accompanied by a minimum of material conditions. Prayer involves no rigorously prescribed methods. For its development it requires the liberty and fidelity of a soul constantly visited and vivified by the spirit. This search for God in silence and solitude, this absence of imposed forms of prayer, this is what characterizes Carmel.
MARIAN DEVOTION: One of the noted characteristics of Carmel’s spirituality is the presence of the Virgin Mary in our Life, communion with her, imitation of her virtues and cultivating special devotion to her. Carmel professes a total consecration to the Virgin Mary along with its total dedication to the service of Jesus Christ. Carmelites have expressed their consecration to the Virgin particularly through the liturgy. They have dedicated churches to her and venerated her image. The feast of the Solemn Commemoration of the Virgin of Mount Carmel is the principal feast. (The remembrance of the Virgin’s protection in what is the symbol of her great love for Carmelites: the gift of the Holy Scapular and its privileges, is celebrated on July 16th as the date traditionally associated with St Simon Stock’s vision of Mary.) Together with the liturgy, characteristic devotional practices have flourished, such as the Angelus and the Rosary and others proper to the Order, alongside the scapular devotion.
APOSTOLIC ZEAL: Carmelite prayer has an apostolic side and overflows with missionary fervor. Carmel has never in fact separated the apostolic from the contemplative life. The Carmelites reach out in a unique fashion as contemplatives in action, caring for and serving their fellow Christians and non-Christians alike. They engage in preaching, teaching, and spiritual direction. Others serve as missionaries, as university teachers, or in pastoral care. To follow Jesus Christ as Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, called together by the Holy Spirit, to live as Elijah in the presence of God, to serve the needs of the Church and each other in love. This is the life purpose of the Carmelite.
The Order of Carmel has been the nurturing place of many contemplatives and mystics over the centuries even in our modern times, like Saint Edith Stein. Our Holy Father says, “Thus an intimacy of spiritual relations has blossomed, leading to an ever – increasing communion with Christ and Mary.”