Around this time of year in the Office of Readings – Lauds said, or sung, by the universal Church, we follow the travails of the prophet Elijah from the Book of Kings, his battle with the princes and potentates of the age, the whole spiritus mundi – and the Jezebel behind the throne. He was indeed a ‘burning fire’, refusing to compromise or capitulate, with his vocation beginning in his retreat in the cave on Mount Horeb, wherein he heard God’s voice not in the thunder and earthquakes and the rending of rocks, but in the ‘still, small voice’, a whisper, even, in the original Hebrew, ‘silence’.
It was in that same Holy Land, in silence, that devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, as well as the Order devoted to her, began. Carmel is the place, praised in Scripture for its breathtaking natural beauty, a very image of heaven, where Elijah was said to dwell in a grotto on its highest point, looking 1700 feet above the Mediterranean Sea, and where he challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to the sacrificial contest, to see whose God was the true God. Tradition has it that Jewish hermits continued to live there, until the founding of the Carmelite Order in the late 12th century, during the Crusades. If the Christians could not attain ultimate victory by the sword, they could by the life of prayer and conversion. Our foothold – or, perhaps, soul-hold – in the Holy Land has been unbroken ever since.
No one knows who the human founder is – there is a reference to a ‘Brother B’ in the original rule given by Albert, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1210. We may believe that God was the founder through His Mother, in that ‘still, small voice’, through Elijah. What we do know is that a monastery was built there in the early thirteenth century, and the Carmelite way of life – hidden, simple and beautiful, of prayer, contemplation and work – spread throughout the world. That first monastery on the hill of Carmel has had a history as troubled as the land itself, becoming a mosque, then a hospital, then a mosque again, then destroyed; but, thankfully, it is now again a Carmelite monastery, and we may hope is so until Elijah comes again, in fire, on that great and terrible day of the Lord. (As a point of interest to some readers, it’s where Father Elijah derives in Michael O’Brien’s novel of the same name – there is something apocalyptic about Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and the Holy Land in general, but more on that in another post).
This day of July 16th is chosen as the feast, commemorating the vision given to Saint Simon Stock, an English Carmelite, in 1251, of the brown scapular which, by wearing, we share in the spiritual benefits of Carmelites throughout the world, and through which many promises are given. But the main purpose of the scapular – a sacramental version of the larger scapular worn by the fully-professed members – is not a guaranteed amulet to gain us paradise. Rather, its wearing is to remind us of our own promises made in our Baptism, to share in some way in the spiritual work of the enclosed Carmelites, to keep watch, guard and live the Faith through thick and thin, to honour God, His Mother and all the saints, as we pilgrimage through each of our vocations in this life to eternity.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel, ora pro nobis!