At this time of year, in the Office of Readings, which some readers may follow the travails of the prophet Elijah from the Book of Kings, his battle the princes and potentates of the age – 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, named after the place 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 lived 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.
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 soon afterward, and the Carmelite way of life – simple and beautiful, of prayer, contemplation and work -spread throughout the world. That first monastery 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.
This day 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 keep the Faith, to honour God, His Mother and all the saints, as we pilgrimage through this life to eternity.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel, ora pro nobis!