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I blog about my Catholic faith, my prayer life, good books and good movies.

A Brief and Informal History of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Abigail Benjamin

Many years ago, back in the Middle Ages, some Christian soliders from the Crusades were so worn out emotionally from fighting that they refused to go home with their army. The men had killed others in hand to hand combat.  They had seen horrible things. They watched bad decisions being made in the name of a holy and loving God. They felt so changed from this experience that the idea of going home again to their old lives in their old homes felt impossible. So a few men decided to stay in the Holy Land after all the other men in the army had gone home.

The men picked Mount Carmel, which is an actual mountain range in modern day Israel, and started camping by the Spring of Eljiah. Elijah was a great holy man from Ancient Israel who was both a zealous man for the Lord and a great man of prayer. In fact, I would say that Elijah was a man of great interior prayer first, and his intensive prayerlife made him bold and zealous in his actions. The men adopted the Prophet Elijah and Mary, the Mother of God, as their patron and patroness. Over time, the men gave Mary a special nickname, "Our Lady of Mount Carmel." Over time, the men became known as "Carmelites." 

(Side note: When I first became a Carmelite, I thought that Mount Carmel was a rugged and tough mountain range. When I finally saw pictures, I was amazed. Mount Carmel seems like a shrimpy mountain to me. It measures 1,700 feet high! Meanwhile my favorite mountain range, the Appalachians, range at 6,600 feet high and my husband's favorite mountains, the Adirondacks are 5,300 feet high. What Mount Carmel lacks in height it makes up for in beauty. Carmel means "God's vineyard." Even today, Mount Carmel is designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve, which means that even non Catholics recognize the unique diversity of plant and animal life that exists on this site.)

The Carmelites lived on Mount Carmel in peace for roughly 100 years. Every morning the Carmelite Monks prayed for hours in the warm sun. The men talked about how the sunlight permeated their skin and gave peace to their troubled souls. They drank water from the same spring that helped Elijah. They build small rustic huts, held their brief possessions in common and gave hospitality to travelers to the Holy Land.

Then war showed up on Mount Carmel. In a attack, sort of similar to the current ISIS situation, many monks were decapitated by angry Muslims on horseback. A Mountain of Peace suddenly became a Mountain of War. A few surviving Carmelites fled Mount Carmel, left the Holy Land and returned to Europe.

The surviving Carmelites in Medival Europe felt a profound sense of sadness and isolation. They had watched their beloved brothers be killed in front of them. They had lost the Mountain that gave them a sense of purpose and identity. The busy place of townlife in the capitals of Europe seemed emotionally and spiritually far removed from the remote pattern of prayer on Mount Carmel. How could a Carmelite be a Carmelite without Mount Carmel?

One Carmelite, St. Simon Stock on July 16, 1251 in Cambridge, England had a vision where he saw the Virgin Mary hand him a special piece of cloth called a brown scapular during a time of oppression for the Carmelite Order. "Scapular" is Latin for "shoulder blade" and it is two pieces of cloth sewed together at the shoulders. Our Lady told St. Simon that this scapular would offer emotional and spiritual protection to the devout wearer during times of danger. Today, many people wear the brown scapular as a sign of affection for the Mary, the Mother of God.

With the help of St. Simon Stock the Carmelites adapted to life outside of Mount Carmel. The Carmelties learned how to carry the peace of the mountaintop experience within them. They became a place of contemplation and peace inside a bustling modern world.

Overtime many great Saints came out of the Carmelite Order. St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross were spiritual friends from Spain who reformed the Carmelite Order in the late 1590s. The reformed Carmelites, "OCDS," are called "Discalced" ,or shoeless, for their strict devotion to poverty.  The original Carmelites, or Order of Carmelites, are titled "O Carm". 

St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross are also known as Doctors of the Church. This is a pretty elite title given to impressive writers about Catholic spirituality. St. Teresa of Avila was the first woman named Doctor of the Church in 1970. St. Therese of Lisieux, one of the best loved Carmelite saints by non-Carmelites and nicknamed the Little Flower, was named a Doctor of the Church in 1997. In addition, to "The Big Three" as I like to call them, there are many of beloved other Carmelite Saints such as: St. Teresa of the Andes, St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne, Saint Miriam of Jesus Crucified and Blessed Joan of Toulouse.

On Sunday, May 15, 2015, on the Feast of Pentecost, God willing, I will join the Carmelite Order as a lay person after 8 years of Formation. I will make a vow to God to live as a Carmelite for the rest of my life. It's been an adventure of love and a journey of faith. I look forward to spending the rest of my life on this spiritual mountain climb of deep interior prayer.