Our Lady of Mount Carmel
The feast day of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel falls on July 16. The connection of Mary, the mother of Christ, and the renowned mountain of biblical times is a long story and filled with insights into the motherhood of Mary as she prays and cares for her Son’s faithful in the world.
Let’s start at the very beginning of the story. Mt. Carmel’s importance extends far back into history. The mountain is located in a richly forested area at the southern end of a long fertile valley known from ancient times for its wine and oil production. At the top of the mount, there is a view of the Mediterranean’s shore, making it a strategic site for defense of the rich land below it. There are indications that stone-age man once lived in caves on the side of Mt. Carmel. The mount is known as the place of a contest between Elijah and 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah (both false gods.) [1 Kings 8] [See: Paul J. Achtemeier, Editor, Harper's Bible Dictionary]
The area is known for its cover of flower blossoms, flowering shrubs, and fragrant herbs. The beauty of the bride in Solomon’s song [Song of Songs 7:5] is compared to the beauty of this mountain. On the mountain’s slopes there are plentiful pastures [Isaiah 33:9, Jeremiah 50:19, Amos 1:2.] Caves on the mountains often provided shelter for monks through the ages, in which Elijah and Elisha took refuge (1 Kings 18:19, 2 Kings 2:25.) [ See: M.G. Easton, Easton's Bible Dictionary.] An abiding sense of the reference to Mt. Carmel suggests God’s care and copious giving of life and care. Its Hebrew name “karmel” means “garden land” and “a fruitful place.” [See: D.R.W. Wood, and I. Howard Marshall, New Bible Dictionary.]? ? The feast day we now celebrate on July16 recalls the foundation of the Carmelite religious order in the 12th century. The founder, Berthold, may have been a pilgrim to the area (perhaps to cave of Elijah), or a crusader. Tradition says that he came from southern France but when venturing in the Holy Land came to encounter fierce soldiers. After a vision of Christ, he went to Mt. Carmel and built a small chapel there, soon joined by hermits who all lived there in community in imitation of Elijah. After his death, it seems that St. Brocard became leader of the hermits eventually leading to the establishment of the Order of Carmelites in the 12th century.
In Carmelite tradition, Mt. Carmel had been a place devoted to monastic-style prayer since the time of Elijah. They built a monastery and it was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as she was “Star of the Sea” – a medieval title describing the mother of Christ as the cloud of life that dwells over the sea promising rain and fertility [1 Kings 18:41-45.] (Remember that the Mediterranean is seen from Mt. Carmel and is a garden of life.) Throughout the monastery’s long history, there were periods of sadness, especially when it fell under Islamic control, becoming a mosque known as El-Maharrakah (the place of burning, referring to Elijah’s challenge to the pagan prophets.) In the 18th century, Napoleon established the location as a hospital, but this was destroyed in 1821. Funds were collected by the Carmelites, an order worldwide by this time, and they restored the monastery.
Continuing the story, we come to the scapular of Mt. Carmel. According to Carmelite tradition, this scapular – a small piece of rough wool cloth – was given in a vision by Virgin Mary to the monastic Simon Stock, living in England in the 13th century. On July 16, 1251, he prayed to Mary that his order could be saved from its oppression. She appeared with the scapular in hand, and told him: "Take, beloved son this scapular of thy order as a badge of my confraternity and for thee and all Carmelites a special sign of grace; whoever dies in this garment, will not suffer everlasting fire. It is the sign of salvation, a safeguard in dangers, a pledge of peace and of the covenant." Promises associated with the scapular are: Mary’s protection of the Carmelite order and all those who wear the scapular (including laymen of its Third Order); special help at one’s hour of death for all who wear the habit (or scapular) in Mary’s name; and the so-called “Sabbatine Privelege” which Pope John XXII declared in 1322 meant early release from Purgatory for those who died in Mary’s care.
The history of the Carmelite order is itself long and full of blessings. Monasteries were built throughout Europe and other parts of the world throughout the ages. Both nuns and monks often received special visions from Mary and Jesus. Until this day, it seems that Mary shines like a star over the sea leading the faithful to her Son and to the fruit-bearing life God provides now and eternally.