DEVOTION TO OUR LADY OF MT. CARMEL:
ITS ORIGINS, GROWTH AND SPREAD
The Carmelite Order is blessed with many devotions. While this is a truth of fact, devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is undoubtedly the Order’s principal devotion. The reason for this is not far-fetched: devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is bound to the history and spiritual values of the Carmelite Order; it is a devotion that is intrinsically tied to the very origins of the Order and is expressed through the Brown Scapular which is part of the Order’s habit. Therefore, some knowledge and understanding (at least in brief) of the history of the Carmelite Order would greatly help in appreciating this devotion, its growth, development and spread.
During the Crusades in the 12th century AD, a group of Westerners took up the life of hermits by the well of St. Elijah on Mt. Carmel in Israel. They built a chapel in honour of the Mother of Jesus, conscious that they were living in the area made holy by Jesus and his Mother since Nazareth is less than 20 miles from Mt. Carmel. This chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary on Mt. Carmel showed that these hermits wished to dedicate themselves entirely to a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ under the loving gaze of the Virgin Mary. Nevertheless, this chapel dedicated to her meant much more.
The hermit brothers, who of course later became known as Carmelites (coined from the mountain “Carmel” on which they lived), had a deep and intimate relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary. They saw her as the “lady of the place”, that is, “the Lady of Carmel” in the same way that a land owner is called a “landlord” or a “landlady”. They were, so to speak, living on her land – they lived in her territory or domain.
Consequently, they relied on her benevolence and looked up to her for protection while they in turn honoured and paid allegiance to her. This close bond between the hermit brothers and the Blessed Virgin Mary is very evident in the Order’s official name: “Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mt. Carmel.” The name, “brothers”, which is a sign of familiarity and intimacy with the Virgin Mary, was thus recognized by the Church and would in the future be a source of spirituality when later Carmelite authors would speak of the “patronage of the Virgin” and of her attribute of “Sister” of the Carmelites.
Now, after the hermit brothers acquired the aforesaid name and became a legal entity through the Rule of Life given them by St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, they experienced a very turbulent phase in the history of the Order – a phase, which though negative, became positive as far as devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is concerned.
When Saracens toppled the Latin kingdom of the Crusaders, the hermits of Carmel had to flee the holy mountain and return to the West – to Cypress, Sicily, France, England, Ireland and other countries. They brought with them little more than their title of “Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mt. Carmel.” In Europe they were entering a hostile world cluttered with many new religious families. The arrival of “strangers” from Mt. Carmel was inauspicious, they were frowned upon. Internally, they were divided as to whether they should cling to their background as hermits or adapt to a new status of begging friars, that is, Mendicants like Franciscans and Dominicans.
It was during this very turbulent phase in the history of the Carmelite Order and in the midst of these dire difficulties that, according to tradition, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel appeared to the Prior General, St. Simon Stock, at Aylesford, England on July 16, 1251. She gave him, who was greatly oppressed by worries, the Brown Scapular for the Carmelites with the following promise, saying: “Receive, my beloved son, this habit of thy Order (the habit taken to mean the scapular in particular). This shall be to thee and to all Carmelites a privilege, that whosoever dies clothed in this shall never suffer eternal fire. It shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger and a pledge of peace.”
The scapular is a broad band of cloth over the shoulders, falling below the knees toward the feet front and back as an apron, worn still as part of the religious habit by a number of orders of monks, friars and nuns. From the 16th century till this present day, devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel has continued to grow and spread and the scapular has received warm welcome from the faithful and enjoyed a singular approval by the Church’s Magisterium.
As it was gradually adapted for use by the laity, the Brown Scapular became two small panels of brown cloth joined by strings and worn over the shoulders as a familiar Marian sacramental duly approved by the highest ecclesiastical authorities. Part of the reasons for its high esteem was undoubtedly the constant stream of wonderful graces, spiritual and temporal, that were poured out on individuals through its devout use.
Also, another reason for its popularity was its other-worldly thrust, that is, its strict connection with the last things (death, purgatory, heaven, hell) and with the salvation of our souls, which takes priority over all our other preoccupations here below. Above all, the scapular devotion strongly emphasized a life of holiness based on the theological virtues in imitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Nevertheless, what is very important for us to note here is that it the Brown Scapular was and has remained both a sign and a pledge of the devotion and the intimate relationship that exist between the Carmelites and Our Lady: a sign of belonging to Mary and a pledge of her motherly presence and protection, not only in this life but after death. In fact, the solemn liturgical feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, probably first celebrated in England in the later part of the 14th century in honour and appreciation of Mary’s place and role in the life of the Carmelites, began to be called the scapular feast.
We conclude by pointing out that one of the noted characteristics of Carmel’s spirituality is its Marian dimension. Thus, in the devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, we are not merely dealing with a footnote to our charism, but rather with one of the most intimate and cherished expressions of our tradition. If Mt. Carmel is seen metaphorically as our experience of God, then Mary as the Lady of Carmel is the one who has attained union with God – she dwells, as it were, at the apex of Mt. Carmel. Having journeyed to the highest point of the mountain she is better placed to guide those who wish to attain the same divine union. This is the reason for which all Carmelites look to the Virgin Mary as their Spiritual Mother. In fact, the Stella Maris Monastery presently on Mt. Carmel, named after the Blessed Virgin Mary, is considered the spiritual headquarters of the Carmelite Order.
Lastly, those who want to live their devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel to the full must follow Mary into the depths of her interior life. Carmel is wholly Mary’s; it is the symbol of the contemplative life, the life wholly dedicated to the quest for God, wholly orientated towards intimacy with God and the one who has best realized this highest of ideals is Our Lady herself, “Queen, Mother and Beauty of Carmel” – to her, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, we must all turn in fervent devotion.