The Carmel Mountain
Carmel (“the garden” in Hebrew) is a mountain (altitude approx. 600 m.) in Palestine, in the north of Israel at present, close to the Mediterranean coast. In the Old Testament it has been called “a Garden of God”.
Its significance dates back to the 8th century BCE when the prophet Elijah was dwelling there and challenging priests of Baal who were leading people to paganism. Both Elijah and priests of Baal were offering sacrifices to their gods. The offerings of Elijah were destroyed by the fire sent by God, but offerings of others remained untouched. This proved that there is only one God, the God of Israel.
According to tradition, Elijah and Elisha with their disciples were living at the Carmel Mountain and established a tradition of contemplations and asceticism, living as praying hermits there. Excavations show that around third century AD Greek Christians have been settling as hermits in the area of Carmel.
At mid-twelfth century Saint Berthold founded a chapel of the Carmelite order and several Latin priests were living as hermits on the Carmel Mountain. In 1177 a monk John Phocas who travelled to Palestine reported that a few years earlier a monk, originally from Calabria, has built a monastery there according to revelations from Elijah and lived there with 10 companions. The monks had built a chapel, tower and a fence to isolate the from world.
At the beginning of 13th century more monks arrived into Carmel. Starting from 1210 they were living under the Rule of Patriarch of Jerusalem, Albert and Pope Honorius III, which received an official approval from Pope in 1226. The rule vigorously emphasized the character of solitude and isolation from the world, the monastic life model: monks had to live in separate cells, observe obedience, chastity and poverty, silence, prayer and fasting. This core approach has marked the fundamental spiritual features of the order. Most revered examples for the first Carmelites were the Blessed Virgin and prophet Elijah.
Later in the same 13th century many monks had to run away from there due to Muslim invasion to Cyprus, Sicily, France and England. Many who remained were massacred. The tradition tells that before leaving the Mount Carmel the Virgin Mary appeared to them when they were singing Salve Regina and promised to be a guiding star for them. Monks, who left to Europe, brought with them a great devotion towards Lady of Carmel.
One of the first Carmelite centers in the West was in Aylesford, England, where Baron de Grey in 1241 gave them a mansion for religious needs where ten years later an apparition of Virgin Mary appeared to Simon Stock and among other blessings gave instructions to wear the Brown Scapular, which was later observed in the orders and worn by many other Catholics. The Brown Scapular became a symbol of the congregation as well as Our Lady of Mount Carmel: the divine Child and Mother holding the scapular, the typical figure of Marian devotion. In 1247 the Pope Innocent IV granted to the Carmelite order the privilege to be one of Catholic orders like Franciscans and Dominicans and to open more monasteries affiliated to Carmelites.
In years 1434-1435 a number of changes were done to the rules of Carmelite order and were approved by Pope Eugene IV. But many adherents didn’t support the new regulations which were softer than the old rules and soon blessed John Soreth (1394-1471) started to organize a new movement and followed that monks don’t slip in the laxity and follow more strict rules and renew their vows. John Soreth was also the one who established a several nunneries in Carmel order, which has been men’s only. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the bull which formally recognized communities of Carmelite nuns and also allowed participation of lay people in Carmelite prayers and activities, known as the Third Order.John published a revised edition of the Constitutions in 1462, and wrote a detailed commentary on the Rule. But these reforms led to the division inside Carmelite order.
More reforms in the Carmelite Order were brought by St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and her follower St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), two great examples of Christian mysticism. They were trying to return to more ascetic lifestyle and return to the Rule approved for them in 1247, not paying attention to changes done by reforms in 1434-1435. The new congregation is known as Discalced Carmelites or Barefoot Carmelites, while the former were known as Shoed Carmelites or the Ancient Observance.
From these times Carmelite brothers “In shoes or without” have been in service of society in most different ways employing their dimension of spirituality and contemplation to most different charitable, pastoral and missionary works. The wear brown habit with scapular and hood and on a special occasions a white hood and cape.
It was reported that in 1996 there were 361 convents of Shoed Carmelites worldwide with 2,197 members, 1434 of them being priests. And 525 convents of Discalced Carmelites with 3,809 members, 2,422 of them priests.
The female ordination
A large role in the Carmelite Order have had female devotees – the Carmelites. The order began in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but they were not organized as a community until 1450, when the first Carmelite nunnery was established in Florence (Italy), the Monastery of St. Mary of Angels.
St. Teresa of Avila in Spain initiated reforms in the congregation to lead a strictly cloistered life of deep prayers.
On February 7, 1562 she received permission to erect the Monastery of San Jose de Avila, which opened on August 24, 1562, where she continued to observe the Rule she considered “original” and what was approved by Innocent IV in 1247. In a work “Path” she describes the lifestyle of these nuns the following way:
“They should be able to live in solitude and be open to relationships with Christ, seeking him in prayers and self-denial, thus taking an active part of his mission of salvation”.
St. Teresa founded 16 monasteries: Medina del Campo, Malagon, Valladolid, Toledo, Salamanca and Alba de Tormes among others. Gracian Father Saint John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz) was in many ways helping to St. Teresa to accomplish the reform of female congregation, known as “Discalced Carmelites” or “Barefoot Carmelites”. The spirit of Saint Teresa expanded also beyond the borders of Spain and many convents of Carmelites were established in many European countries. Among other outstanding Discalced Carmelites it’s worth to note also St. Therese of the Child Jesus, also known as Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897), who was recognized as one of only 4 Doctors of Church and Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) (1891-1942) – a Jewish convert to Catholicism, who died at Auschwitz concentration camp.
In our days there are many other groups that follow the Carmelite spirit. They perform various services in the places they live, most of them are dedicated to education, helping the sick and disabled people.
They are: Carmelites of Charity (also known as “the Vedrunas” because they were founded by St. Joaquina de Vedruna), Carmelite Missionaries of Therese, Carmelite Missionaries of Third Order, Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Carmelites of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and several others.
The Carmelite shield
The Carmelite Shield emblem is truly beautiful in its simplicity, famous for its ancient and sacred meaning. On a white background form the bottom to top rises up a brown cone, symbolizing the Mount Carmel where the order began and the brown habits of the Carmelites, inspired by the Virgin Mary. In the middle of the brown area lies a silver David’s star – representing the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Mount Carmel. Later in 15th century there was added also Cross by Saint John of the Cross, symbolizing Jesus Christ.
In the white area above are two golden David’s stars, representing two great prophets who were living on the Mount Carmel – Elijah and Elisha.
At the top of the shield are twelve stars, symbolizing the crown of Virgin Mary, representing the twelve great favors and graces given to Carmelite Order.
Crown, on top of the shield, and an arm holding a sword are attributed to the Holy Patriarch Elijah who won the false prophets of Baal in honor of the God the Father. The inscription above in Latin says: Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum, meaning “With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts”.