Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Located near the port city of Haifa, Israel, Carmel had been considered a holy place since ancient times. It was associated with the activities of both Elijah and Elisha (see 1 Kings 18:19-20, 42; 2 Kings 2:25; 4:25).
Twelfth-century pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem reported the presence of the Carmelites at the Fountain of Elijah and said the oratory was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. That devotion has remained a focal point of the order.
As the political and religious situation worsened in the Holy Land, the Carmelites began to move from Mount Carmel in 1238 to such places as Cyprus, Sicily, France, and England. By 1291, after a century's existence there, all the Carmelites had left the Fountain of Elijah.
The Marian tradition of the Carmelites is united with the Elijah tradition in an ancient book of the order entitled The Institution of the First Monks. This book dates back at least to the late fourteenth century, when it was first circulated among the Carmelites.
When Elijah sends his servant to look out to sea during a drought in Israel, the servant tells of seeing a small cloud. To Elijah, God revealed four mysteries about the cloud: 1) the future birth of a girl born without sin; 2) the time of her birth; 3) that she would be the first woman to take the vow of virginity (after Elijah, who was the first man to do so); and 4) that the Son of God would be born of this virgin.
The Carmelites then understood that these mysteries were fulfilled in Mary and devoted themselves to her, choosing her as their patroness. From that point they considered Mary their sister, and they were known as the "Brothers of the Blessed Virgin of Mount Carmel.'' As early as 1252, papal documents contain that title in reference to the Carmelites.
Other early members of the order, such as the Frenchman Jean de Cheminot in 1337 and the Englishman John Baconthorpe (d. 1348), wrote about the relationship of Mary and Elijah in Carmelite tradition.
The Carmelite habit is the theme of the final section of The Institution of the First Monks . The habit is understood as a sign of poverty, humility, separation from the world, dedication to God, and of a common fraternity. The scapular itself is viewed as the yoke of obedience.
It is important, too, to understand that for some one hundred fifty years the scapular was identified not with Mary but with the Christological theme of obedience. The first reference to the scapular is found in the Carmelite Constitutions of 1281: "The Brothers are to sleep in their tunic and scapular under the pain of severe penalty."
No mention is made at this point of the scapular vision to St. Simon Stock in any of the documents of the thirteenth century.
An account written in the late fourteenth century tells of an appearance by Mary to Simon Stock who, according to at least one tradition, was elected prior general of the Carmelite Order in 1254 at the general chapter held in London. According to this account, Mary held the scapular in her hand and said that the one who dies in it will be saved. However, it is not possible to verify the historicity of this event that only surfaces in accounts almost one hundred fifty years after the supposed happening. A more contemporary approach to the scapular devotion understands the scapular as an expression of devotion to Mary, a sign of her protection and care, some type of affiliation to the Carmelites, and a willingness to imitate her prayerful submission to God's plan of salvation. "The Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is best understood in the context of the Catholic Faith," wrote the North American Carmelite superiors in a recent publication. They continue:
It offers us a rich spiritual tradition that honors Mary as the first and foremost of her Son's disciples. This scapular is an outward sign of the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary our sister, mother and queen. It offers an effective symbol of Mary's protection to the Order of Carmel - its members, associates, and affiliates - as they strive to fulfill their vocation as defined by the Carmelite Rule of St. Albert 'to live in allegiance to Jesus Christ.'
While Christ alone has redeemed us, the Blessed Virgin Mary has always been seen by Catholics as a loving mother and protector. The Blessed Virgin has shown her patronage over the Order of Carmel from its earliest days. This patronage and protection came to be symbolized in the scapular, the essential part of the Carmelite habit.
Stories and legends abound in Carmelite tradition about the many ways in which the Mother of God has interceded for the Order, especially in critical moments of its history. Most enduring and popular of these traditions, blessed by the Church, concerns Mary's promise to an early Carmelite, St. Simon Stock, that anyone who remains faithful to the Carmelite vocation until death will be granted the grace of final perseverance. The Carmelite Order has been anxious to share this patronage and protection with those who are devoted to the Mother of God and so has extended both its habit (the scapular) and affiliation to the larger Church.
The Carmelite superiors then point out that private revelation can neither add to nor detract from the deposit of faith in the Catholic Church:
Therefore, the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel simply echoes the promise found in Divine Revelation, i.e., 'The one who holds out to the end is the one who will see salvation' (Matt. 24:13).
'Remain faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life' (Rev. 2:10). The Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel must be regarded as a reminder to its wearers of the saving grace that Christ gained upon the cross for all people, and that there is no salvation for anyone other than that won by Christ himself. It is the sacraments that mediate this saving grace to all the faithful. The sacramentals, however, including the scapular, do not mediate this saving grace but prepare the faithful to receive grace and dispose them to cooperate with it.
Dear Lady of Mt. Carmel, help me keep faithful until death to gain the crown of life.
E-mail this article to a friend
Copyright © 2004 by Ann Ball
. All rights reserved.