May 2017 Print

Mount Carmel

by Fr. Christopher Danel

Where the Middle East meets the Mediterranean, Mount Carmel, the refuge of prophets and haven of monks, towers over the Levantine coast just as its influence has continued to tower over the spiritual life of the Church mystically. “Our Lady of Mount Carmel has had an immense influence in spirituality and in the life of the Church along the centuries. It is good for us to recall a little of the history of the Carmelite Order, especially as today, with the grace of God, we are witnessing alongside our Society—we could almost say in our Society—the resurrection of authentic Carmels, in which we rejoice greatly” (Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, July 14, 1985).

Mount Carmel has been described as a “privileged place of silence and beauty—lieu privilégié de silence et de beauté” (Archbishop Lefebvre). It is not a tall, isolated peak like Sinai, Tabor, or Hermon. Rather, it is a fifteen-mile long range only ten miles west of Nazareth which ends at a high promontory at the coast near the Crusader city of Acre. It is covered with a verdant forest of pines and oaks, much of which is a national park, with a spring gushing clear water from the south side, known as the spring of the Prophet. The range has many caves, and it was to these that the prophets sought refuge to be alone with God. It is a place that was certainly well-known and visited by Our Lord, Our Lady, and the Apostles. 

Much of the life of the Prophet Elias was spent on Carmel. On its summit he prepared the famous sacrifice in challenge to the prophets of Baal, during which he called down fire from heaven. From Carmel he likewise called down rain after having shut the heavens for three years and six months, which was recalled by Our Lord (Luke 4:25). “Elias went up to the top of Carmel, and casting himself down upon the earth put his face between his knees” (III Kings 18:42). His prayer was answered by a little cloud which arose out of the sea and which then grew and provided the refreshing rain. The cloud has often been interpreted as an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

St. Elias and the Prophets 

Elias was renowned among the prophets for his greatness. His successor Eliseus entreated, “I beseech thee that in me may be thy double spirit” (IV Kings 2:9), and even St. John the Baptist came “in the spirit and power of Elias” (Lk 1:17). At the end of his life, he was taken up into heaven still alive in the chariot of fire, with a role yet to fulfill in the final combat on the last day. The saint’s feast day is July 20.

Elias is recognized as the founder of the Carmelite Order because he gathered together the Sons of the Prophets on the holy mountain to live in an eremitical recollection in the many caves there. Elias’ own cave has been a place of veneration since his own lifetime, and in AD 83 was made into a chapel in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, as it remains to this day.

Development of the Order

Since the time of St. Elias, zealous souls made the caves into hermitages. They were many, sometimes up to a thousand. Their religious life continued to flourish until AD 612, when the Persians and later the Muslims brought destruction to the religious institutions and martyrdom to most of the religious. A true resurgence of monastic life on the mountain would later take place as a benefit of the Crusades. Aymeric of Malifay, legate of Pope Alexander III, consolidated the hermits into a defined religious Congregation, and appointed a Superior for them. As their Congregation took on some of the elements of community life, the Superior petitioned Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, to provide them with a more defined Rule of life in 1207, which is known as the Rule of St. Albert. Our Lady appeared to Pope Honorius III, instructing him to favor her Order and to confirm the Rule, which he willingly did in 1226. The Rule was amplified a bit further in 1248, and is still the Rule followed by the Discalced Carmelites. Everything pertaining to the Order, its spirituality, its life, even its monasteries, refers back to St. Elias and the mountain, going simply under the name Carmel

The Scapular

After the Muslims gained victory in Palestine in 1244, all but sealing the fate of Christians remaining there, the Order took refuge in Europe. Among the most illustrious of the religious there was the Prior-General, St. Simon Stock of Aylesford, England. Our Lady appeared to him on July 16, 1251, giving him the Brown Scapular and saying to him, “This shall be a privilege for thee and all Carmelites; whosoever shall die wearing it shall not suffer everlasting fire.” To the Scapular Promise is added the Sabbatine Privilege: that the soul who dies wearing the Scapular, if he go to Purgatory, will be taken into Heaven on the Saturday following his death. The Carmelite religious wear the full length scapular, while Tertiaries wear a midsize one (7” by 10”), and many others are enrolled in the small confraternity scapular. St. Pius X furthermore attached all privileges to the scapular medal, as some are unable to wear the cloth scapular due to their individual circumstances. 

The Teresian Reform

The fervent discipline of St. Simon Stock’s day was later to wane, alas. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, laxity crept into religious life universally. In the sixteenth century, St. Teresa of Avila brought about a reform of the Order and a return to the observance of the Rule, with the aid of St. John of the Cross. The monasteries which benefitted from this return to the original Carmelite zeal (zelo zelavi, as the motto puts it), formed the Order of Carmelites Discalced, or O.C.D. This branch has given the Church many exemplary religious and some renowned saints such as St. Elizabeth of the Trinity and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. 

Just as in the sixteenth century God instilled a renewed zeal within the Carmelite Order by means of the reform of St. Teresa of Avila, so in the twentieth century, amidst the devastating collapse the Second Vatican Council caused in most religious orders, including the Carmelites, God would preserve the Carmelite spirit within the Traditional framework of the Church and raise up numerous vocations to the Carmels of Tradition.

The Carmels of Tradition

The Providential instrument for the establishment of these Carmels was the sister of Archbishop Lefebvre, Mother Marie Christiane. The Carmel of Tourcoing, where she had entered, established a convent in Parkes NSW, Australia in 1949, and Mother Marie Christiane was transferred there. In the seventies, while the Archbishop was directing the rapidly growing Society of Saint Pius X, Mother Marie Christiane was at the same time, on the other side of the globe, also seeking to remedy the crisis in the Church with the foundation of traditional Carmels, oases of prayer keeping the true spirit of the Order amidst the post-Conciliar destruction. 

The Archbishop had previously been instrumental, despite many difficulties, in the establishment of a Carmel in Senegal, at Sébikotane. He strongly desired this Carmel so that the Senegalese apostolate, especially the seminary, would be supernaturally sustained by the prayers and sacrifices of the Carmelite nuns. In 1977, the Archbishop manifested this same desire of supernatural protection for Ecône and the Society by the establishment of a traditional Carmel. He wrote to his sister in Australia, “I pray for all your intentions, particularly for a Carmelite foundation in France. There is no shortage of vocations…”

Bishop Tissier de Mallerais describes the foundation as follows: “At the time, the Archbishop did not know that his sister had decided to make this foundation. She was joined by another nun, Sister Marie Pierre, who like her had come to Australia from the Carmel in Tourcoing. Soon they moved provisionally to be near Fr. Paul Schoonbroodt in Belgium, and then they bought a convent at Quiévrain on the French border which became the Carmel of the Sacred Heart. Vocations flooded to them, and Mother Marie Christiane would later found five other Carmels: two in France, one in Germany, one in Switzerland, and one in the USA. Archbishop Lefebvre encouraged her in this: as at Sébikotane, he followed the motto “One seminary, one Carmel” (Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Marcel Lefebvre: The Biography, p. 518). The American convent is the Carmel of the Holy Trinity in Spokane Valley, Washington, near Post Falls, Idaho.

Archbishop Lefebvre on the Spirit of Carmel

On Sunday, July 14, 1985, two days before the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Archbishop gave a sermon entirely dedicated to the history and spirit of the Carmelite Order, which he described as follows:

“What is the spirit of Carmel? Why has it had such success? We must not forget … the great St. Thérèse, who was called “Little Thérèse.” Thérèse of the Child Jesus gave to Carmel a worldwide renown by her simplicity, by her spirit of childhood. Having died at the age of twenty-four, after some years in the Carmel, she became known throughout the world. And we see in her precisely the spirit of Carmel. Carmel is attractive because of its spirituality of divine simplicity. The spirit of Carmel is above all a spirit of hermitage rather than of monastic life…The Carmelite lives in her cell with the Good God. She retires from the world, she separates herself from the things of this world…[Carmelites] have acts of community life: they take their meals together, they pray together, they have their recreation together, but their manner of life generally is one of hermitage within the Carmel, to find God, to live with God, in the presence of God.

“Carmel is distinguished equally by its devotion to Our Lady. Carmel is fundamentally Marian. Carmelites have kept this devotion which St. Simon Stock communicated to them, ever deeper and ever greater. They have thereby given birth to other families with the spirit of Carmel, in particular the Carmelite Third Order, which has this spirit of simplicity and childhood before God, and at the same time a great devotion towards the Most Blessed Virgin Mary.”

The Archbishop then made an appeal to Catholic families to preserve this religious spirit:

“I wholeheartedly exhort you to acquire this spirit of Carmel, this spirit of simplicity, this spirit of childhood before God, this spirit of refuge from the world. Make your families like little Carmels, in a certain measure, away from the world, where the influence of the world no longer penetrates. This worldly influence is destructive. It poisons Christian families, it drives out the spirit of God, and estranges the Good Lord from families….If Christian families want Our Lord Jesus Christ to remain with them, they must keep the spirit of the Church and not seek after the spirit of the world. Keeping the spirit of the Church means keeping the spirit of prayer, of simplicity, of detachment from the things of this world, of making God present in their family. Then the Spirit of God can truly reside in their midst. From these Christian families, where Jesus resides with the parents and the children, vocations are born, as well as new Christian families” (Sermon extracts translated from Ecône, Chaire de Vérité, p. 755ff).

The Carmelite Third Order

Within Carmel, there is a long history of laymen being associated to the Order and clothed in the Scapular, not the least of whom are St. Louis (†1270) and King Edward II of England (†1327), who wore the scapular publicly. Under Pope Benedict XV in 1921, the current Rule of the Third Order was issued. It is ordered toward fostering the interior life so that the tertiary will aim for Christian perfection according to his state in life and according to the spirit of the Discalced Carmelites, aiding holy Mother Church by his prayers. St. Teresa wrote, “All of us who wear the holy habit of the Carmelites are called to prayer and contemplation. This was the object of our Order, and for this we came here. Our holy Fathers of Mount Carmel sought in solitude and utter contempt of the world for this treasure, this precious pearl [contemplation] of which we speak, and we are their descendants” (Fifth Mansions).

A Carmelite Father of the seventeenth century wrote, “The Order originated in mountains, in deserts, in solitude. From its earliest traditions it receives the inclination and even the obligation to foster a life wholly interior, retired, and hidden,” adding that St. Elias, Patriarch of Carmel, does not hesitate to preserve contemplation as the principal and essential aim of his Order as it gives ever greater honor to the August Queen of Heaven and Flower of Carmel.

Flos Carmeli,
vitis florigera;
Splendor caeli, virgo puerpera, singularis!

Flower of Carmel,
tall vine blossom-laden; 
Splendor of heaven, childbearing yet maiden, none equals thee!