Oddly enough, it was long after I had a devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel that it even occurred to me to question where this “Mount Carmel” might be, and why it has such a special place in our lives. As we celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel this year, let’s take a moment to go back in time—and far away—to discover the origins of this special devotion.
Some places are holy. Speaking from the burning bush, God told Moses the ground he stood on was holy. And according to legend, there was a religious community established even before the time of Christ on Mount Carmel in northern Israel on the mountain overlooking the Mediterranean Sea where the prophet Elijah successfully challenged the priests of Baal and won the people to the true God; so this mountain was truly a holy place.
Whether or not there was a pre-Christian community living on the mountain, there is historical record that a community of monks was living near the Fountain of Elijah by the 12th century. Despite continual difficulties, the community built a monastery and church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and named the place Mount Carmel in 1263. Saint Louis, the king of France, had already visited in 1254, when the community was still a group of disparate hermits living near each other; he brought six French hermits back with him and built them a convent near Paris.
The monks on the holy mountain became known as “Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel” and celebrated a special Mass and Office in honor of Mary; they were all martyred when in 1291 Muslim warriors took the mountain and burned the convent. But it was only the beginning of the history of the Carmelites and the devotion to Our Lady of Mt Carmel.
The spread of the Carmelites in Europe is largely attributable to the work of Saint Simon Stock (1247-1265). The Carmelite Order was formally approved in 1274 at the Council of Lyon. For centuries the Carmelites have seen themselves as specially related to Mary. Their great saints and theologians have promoted devotion to her and often championed the mystery of her Immaculate Conception.
Saint Teresa of Avila called Carmel “the Order of the Virgin.” Saint John of the Cross credited Mary with saving him from drowning as a child, leading him to Carmel, and helping him escape from prison. Saint Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus believed Mary cured her from illness and on her First Communion day dedicated her life to Our Lady.
There’s a tradition that Mary appeared to Simon Stock, the community Superior, and gave him a scapular (a modified version of her own garment), telling him to promote devotion to it. The scapular symbolizes her special protection and calls wearers to consecrate themselves to her.
According to Church tradition, there are three conditions necessary to participate in this Privilege and share in the other spiritual benefits of the scapular: wear the Brown Scapular, observe chastity according to your state in life, and pray the Rosary. Enrollment in the Brown Scapular also makes a person part of the Carmelite family throughout the world. They therefore share in all of the prayers and good works of the Carmelite Orders. When you consider all the Carmelite brothers and sisters throughout the world, you realize what a great privilege that is!