Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Treasures of Mount Carmel

Our most important work is to pray –

This week, we look forward to the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel -- Saturday, July 16th. While almost all Catholics know a great deal about this devotion and the related Church history, few have had the opportunity to explore the extensive, and sometimes surprising, details of its rich history and spirituality. The wisdom of this devotion encompasses not only the Christian era, but has its roots set back in both the Judaic and pre-biblical spiritual traditions.

rom the earliest days of Christianity, it has been one of the most popular Marian devotions among the faithful – so popular through the ages, in fact, that it intertwines with many diverse devotional and cultural threads in human history. The history of Mount Carmel itself, an actual site in the Holy Land, set the stage for development of the devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Prior to the Christian era, like many other summits in the ancient world, Mount Carmel was regarded to be sacred space by a variety of ancient, pre-Christian peoples who populated the area. Its earliest Judeo-Christian traditions trace back to the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Mount Carmel is reputed to have been the location from which the prophet Elijah, in the 9th century BC, was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.

Saints and Sinners Seek Shelter

In the centuries which followed, Mount Carmel became a refuge for a mélange of saints and sinners alike. Almost eight centuries before the birth of Christ, in the time of the fire and brimstone prophet Amos, Mount Carmel was known as a refuge not only for hermits and pilgrims, but also for thieves and other people seeking to escape justice and God. By contrast, by the second century BC, it had become a long-term refuge for the religious ascetics known as the Essenes, famed for their composition and preservation of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Mount Carmel: A Place of Prayer & Marian Devotion

Tradition tells us that, from the time when Elijah and his protégé Elisha dwelt on Mount Carmel, it also became a site for devout Judaic and Christian hermits. Until medieval times, the network of caves provided shelter for a solitary life of prayer and meditation in this wilderness. These hermits lived as individuals yet in relatively close proximity to each other – a kind of “community” of isolated hermits. In the twelfth century, some of the Christian hermits formalized association with each other as the earliest Carmelites. Details of their foundation and history are unclear, and the Carmelites have gone through a number of changes and reforms over the centuries.

Early on in their history, the thirteenth-century Englishman, St. Simon Stock, was among the first Prior Generals of the Carmelites who founded Carmelite sites outside the Holy Land. Although their history is complex and not completely recorded, three hallmarks distinguish their spirituality and lifestyle: a penitential life of prayer, a strong connection to the Elijian/Elishian hermetical traditions of Mount Carmel, and devotion to Jesus’ mother as Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

 Protective Shelter under the Blessed Virgin’s Mantle

The Blessed Virgin, especially under the name Our Lady of Mount Carmel, manifests the mercy of God by being both companion and protector not only to each Carmelite, but also to each one of us as members of the faithful. In this Year of Mercy, it is interesting to note that two important symbols of Our Lady of Mercy are mirrored in the traditions of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. They are the Scapular and the protective Mantle of the Blessed Virgin. Both are symbols of mercy in the form of Mary’s protection of her children, all believers. Many prayers ask Mary to protect us by embracing us within her mantle (scapular).

Wearing a scapular is a constant reminder of God’s mercy and of the protection that Mary affords her children. Originally, the scapular was an article of clothing either worn across the shoulders as a cloak, sometimes lengthened and extended into a work apron. The scapulat is part of the formal habit of several monastic orders, including the Carmelites and the Dominicans.

Over the years, this article of clothing came to be symbolized in the familiar devotional scapular. The devotional scapular is made up of two small squares attached with a narrow ribbon. It is often worn around the neck, under the clothing, as a symbolic mantle/scapular. There are many versions of the devotional scapular, including those picturing St. Benedict, St. Thomas the Apostle to India, and the Passion. But among them all, perhaps the two most recognizable are the Scapular of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The Mount Carmel scapular has come to be strongly associated with St. Simon Stock because it pictures on one panel, the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and, on the second panel, the vision of St. Simon Stock receiving the scapular from Our Lady.

The Quest for Peace in the Land of Carmel

As I studied the history of Mount Carmel, I could not help but be reminded of the tragic turmoil which has plagued the land of Carmel. Personally, as a descendant of Latin Catholics from the holy town of Bethlehem, I find the worsening strife in the Holy Land a particular sadness. I still have relatives living there, and news of peace efforts in the region mean a great deal to me.

His Eminence and Beatitude Bechara Peter Cardinal Rai, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, recently visited the United States. One of the Patriarch’s stops was at my Manhattan home parish, Church of the Holy Family, the United Nations parish, where he and His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan led a Prayer Service for peace in the Middle East. Patriarch Rai was elected in 2011 as the 77th Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East. About a year later he was ordained a Roman Catholic cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI. He represents the largest Catholic grouping in the Middle East.

In his remarks Patriarch Rai recalled Pope Benedict’s urging at the time of his appointment as Cardinal, that no matter how impossible it appeared, it was essential that he believe in peace, and that he remember that achieving that peace would not be our own doing but rather the work of God. Our own most important work is to pray. Prayer and faith must not be forgotten in the great challenge to achieve peace in the Middle East. Faith, in turn, cannot be sustained without prayer in humility before our God. It will not be our doing but the work of God. Our most important work is to pray.

Efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East must confront and neutralize so many evils! After years of unsuccessful efforts to achieve peace, the task seems impossible – at least in a human context. What their Eminences emphasized in their comments is that prayer is the essential component which will convert the apparently impossible task into the possible.

“We admire you,” Cardinal Dolan told the Patriarch. He described the Patriarch as one, “who … holds his hands together in prayer, whose hands are often raised in blessing, whose hands are often held up to stop bullets and bombs and bloodshed, and whose arms embrace all…in a region which causes us sometimes to cover our ears, lest we hear more and more bad news…You instead encourage us to open our ears to hear God’s Word of justice and peace, to listen to Jesus’ call for reconciliation and mercy.”

Our Personal Quest for Holiness & Peace

In this, I saw a lesson that applies as much to our more ordinary (but not necessarily any easier) efforts to achieve peace and personal holiness in our own faith lives. Repeatedly in the Gospels, evil, weakness and infirmity appear before Jesus in various forms. Each time, he vanquishes the evil and doubt through exorcisms and healings. Jesus’ very presence is wrought with compassion and mercy for all – sinners, the marginalized, and the thirsty crowds drinking in his Good News!

While he commissions his disciples to go out and evangelize the world, Jesus repeatedly makes it clear that the most important component of his disciples’ efforts is their faith. In other words, this great work of converting the world is not simply the work of the disciples, but rather the work of God, in which the disciples participate.

Closing Prayer

In one of Saint John’s visions as recorded in the Book of Revelation, he saw the Risen Lord sitting on a throne and heard his divine promise: “See, I make all things new! … To anyone who thirsts, I
will give to drink without cost from the spring of life-giving water” (Rev 21:5-6). May we have the faith and wisdom to ask, through our prayers, that the Lord grant conversion to our hardened hearts and to those challenges and tasks which seem impossible to conquer. May the Lord give us the grace to stay connected to this central Easter message which we celebrate in each mass we attend!

Marie-Louise Handal has been a Pauline Cooperator for the past decade. She holds a Master’s Degree from St. Joseph's Seminary, an M.S. in the Foreign Service from Georgetown University, and is a candidate for the S.T.L. from the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton. She also holds a Certificate in Spiritual Direction from the New York Archdiocesan Center for Spiritual Development. Her professional work experience encompasses 20 years in international banking and finance, followed by a second career as a mathematics educator in Manhattan. Marie-Louise is a native New Yorker, born and raised in New York City.


Association of Pauline Cooperators said...

Thanks for this informative, inspirational post, Marie Louise. Sr. Margaret Charles

Association of Pauline Cooperators said...

Thanks for this informative, inspirational post, Marie Louise. Sr. Margaret Charles