Like everyone, Carmelites love to trace their roots. Our family tree goes way back to the early thirteenth century, to a group of hermits, originally pilgrims and crusaders, living in allegiance to Jesus Christ on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Israel, a country so much in the news these days for all the wrong reasons. These early hermits had been inspired by Elijah, the great prophet of Mount Carmel, that zealous witness to the Living God; Elijah, the great contemplative yet man of action and close to the poor; Elijah, man of many moods, whose feast we celebrate on July 20th.
But from its beginnings, Mary of Nazareth has been regarded as the Mother of Carmel, its Queen and Beauty. We celebrate her feast on July 16th. The first hermits built a little oratory to Mary in the midst of their cells, calling themselves the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. For them, and for us still today, her brothers and sisters: friars, nuns and lay people who live according to Carmel’s values, she is our Mother and Sister, our model and guide. Her gentle presence pervades our whole Carmelite lives.
A vital part of our Carmelite pilgrim pack is the Word of God, a map for life, “a lamp for our steps, a light for our path” (Ps. 118). Our Rule bids us to ponder the Lord’s law day and night. We long like Mary to hear the Word and do it. For the Word of God is the school of daily conversion, where we meet Jesus, grow into his mind and heart and put on his features, which we find in the Beatitudes.
Mary and Elijah have much to say to the contemporary world. They were free from the enslavement of idols, they were both pure in heart and hence fertile ground for the seed of the Spirit.
Elijah is the solitary figure who is not only true to God and defeats the prophets of the false god Baal, but he is also the defender of the poor and disenfranchised.
Mary is the contemplative who ponders in her heart. She is the perfect disciple who follows her Son, the Wisdom of God. Her surrender to the working of God’s Spirit in her life is captured in her Magnificat, a song of praise and thanksgiving for the mercy of God which raises the lowly of the earth.
Between them they have strongly influenced the way in which Carmelites have endeavoured to respond to the world’s needs and challenge its false ideologies over the past eight centuries.
Instead of omnipotence – being all powerful – we have learned that it is only through the power of Jesus Christ that lives will be enriched.
Instead of omniscience – having the answer for everything – we rely on the wisdom of God.
Instead of fulfilment as a selfish ideal, we know that is it through helping others that the greatest fulfilment comes in life.
In his first homily as Pope, the Holy Father Benedict XVI said: “The world is destroyed by the impatience of man. But it is redeemed by the patience of God.” He went on to say: “Today there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God‘s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.”
In a society where, despite all the signs of progress and prosperity, many are harshly disillusioned and dispirited, the witness and call of the contemplative life is to “come back”. It is an invitation addressed to everyone: to come back to one’s own heart, one’s own deepest centre, and to “live” from within.
If we don’t we are simply living “outside of our true selves”, we are cut off from our own deepest centre, from God, from our neighbour and from nature itself. In short, we are living on the surface and in the control of forces outside ourselves.
One of our American brothers expresses a sense of the Carmelite tradition as it speaks to people today. Perhaps it will resonate with you:
“The Carmelite tradition speaks to those who long to be apart, to separate from a smothering existence. The tradition offers the lure of wilderness and mountain retreat. In solitude, in a place apart, we searchers hope to hear our heart’s desires more clearly, to reassess life, to dream, to be nourished by hidden springs, to meet the One whom others speak of with great assurance. Those who are drawn by the Carmelite tradition are often pilgrims to places unknown, trusting the testimony of others who have taken the same spiritual path.”
We ask Our Blessed Lady of Mount Carmel, our Mother and Sister – the Nazareth Mary – to draw us closer to the One who gives us life in abundance, as we follow in her footsteps.