Saint Elias – July 20
We remember the prophet Elias, the one who battled the 450 priests of Baal in a public spiritual contest which led to their defeat and ruin as Scriptures aptly recorded (1 Kings 18:19-40).
It was on Mount Carmel that Elias sent his servant seven times to the mountaintop to look for rain after years of drought which ended as he proclaimed, “Behold a little cloud arose out of the sea like a man’s foot” (1 Kings 18:44).
We can find Mount Carmel on the Mediterranean coast of Israel, overlooking the modern-day city of Haifa. It rises 1742 feet above sea level and towers above the Mediterranean coastline and its limestone rocks form a cliff-like landscape.
The name “Carmel” means, in Hebrew (Hakkarmel [with the definite article]), “the garden” or “the garden-land” because of its renowned lush and verdant beauty during ancient times (Isaiah 35:2). It is known for its cover of flower blossoms, flowering shrubs, and fragrant herbs. Such was its charm and appeal that it was compared to the beauty of the bride in Solomon’s song (Song of Songs 7:5).
Mount Carmel as it stands today. “Carmel” in Hebrew means “the garden” because of its renowned lush and verdant beauty during ancient times.
Nowadays it comes in various names as Antelope-Nose, Har Karmel, Holy Headland, Jebel Kurmul, Mar Elyas, Mount of User, Rosh-Kedesh.
Origin of Invocation
The title of Our Lady of Carmel can be traced back to the hermits who used to live in the renowned and blessed mountain at the time of the Old Testament. There, this pious and austere community prayed in expectation of the advent of a Virgin-Mother who would bring salvation to mankind much like the holy prophet Elias who ascended Mount Carmel to pray to God for the salvation of the Israel which was suffering a terrible drought at that time.
Elias “went up to the top of Mt. Carmel, and casting himself down upon the earth put his face between his knees” (1 Kings 18:42). He persevered in prayer, and as previously mentioned above, sent his servant several times to the mountaintop to see any sign of foreboding rain. Elias, never wavering in his confidence, received the good news on the seventh try, “Behold a little cloud arose out of the sea like a man’s foot” (1 Kings 18:44). Soon thereafter, torrential rains fell upon the parched land and the people of Israel were saved.
A Prefigure of Our Lady
Elias saw the cloud as a symbol of the Virgin mentioned in the prophecies of Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14). The hermits took after his example and prayed likewise for the advent of the much awaited Virgin who would become the mother of the Messiah. It became their spiritual mission.
Theologians see in that little cloud a figure of Mary, bringing salvation in the seventh age of the world. As the clouds arise out of the sea without the weight and the salinity of the waters, so has Mary arisen out of the human race without suffering its stains.
Based on the L’Institution Des Premieres Moines, a text most singularly representative of the spirit of Carmel and of its most ancient and quintessential mystical traditions, Elias would discern from that cloud four secrets from God concerning the birth of Our Lady:
1. The Immaculate Conception – because the Virgin would arise as a cloud out of the salty water of a guilty humanity, having the same nature of that water but without its bitterness.
2. The Virginity of Mary similar to that of Elias – because, if she “arose out of Mount Carmel” and “like a man’s foot,” this means she would follow the path of Elias, who ascended Carmel through voluntary virginity.
3. The Time of the Virgin’s Birth – because as Elias’s servant saw the cloud on his seventh try so would the world witness the advent of the Virgin in the seventh age of the world.
4. The Virginal Maternity – because, in that little cloud, God would come down like sweet rain, “without noise of human collaboration,” that is, without violating her purity.
The holy prophet Elias whose prayers to God atop Mount Carmel were answered by “a little cloud...out of the sea” - the forebearer of the torrential rains that would save the people of Israel from their drought.
The Spirit of Elias and the Carmelite Order
Elias led a hermetic life on Mt. Carmel with special veneration for the Most Holy Virgin. His disciple Eliseus, who received his mantle, and other followers, known as Sons of the Prophet as Holy Scriptures described them, participated in his solitude and became filled with his strength and spirit. In a holy hereditary succession, they passed on his spirit and strength to others.
Through the continuous propagation of the above practice, the foundation and development of the Carmelite order began to take root. This we learn from tradition, liturgy, works of various authors and several bulls addressed to the Carmelite Order by Popes John XXII, Sixtus IV, Julius II, St. Pius V, Gregory XIII, Sixtus V and Clement VIII.
One beautiful passage from a private revelation to a mystic relates that after the High Priest of Jerusalem had announced that St. Joseph was to be the husband of Our Lady selected by Our Lord Himself, “the young man from Bethlehem joined the hermits of Elias on Mount Carmel and continued to pray fervently for the Messias.”
The First Church in Honor of Our Lady in the Christian Era
According to a long held and pious tradition, backed by Church Liturgy, a group of men devoted to the prophets Elias and Eliseus embraced Christianity on the day of Pentecost. They had been the disciples of St. John the Baptist, who prepared them for the coming of the Redeemer.
This band of faithful left Jerusalem and settled on Mt. Carmel. There they erected a church dedicated to Our Lady on the same spot where Elias saw the little cloud which symbolized both fertility and the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God. They adopted the name of Friars of the Blessed Mary of Mount Carmel.
Controversy Still Unsettled
However, in 1668 a Belgian Bollandist and Jesuit hagiographer, Daniel Van Papenbroek, dismissed the above story as fable or legend for lack of concrete evidence in the March volumes of the Acta Sanctorum. A bitter controversy arose that dragged for years eventually reaching Rome in 1698. Innocent XII issued a decree imposing silence over all concerned parties until a definitive pronouncement could be reached – which was never formally realized to date.
Nevertheless, in 1725 Benedict XIII granted permission to the Carmelites, in an apparent show of support and approval, to erect in St. Peter’s among the statues of founders of Orders and patriarchs, one of Elias with his own inscription fashioned to the effect that the Carmelites have done so to honor their founder St. Elias the prophet.
Be as it may, in spite of the cloud of mystery and controversy surrounding these beginnings, the Carmelite Order has always claimed Elias as its own and has seen in him as one who laid the foundations of the eremitic and prophetic life that formed part of its character.
Establishing Spiritual Continuity and Marian Character
It would take several centuries before historical and documental proof could be gathered as to the existence of hermits on Mount Carmel with spiritual links to the prophet Elias. The first concrete text dates back to 1177 through the writings of the Greek monk John Phocas.
The monastic-style spirituality were practiced and observed on Mt. Carmel through the pioneer efforts of St. Berthold of Mount Carmel, who may have come to the Holy Land from Limoges, France as a pilgrim to visit Elias’ cave, or as crusader who engaged in battle. He gathered other hermits from the West who were scattered throughout Palestine at that time to form a community imbued with the spirit of Elias. St Berthold organized them as cenobites, a monastic tradition that stresses community life under a religious rule.
These first monks who retired to Mount Carmel in 1150 made their center a chapel consecrated to our Lady and from the time of Saint Brocard, successor to St. Berthold and the first Prior General, the nascent Carmelites were to be known as Brothers of our Lady of Mount Carmel. Thus devotion to Our Lady formed a distinctive part of their character and spirituality. “Despite its historical inexactitudes L’Institution Des Premieres Moines shows that the Order is dominated by the two great figures which represent, on different levels, its ideal: Elias and our Lady.”
The Carmelite Rule
St. Brocard championed the cause to have the monastic spirit which they had received from their predecessors be laid down in a holy Rule. Around 1210, it was given to the Order by St Albert, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, and later finally approved and authorized by Pope Innocent IV in 1247. The primitive Carmelite rule initially contained sixteen articles and later underwent some modifications.