Today the Church honors the Mother of God, presented to us as the Lady of Mt. Carmel, which refers to her role as heavenly patroness of the Carmelite Order. This is the reason that artistic depictions of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel show her dressed in the habit of a Carmelite.
The Carmelite Order is a community of men and women religious that was founded in the 13th century. The rule or way of life of the Carmelite Order highlights the necessity of austerity of life and contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer is marked by an a willingness to accept God on his terms, relying not on petition or imagination, but by a disciplined receptivity to what God desires to accomplish in through our prayer. This disciplined receptivity is an expression of the Carmelites desire to make of their life a total gift to Christ. As Christ emptied himself so to give himself to us, the Carmelite, in imitation of Christ, empties him or her self of worldly aspirations and achievement, placing his or her life at Christ’s disposal. Notable Carmelites are St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. Edith Stein.
Mt. Carmel is the spiritual center of the Carmelite Order, evoking the arduous path of renunciation and self-gift that Carmelites aspire to through their way of life, but it is also a real place that is located in the Holy Land.
Mt. Carmel was the place of refuge where the prophets of the Bible would withdraw and seek communion with the God of Israel in solitude. The Carmelites understand their role as originating in the Biblical prophets, particularly that of the wonder working prophet, Elijah.
The biblical prophets spoke the Lord’s truth and proclaimed the necessity of obedience to the Lord’s will. They often offered this testimony to worldly powers that resisted the Lord’s truth and his will and in doing so led people into idolatry. Idolatry is the greatest manifestation of human corruption, and it engenders spiritual decadence that leads to our destruction.
Idols are false gods, but they need not be mythological beings. Idols are usually created from our desires, the desire for wealth, pleasure, power and honors being foremost. But idols can also be constructed from other desires, such as our need to control, or our need to be right, or out of our fears.
It might be helpful to understand the austerity of the Carmelite way of life, as well as its emphasis on intense contemplation, as an intentional turning away from false gods to the one, true God. Though we might not be called to the radical renunciation of a Carmelite, we are compelled by our profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord to contend with the idols that we have created.
We may not think of the Mother of God as a prophet, but she surely is, and her association with Mt. Carmel is as apt as it is profound. In her presentation of her Divine Son to us and her persistent command that we do “whatever he tells us”, the Mother of God positions herself in solemn witness against our idols and our idol-making tendencies. Further, her prophetic witness against the pomp and pretense of worldly powers resounds in her great Magnificat, which casts God’s judgment upon the fallen powers of the world that would in their arrogant desire for wealth, pleasure, power and honors resist her Son’s Kingdom. (Just as it is misleading to think of Christ as merely gentle, meek and mild, so it is also misleading to think of his mother in those terms. Her Magnifcat reveals her, not as a symbol of domesticated passivity, as a force to be reckoned with!)
The Mother of God is also a privileged model of the contemplative prayer that is at the center of the Carmelite way of life. The Gospel testifies that she “kept God’s revelation and treasured it within her heart”, a statement that does not indicate sentimental musing, but an intense recollection at what God had revealed in Christ and why he had revealed it. The Mother of God is the paradigmatic example of the disciple whose life was intentionally centered on a deep and abiding awareness and appreciation of the presence of the living and true God revealed in Jesus Christ.
For centuries, faithful Christians have appealed the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel as a friend who would accompany them at the hour of death and as an intercessor for departed loved ones. The great sign of this devotion is displayed in the practice of wearing the Brown Scapular, which manifests one’s identification with the spiritual works of the Carmelite Order and one’s particular reverence for the Mother Of God.
May our own love for and devotion to the Mother of God lead us to an ever, deeper appreciation for the holy communion of God and humanity that is revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ.