Holy Mary – the Flower of Carmel

Thy head is like Carmel: and the hairs of thy head as the purple of the king bound in the channels. (Cant. 7:5)

In the ancient land of Palestine lies Mount Carmel (in Hebrew, Hakkarmel, “the garden”), the crown of a mountain range renowned for its beauty. Adorned with numerous aromatic plants and wild flowers, its heights are also covered with pine, prickly oak, myrtle, lentisk, carob, and olive trees. Triangular in shape, the range’s promontory touches upon the Mediterranean Sea, the Plain of Saron and the plains of Esdrelon.

In the early thirteenth century, a group of hermits settled on Mount Carmel and built there a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Because of their devotion to the Mother of God, these hermits became known as “The Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel,” or Carmelites. Their original rule, written for them by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Albert of Vercelli, prescribed poverty, abstinence from meat, and solitude. It was approved in the year 1226 by Pope Honorius III.

Soon afterward, the Carmelite Order spread across the Mediterranean to Europe. In fact, it was in England, in the year 1251, that the Virgin Mary appeared to the Carmelite monk, St. Simon Stock (+1265), holding the order’s Brown Scapular in her hand and promising that anyone who died wearing this scapular would be saved. St. Simon, who had been an itinerant preacher until joining the Carmelites, was elected their sixth general in the year 1247. Although he was able to found many Carmelite houses (even in cities: London, York, Paris, Bologna, and Naples) and also obtain the temporary approbation of Pope Innocent IV for an adapted rule more consistent with European needs, the order suffered persecution from other orders and the secular clergy partly because of their extreme asceticism. Amidst these difficulties, the monks prayed to the Blessed Virgin and, on January 13, 1252, their supplications were answered when Pope Innocent IV issued a bull of protection for the Carmelites.

The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was instituted by the Carmelites towards the end of the fourteenth century to commemorate the victory over their opponents and obtaining the approbation of their name and constitution from Pope Honorius (1226). The feast was assigned to July 16 to honor the date on which, in the year 1251, the Brown Scapular was given to St. Simon Stock by Our Lady. The feast was first approved by Pope Sixtus V in 1587, and later declared the patronal feast of the Carmelite Order in 1609 under the title “Commemoratio solemnis B.V.M. de Monte Carmelo.” The feast was extended to the entire Church in the year 1726.

The sacredness and beauty of Mount Carmel are highlighted again and again in the Old Testament, and form a backdrop for dramatic events in the life of Israel. When we read these texts in light of the fulfillment of the ancient messianic prophecies in Jesus Christ, we find the Catholic Church, loved by her Redeemer, foreshadowed under the figure of Carmel. And, whenever we find the Church foreshadowed in the Old Testament, we recognize that it is Mary, the Mother of the Church, who is the primary object of the prophetic texts, for she is the very image of the Church. She brought forth the Head of the Church, Jesus, and she continues to bring forth His members in the Church, individuals raised to new life and sustained through the sacraments. The maternal roles , then, of Mother Church and the Mother of the Church are forever intertwined:

It is not a mere rhetorical flourish, but a most profound truth to say that, as she stood beneath the Cross, Christ poured forth all His redeeming Blood into the heart of His Mother from whom He had received it, so that through her, as through a channel, it might flow over all mankind…. Thus, she appears in reality as the depository of the sacrificial fruit . . . in her person as mediatrix of redeeming grace, Mary was well-adapted to represent the Church.

In keeping with Mary’s whole position in the kingdom of grace, and in relation to the influence which her plenitude of grace has on His mystical body, her continual cooperation with Christ must, in general, be held to be as natural as is the incessant cooperation of the heart with the head in the influence of the latter on the vivification of the other members of the body.

(Rev. M.J. Scheeben, “Mary’s Office of Mediatrix ” from Mariology , Vol. II, 1947)

The image of Mount Carmel is indeed a fitting one with which to clothe our Blessed Mother, for it resounds not only with beauty and holiness, but calls us to ponder our true place of refuge and the glory of God.

The Beauty of God

When “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” the love of God for suffering humanity became manifest in an immediate, visceral manner unheard of before. The eternal, omnipotent Creator walked and lived among men as a man, humbling Himself out of love for His creatures, disdaining not even “the death of the Cross” for our sakes. At the Incarnation, a new relationship was made possible between God and man, between Divinity and humanity. The Lord who once proclaimed to Moses, Thou canst not see my face, for man shall not see me and live (Ex. 33:20), would sit at the table with His people and say, I will not call you servants, for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth. But I have called you friends (John 15:15). St. Paul, writing to the Catholics in Ephesus, taught that Jesus regards the Church as His “Bride”: Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church and delivered Himself up for it (5:25).

This “marital dimension” existing between Christ and the Church, made possible only through the Incarnation, that supreme manifestation of God’s love for humanity, was foreshadowed in the sensuous imagery of The Canticle of Canticles, imagery which put a “human” face on the unimaginably profound love of God for man. At the root of this imagery is that unique love of the Trinity for the unique Woman who is daughter, mother, and spouse to the Three Divine Persons:

Thy neck as a tower of ivory. Thy eyes like the fishpools in Hesebon, which are in the gate of the daughter of the multitude. Thy nose is as the tower of Libanus, that looketh toward Damascus. Thy head is like Carmel: and the hairs of thy head as the purple of the king bound in the channels. How beautiful art thou, and how comely, my dearest, in delights! (Cant. 7:4-6)

Thy head is like Carmel. In her indefectible aspect as the “Bride of Christ,” the Church is pure, perfect, and beautiful. As the ever-virgin Mother of God, the Immaculate Conception , the Blessed Virgin is likewise pure, perfect and beautiful:

Imitate Mary to whom admirably applies what was prophesied of the Church: Beautiful are seen thy steps in shoes, O daughter of Aminidab. Because with beauty did the Church go forth in the preaching of the Gospel. Beautifully, too, goes forth the soul, that uses the body as though a shoe, so that whither it will, it may bear about its step without let or hindrance. In this shoe with beauty went forth Mary, who with chastity inviolate, a Virgin most pure, gave birth to the Author of salvation. . . . Beautiful, therefore, are the steps, whether of Mary or of the Church, since beautiful are the steps of the Evangelists.

(St. Ambrose +397, De. Inst. Virg. )

How beautiful art thou, and how comely, my dearest, in delights! Here, the prophetic voice of the Holy Ghost praises and admires Mary’s pure soul and Immaculate Heart, marvels of creation, attuned to her Son like no heart or soul before or since. “Jesus and Mary were two mystical harps,” wrote St. Augustine (+430). “What sounded on the one also sounded on the other, even though no one touched it.”

The Prophet Isaias also mentions Carmel, when he described the flourishing of Judea under King Ezechias, who destroyed idols, defeated the Philistines, and freed his people from the oppression of the Assyrians.

It shall bud forth and blossom, and shall rejoice with joy and praise: the glory of Libanus is given to it: the beauty of Carmel, and Saron, they shall see the glory of the Lord, and the beauty of our God. (Is. 35:2)

These are also prophetic words foreshadowing the Church founded by Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of mankind. The images of fertility, joy, and glory point to the fecundity of the Church in the harvesting of souls, and the joy of the redeemed even in the face of persecutions. The beauty of Carmel is the bestowal of Divine favor, which makes of the Church a spotless bride, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but . . . holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:27). Through the sacraments and sanctifying grace, the Church truly shows forth the beauty of our God.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel, with Carmelite Saints, by Pietro Novelli, 1641

Fertility, joy, and glory. The bestowal of Divine favor. These attributes of the Church find their epitome in the Blessed Virgin:

Fertility : When the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary, the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow the e (Luke 1:35), she became not only the Virgin Mother of Jesus, but the Virgin Mother of all mankind, a spiritual Mother “in the order of grace.” The fertility of Mary not only bestows life, but it bestows eternal life . This man and that man is born in her and the Highest Himself hath founded her (Ps. 86:5), sings the psalmist of both Mary and the Catholic Church.

Joy: When he chronicled the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary during the Annunciation, St. Luke used the Greek word Chaire , “Rejoice,” to record Gabriel’s salutation. It is the word translated as “Hail” in English Gospel translations, but the word also can be translated by the word “Rejoice.” Although she would stand on Calvary as the Co-Redemptrix and Mother of Sorrows, Mary was indeed the most blessed of all women, to have given the Living God shelter in her own womb for nine months, to have clothed Divinity in her own flesh and blood. He that is mighty hath done great things to me, sang Our Lady in her Magnificat, and holy is His name (Luke 1:49).

Glory and the bestowal of divine favor: “It is such,” wrote St. Bonaventure (+1274), “that God could make a greater world, a greater Heaven, but He cannot exalt a creature more than by making her His Mother.” The glory of God shines through Mary, His masterpiece, in a most unique way. We see her beauty and purity as examples of God’s bounty, of His mercy and goodness literally flooding into a human vessel: All the glory of the king’s daughter is within in golden borders, clothed round about with varieties (Ps. 44:14,15). Her virtues make us ponder His. Her glories are reflections of His. And more than that, because of her fiat to the Incarnation, the world for the first time saw the glory of God in His very humility , in His very humanity . We see a glory, expressed not in the deafening tones of thunder, but in the words and actions of God-made-Man. Truly, the Mother of God has shown forth the Beauty of God :

So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

(Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe )

Destroyer of Heresies

In the Third Book of Kings is related the story of Elias and the prophets of Baal. We read there that Achab, the seventh king of Israel, “did evil in the sight of the Lord.” After marrying the princess Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon, Achab raised up a temple to their pagan deity, Baal, and worshiped him. He then actively established the worship of Baal among the people of Israel. Achab allowed his wife, Jezebel, to kill the worshippers of the True God and persecute His holy prophets. Because of Achab’s unfaithfulness, the Lord punished the land with a drought that lasted for three years.

In the last year of the drought, Elias was instructed by the Lord to talk to Achab. He met the king and made this request:

Nevertheless send now, and gather unto me all Israel, unto Mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, who eat at Jezebel’s table. Achab sent to all the children of Israel, and gathered together the prophets unto Mount Carmel.

When Elias addressed the people on Mount Carmel, he asked them how long they would waver between two sides, between worship of Baal and worship of the True God. His words were met with silence. “I only remain a prophet of the Lord,” said Elias, “but the prophets of Baal are four hundred and fifty men.” Then, he instructed the people:

Let two bullocks be given us, and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it upon wood, but put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under it. Call ye on the names of your gods, and I will call on the name of my Lord: and the God that shall answer by fire, let him be God. And all the people answering, said: A very good proposal.

The instructions of Elias were carried out. The prophets of Baal went first. They prepared their bullock and cried out to their false god from morning until noon, but to no avail. When it was noon, Elias taunted the prophets of Baal, saying they should cry out in a louder voice, because perhaps Baal “is talking, or is in an inn, or on a journey; or perhaps he is asleep, and must be awaked.” The followers of Baal continued crying out and even cut themselves with knives, but again to no avail.

Elias then built an altar “to the name of the Lord.” He laid wood around it and prepared his bullock. He even ordered that many buckets of water be poured over the altar and offering. When all was ready, he prayed:

O Lord God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Israel, shew this day that thou art the God of Israel, and I thy servant, and that according to Thy commandment I have done all these things. Hear me, O Lord, hear me: that this people may learn that Thou art the Lord God, and that Thou hast turned their heart again.

Then, “the fire of the Lord fell,” consuming the holocaust, as well as the wood, stones, dust — and all the water that had run off the altar and had gathered in a trench. When the people saw this, they fell on their faces and proclaimed, “The Lord, He is God!” Elias then ordered that all the prophets of Baal be killed, then he cast himself down on the top of Mount Carmel and waited for the rain. Eventually, “a little cloud arose out of the sea like a man’s foot… the heavens grew dark, with clouds and wind, and there fell a great rain.”

It was fitting that Mount Carmel should be the backdrop for this event, the ground upon which false beliefs were put to naught by the power of the True God. “Rejoice, O Virgin Mary,” reads an antiphon from the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary , “you alone have destroyed all heresies in the whole world.” It is likewise fitting that Carmel, where the Truth triumphed over error, should be a figure of the Mother of God, for she, too, is the “ground” upon which Jesus Christ has crushed error and false beliefs.

The early centuries of the Catholic Faith saw their share of heresies centering around the Person of the Redeemer. In one way or another, these heresies sought to “fragment” Jesus Christ, by confusing the truth that He is True God and True Man, two natures in one Person. The Arians denied the divinity of Christ, contending that He was merely given a “share” in the divinity of God the Father. The Apollinarists taught that Christ had a human body, but not a human rational mind, his human mind having being replaced by the divine Logos .

In the fifth century came the heretic Nestorius, who denied Mary’s title of Theotokos (“Mother of God” or “God-Bearer”), claiming that there were in Christ not one, but two persons, one divine (the Logos ), the other human (Jesus). This erroneous reasoning denied the reality of the “hypostatic union,” the union of two natures, human and divine, in the One Person of the Incarnate Word. Therefore, Nestorius denied that Mary could be called the “Mother of God.”

St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, and the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) dealt with the heresy and issued the “Twelve Anathemas” against Nestorius. The first three are solid defenses of the true nature of God-made-Man:

1. If anyone will not confess that the Emmanuel is very God, and that therefore the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Theotokos), inasmuch as in the flesh She bore the Word of God made flesh: let him be anathema.

2. If anyone does not confess that the Word from God the Father has been united by hypostasis with the flesh and is one Christ with His Own flesh, and is therefore God and man together , let him be anathema.

3. If anyone divides in the one Christ the hypostases after the union, joining them only by a conjunction of dignity or authority or power, and not rather by a coming together in a union by nature , let him be anathema.”

The Virgin’s title, “Theotokos,” was as old as the Catholic Faith itself, and the Council Fathers of Ephesus recognized that a defense of this title was, in fact, a defense of the truth of the Incarnation. During the regional Lateran Council (649 AD), the title would once again be defended and proclaimed:

If anyone does not, according to the Holy Fathers, confess truly and properly that holy Mary, ever virgin and immaculate, is Mother of God, since in this latter age She conceived in true reality, without human seed, from the Holy Ghost, God the Word Himself, who before the ages was born of God the Father, and gave birth to Him without corruption, Her virginity remaining equally inviolate after the birth, let him be condemned.

It was the Divine Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary that truly “destroyed” such heresies as those promulgated by Arius, Apollinaris, and Nestorius, as the antiphon of the Little Office proclaims. Just as the lies of the priests of Baal were crushed on the beautiful slopes of Mount Carmel (i.e., “the garden”), so are the heresies launched against the Person of Jesus Christ crushed by Our Lady, a “garden” whose beauty remains unparalleled. Just as the first Adam was brought forth from the virgin soil of Eden, so was Jesus Christ, the “new Adam,” brought forth from the Virgin Mary, the “new Eden”:

“I declare with the saints: Mary is the earthly paradise of Jesus Christ the new Adam, where He became man by the power of the Holy Ghost, in order to accomplish in her wonders beyond our understanding. She is the vast and divine world of God where unutterable marvels and beauties are to be found. She is the magnificence of the Almighty where He hid His only Son, as in His own bosom, and with Him everything that is most excellent and precious. What great and hidden things the all-powerful God has done for this wonderful creature, as she herself had to confess in spite of her great humility, “The Almighty has done great things for me.” The world does not know these things because it is incapable and unworthy of knowing them” (St. Louis de Montfort,+1716, True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin).

Refuge of Sinners

In the Litany of Loreto, we call Our Lady the Refugium peccatorum, the “Refuge of Sinners.” In her scapular promises, Our Lady of Mount Carmel shows eloquently how fitting this title is for her.

When the Mother of God gave the Brown Scapular to St. Simon Stock, she said, “Receive, my beloved son, this habit of thy Order. This shall be to thee and to all Carmelites a privilege that whosoever dies clothed in this shall never suffer eternal fire.” Our Lady will grant either final perseverance in the state of grace or the grace of final contrition to those who wear her scapular with a sincere desire to avoid sin and to place themselves under her protection.

In fact, so desirous is the Mother of the Church for the welfare of her children that she helps those suffering in Purgatory as well. In the year 1322, the Blessed Mother appeared to Pope John XXII and said of those who faithfully wore the Brown Scapular, “I, the Mother of Grace, shall descend on the Saturday after their death and whomsoever I shall find in Purgatory, I shall free, so that I may lead them to the holy mountain of life everlasting.” This is known as the Sabbatine Privilege . The three conditions necessary for anyone to participate in this Carmelite privilege and share in all the spiritual benefits of their scapular are (1) wear the Brown Scapular, (2) observe chastity according to one’s state in life, and (3) recite the Little Office of our Lady daily (or, with a dispensation from a priest, pray the daily Rosary in its stead).

“Men do not fear a hostile and powerful army as much as the powers of Hell fear the name and protection of Mary,” wrote Saint Bonaventure, Doctor of the Church. It is an honor to belong to the Mother of God. Through the Brown Scapular, a powerful sacramental and a sign of service and devotion to the Blessed Virgin, Catholics can truly embrace the “Refuge of Sinners,” the “Destroyer of all heresies,” the “earthly Paradise of Jesus Christ the new Adam,” the Immaculate Mother of God and men.

Thy head is like Carmel. If Mary is for us, nothing can stand against us:

O Flower of Carmel,
Tall vine blossom laden;
Splendor of heaven,
Childbearing yet maiden.
None equals thee.

Mother so tender,
Who no man didst know,
On Carmel’s children
Thy favors bestow,
Star of the Sea.

Strong stem of Jesse,
Who bore one bright flower,
Be ever near us
And guard us each hour,
who serve thee here.

Purest of lilies,
That flowers among thorns,
Bring help to the true heart
That in weakness turns
and trusts in thee.

Strongest of armor,
We trust in thy might:
Under thy mantle,
Hard press’d in the fight,
we call to thee.

Our way uncertain,
Surrounded by foes,
Unfailing counsel
You give to those
who turn to thee.

O gentle Mother
Who in Carmel reigns,
Share with your servants
That gladness you gained
and now enjoy.

Hail, Gate of Heaven,
With glory now crowned,
Bring us to safety
Where thy Son is found,
true joy to see.

( Flos Carmeli , composed by St. Simon Stock)