by Andrew Gniadek
All translations are my own
Mount Carmel rises near the shore standing as a beacon of beauty and splendor amidst the harsher terrain of the plain of Esdraelon near sea level. Since the spiritual reading of Elias and the rain cloud, the mountain represented Mary’s splendor and beauty. The history of Mount Carmel is tied to Mary, who is Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Virgo Carmeli which means in English “the Virgin of Carmel.” The title “Virgin of Carmel” comes from Our Lady being the patroness of the Carmelite Order since the beginning.
Furthermore, Our Lady of Mount Carmel defends us from dangers and enemies, helps souls in Purgatory and those in agony, assists people who neglect prayer and are full of vice, acts as our light in the darkness, and as that light, leads us to her Son: Jesus Christ. We can direct our prayer to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, with each Memorare, Salve Regina, or Hail Mary, asking her to lead us to her son and to assist us as Queen of Heaven in our needs.
What is the meaning of Mount Carmel
For Carmelites, Mount Carmel has references in the Old Testament that are sources of spiritual fruits and goods for growth in the spiritual life. In the Book of Jeremiah, we see exactly this:
καὶ εἰσήγαγον ὑμᾶς εἰς τὸν Κάρμηλον τοῦ φαγεῖν ὑμᾶς τοὺς καρποὺς αὐτοῦ καὶ τὰ ἀγαθὰ αὐτοῦ (and I lead you into Carmel for you to eat my fruits and my goods) Jer 2.7
Again, in Jeremiah 50:19 God referring to Israel as his flock says καὶ νεμήσεται ἐν τῷ Καρμήλῳ (And I will drive my flock in to Carmel). Mount Carmel is described as by Isaiah in 35:2 as the ἡ τιμὴ τοῦ Καρμήλου (the majesty of Carmel) and in the Song of Songs 7:5, κεφαλή σου ἐπὶ σὲ ὡς Κάρμηλος (your head on you as Carmel).
Mount Carmel produces fruits and goods, majesty, and beauty. In a similar way, Our Lady of Mount Carmel possesses majesty and beauty and brought forth Jesus Christ, the fruit of her womb.
The title starts with Mary as Queen of Heaven and the Mother of God. Consider the Song of Songs passage where the bride’s head is like Carmel where the Israelites according to Jeremiah were led by God out of Egypt to Carmel to share in his fruits and goods. As Queen of Heaven, she is the highest being in existence, second only to He that makes beings be (i.e., God). A Queen acts as Patroness to those who serve her. Mary is the Patroness of the Carmelites. Mary is also the mother of the Order who brings mercy and hope to all those who are devoted to her and through her to her Son Jesus Christ.
Yet, while today many talk about Our Lady of Mount Carmel, especially after her appearance during the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima in 1917, in addition to three Discalced Carmelites being named doctors of the Church in the 20th century, there is a surprising lack of information about the history and meaning of this title for Our Lady.
How is this title different from her other titles? What makes this title special enough that an entire religious order is founded around it?
Story of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
The title dates all the way back to the founding of the Carmelites in the Latin Kingdoms during the Crusades. At that time, the Carmelites were known as the “Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.” One of the best records we have is from John Phocas who tells us how a monk had a vision of Elias, gathered ten brothers around him, and lived on Mount Carmel. Another record we have is from James Vitry who also says the monks lived on Mount Carmel dwelling in hermitages in the rocks there. Both of these accounts date to a little before the 13th century.
Carmelite tradition held for a long time that the mountain was populated since Elias and Eliseus, through Christ’s Incarnation, were visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary after Christ’s resurrection, built a chapel in her honor, and remained there until the Carmelites were expelled from the Holy Land in the 13th century. Regardless of whether the actual mountain was populated by monks living the Carmelite way of life on the mountain since Elias, the Carmelites through this tradition are spiritually connected to this place up to and through the records we have. The tradition focuses on solitude, contemplation and love of God, and growth in virtues, particularly humility. Mary exemplifies all of these three things: she consecrated herself to God as a Virgin, she was in prayer when the Annunciation occurred, and God united himself closer to any creature that has or ever will exist, making her Θεοτόκος.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel as the exemplar of virtue
We need to understand that Carmelite tradition hinges in large part on the human person and virtue. If a person lacks the theological virtues through Baptism and living a Christ-life, the depths of the interior castle are out of reach. Mary starts with capturing the heart of a person through seeing in Mary’s life from what we know through scripture her humility, her grace, her obedience, and her seeing that alignment with God’s will meant exactly what was best for her. Listen below to a meditation on the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Scripture:
Consider the first line of the Magnificat: Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν Κύριον (my personhood, who I fundamentally am, extols the Lord). Extols as a word points to the virtues of a person; here she points to God as her sole end and complete Lord. She is saying her soul is clear; Mary is κεχαριτωμένη (completely receptive to God’s grace), as the the angel Gabriel declared. Mary’s virtues shine bright because she receives God completely with nothing contrary to resist or limit God’s communication of himself to her. The communication is so clear that God, when Mary says “yes,” becomes flesh in her womb.
Jesus is the gift that Mary gives to us as the greatest gift we could ever receive. While Mary extols the Lord, each Carmelite is called to extol God as Mary did by growing in virtue by her example, particular her humility. As patroness of the Carmelite Order, Our Lady of Mount Carmel calls each person in the Order to grow in virtue, especially humility and obedience, as a way to more clearly emulate her service to God and to be worthy servants of their patroness.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel and humility as the foundation of ἀγάπη
Mary possesses perfect virtue. Mary understands that all her virtues and grace came from God alone. Yet, her humility stands as the foundation of all her other virtues. She never once bragged about herself; even in the first line of her Magnificat, she points to God, not herself. Her second line tells us she finds no joy in anything but God: καὶ ἠγαλλίασεν τὸ πνεῦμα μου ἐπὶ τῷ θεῷ Σωτῆρί μου (And my spirit leaps full of joy on the basis of God, my Savior). God is her full joy to which her spirit leaps, just like the baby leaped in Elizabeth’s womb earlier. Her humility is so perfect she says ὅτι ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης αὐτοῦ (because he has gazed on the abasement of his slave). The word ταπείνωσιν means utter abasement, humiliation; Mary is absolutely nothing compared to God. God is infinite, good, love, mercy, justice, truth, power, κτλ., and Mary has only anything thanks to God bestowing all the gifts she has on her. Mary exemplifies what we should all strive for as human persons: we must know the truth about ourselves. For us, truth about ourselves can be hard to face because there is a lot in us that is contrary to God. Furthermore, we should offer to God the only thing we have to give him: our freedom to say “yes” to him and to love him more and more each day.
Humility is truth and the truth is that everything Mary has, all the things that make Mary the greatest being outside of God Himself (who is not a being, but He who makes beings be), is God’s and comes from God. In fact, she says this precisely in the third line of the Magnificat. Thus, Mary can love God completely with no disorder. We, on the other hand, suffer from disorder in our attachments to finite things, and these attachments impede our union with God. Mary never even suffered the inclination to finite things. As God filled her like a reservoir with his grace, Mary gave all of these gifts right back to God out of love.
Under the title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Mary shows us that purity in both body and spirit are required to unite with God. She is the perfect model of virtue and our tender mother who will pick us up as we strive to climb Mount Carmel to be closer and closer to God like her.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Virginity, and Purity
A Carmelite seeks to grow in loving union with God by mortifying disordered attachments and growing in pure love of God alone. The Carmelite tradition is the mutual relationship of the human person with God and in particular Jesus Christ, who united his Divine Personhood to a human nature to save us from our sins. Mary’s relationship with Jesus comes from her perfect purity and her virginity.
Mary never sinned. She was immaculately conceived. 1 From the moment of her conception to her assumption into heaven, Mary here shows us that even being immaculately conceived that God is her Savior. God delivered her from sin by making her most pure, preserving her purity, and never allowing her once to fall into sin. For all this, Mary loves God above all things.
Mary as Virgin, Virgo Carmeli, reserved herself for God alone. Her Virginity was a gift that allowed God to fulfill his plan of taking on a human nature and becoming man to die for our sins. Thus, Mary’s virginity links all the way to Christ on the Cross; that singular gift was not just physical, but also a unity of intention. On July 16th, the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, we are focusing on building our unity of intention to seek God more in prayer.
Mary is the mother of the contemplative life, the life of prayer, the life of recollection, in whatever degree a person has achieved at the current time. Since the aim of the spiritual life is to grow in loving union with God, we see in Mary’s virginity and purity a simple union of her person with God to the maximum degree with no resistance or any hindrance. This is the Marian life. The white cloak of the Carmelites is emblematic of virginity and purity: this single-mindedness that caused St. John of the Cross to say nada, nada, nada to anything besides God himself.
Her virtue, in particular her humilty, her virginity, her purity, her devotion to God, all show us why she said:
ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί (For behold from this point on all generations will pronounce me blessed)
The title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel speaks to these things that for all ages will count her blessed, and these are the things we all strive to grow more and more like Mary to be more and more united to her Son like her.
The scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, popularly called the Brown Scapular, is a great devotion to help you grow in likeness to her.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist
Traditionally, the word Carmel has meant “garden of God.” The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament means “garden, vineyard, garden-growth.” A garden is a place of cultivation, usually for food, so it makes sense that Mary as Our Lady of Mount Carmel would be the “garden of God” who gave us Jesus to be the sacrifice for our sins on the Cross and food for us in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Furthermore, the word Eucharist means thanksgiving, so Mary is where the Word became flesh taking on a human nature, and then become the bread of life so that we may have life. For Christ’s sacrifice for us where we consume him under the species of bread and wine and for Mary his Mother, especially under the title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and her other titles, we are eternally grateful.
How to learn more
To learn more about Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Carmelite tradition in general, check out Midnight Carmelite episodes through the player below and hit subscribe to stay up to date!
On a historical note, the Carmelite order has acted as a stalwart defender of her Immaculate Conception from its beginning. ↩︎