From October 7, 2005 (originally posted on this blog's original aol blog site; modified 3-15-07):
The Carmelite Orders of priests, monks and nuns date their origin back to the twelfth century. Then, during the Crusades, a certain group of western Europeans began to live as hermits in the Holy Land, on Mount Carmel. They wanted to imitate the life of Christ, living where he had lived.
One of the Old Testament figures who is particularly appreciated by the Carmelites is the prophet Elijah. It was on Mount Carmel that the prophet Elijah challenged Ahab and said to the people, "How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Ba'al, then follow him." (I Kings 18:21 RSV).
In the Biblical account of Elijah's challenge to the prophets of the false god Ba'al, the prophets of Ba'al offered one bull to Ba'al, and Elijah offered another bull to the Lord, each of them laying it on the wood and putting no fire to it. The bull offered to Ba'al did not burn. Elijah called the people to come near to him, built an altar, and had four jars of water poured on the offering and the altar. And he prayed, "O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant . . . ." and the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the offering. (I Kings 18:36)
Another story of Elijah that may figure in Carmelite thinking, perhaps including the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, is in I Kings 17. There, God told Elijah to hide himself "by the brook Cherith, that is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there." (I Kings 17:4). There, for a while, God provided a torrent of water for Elijah in the brook, and God provided food for him each day, brought to him by the ravens.
The brown scapular worn by Carmelites is a symbol of their ideal of intimacy with God and friendship among His disciples. It is a sort of mantle, as when the prophet of Elijah was taken up to heaven, and his mantle fell on his disciple Elisha, passing on to Elisha the spirit of Elijah, as Elisha had asked to have a double share of Elijah's spirit (II Kings 2:9-10). As a chariot of fire took Elijah up by a whirlwind into heaven, his mantle fell from him. Elisha took up the mantle of Elijah and struck the water, saying "Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?" And the water was parted, and Elisha went over (II Kings 2:11-14).
St. Teresa of Avila became a Carmelite nun in sixteenth century Spain, where the order had lost much of its original emphasis on prayer, frugal living, and dependence upon God to provide. She worked to reform the Carmelite order and wrote books that are still treasured for the richness of their teaching about God and prayer.
Water is one of the images from Scripture that figures heavily in her writings, especially the living water that Jesus offered to the woman at the well, and perhaps also the brook of water from the Old Testament account of Elijah.
The woman at the well is pictured in an enormous painting that now hangs in one of the monasteries where Teresa once lived in Avila. The painting once hung in her parents' house near there, another building that is also still standing from the sixteenth century. Teresa must have thought about that painting and the living water as a child growing up in that house, until it came to be symbolic to her of the abundant grace that Jesus gives as He draws us closer to Him in prayer.
From The Life:
"I call to remembrance—oh, how often!—that living water of which our Lord spoke to the Samaritan woman. That Gospel has a great attraction for me; and, indeed, so it had even when I was a little child, though I did not understand it then as I do now. I used to pray much to our Lord for that living water; and I had always a picture of it, representing our Lord at the well, with this inscription, "Domine, da mihi aquam [Sir, give me this water]."
- The Life of St. Teresa of Avila, Chapter 30, quoting John 4:15.
In her writings, water is a symbol of the spiritual blessings that God gives as we draw closer to Him in prayer. In her first book, The Life, she wrote about the "first
the "second water", the "third water" (flowing from a spring or
stream), and a series of waters providing for a garden, as symbolic of
In contemplative prayer described in The Life as the prayer of union, Teresa combined symbols of fire and water. This fire and water is symbolic of the presence of the Holy Spirit and of the inner fire and grace of drawing close to God in contemplative prayer, and symbolic of tears of joy that can follow this prayer. Perhaps it brings to mind the fire from God that consumed Elijah's offering although it was covered in water, thus showing the Lord to be the true God, and showing the idol Baal to be nothing. She wrote of the soul being bathed in tears of joy:
"There remains in the soul, when the prayer of union is over, an exceedingly great tenderness; so much so, that it would undo itself—not from pain, but through tears of joy it finds itself bathed therein, without being aware of it, and it knows not how or when it wept them. But to behold the violence of the fire subdued by the water, which yet makes it burn the more, gives it great delight. "
- The Life of St. Teresa of Avila, Chapter 19
Over the coming week, I will try to choose a quotation from one of her
books, a discussion of some them within them, a list of biographies and
resources, or a list of weblinks about her life and works. I won't
write a biographical sketch as I have done for some other saints but
will try to write more personally, some of my impressions of being in
Avila and thoughts about her life and writing.