As mentioned by Pope Benedict XVI in his words at the praying of the Angelus this past Sunday, the history of the Carmelite order traces its roots to the contemplative devotion of hermits living in Mount Carmel as far back as the prophet Elijah. I am going to do a few posts looking at some of the interesting stories of Mount Carmel reflected in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, and looking at how much history lies within the stories of Carmel. This is the first such post.
Mount Carmel is by the Mediterranean Sea, roughly 20 miles from Jesus' boyhood home of Nazareth, and 30 miles east of the Sea of Galilee. It is a hill, 1,742 feet high, which is the one headland of the coast of Palestine. A present day map can be found online here. The Protestant ATS Bible Dictionary describes it as abounding in caves, some of which have been enlarged "and fitted for human habitation", and calls it the "most beautiful mountain in Palestine."
Hermits have lived on Mount Carmel going back to the time of Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament, and Elijah is credited with being the original founder of the hermits of Carmel. In fact, Elijah may not have been the first. As stated in The Catholic Encyclopedia:
"The sacredness of its heights was well known in ancient Israel. Apparently long before Elias' time -- how long before cannot now be made out -- an altar had been erected in honour of Yahweh on Mt. Carmel, and its ruins were repaired by that prophet as soon as this could be done with safety (1 Kings 18:30)."
In his Introduction to Volume 3 of The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., summarizes some of the legends and history. He quotes a sermon preached in Avignon, France in 1342 expressing the thinking still common when St. Teresa wrote, including this about Elijah that Father Kavanaugh quotes from that fourteenth century French sermon:
"Trustworthy histories of Elijah and Elisha tell us how these two often dwelt on Mount Carmel, three leagues distant from Nazareth, the city of our Lady. And saintly men continued to live there in solitude, until the time of our Saviour."
Fr. Kavanaugh adds:
"Not included in this little summary was the legend behind the nuns, which went so far as to say that the wife of Elijah founded a similar institute for women."
As for what we actually know to be true, Father Kavanaugh adds:
"[A]fter Teresa's times, the order of Carmel, without a critical sense of history or a definite founder, got caught up in the challenge to prove its age-old traditions. . . . Later, in 1725, when the Carmelite order triumphantly installed in St. Peter's in Rome its celebrated statue of Elijah as the order's founder, its apologists considered themselves the winners.
"What can be affirmed historically is that there was a school of prophets on Carmel, that the prophet Elijah undoubtedly had an impressive impact on the hermits and monks of the early Church, and that Christian hermits resided on Mt. Carmel from a very early date."
The shield of the Carmelite Order takes as its motto Elijah's words, "Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo Exercituum" ["I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts", I Kings 19:10]. 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, then follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." (I Kings 18:21). There, according to I Kings 18:19-20, Elijah gathered all of Israel and the 450 prophets of Baal to defend the Lord, and Ahab gathered the prophets together there.
Moreover, Elijah is not the only Old Testament prophet associated with Mount Carmel. In II Kings 4:25, the Shunammite woman went to Mount Carmel to speak to the prophet Elisha. Isaiah mentioned Mount Carmel in Isaiah 33:9 and 35:2. The prophet Amos, at Amos 9:3, mentioned people hiding themselves in the top of Mount Carmel. Jeremiah mentioned Mount Carmel in Jeremiah 46:18 and 50:19 ("I will restore Israel to his pasture, and he shall feed on Carmel and Bashan, and his desire shall be satisfied on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead.") Nahum prophesied about it at Nahum 1:4 ("He rebukes the sea and makes it dry, he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither, the bloom of Lebanon fades.")
Mount Carmel is not specifically mentioned by name in the New Testament. Yet it is only about 20 miles from Jesus' childhood town of Nazareth, such that it is likely that Jesus spent time there. It would have been near the boundary between Galilee and Samaria.
In an earlier post about Elijah and the Carmelites, the topic was how St. Teresa of Avila's writings about fire and living water might have been influenced by the Scriptural account of Elijah's pouring water on the altar on which God sent fire to burn the sacrifice.
In addition to the quotes mentioned there, there are also places where St. Teresa specifically mentioned the prophet Elijah, including these:
In The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila specifically mentioned Elijah as "our Father Elijah" when she mentions his calling fire down from heaven, writing:
"Would it be good for a soul with this dryness to wait for fire to come down from heaven to burn this sacrifice that it is making of itself to God, as did our Father Elijah? No, certainly not, nor is it right to expect miracles. The Lord works them for this soul when he pleases . . . ." [Interior Castle VI:7:8]
Later in the same book, she again calls him the order's father:
"The great penances that many saints - especially the glorious Magdalene, who had always been surrounded by so much luxury -- performed must have come from this center. Also that hunger which our Father Elijah had for the honor of his God and which St. Dominic and St. Francis had so as to draw souls to praise God." [Interior Castle VII:4:11, alluding to I Kings 19:10 and the order's motto quoted above]
In The Book of Her Foundations, she again mentioned Elijah as their "father":
"[O]n the first day of our journey from Malagon to Beas I was traveling with a fever and so many illnesses all together that while considering the distance we still had to travel and seeing myself in this condition I remembered our Father Elijah when he was fleeing from Jezebel, and said: 'Lord, how can I suffer this? You take care.' The truth is that when His Majesty saw me so weak, He suddenly took away my fever and illness." [Foundations 27:17]
"The entrance to [the monastery of our Lady of Succor] is underground, as though through a cave, which represented that of our Father Elijah." [Foundations 28:20, alluding to I Kings 19:9-13]
Her poem "On the Way to Heaven" also mentions "Elijah, our Father", saying that he "leads, in our self-denying we follow him" as nuns of Carmel, and also expressing a wish to have "Elisha's double spirit" [alluding to II Kings 2:9-10, where Elisha asked to have a double share of Elijah's spirit].
Ana de Jesus, one of St. Teresa's most treasured "daughters", mentioned Elijah as the order's "trunk" in her description of St. Teresa of Avila, given to the Provincial of the Mitigated Friars (quoted by Brother John Bruno in Saint Jean de la Croix, as quoted in turn in Teresa of Avila by Marcelle Auclair, Kathleen Pond's translation:
"Mother Teresa could not clothe herself in camel's hair like Elias [Elijah], I grant you; but she exchanged your fine cloth and your gauze for the roughest and coursest frieze. And she imitates the prophet as far as she possibly can: fasting, withdrawal from the world, penance and prayer. I repeat it to Your Reverence, we would rather die a thousand deaths than separate from our trunk. In my opinion Your Paternity and all the Calced are separated from it: such brethren do not imitate their holy Father Elias, since they seek fine clothing, society instead of the desert, and instead of unceasing prayer, the latest news."
Thus, the story that Elijah was the founder of the hermits on Mount Carmel, and the father of the Carmelite order, was one that St. Teresa of Avila believed and held dear, and she went to much effort to live by Elijah's example. The history of the Carmelite order goes back to the twelfth century, and there is sound reason to believe that there were hermits living on Mount Carmel from the twelfth century back to the time of Elijah who followed his example. Indeed, even Elijah may not have been the first to live and worship on that mountain.
Very little is actually known about the connection of the twelfth century Carmelite hermits on Mount Carmel with the hermits who lived there before them, but it can be safely assumed that they knew it as the mountain of Elijah and sought to live much as the hermits before them. Thus, there is some truth in the legend naming Elijah as the founder of the order of Carmel.