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Origins: Carmelite Roots in the Holy Land

With roots going back to the Old Testament prophet Elijah, Carmelites trace their spiritual origin to Mount Carmel in the Holy Land.

“I have led you into the land of Carmel to eat the fruit and the good things thereof.”(Jeremiah 2:7)

Thirty miles west of the Sea of Galilee, and jutting into the Mediterranean sea at the city of Haifa, is a chain of mountains called Mount Carmel.

Here, on these mountains in the land of Palestine, is the cradle of one of the Church’s most glorious contemplative orders – the Carmelites.

Carmelite tradition holds that the order of Carmel has old testament roots, originating with the prophet Elijah. The spirit of this prophet imbues the whole of Mount Carmel, and the Carmelites regard him as both their model and father.

The beginning of the Carmelite story, says tradition, is called the Prophetic era, which lasted from the time of Elijah until the time of Christ.

After the time of Christ, during the Byzantine era, Greek hermits lived on Mount Carmel until their way of life was ended by the Saracens in the 7th century.

The Latin era began with the Crusaders, who succeeded in pushing the Saracens back from the coast, and set up their Latin kingdom in the Holy Land around the year 1099. They made Acre, a city north of Haifa, their capital, since Jerusalem was not always secure against the attacks of the Moslems. In addition to heavy fortifications, the Crusaders built an elaborate harbor at Acre. For some 200 years, until Acre finally fell again to the Saracens (1291), this port was the gateway through which Crusaders and pilgrims alike entered and left the Holy Land.

From 1206 to 1214, St. Albert was the Patriarch of Jerusalem, but danger from the Saracens required that he too make his headquarters in Acre. It was to Albert that the Latin hermits living on Carmel went to ask for a Rule of Life. Albert was in some sense their neighbor, living 8 or 10 miles away across the bay, and within sight of Mount Carmel.

Before he became Patriarch of Jerusalem, Albert was an important emissary of the Pope in western Europe, and was often sent to settle disputes between civil and religious leaders, and to deal with new forms of religious orders which began to spring up throughout Europe at the end of the 12th century. So, he had much experience and knowledge to share when he gave the Carmelites their Rule.

The Rule is addressed to the “Brethren who dwell on Mt. Carmel, near the fountain of Elijah,” and speaks of a life of prayer, solitude and silence, describing to some extent the way the Latin hermits on Carmel already were living.

The grotto of Elijah in Stella Maris monastery in Haifa, where the promontory of Mount Carmel rises out of the sea. The monastery is run by the Discalced Carmelites as a study center and hospice for pilgrims. For thousands of years, the space was a cistern which was sacred to Elijah. According to tradition, the prophet hid here from the angry Jezebel who sought his life after he humiliated the priests of Baal.

Elijah is a popular saint and holy man to Jews, Christians and Moslems. A controversial man of public activity, he is also a model of prayer and intense union with God. It is Elijah who speaks for the poor and for those oppressed by royal power. Elijah retains his popularity in the eastern world today – for example, the Jews still expect Elijah’s return and keep an empty chair for him at the Seder Meal. In the west, only the Carmelites keep the feast of St. Elijah, but among Eastern Christians, hundred of churches are named in his honor.

Today, there are Carmelites of both the Latin and Eastern Rite, and Carmelites of the Ancient Observance (O. Carm.), and of the Discalced (O.C.D.), whose way of life was reformed by St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross during the 16th century. However, all Carmelites trace their spiritual origins to the Holy Land and to Mount Carmel, a place which translated means, “the garden.”

Father Fergus is Co-ordinator of Spiritual Formation for Carmelites, and also is on the staff of Carmel Retreat House, 1071 Ramapo Valley Road, Mahwah, New Jersey 07430.

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