The month of July is important for every Carmelite because in July the Order celebrates one of its spiritual founders and guides: the Virgin Mary, under the title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Given that Carmel is an ancient religious order, the Church has allowed the Order to craft and develop its own liturgical texts for this celebration. The liturgical prayers have a special effect of keeping the Order in union with the Church. These Carmelite prayers (called propers) help to reveal the life of Carmel within the Church. The propers also challenge Carmel’s members to reflect on the charism of Carmel that they have been called to and that they belong to for life.
Joy and The Cross
The Order celebrates the Solemnity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel with fullest joy. The Virgin Mother of Christ is also our Mother. However, on this day as we rejoice and give thanks for Christ through His Mother during the Mass, the Order calls its members to ponder the darkest moment in Mary’s life. It was the moment when she was standing before the Cross gazing upon her crucified Son – the Cross her Son was nailed to for the sake of humanity. The Order obliges its members to contemplate two extremes in a single day: to rejoice in the gift of Christ’s Mother and to stand with her at the foot of His Cross.
Being at the Cross with Mary
Why does this tradition of the Carmelite Order exist? How are we to live in such extremes demanded of us on this solemn feast day of Carmel? Both questions can be answered with a single word: openness. The Carmelite Rule calls its family to live in allegiance to Jesus Christ, and this is done by maintaining a pure heart and a stout conscience. In this way, a Carmelite begins to understand the importance of having an open heart.
The heart of Mary was utterly open to her Son and Lord at the foot of the Cross, just as her heart was open when see conceived Him in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. Nothing diminished her love for Him, which is why the Church describes her heart as immaculate. As our patroness, it is that Marian openness of heart that makes it possible for a Carmelite to live in allegiance to Christ.
The Scapular and St. John
“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (John 19: 26-27). The spatial relationship in this passage from John’s Gospel is of the utmost importance. Every Christian is called to stand before the Cross in some way, yet, this call to an open gaze of the Cross never places the person in isolation. It is communal. Tradition teaches us that John, the Beloved Disciple, is the one standing with Mary at Calvary. This standing with her becomes an embrace of her after the command of Jesus. St. John, as the figure who symbolizes the spiritual dimension of the Church, is now intimately connected with Mary sharing in the gaze of her Crucified Son.
Thus we see in this passage a shaping of the Carmelite call to have an open heart. The Order speaks about the scapular as our Lady’s garment. Tradition has it that Our Lady entrusted it to one of the early Carmelites, St. Simon Stock (1165 – 1265), as a sign of consecration. Through that garment, she opens for us her view of the Cross and the embrace that Jesus gave to St. John through His mother. The brown scapular’s gentle touch upon the skin of the wearer, is a reminder that a Carmelite has received the blessed embrace of Mary at the foot of the Cross, the same embrace the Beloved Disciple received.
An Open Life from Her Embrace
The brown scapular devotion is not a constant recitation of words but rather a constant movement of the heart to receive the Mother of Christ. It is through her motherly embrace that we can gaze upon the Cross of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In the ability to gaze upon the Cross with Mary our hearts become open to the Lord. An open heart leads to an empty heart ready to receive the Other in love. In this perspective, the Carmelite Order can live out its call of recollection, which, as I have noted elsewhere, is a means of keeping the Lord ever present before a Carmelite’s mind and heart. What better way to stay recollected before the Lord than to share the same embrace He received from His Mother?
Remaining recollected is a call for the Carmelite to have the heart of Jesus. It is a heart that is pierced on the Cross, a heart that emptied itself to the fullest (Philippians 2:7). It is a heart that, though emptied, remained open to receive its Mother’s gaze, a heart willing to share its openness by having its own Mother’s heart pierced with His on the Cross.
The Gospel reading for the Solemnity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (John 19:25-27) reminds Carmelites where they must stand in order to animate the charism and life of Carmel within them. Mary’s embrace causes Carmelites to recall their origin. The Order’s primary foundation is to be found with Mary at the foot of her Son’s Cross. It is from this spiritual foundation that the Order’s earthly foundation began to take root upon Mount Carmel eleven hundred years after Christ’s crucifixion.
Consolation during Tribulation
It is the communal reality described above, having begun with Mary at the Crucifixion, that shaped the first ministry of the Carmelites. Historically, the Carmelites’ early ministry was to care for pilgrims to the Holy Land. With a Christ-formed heart shaped by Mary’s embrace, flesh is given to the words of St. Paul that forms the Carmelite ministry:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
Jesus offers us encouragement through His Mother during our afflictions as we are brought before His Cross. It is a place where a person does not stand alone before the Lord but in communion with His Mother. She is a Mother who willingly desires to embrace us with her maternal strength, a strength that consoles the heart as it is emptied out before the Cross. The empty heart is not an end but a means to allow Christ to reclaim His earthly throne, the human heart. Once He reclaims His throne, the Spirit floods the heart (Romans 5:5) making the earthly temple of God a place of life, a life that does not merely fill the heart but pours forth from it into the world (Psalm 23:5). The overflowing of love shapes and guides all Carmelite ministries, as seen from the beginning when we cared for pilgrims.
The Carmelite Order, in its celebration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, reminds her children of the place and role of the heart in the life of the Order. The Christocentric heart is not one of isolation but is communal to the point of Christ offering His own Mother to His bride the Church. The touch of Mary’s brown scapular reminds the heart that moments and times of affliction need not be isolating. Christ did not suffer alone on the Cross, even though He felt the absence of His Father. Neither are we, as Christians, meant to suffer alone. As Christ knew the strength of His Mother’s embrace, so also He desired the Church to know that same strength during her life of pilgrimage on earth. Our Lady of Mount Carmel reminds us of the role and place that her embrace must play in our lives as we seek to become more like her Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Purest of lilies,
That flowers among thorns,
Bring help to the true heart
That in weakness turns
and trusts in thee.
Strongest of armour,
We trust in thy might:
Under thy mantle,
Hard press’d in the fight,
we call to thee.
(Medieval Hymn, Flos Carmeli, Stanzas 4-5.)