Roots of the Carmelite Order
From reading a document by Louis of St. Teresa, O.C.D., in the 17th century, and from reports about the contents of papal bulls and other early documents about the order, I discovered some early traditions about the origins of the order.
Carmelites traditionally believed that Elijah’s followers, called the School of the Prophets, built the first chapel in honor of Our Lady at the Spring of Elijah, immediately after Elijah’s vision of the little cloud and his prophetic understanding of her Immaculate Conception. Some even say there was a School of the Prophets there and at other places in Israel as far back as the time of the prophet Samuel.
It was believed that a line of hermits in the style of Elijah’s prophets continued to live in unbroken succession on Mount Carmel until the birth of Mary and the coming of the Savior that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and bring into the world.
It was also believed that the Virgin Mary visited there as a child with her parents, and that St. Joseph lived there for a time after he was chosen to be the husband of Our Lady.
“One beautiful passage from a private revelation to a mystic relates that after the High Priest of Jerusalem had announced that St. Joseph was to be the husband of Our Lady selected by Our Lord Himself, ‘the young man from Bethlehem joined the hermits of Elias on Mount Carmel and continued to pray fervently for the Messias'.”
It was said that the Holy Family stopped on Mount Carmel on the way back from Egypt, and that Christ brought his disciples there often (it’s not far from Nazareth).
After Christ’s death and Resurrection, Our Lady was supposed to have brought a group of virgins to live at Elijah’s Spring. The Jewish hermits were said to have become Christian. They survived many waves of persecution from the Muslims in the following years until they were wiped out before the time of the Crusades. However, at least one source I read said that the Europeans hermits found an existing Byzantine church dedicated to Our Lady when they arrived. Current official Carmelite documents are silent about these traditions.
During a time when religious orders were being weeded out by Rome, these Carmelite origin stories were much disputed by competing orders, so much so that a pope was forced to intervene and shut down the argument. The traditions were never condemned as false, just the violent disagreements about them were silenced.
In June of 1725 Pope Benedict XIII gave permission to the Carmelites to place the statue of Prophet Elijah in the Vatican Basilica with the pedestal inscription “Universus Ordo Carmelitarum Fundatori suo S. Eliae Prophetae erexit” (The entire Carmelite Order erected the statue to its Founder). Through this act the Order affirmed the already established tradition that the Carmelites are the direct descendants from Elijah and the uninterrupted succession from the time of the Prophet onwards.”
A tenet of belief among many modern scholars is that only written sources can be trusted, and they tend to discount anything from the past if they can’t find documented evidence. One objection to that approach to history is that many things that have been written down have later decayed or otherwise got lost in the ensuing centuries. Another objection is that even if something was never written down, it is an indubitable reality that events, stories, values, and beliefs have been memorized and reliably handed down from one generation to the next by oral tradition, in cultures all around the world. This approach to determining historicity ignores the validity and accuracy of oral tradition, which brought us the works of Homer, just to give one major example.
What is well documented and still part of the official Carmelite history is that during the time of the Crusades, after the Holy Land was made temporarily safe for Christians for a short number of years, European pilgrims seeking to live a penitential life settled at Elijah’s spring and became Carmelites. Significantly for the O.C.D.S. identity, these first clearly recognized Carmelites were lay people, too. As the book Carmel in the Holy Land states about the first hermits, “They formed a group not yet within an established monastic structure, coming together spontaneously to ‘do penance’ … to dedicate themselves to a life of prayer and asceticism.”
They requested and obtained a rule of life from St. Albert, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. When the Moslems began recapturing the Holy Land again, many of the Carmelite monks fled to Europe. Those who stayed were massacred in 1291 in the Wadi ‘ain es-Siah, which is called in English “the valley of martyrs.” Archeologists have unearthed the ruins of the 14th century monastery and a chapel to Our Lady, possibly from the 4th century there.
Wild Ride to the Mount of the Transfiguration
The first day we stayed on Mount Carmel, we rode off to visit Mount Tabor, the Mount of the Transfiguration. We had to disembark from our buses at the bottom of Mount Tabor and wait a long time at a taxi stand for our turn to get a ride from the local Arab drivers, whose business it is to ferry tourists up the serpentine road to the top.
My taxi ride to Mount Tabor reminded me of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I was in the back seat on the passenger side, and Fr. Koller was in the middle. As we sped along each of the sixteen or so hairpin switchbacks, even though I tried to hold onto anything within grasping distance, even going so far as trying to hold onto the fabric on the roof with my fingernails, the ascetic monk and I were thrown onto each other, back and forth, all the embarrassing way to the top.
Then when we got there, we were only allowed to stay a few minutes. I was so strongly moved by being at the site where Moses and Elijah had appeared with Christ at His Transfiguration in the presence of Saints Peter and John that when the tour guide told us it was time to go, I started to cry, and I told him I didn’t want to leave. Finally he persuaded me, and I reluctantly walked back to the taxi stand with tears streaming down my face while he gently but firmly propelled me along with his arm around my shoulders.
Night Tripping at the Wadi ‘ain es-Siah
At the end of the first long day, we were back at Mount Carmel when our buses stopped at the bottom of a hill. Dark was falling quickly when the tour guides gave us the option of climbing to Wadi ‘ain es-Siah to see the remains of the monastery and chapel that had been excavated by archaeologists. As I began to climb up the steep path, I kept turning my ankles on the many rocks. Afraid to risk tripping or cracking an ankle in the dark, I turned back when I was halfway up the first hill.
Jim Fahey later told me that by the time they finally reached the top, they could only glimpse a few stray columns and doorways in the beams of a flashlight. Once back at home in California, I learned that one of the Southern California O.C.D.S. members had suffered an injury during that hike similar to the one I had feared to inflict on myself, when she stumbled and turned her ankle. She wore a splint for months. My uncharacteristic caution that day saved me from a similar mishap, it seems.
A Reluctant Goodbye to Carmel
After another day visiting Nazareth and Cana, we left Stella Maris guest house the next morning for our upcoming destination: another pilgrim center at the Mount of Beatitudes. From that base, we would go to the Sea of Galilee, to Capernaum, and to the Jordan River. Later, we would move on to Jerusalem, from where we would also visit Bethlehem and Masada.
Even with such bright and mostly holy prospects ahead, it still pained me to tear myself away and get on the bus. A Carmelite-Tony-Bennett-type-singer might croon along with me, “I left my heart at Stella Maris. High on Mount Carmel, it calls to me . . .” No joke, it does call to me. I’ll never forget the joy of being able to visit there and see first-hand where the Carmelite Order began. Never. Ever.