After I had finally been able to take my first overseas trips to France in the mid-1990s and to Italy at the beginning of the Jubilee Year 2000, I thought of Israel as the one remaining place I absolutely had to visit before I die. In 2005, when the opportunity presented itself, the possibility of my death was not a remote idea, since I had recently survived tonsil cancer after a grueling series of chemo and radiation treatments only the year before.
I still would love to visit Hungary and Ireland, where my mother’s and father’s families originated, many other faraway lands would be wonderful to see, and I crave an opportunity to go back to Italy some day. But Israel was the one remaining country I hadn’t been to yet where I felt I had to go.
I did not want to go as a tourist, but as a pilgrim, to walk prayerfully where Our Lord Jesus had walked. So in early fall of 2005, I was attracted by an advertisement in San Francisco Faith newspaper for a prayer pilgrimage under the spiritual guidance of Carmelite monk Fr. Thomas Koller, who at the time was living and working at El Carmelo Retreat House in Redlands in southern California.
These top two items under the heading “Where will we tour?” especially caught my attention:
- Mount Carmel: Stella Maris (Carmelite Monastery)
- Muhraka (where Elijah slew the false prophets)
At that time, I was attending monthly meetings of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites (O.C.D.S.). We met monthly on third Sunday afternoons in a picturesque and historically interesting location, a room in a converted carriage house on the north end of the hundred year old Carmelite nun’s Monastery called the Carmel of the Infant Jesus in Santa Clara, California. The enclosed monastery property was once part of an estate called New Park and had once been a hangout of Jack London, who may have written The Call of the Wild there.
I was deciding whether to take the final permanent step of making the Definitive Promise that would make me a secular Carmelite for life, after my six years of preparation would be up later that year.
My mother started my interest in the Carmelite order. My middle name is Therese, and my mother had given me, her first-born daughter, that name in honor of both the “big” Teresa of Avila, the great Spanish mystic writer, who founded the reformed order of Carmelites, O.C.D. and the “little” Therese of Lisieux, the sweet Carmelite who is always portrayed with an armful of roses. One of the first books I ever read was St. Therese’s Story of a Soul.
My mother had been a convert, and she had entered a Carmelite monastery to discern her own vocation when she was a young woman. She left because she and the Mother Superior both decided she should find a more active order. She then met my father, married, had three daughters, and was widowed before the third daughter was born. Couldn’t find a much more active life than that.
Maybe I would be the one to take up the Carmel mantle after her? How that worked out, however, is another story. This story must keep to its own topic.
And so it came about in 2007 I was thrilled at the opportunity to sign up for a pilgrimage to Israel that not only had a Carmelite spiritual guide but also would include a stay on Mount Carmel.
The Splendor of Carmel
Mount Carmel has always been renowned for its beauty and for its significance as a sacred mountain to pagans, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and members of the Bahai faith. Its importance to Carmelites goes without saying because the order started there and the order’s very name includes the word Carmel. Carmel in Hebrew is Karem El. El means God, and most sources say Karem El means “vineyard, plantation, garden land or fruit of God.”
(Other sources vary widely in their reflections on the etymology of the word Carmel. For example, St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into popular Latin, gave the meaning of “Carmel” as “knowledge of circumcision” in his work on the meaning of Hebrew names. An explanation of what that mind-boggling definition might actually mean and more about those speculations may be found in this article.)
Solomon gave the highest possible praise to his beloved when he compared her beauty to Mount Carmel in the Song of Songs, “Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel” (Song 7:5). Verses 1 and 2 in Isaiah Chapter 35, while they apply to Jerusalem, are seen understood as applying to Our Lady, when they say “to her is given the splendor of Carmel.” Mary, the Mother of Our Savior, the patroness of the order, is lovingly called “Queen Beauty of Carmel.”
The mountain of Carmel, which now looks over the modern Israeli city of Haifa, was the scene of many events in the Biblical account of the fiery prophet Elijah (who is also called Elias), and who is honored as the spiritual father of the Carmelites.
Signing Up and Getting There
I brought copies of the tour poster to share at the next O.C.D.S. meeting. Then I found out that unbeknownst to each other and to me, two other younger members from my group separately had signed up too, James Fahey, Jr. and Anita Sullins. Four more O.C.D.S. members from southern California, who we had not met before, came along also.
Because so many non-Carmelites also signed up, the tour group was split. Jim Fahey’s group flew through Toronto and arrived at Mount Carmel the day before the group that Anita Sullins and I were in.
Jim’s segment of the tour group was accompanied by Fr. Thomas Koller, O.C.D. and by Fr. Larry Darnell, a diocesan priest from southern CA. Anita’s, and my segment was accompanied by Fr. Joseph Mary Wolf, M.F.V.E. (Missionary Franciscans of the Eternal Word) from EWTN, whom the tour organizers had also invited.
Our O.C.D. Guide
As it turned out, that pilgrimage was well suited to Carmelite spirituality in many ways. We rode the buses in a prayerful way with Morning and Evening prayer, hymns and daily rosaries. At all the places we stayed, we had daily Mass and nightly Benediction. Fr. Thomas read the Scriptural accounts of the events that took place at each holy site we visited, which seemed to me the perfect way to help us to contemplate the significance of what we were seeing.
I will never forget hearing Fr. Thomas reading about Jesus walking on the water as we sat in a boat one midday in the middle of the Sea of Galilee with the sunlight sparkling on the waves and the heavens blue above us. I marveled often during the trip, “Why hadn’t anyone told me how beautiful Israel is?” It pleased me to realize that the Son of God lived surrounded by loveliness in that country that is so dear to God’s heart.
Fr. Thomas often reminded us when anything wasn’t too our liking that we were on a pilgrimage and to offer it up—which is appropriate advice, especially for Carmelites. By how he conducted himself, Fr. Thomas gave us a good example of self-denial and of how to keep the sacred at the forefront. I noticed that his mother, who came for the trip, was often saving food for her son when I saw her at meals, because he was often not to be seen at mealtimes. He was making sure he kept up with his prayer duties and with the duties of leading the group. I know that at least one time he skipped breakfast to meet a pilgrim for a confession before Mass, and I witnessed how he stayed up late teaching and rose early again each day.
 The Carmelite Pilgrim Center is run by non-cloistered Carmelite Sisters of St. Teresa of Florence, Italy. I was a bit disappointed that those would be the only local Carmelites we saw and that, in spite of the flier, we weren’t actually staying in the monastery. We never saw the local Carmelite friars or went into the adjacent Stella Maris monastery, and we only drove past the French Carmelite nuns’ Monastère Notre-Dame a short distance away.  To correct another minor error in the poster, Elijah actually did not slay the prophets at Muhraka, but he defeated them there. After fire from heaven consumed Elijah’s offering, the Jewish people obeyed Elijah’s orders to bring the false prophets to the Wadi (brook) Kishon at the foot of Carmel, and Elijah killed them there.  Discalced means “shoeless” and refers to the fact that followers of St. Teresa of Avila went barefoot or wore humble sandals instead of the fancy shoes of the upper classes. There is another branch called the Order of the Ancient Observance, whose abbreviation is O.Carm. The Carmelite order as a whole consists of monks, cloistered nuns, and secular members, who are members of the Carmelite order who are living married or single lives in the world. The monks and nuns who make up the first and second order of Carmelites use the initials O.C.D. after their names (so, no, the initials don’t stand for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).  A Carmelite monastery is often referred to as “a Carmel.” Not only monks live in monasteries. Carmelite nuns have monasteries too. You may be interested in “Peace in the City,” an article I wrote about the Carmel of the Infant Jesus in Santa Clara.