Carmel in the World Magazine
Carmel in the World
2010. Volume XLIX, Number 1
- A Coat of Many Colours
- An Interview with Fr Peter Hinde, O.Carm., and Sr Betty Campbell, RSM.
- A Portrait of Teresa of Avila from her Letters
- An Appreciation of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Early History of the Carmelites (below)
- Heaven in Carmel
- Carmel around the World
An Appreciation of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Early History of the Carmelites
Sue Stuckey, TOC
As Carmelites today we strive to live our lives in allegiance to Jesus Christ, using Elijah and Mary as our role models. Yet with the history of our beginnings never properly recorded, the evolution of Mary as our patron and role model appears by no means to have been assured. Apart from the oratory on Mount Carmel being named in her honour there is little mention of Mary in extant documents of the Order until the late thirteenth century. In the face of this lack of evidence it has often been proposed that it was not until the fourteenth century that the Order claimed Mary for Carmel by emphasizing and expanding what was, in the beginning, a tenuous connection to her.
Even though it is true that there is little mention of Mary in the evidence available to us, we can sift through the mists of time and piece together information from ideas, symbols and commonly accepted beliefs of the day and gain a fresh perspective from which to view the Carmelite claims of the fourteenth century. Instead of assuming that the friars invoked the patronage of Mary to legitimize their status as a mendicant order, it can be argued that they were actually fighting for legitimacy amongst their peers in spite of their insistence that Mary was their patron: that in fact they accepted Mary as their patron and role model right from the start of their existence.
Background to Marian devotion
The Middle Ages was a time when ‘intensity’ would be the key word for describing devotion to the Mother of God, both in the East and the West. Legends and miracles surrounding her life abounded and were popularized and extended, or exaggerated over time by the ‘preaching of an uneducated clergy.’ Teachings about Mary and Marian attributions had increasingly been formulated through the centuries: her Divine Maternity (fifth century); her Assumption (sixth century); her Perpetual Virginity (seventh century); her Immaculate Conception (twelfth century) and her Spiritual Maternity (thirteenth century). Any one of her attributes was taken to heart by groups of the faithful who would form themselves into a Marian confraternity. Evidence has been found for Marian confraternities dating from the first quarter of the thirteenth century, with membership growing to thousands, especially in France and Italy, where confraternities of church singers, known as ‘Laudesi’ were particularly prolific.
The Cistercians, Premonstratensians and Dominicans all claimed Mary’s devotion. The Servites and the Cistercians mentioned Mary in their Statutes and most of the new knightly and mendicant orders dedicated churches in her name. “Nothing but God is greater than Mary” declared St. Anselm of Canterbury. St Bernard of Clairvaux called himself ‘Mary’s slave.’ Portrayals of Mary occurred in every art form of the day; her beauty and purity were joyfully extolled, praised and reverenced, using any number of metaphors. By the fifteenth century popular Marian piety reached its zenith, aided by small sculptures, (e.g. the Pieta), folding paintings, illuminated Books of Hours; praying her Office at home. Scenes from the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of James gave inspiration to artists and craftsmen such as Giotto. Not only were Psalters illuminated with stories from Mary’s life but also the psalms themselves were altered to praise Mary, rather than God. Whereas Christ continued into his Glory, the grieving mother stayed just that; a bereaved parent with whom so many could identify their own pain. Slowly but surely Mary became separated from Christ and was thought to be able to act independently of him.
Were the Carmelites resorting to such popular appeal in order to gain acceptance, or were they insisting on an already deeply entrenched belief in Mary as their inspiration and patron? One way to answer this question is to examine some of the key customs and symbols of the time to see how these had been appropriated into the lives of the friars.
Imitation and Virginity
Imitation was an important concept in the medieval mind; people thought of themselves as a certain type — philosopher, knight, religious, beguine, anchorite, etc. They taught by example, expecting to be imitated by those learning. As a ‘type,’ whatever their ‘type,’ they were part of a group, or community with special significance. The Carmelites were no exception. First and foremost they imitated Mary’s virginity by their chastity. But their imitation extended beyond this personal vow. General Chapters of the time were attended by Carmelites who were or who had been in the Holy Land, therefore they were ‘of a kind’ with Mary in more than living a chaste life. Most likely they would have visited many of the places reputed to have relics associated with her life; there would have been an exchange of customs, memories, devotions, songs and prayers. Just as they were endeavouring to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, so too, had Mary. Their experiences would have coloured their devotions and would have contributed to their sense of this special community which was devoted to Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ. As Professor Egan has said: “it was in the very air Christians breathed at the time to show devotion to Mary,” and imitation was considered one of the highest forms of devotion.
It was also important to be in a group identified as ‘different’ or unique, echoing the words of St. Paul that ‘there are many members but one body.’ For the Carmelites then, the very fact that they had lived Mary’s life in the Holy Land gave them a unique quality which no other order could imitate. When they left Mount Carmel there would have been a particular sense of ‘ownership,’ in much the same way as we today travel overseas and come back with tales to tell of ‘our’ places with which we became familiar, particularly if we stayed for some time or experienced a life-changing event. Mary as a role model needed no discussion, no exaggeration, nor special reference: she was theirs.
Mary’s protective mantle
The hermits left the Holy Land at various times throughout the thirteenth century: some were undoubtedly killed; others formed a Carmelite presence there until the end of the century when they finally had to flee permanently. Given the popularity of the notion of Mary’s protective mantle and the close proximity of danger for every Carmelite hermit, it is not unreasonable to imagine that these early Carmelites felt a very real connection to Mary. As Mother of Mercy, her cloak was spread over kings, nobles, hermits, nuns and commoners — symbolizing equality for all repentant sinners: “The protective force emanating from the Virgin’s cloak was sustained in part by the prayers of the faithful.” This notion of protection was slowly distorted over time by the faithful until Mary’s intercession became equal to Christ’s intercession. For the Carmelites however, this sense of protection was grounded in their belief that in leading a life of prayer and chastity they were following Mary’s example. As Mary followed Christ, even though she was his mother, she was never equal to him.
It is hard to over-estimate the protective power of Mary’s Mantle and how this one image may have informed so much of the ‘relational’ aspect of Mary which was to dominate in the minds of the Carmelites and lead to “the development of a rapport laden with affection, cordiality, tenderness, and of intimate familiarity.” It is not surprising that the Mantle became a key symbol for the hermits, and especially for the friars, as they made their way in their new environments. The motif of a force emanating from Mary’s protective mantle has endured down the centuries in Carmel and extended in popular Carmelite devotion to the wearing of the Scapular. In more recent times the Co-Madres of El Salvador have demonstrated the power behind the wearing of the Scapular in standing up to the guerrillas who had tortured and killed their husbands and sons.
The mantle also became symbolic of the friars’ celibacy, joining the seventh century doctrine of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity with the popular supposition of Elijah’s celibacy: the one sure-fire way to maintain the ‘protective force’ of her Mantle was to imitate Mary’s chastity and virginity. Theologically, according to Meister Eckhart, Mary’s virginity allowed God to be conceived in her heart: “Had Mary not first conceived God in her spirit she would not have engendered him in her body.” Carmelites vowed themselves to Mary by their own celibacy; their insignificant life style based on material poverty and poverty of the heart; and their life on the margins of society: all in imitation of Mary’s life. “Mary, on the other hand, had to live up to her reputation and show her concern for those of her own who had freely chosen her as their patroness.” According to Redemptus Valabeck, so assured were they of her consequent favour that as far back as 1220 “the Fioretti of Carmel” reported a vision of Our Lady to Pope Honorius III, explaining to him that the Carmelites were a bona fide group of religious particularly dear to her. This somewhat suspect belief became exaggerated over time, until it became a certain truth, accepted by all.
Of course there is another aspect of the Mantle: that of Elijah’s cloak. Added to this was the Carmelites’ sense of having lived near the site of followers of Elijah in previous centuries. One of the major disadvantages for the early Carmelites was not having a founder: it could have been very tempting to pronounce Elijah as founder in the religious climate of the day. Elijah had always been a popular prophet but had never been canonized as technically he had not died. This detail was overcome when the ‘Rapture’ of Elijah started being celebrated by some orders, which could have been a useful turn of events for the Carmelites. However Elijah did not provide the direct link with following in the footsteps of Christ in the same way as did Mary. The central theme for the Carmelites was always to live in allegiance to Christ; the whole of the Rule is Christocentric. In so far as Elijah exemplified the same attributes as Mary he too could be invoked and connected to Mary. However the Carmelite friars implicitly found Elijah’s patronage was not of enough power in their own minds to legitimize the Order’s existence. A role model and patron — yes — but not founder and not of sufficient power as Mary, whom they felt they knew intimately.
The intimate familiarity between Mary and the Carmelite friars was particularly expressed in the relationship of sister. Again, this had been a common theme since the 4th century: “Mary is our sister by the fact that we all have our origin in Adam.” Indeed the Dominicans considered themselves to be brothers of Our Lady and had their own revelations of Mary saying, ‘go to the preaching brothers, because they are my brothers.’ ‘Brothers’ here could be used in the sense they are ‘brothers to each other’ in the fraternal sense, and Mary is merely indicating their popular collective title — the ‘preaching brothers.’ The sense of Mary being ‘sister’ to the Carmelites is quite different and would have arisen out of their strong identification with Mary on her home ground, following in Christ’s footsteps, just as they were doing. Emphasizing this sisterly relationship did not advance their cause for acceptance in any way, and for this reason some Carmelite writers of the fourteenth century fought against using this appellation, which they thought opposed the current fashion of ‘elevated’ Marian titles. However it named a relationship for them which they implicitly felt to be true, and has remained so down the centuries.
Lady of the Place
The theme of Mary as Patroness or ‘Lady of the Place, first coined for the Carmelites by John Baconthorpe, also needs to be given some consideration. The concept of courtly love, which originated in Provence in the twelfth century, had become a byword of the times throughout Europe, with Mary being the main beneficiary. This feudal convention idealized women in what appears to have been a fairly misogynist age, with Mary the Mother of God being the most favoured of all: ‘the imagery used to describe the revered mistress was turned around and applied to Mary, the bright lady, queen of heaven.’
For the medieval Religious the chivalric knight was analogous to the monk and his courtly lady was Mary. Although Bernard of Clairvaux popularized the notion of being her slave, this notion was not taken up by the Carmelites. Rather it was the medieval penchant for looking at the etymology of words which struck a chord in their hearts. Mary translates as ‘lady’ in Syriac. The beauty of Carmel, the physical location is appropriated to Mary and becomes the ‘beauty of her monks, their holy, virginal lives. Carroll says “The raison d’être of Carmelites is to “honour the Lady of the Place by their deeds.” So deeply felt was this connection between Mary and the Carmelites, that, having left Mount Carmel, it was essential for them to maintain that relationship by claiming Mary as their own. Thus she was not just the Lady of the Place, but Our Lady of Mount Carmel: The friars could look back to their naming by the pilgrims on Mount Carmel as legitimate proof of who they were.
The Rule of St. Albert
The Rule does not mention Mary, but it embraces a way of life which ensures her continuing protection. The friars walk in the footsteps of Christ just as Mary did and they devote their lives to Christ in imitation of Mary’s devotion: “This intimacy with Jesus was a hallmark of the lives of medieval hermits and a distinctive characteristic of the Carmelite Rule.” It is likely that this was so self-evident to the friars that John Baconthorpe’s attempt to compare Mary’s life to each Chapter of the Rule was superfluous and therefore doomed to failure. As Blanchard asserts, “The Rule of Carmel does not create the collective values of the Carmelite community. [It] regulate[s] a faith that exists prior to those rules.”
By the beginning of the fourteenth century Mary’s place in the hearts and minds of the Carmelites as Mother of Christ and therefore Our Lady of the Place, Patroness, Virgin, and Sister, was central to their existence and was enacted in their liturgy and their daily routine of veneration: “There were two Masses per day, one of which was in honour of Mary;” half of the 10 communion days in each year were Marian feasts; even the feasts of Mary “were markers for the brethren to shave.” Her name was included in the Confiteor and The General Chapter of 1324 decreed the Salve Regina be sung at the end of every hour of the Divine Office and Mass and when possible each Saturday the whole Office was to be celebrated in Mary’s honour. It is difficult to believe that all these provisions suddenly occurred throughout the various provinces of the Order in reaction to an external threat to their legitimacy and status. Behind all these conventions of the day was their belief that Mary was Christ’s mother and through their connections with Christ’s birthplace in the Holy Land and his mother, they would remain steadfast to their living in allegiance to Jesus Christ. Moreover, Boyce asserts that their fidelity in celebrating the Marian feasts of the Nativity, Annunciation, Purification and Assumption as well as the Saturday commemoration of the Virgin maintained their close links with their ancestral rite of the Holy Sepulchre.
They continued to celebrate the feasts of many other Holy Land saints, including both the mother and grandmother of Mary, based on the Infancy Gospel of James. However during the fourteenth century they did not rush into accepting every devotion associated with Mary: The Feast of Our Lady of the Snows was not accepted into the Carmelite liturgy until 1393 and The Solemn Commemoration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July sixteenth seemed not to have a proper office until the time of the Council of Trent. Liturgy was central to the lives of the Carmelites and although there is a great deal of variety between provinces in how liturgy was developed, it was certainly influential in shaping the minds of the friars.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception
The Immaculate Conception of Mary appears to have been a popular notion among believers but not necessarily among the Carmelite friars. Theologians had ‘serious reservations, most notably the followers of Thomas Aquinas.’ Bernard of Clairvaux was against the doctrine because it was not handed down by tradition. Its celebration was opposed by the early Carmelite Prior Generals including Gerard of Bologna and Guy Terreni. John Baconthorpe was a student of Terreni so at first opposed the notion, then wavered in the face of what turned out to be erroneously attributed opinion based on Mary’s freedom from original sin on her predestination to be the Mother of God.
Be that as it may, from 1306 the Feast of the Immaculate Conception was celebrated with great pomp at Avignon with a sermon before the cardinals. This gave rise to a general tax of the whole order to meet the expenses, but we cannot infer from this that the Order was united in its views of Mary’s Immaculate Conception: Sibert de Beka’s Ordinal was entitled; ‘The Conception of Saint Mary or rather the veneration of her sanctification.’ It was to be another 40 years before the Mantle was considered to be symbolic of Mary’s immaculate state.
Indeed, throughout the fourteenth century the Carmelites resisted the gathering momentum of pious veneration of Mary with lofty titles and celebrations unless they fitted with their tradition. So the Feast of the Visitation on July 2nd, promulgated by Pope Boniface IX in 1389, was accepted by the Carmelites in 1393; the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin, “of less than scriptural authenticity, but championed by a friend of St. Peter Thomas” was also accepted towards the end of the century.
The judicious appropriation of Marian values, symbols and concepts by the Carmelite friars over the first centuries of the Order’s existence, in the living out of their charism and in their liturgy, gave them a clear conviction of their Marian status. Therefore it is not surprising that we see statements such as those in the documents De inceptione ordinis (1320), the Rubrica Prima of the Constitutions (1324), and Baconthorpe’s Speculum (c.1320), that the Order was founded for the purpose of venerating Mary and that “it was fitting that she have her devotees in the place where she was honoured.” When discussing the early documentation of the Order, fourteenth and fifteenth century authors thought much of what they knew was fact, recorded in the earlier centuries of Church history. These documents, which originated from the combination of the deeply held values we see inherent in their charism with the so-called facts known at the time, have proved to be a mixed blessing historically. Moderns often have tended to ignore them as being patently false, however these documents are themselves primary sources for interpreting the beliefs of medieval Carmelites.
Seen from this perspective it is not so surprising to see both a conflation of the Marian and Elijan mythology and an increasingly creative response to the charges laid against the Carmelites by society and other religious. The imagery and symbolism of Marian legends codified by, Ribot in the Institutions was derived from commonly held’ stories and Old Testament commentaries of the day, e.g. Mary as the cloud in the Elijan cycle and her visits to Carmel as a child and as a widow as well as the notion of her patronage. Ribot’s genius was in appropriating these stories for the Carmelites, thereby ‘naming’ their up-until-then unenunciated beliefs.
The 1369 constitutions standardized Mary being called ‘the Most Blessed’ and the word ‘Virgin’ was inserted into the title. This may have been an official response to the argument put forward by other Orders that the Chapel on Mount Carmel was built in honour of Mary of Egypt. What is more important is the friars’ awareness of the connection between their celibacy and Mary’s virginity. Christopher O’Donnell writes:
“As we have seen in many texts already the Carmelite imitation of Mary’s purity was thus principally through the vow of chastity. But it was not to remain restricted in this way and became more the total adherence to God rather than corporal integrity.”
As the Carmelite Order expanded and diversified there was a tendency towards the veneration of Mary more in he spirit of the day, but still staying true to their eschatological beliefs. Even during this time of hyperbole and complex metaphor so beloved of the age, O’Donnell asserts that “Reading Carmelite Mariology one does not get a sense of Mary being improperly isolated from her Son.” This was very definitely happening in the fifteenth century world of heightened emotion and veneration.
As the centuries unfold we can see that it is those qualities of Mary: obedience to the Word, chastity of the heart, and solitude of the soul that have underpinned the Carmelite way of living in allegiance to Jesus Christ. As Our Lady of Mount Carmel both Sister and Mother, Mary has been the inspiration and role model from the very beginnings of Carmel, throughout all the religious and political turmoil down through the centuries. Mary is still as relevant to us today in the twenty-first century as she was to the hermits on Mount Carmel and to the friars in Europe in the fourteenth century.
 Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm., “The Formative Years in Carmelite Marian Devotion,” Carmel and Mary: Theology and History of a Devotion, Edited by John Welch, O.Carm., Washington D.C.: Carmelite Institute, p. 26.
 Joachim Smet, O.Carm., The Carmelites: A History of the Brothers of our Lady of Mount Carmel, Vol 1 (ca. 1200 until the Council of Trent, Darien: Carmelite Spirituality Centre, 1988, p. 24.
 Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm. “Patroness, Mother, Sister, Most Pure Virgin.” Marian Symposium, Reno Nevada, (DVD Disc 1), Washington DC: Carmelite Institute, 1998, p. 20.
 Sally Cunneen, In Search of Mary: the Woman and the Symbol. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996, p. 187.
 Elizabeth Johnson, “Marian Devotion in the Western Church,” Christian Spirituality, vol. 2, edited by Jill Raitt, New York: Crossroad, 1988, p.395.
 Carolyn Walker Bynum, Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982., p 85 ff.
 Joachim Smet, O.Carm., The Carmelites: A History of the Brothers of our Lady of Mount Carmel, Vol 1 (ca.1200 until the Council of Trent), Darien: Carmelite Spirituality Centre, 1988, p.105.
 Emmanuel Boaga, O.Carm., Our Lady of the Place. Mary in the History’ and the Life of Carmel. Rome: Edizione Carmelitane, 2002, p. 95.
 David Blanchard, O.Carm., “The Carmelite Scapular,” in Carmel and Mary: theology and history of a devotion, edited by John Welch, O.Carm. Washington D.C.: Carmelite Institute, 2002, p. 175.
 Leonardo Boff, The Maternal Face of God. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, p. 139.
 Redemptus Valabeck, O.Carm., Mary, Mother of Carmel: Our Lady and the saints of Carmel. Vol. 1. Rome: Institutum Carmelitanum, 1988, p. 50.
 James Boyce, O.Carm., The Carmelite Convent of Krakow. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008, p. 154.
 Arie Kallenberg, Cannehis 55 (2008), Part 1, p. 117.
 Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm., “Patroness ,Mother, Sister, Most Pure Virgin.” Marian Symposium Reno Nevada, (DVD Disc 1), Washington DC: Carmelite Institute, 1998, pp. 74, 76.
 Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm., “Patroness, Mother, Sister, Most Pure Virgin.” Marian Symposium Reno Nevada, (DVD Disc 1), Washington DC: Carmelite Institute, 1998, p. 76.
 Frances Beer, Women and Mystical experience in the Middle Ages, Woodbridge, U.K.: Boyclell, 1992, p. 66.
 Valerie Edden, “The mantle of Elijah: Carmelite Spirituality in England in the Fourteenth Century.” The Medieval Mystical Tradition; England, Ireland and Wales Vol 6. Cambridge: Brewer, 1999, p. 75.
 Eamon Carroll, O.Carm., “The Medieval Flowering,” in Carmel and Mary: theology and history of a devotion, edited by John Welch, O.Carm., Washington D.C.: Carmelite Institute, p. 52.
 Keith Egan, 1988, p. 58.
 David Blanchard, O.Carm., “The Carmelite Scapular,” in Carmel and Mary: theology and history of a devotion, edited by John Welch, O.Carm. Washington D.C.: Carmelite Institute, 2002, p. 173.
 Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm., “Patroness, Mother, Sister, Most Pure Virgin.” Marian Symposium Reno Nevada, (DVD Disc 1), Washington DC: Carmelite Institute, 1998, p. 80.
 James Boyce, O.Carm., The Carmelite Convent of Krakow Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008, p. 154.
 James Boyce, O.Carm., The Carmelite Convent of Krakow. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008, pp. 152-153.
 Eamonn Carroll, O.Carm., “The Medieval Flowering,” in Cannel and Mary: theology and history of a devotion, edited by John Welch, O.Carm., Washington D.C.: Carmelite Institute, p. 59.
 Joachim Smet, O.Carm., The Carmelites: A History of the Brothers of our Lady of Mount Carmel, Vol 1 (ca. 1200 until the council of Trent) Darien: Carmelite Spirituality Centre, 1988, p. 67.
 James Boyce, O.Carm., The Carmelite Convent of Krakow. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008, P. 151.
 Joachim Smet, O.Carm., The Carmelites: A History of the Brothers of our Lady of Mount Carmel, Vol 1 (ca. 1200 until the Council of Trent), Darien: Carmelite Spirituality Centre, 1988, p. 65.
 Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm., “The Formative Years in
Carmelite Marian Devotion,” Carmel and Mary: theology and history of a
devotion, Edited by John Welch, O.Carm., Washington D.C.: Carmelite
Institute, p. 32.
 Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm., “The Formative Years in Carmelite Marian Devotion,” Carmel and Mary: theology and history of a devotion, Edited by John Welch, O.Carm., Washington D.C.: Carmelite Institute, p.77.
 Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm., “The Formative Years in Carmelite Marian Devotion,” Carmel and Mary: theology and history of a devotion, Edited by John Welch, O.Carm., Washington D.C.: Carmelite Institute, p.77.
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