Jacques de Vitry, Bishop of Acre from 1214-1228, wrote of hermits living near the well or fountain, named after the Prophet Elijah, on Mount Carmel. Acre is a port city on the Mediterranean coast in north-western Israel. Those hermit brothers, many of whom had come as pilgrims to the Holy Land from Europe, were the earliest Carmelites. Around the time of Jacques de Vitry they had requested ‘a formula of life’ from Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem. This formula is now known as the Carmelite Rule.
Elijah was one of the greatest of the Prophets in the Old Testament, and his story is found in 1Kings 17 to 2 Kings 2. It is only natural that the hermit-brothers who lived close to the well or fountain, named after Elijah, would feel a close association with him. Mount Carmel itself was a holy place because of the great things he had done for God there. Elijah became for them a model to imitate: one who thirsted for the one true God, a man of prayer, his heart was always open to God. He battled against false gods. He defended the poor against oppression by the strong and powerful.
Throughout their history, the Carmelites have related to Elijah as a model of prayerful contemplation and prophetic works. They adopted him as Patron, like the Virgin Mary, and as their spiritual Father. They took the words spoken by him to the Lord in the cave as their motto, ‘I am filled with jealous zeal for the Lord God of hosts’ (1 Kings 19:10). The Carmelite Constitution of 1995 state that the Carmelites, like Elijah, ‘believe in God and allow themselves to be led by the Spirit and by the Word that has taken root in their hearts, in order to bear witness to the divine presence in the world, allowing God to be truly God in their lives…in Elijah they learn to be channels of God’s tender love for the poor and humble’ (n.26).
The Carmelites are the only religious Family to have such a strong relationship with a figure from the Old Testament, and the only group in the Western Church to keep a feast, indeed, a solemnity (July 20th ) in honour of Saint Elijah.
Elijah is revered by the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam and can, therefore, be an inspiration and encourager of the interfaith dialogue which, in the present age, is so important for peace in the world.
Almighty, ever‑living God,
your prophet Elijah, our Father,
lived always in your presence
and was zealous for the honour due to your name.
May we, your servants, always seek your face
and bear witness to your love.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.