Mount Carmel is the place where the prophet Elijah prayed so fervently, 800 years before Jesus. The purpose of his prayer was to turn God's people away from seeking agricultural or medical benefits through magical practices. In 1 Kings 18:23-39 we read how Elijah challenged the priest of Ba’al with a sacrifice. A key moment in this event occurs in verse 21; And Elijah came to all the people, and said, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people answered him not a word.
Elijah was a champion of the Lord and was demanding total commitment from the people. This was a theme that was often repeated throughout the pages of both Testaments of the Bible. Elijah realized that the people needed proof before they made a true commitment.
Therefore, Elijah had the sacrifice soaked with water. He called upon God and was answered with “fire from Heaven”. With this display of power, the people acknowledged YHWH as their God. Then Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there. Elijah is depicted with a sword because he killed the prophets who sought to harness occult energies.
After this event, on Mount Carmel, Elijah saw “a cloud as small as a man’s hand rising from the sea.” (1 Kings 18:44) Mystics and exegetes have long associated this small cloud to the Blessed Virgin, who brought Christ into the world and quenched the drought and famine which befell the hearts of mankind.
In the Middle Ages, some Christian hermits came to pray in this place and built a small church in honor of the Virgin Mary. The number of religious grew so much that a new rule was written in 1212, which became the rule of the Carmelites. The site became the destination of many pilgrimages from 1245 onwards and the scapular of Our Lady of Carmel originated from it. Later, a group of laymen who most probably joined the third Crusade decided to live a hermit life on the same mountain and became known as “Brothers of Saint Mary of Mount Carmel”. It underwent a long and arduous process of gaining juridical authority and recognition, undergoing suffering and persecution from secular clergy and other orders, prompting the brothers under St. Simon Stock to seek recourse to the Blessed Virgin. That assistance finally came in July 16, 1251, as Our Lady, carrying the Christ child in one arm and holding the Brown Scapular on the other, appeared to him and said, “Hoc erit tibi et cunctis Carmelitis privilegium, in hoc habitu moriens salvabitur” (This shall be the privilege for you and for all the Carmelites, that anyone dying in this habit shall be saved). The Order finally received its letter of protection from Pope Innocent IV in January 13, 1252. The Brown Scapular has become one of the most popular and devotion among Roman Catholics the world over. The sacramental which we are familiar with today is now a miniature derivative of the one used by the Carmelites. Our Lady gave St. Simon a scapular for the Carmelites with the following promise, saying, “Receive, My beloved son, this habit of thy order: this shall be to thee and to all Carmelites a privilege, that whosoever dies clothed in this shall never suffer eternal fire…It shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger, and a pledge of peace.” This also includes the Sabbatine privilege, in which Our Lady revealed to Pope John XXII in a vision, saying:
“I, the Mother of Grace, shall descend on the Saturday (Sabbath) after their death and whomsoever I shall find in Purgatory, I shall free, so that I may lead them to the holy mountain of life everlasting.”
Receiving the spiritual blessings of the Brown Scapular requires one to be formally enrolled either by a priest or a lay person granted the faculty. Once enrolled, no other Scapular need be blessed before wearing. The blessing and imposition are attached to the wearer for life. The convent was destroyed in 1291.
The Carmelite order spread throughout the world and was reformed by Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross in the 16th century. These two saints had a special love for the Virgin Mary and for St. Joseph. Hermits returned to the caves of Mount Carmel in 1634 and the shrine was rebuilt in the 18th century. The Carmelite monastery was founded in 1892 by a group of nuns from France. Today, the community is made up of about twenty sisters of ten different nationalities from four continents.
A 1996 doctrinal statement approved by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments states that;
Devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel is bound to the history and spiritual values of the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel and is expressed through the scapular. Thus, whoever receives the scapular becomes a member of the order and pledges him/herself to live according to its spirituality in accordance with the characteristics of his/her state in life. The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is on July 16. The name given to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the patroness of the Carmelite Order, is Our Lady of Mount Carmel, or Virgin of Carmel.
The spirtuality of Mary, which abounds through the Carmelite order goes back to Elijah, 800 years before the birth of Jesus. Perhaps, the zealous faith of Elijah foreshadows the faithful response of Mary to the Annunciation and all of the followers who made their way to Carmel.