Monday, January 19, 2009

Marian Shrines in Holy Land - Our Lady of Mt Carmel

The hallowed name of Carmel awakens a host of visions, some terrible and some of gracious beauty: the flaming sword of St Elias; the miracles of the Holy Scapular; the loneliness of earth; and abounding grace of Heaven. This historic Mountain range, in great part of limestone, runs from north to south for a distance of fifteen miles, with a width of from three to five miles. It is like a mighty whale, except for the unaccountable hump near the landward and, which is the Place of sacrifice.

Joshua on dividing the land among the children of Israel made Carmel to serve as a boundary for four tribes: the tribe of Asher to the north; those of Zabulon and Issachar to the east; and the half tribe of Manesseh to the south. The name Carmel is best translated by "garden mount". In Holy Writ it appears less frequently as a geographical name than as a metaphor or type of fruitfulness and beauty. Its sides, still in parts verdant, are grooved by dales and burrowed by innumerable grottos, which afforded a refuge for hermits who had withdrawn from the company of men, or who sought sanctuary from tyrants and persecutors. it also gave refuge to those flying from justice. In this is the explanation of the words of the prophet Amos (9:2-3) "And though they be hid in the top of Carmel, I will search and take them away from thence". What made the mountain for ever renowned was the sojourn which the Prophet Elijah or Elias made upon it, and the wonders which he worked there.

Carmel even received in the language of the people the name Jebel Mar Elias, the Mount of St Elias. The whole mountain is sacred to the memory of Elias and his followers, and with reason. Elias was so illustrious among the Prophets that he was selected to represent them in person on Mt Thabor at the Transfiguration;

so imminent in sanctity that the Angel Gabriel could find no better way of expressing the exalted dignity of the Baptist than by saying that he would come "in the spirit and power of Elias;" so admirable before God, that he was taken from this world in a chariot of fire while yet alive; so valiant in virtue, that he is chosen as the champion in the final combat with the enemies of Christ at the end of Time.
It was on Mt Carmel that the One God gained victory over the many gods of idolatry, and there the priests of the idol Baal were exterminated. The Bible relates this event in a particularly fascinating style.

The Altar of Baal
Upon the top of Carmel side by side with the altar of the True God stood that of Baal. Jezabel, daughter of the King of Sidon, and wife of Achab, King of Israel, had led the mass of the people aside to idolatry.

At the behest of Elias, Achab summoned to Carmel "all Israel, and the priests and prophets of Baal who ate at Jezebel's table." There two altars were created, one to God and one to Baal. The priests of Baal called upon their god throughout a long hot day. There was no voice, nor any that answered. Then Elias taunted them, suggesting a little more zeal, for perhaps Baal was having a nap. But Baal remained comatose. Then did Elias call upon his God, and immediately fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. At the sight of this miracle, the people again proclaimed Jehovah their God - "The Lord, he is God" - and under the orders of Elias the priests of Baal were taken down the torrent Kishon and killed there.

Elias and the Drought
Immediately following is an account of another miracle. A long and terrible drought, pretold by Elias, had compelled King Achab to take refuge with his horses in one of the gorges of Carmel. The Prophet besought the Lord to put an end to the scourge, and after casting himself down on the earth, he said to his servant: "Go up and look towards the sea". The servant went up and looked, and said: "There is nothing." Elias said to him: "Return seven times." At the seventh time the servant said: "Behold a little cloud arising out of the sea as large as the palm of a man's hand." Elias said: "Go up and say to Achab: 'Prepare thy chariot and go down, lest the rains prevent thee.'" Then little by little the heavens grew dark with clouds and wind, and there fell a great rain. Such in their majestic simplicity are the events of which Mt Carmel has been the silent witness. The first object of the miracle was undoubtedly the conversion of the apostate people. But Divine Providence often brings forth different fruits from the same root in accordance with the needs of its servants. It is thus that in the little cloud which arose over the sea a tradition piously garnered by Carmelite writers and consecrated by the liturgy of the Order sees a prophetic symbol of the Immaculate Virgin. She, child of Adam's race but without the taint of original sin, would, in giving us the Redeemer, let fall upon the sin-parched earth the gentle, fruitful rain of grace. This revelation was made on this day of miracles to Elias who communicated it to his disciples, the Sons of the Prophets; and thereby brought them to address to the Promised Virgin, in holy anticipation, their service of devotion and praise.

Elias the Founder.
The great Prophet Elias has always been regarded by the Carmelites as the founder and Patriarch of their Order. This ancient and cherished tradition has been sanctioned by the Church, for the statue of the Prophet stands in the Vatican among founders of the Religious Orders. His name means "The Lord is God", and according to St Isidore he was a man of faith and lofty devotion, strong under hardship, fruitful in resources, endowed with a powerful intellect, rigid in his austere virtue, unwearied in holy meditation, fearless in the face of death. He is called in Arabic - Khadr - the "Evergreen", "Living", because he never knew the weakness and decrepitude of age, but remained fruitful in the ways of the Lord, who at last vouchsafed to transport him on a fiery chariot to the great beyond.
The Fathers agree that he, with St John the Baptist, was an example and model of virginity. He raised the dead to life, like the Son of God, and he was the chosen symbol of His Ascension, being raised aloft in a triumphal chariot.

St Jerome says that if the source of the monastic life is sought for in Scripture, it will be found that Elias is its founder. He united a large number of disciples on Carmel, and they led a life sanctified by prayers and celibacy. They met together to be instructed by their holy chief, and this fact has given rise to the name of one of the principal caves on the mountain, called "The School of the Prophets."

The immediate successor of Elias was Eliseus, who inherited his mantle and his double spirit, and went to live on Mt Carmel, to which the people came on feast-days to pray with the hermits.

This concourse of pilgrims gave rise to the legend related by Pliny that the holy mountain of Carmel was itself an object of adoration, and referring to the hermits he calls them "an everlasting nation among whom no one is born."

We know, from 4 Kings 6, that the sons of the Prophets, having became too numerous on Carmel, spread to the Jordan and there built huts for themselves. Later, as the office of the Prophets became less common among the Jews, as fulfillment was about to succeed prophecy, the name "children of the Prophets" ceased and those who succeeded them were called Rechatites, and later Essenes, those very people from whose hands we have now received the oldest manuscripts of Old Testament, left by them in the caves of Jordan and Dead Sea. But the hermits continued on Carmel. The prophet Michaes makes a fervent prayer for them: "Feed the flock of thy inheritance, them that dwelt alone in the forest in the midst of Carmel" (7:14).

To be continued "Christian Carmel"
Text based on the book "Marian Shrines in Mary's Land" by Fr Eugene Hoade.