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Mount Carmel and the Stella Maris Church

J. Gil

Tags: Faith, Holy Land, In the footprints of our Faith
In the Footprints of our Faith

The Stella Maris church, built between 1827 and 1836. Photograph: Erez Raviv – Flickr.
The Stella Maris church, built between 1827 and 1836. Photograph: Erez Raviv – Flickr.
Jesus our Lord traveled through many towns and villages of Palestine during the three years of his public life, announcing the Kingdom of God. He exercised his ministry mainly around Lake Genesareth, in Jerusalem, and journeying between those two points, from north to south and from south to north again, along the road that followed the course of the River Jordan, or through Samaria.

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The evangelists also tell us that on one occasion he retired beyond the borders of Galilee, to the region of Tyre and Sidon, which was in ancient Phoenicia and is now Lebanon (cf. Mt 15:21 and Mk 7:24). However, we do not know whether he also went as far as the Mediterranean coast, where the people were mostly Gentiles. It is there that Mount Carmel stands, especially linked to the memory of Elijah and Elisha (Elias and Eliseus), two great Old Testament prophets; and, in the Christian centuries, to the birth of the Carmelite Order.

Mount Carmel is a limestone mountain range stretching from the heights of Samaria to the Mediterranean, ending in a promontory above the city of Haifa. It is about twenty-five kilometers long and between ten and fifteen kilometers wide, with an average height of 500 meters. Its name is derived from the word kerem, meaning beautiful orchard, vineyard or garden. This is true: the mountain range is the source of plentiful springs of water, so that its flanks and gorges are covered in rich, varied vegetation characteristic of the Mediterranean area: laurels, myrtles, holm-oaks, tamarinds, cedars, pines, carob trees, and mastic trees.
The history of Mount Carmel is closely linked to the Prophet Elijah or Elias, who lived in the ninth century before Christ

The region has always been proverbial for its fruitfulness, and in several of the books of the Old Testament it figures as a symbol of Israel’s prosperity, or else of its misfortune: “The Lord roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds mourn, and the top of Carmel withers”(Amos 1: 2. Cf. Is 33: 9 and 35: 2; Jer 50: 19; and Nahum 1: 4). There are many caves on Carmel – over a thousand – especially on the west part, with narrow openings but large interiors.

The history of Mount Carmel is closely linked to the Prophet Elijah or Elias, who lived in the ninth century before Christ. According to traditions referred to by the Holy Fathers and ancient authors, several places preserved the memory of his presence: a cave on the northern slope, above Haifa, in which Elijah and afterwards Elisha lived; near that, the place where he gathered his disciples, which Christians named “The School of Prophets”, and in Arabic also El Hader or Hadar; and not far away, towards the west, a spring known as “Elijah’s Spring”, which he is supposed to have brought forth from the rock; and, in the southeast of the range, the peak called El-Muhraka and the Kishon River, where he confronted the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. Through Elijah’s prayer, God sent fire down from Heaven and so the people abandoned their idolatry, as told in the First Book of Kings (cf. 1 Kings 18:19-40).
View from the top of El-Muhraka. Photograph: www.biblewalks.com
View from the top of El-Muhraka. Photograph: www.biblewalks.com

It was in these areas, which have been venerated from the dawn of Christianity, and in which churches were built in honour of Elijah, that the Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, or Carmelite Order, was born. Its origins go back to the second half of the twelfth century, when St Berthold, originally from France, gathered around him several hermits who had been living on the northern parts of Mount Carmel overlooking Haifa. There they built a church and a little later on, around the year 1200, another on the western slope, at Wadi es-Siah. In the early years of the thirteenth century St Brocard, who succeeded Berthold as prior, requested the official approval of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, together with a Rule for their religious life of solitude, asceticism and contemplation: this is the Carmelite Rule, also known as the Rule of our Saviour, which continues to this day.

For various reasons papal approval was not received until the year 1226. After that point, because of the uncertain situation of Christians in the Middle East, some Carmelite friars returned to their countries of origin in Europe, where they set up new monasteries. This exodus proved to be providential for the survival and spread of the Carmelite Order, because in 1291 the armies of Egypt conquered Acre and Haifa, burned the churches on Mount Carmel and killed the friars.

Remains found at Wadi es-Siah dating back to the 13th and 17th centuries. Photograph: www.biblewalks.com.
Remains found at Wadi es-Siah dating back to the 13th and 17th centuries. Photograph: www.biblewalks.com.
Space does not permit a full account of the history of the Carmelite order here. In what refers to the Holy Land, it is enough to say that, except for a brief period in the seventeenth century, there was no Carmelite foundation on Mount Carmel until the early nineteenth century. Between 1827 and 1836 the current monastery and church of Stella Maris were built on the north point of Mount Carmel, above a cave that recalls the presence of the prophet Elijah. The name Stella Maris (“Star of the Sea”) recalls that just as the little cloud seen by Elijah’s servant brought the rain that would restore fruitfulness to the land of Israel after the time of the false prophets (cf. I Kings 18:44), so too the Blessed Virgin Mary brought Christ, through whom the grace of God is poured out on the whole of the earth. The buildings, on three levels, form a rectangular complex seventy meters long by thirty-six wide.

To the north there is a magnificent view of the Haifa Bay, and on clear days one can make out Acre by following the line of the coast. The entrance to the church is on the west side; the central space is octagonal in shape and is covered by a dome decorated with scenes of Elijah and other prophets, the Holy Family, the Evangelists, and some Carmelite saints. The paintings were created in 1928.

The marble covering the interior of the church was completed in 1931. The focus of attention is drawn to the sanctuary: behind the altar, in a niche, stands a statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and below it is the cave in which, according to tradition, Elijah lived. This is a space of roughly three by five meters, separated from the nave of the church by two porphyry pillars and some steps; within it there is an altar and a statue of the prophet.

Statue of the prophet Elijah outside the shrine of El-Muhraka. Photograph: Leobard Hinfelaar.
Statue of the prophet Elijah outside the shrine of El-Muhraka. Photograph: Leobard Hinfelaar.
As well as Stella Maris, the Carmelite Order has another church, on the southern tip of Mount Carmel at El Muhraka, known as the Church of the Sacrifice of Elijah. It commemorates the episode of the prophets of Baal referred to above. However, of the ancient monastery founded at Wadi es-Siah (today Nahal Siakh) only ruins now remain.

The custom of the scapular
Down through the centuries the Carmelite Order has given countless treasures to Christianity: one need only think of the exemplary lives and teachings of St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, or St Theresa of Lisieux, all three proclaimed as Doctors of the Church. Among other treasures is the custom of the Carmelite scapular, which St Josemaria adopted and passed on to others. “Wear on your breast the holy scapular of Carmel. There are many excellent Marian devotions, but few are so deeply rooted among the faithful, or have received so many blessings from the Popes. Besides, how motherly the Sabbatine privilege is!” (The Way, no. 500).

The scapular bestows two privileges on those who wear it with devotion: help to persevere in faith and good works to the moment of death, and deliverance from the sufferings of purgatory. The beginnings of this devotion date back to 1251, during a particularly difficult time for the Carmelite Order which was then taking its first steps in Europe. According to an ancient written account in the Catalogue of Carmelite Saints, which forms the basis for it, St Simon (later identified as St Simon Stock, English Prior General) appealed persistently to our Lady in the following prayer:
“Flos Carmeli/ Vitis florigera/ splendor Caeli/ Virgo puerpera/ Singularis/ Mater mitis/ sed viri nescia/ Carmelitis/ da privilegia/ Stella maris.”
“Flower of Carmel/ flowering vine/ splendor of Heaven/ Virgin and Mother/ unsurpassed/ mild Mother/ untouched by man/ to the Carmelites/ grant privileges/ Star of the Sea.”

In response to his prayer, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him holding a scapular in her hand, and said to him, “This is a privilege for you and yours; whoever is wearing it when he dies will be saved.” Or, according to a fuller version, “Whoever is wearing it when he dies, will not suffer the eternal fire, he will be saved.” By that time the scapular was part of the religious habit, though it was originally a type of apron used by servants and workmen. It consisted of a long strip of cloth with a hole for the head, worn over the tunic and hanging down in front and behind.

Statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Stella Maris. Photo: Leobard Hinfelaar.
Statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Stella Maris. Photo: Leobard Hinfelaar.
The “Sabbatine privilege”
The second prerogative, known as the “Sabbatine privilege”, holds that someone who dies in a state of grace and wearing the Carmelite scapular will be released from Purgatory on the first Saturday after his or her death. It derives from a medieval tradition. In 1613 a decree from the Apostolic See stated that the Christian people may devoutly believe in the help of the Blessed Virgin for the souls of Carmelite friars and members of Carmelite confraternities who died in a state of grace, who wore the scapular, who lived chastely in accordance with their state in life, and who prayed the Little Office or, if they were illiterate, who kept the fasts and abstinences prescribed by the Church; and that our Lady will come to their aid especially on Saturday, the day that the Church dedicates to the Mother of God.

In other words, the Sabbatine privilege is based on a basic Christian teaching: that of our Lady’s motherly care to ensure that her children who are expiating their guilt in Purgatory will attain the glory of Heaven as soon as possible, through her intercession.

As the Carmelite Order spread, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thanks to several reforms, its confraternities also spread. They attracted many faithful who, without embracing the religious life, shared in the devotion to our Lady of Carmelite spirituality. Such people manifested their devotion by wearing the Carmelite scapular, which was gradually modified and simplified until it took the form of two small squares of cloth joined by ribbons, worn around the neck.

The present monastery and church of Stella Maris, at the northernmost part of Mount Carmel. Photograph: www.biblewalks.com.
The present monastery and church of Stella Maris, at the northernmost part of Mount Carmel. Photograph: www.biblewalks.com.
The Apostolic See has frequently encouraged this custom, attaching indulgences to it and specifying certain pious practices for its use. These include the ceremony of imposition of the scapular, which the individual need only receive once and which can be conducted by any priest; the blessing of a new scapular to replace a worn-out one; and the possibility of wearing a scapular medal of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, instead of the cloth scapular.

Some years ago, for the celebration of the 750th anniversary of the giving of the scapular by our Lady to St Simon Stock, Pope John Paul II, who had worn the scapular ever since he was young, summarized its religious value as follows. “Therefore two truths are evoked by the sign of the Scapular: on the one hand, the constant protection of the Blessed Virgin, not only on life's journey, but also at the moment of passing into the fullness of eternal glory; on the other, the awareness that devotion to her cannot be limited to prayers and tributes in her honour on certain occasions, but must become a ‘habit’, that is, a permanent orientation of one's own Christian conduct, woven of prayer and interior life, through frequent reception of the sacraments and the concrete practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. In this way the Scapular becomes a sign of the ‘covenant’ and reciprocal communion between Mary and the faithful: indeed, it concretely translates the gift of his Mother, which Jesus gave on the Cross to John and, through him, to all of us, and the entrustment of the beloved Apostle and of us to her, who became our spiritual Mother” (Blessed John Paul II, Message to the Carmelite Family, 25 March 2001).

These ideas are reflected in the words of the celebrant for the blessing of the Scapular: “O God, look with mercy on these your servants, who receive this scapular for the praise of the Blessed Trinity and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and grant that they may be conformed to the image of Christ your Son, and so, with the assistance of the Blessed Virgin Mary, they may come to the heavenly home wearing the nuptial garment” (De Benedictionibus, no. 1218).

Cave below the altar, recalling the presence of the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel. Photo: Israel Tourism – Flickr.
Cave below the altar, recalling the presence of the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel. Photo: Israel Tourism – Flickr.
When St Josemaria spoke of our conversation with God he would often encourage us to become like little children, and recognize that we always need the help of grace. And he taught us to follow that path hand-in-hand with our Blessed Lady: “Because Mary is our mother, devotion to her teaches us to be authentic sons: to love truly, without limit; to be simple, without the complications which come from selfishly thinking only about ourselves; to be happy, knowing that nothing can destroy our hope. ‘The beginning of the way, at the end of which you will find yourself completely carried away by love for Jesus, is a trusting love for Mary.’ I wrote that many years ago, in the introduction to a short book on the rosary, and since then I have often experienced the truth of those words. I am not going to complete that thought here with all sorts of reasons. I invite you to discover it for yourself, showing your love for Mary, opening your heart to her, confiding to her your joys and sorrows, asking her to help you recognize and follow Jesus” (Christ is Passing By, no. 143).