A Sermon for Sunday: The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel; Revd Dr Robert Wilson

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Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel/Seventh Sunday after Pentecost  

Today we celebrate the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, as well as commemorating the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. The Carmelite order is different from other religious orders in that it does not claim descent from a particular founder, but rather to a continuous witness of those who, since the apostolic age, had lived a life of withdrawal from the world on Mount Carmel in Palestine. This site was associated with the clash between the prophet Elijah and the false prophets of Baal, and consequently served through subsequent generations as a place for witnessing to the truth in the face of the false standards of this world. The Carmelite tradition of a continuous descent of witness on this site since the apostolic age has been strongly attacked and also vigorously defended.

It is clear that by the time of the Crusades there was a community of hermits on this site. It is reasonable to suppose that they followed an earlier tradition of witness on the site of Mount Carmel, but this is too uncertain a matter to attempt to draw any definitive conclusions. The earlier success of the Crusaders in Palestine soon faded and the Carmelites were eventually forced to leave Palestine and take refuge in Europe. Here they faced challenge from other religious orders that already existed in Europe.

The Carmelites, despite their claims to be following an ancient tradition of witness in Palestine, were certainly a new order in Europe. A particular difficulty was that the Carmelites in Palestine were an order of hermits. Once established in Europe it was necessary for them to adapt to place greater emphasis on the communal life, especially in the face of challenge from the Augustinians, Franciscans and Dominicans. The constitution of the Carmelites was consequently adapted to bring them more into line with that of other orders of friars. Inevitably this led to the relaxation of many of the stricter practices of the original community of hermits in Palestine. In part this was necessary to be pragmatic in the existing circumstances, but it also led to a falling away from the original vision of the order.

In the sixteenth century in Spain under the leadership of St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila an attempt was made to return to the original charism of the order. The followers of this stricter rule became known as the Discalced Carmelites. They were involved in a bitter controversy with their less observant brethren. The end result was the establishment of stricter and more relaxed orders of Carmelites.  

The tradition which today’s feast celebrates is the giving of the scapular by the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Simon Stock, an English saint especially associated with the establishment of the Carmelite order in Europe. The Scapular was seen as a sign of the heavenly protection of the order in the face of challenge from the existing ecclesiastical authorities and other religious orders. Like everything else connected with the history of the Carmelite order, the tradition surrounding the bestowal of the scapular has been strongly attacked and vigorously defended. The one thing that is clear is that the scapular is a sign of the distinctive witness of the Carmelite order to the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the life of contemplation and prayer in the face of the worldliness. This feast day, long associated with the Carmelite order, was finally placed on the universal calendar in the eighteenth century.  

The Carmelites were thus distinct from other friars in that they placed more emphasis on the life of contemplation and less on mission to the world. On the other hand, they were no longer simply a community of hermits separated from the world on Mount Carmel, but had adopted a communal life like that of other friars. In a sense they combined the original charism of a community of hermits with a later more communal lifestyle like that of the Augustinians, Franciscans and Dominicans.  

The history of the Carmelites shows how difficult it is to achieve the right balance between having clear principles and being pragmatic about what is realistically possible in a given situation. If we do not have clear principles we will have no clear vision or aim and will consequently find ourselves living lives in conformity with the false standards of the world rather than those of the Gospel. On the other hand, if we only focus on having clear principles without regard to the circumstances and times which we find ourselves living in we will establish systems that may look good in theory, but are impossible to operate in practice. If a religious order is to survive the test of time it must find a way of achieving the right balance between having a clear vision and being pragmatic about what is realistically possible. This will inevitably ensure that there is a constant tension between the ideal and the practical, but this tension can only be eliminated by neglecting one of these two necessary features.  

The Carmelites had to find a way of balancing the aims of the original order of hermits in Palestine, with the more communal lifestyle of the friars that people in Europe had grown accustomed to. In so doing it would be fair to say that they lost sight of some of the original vision. It was this that led to the attempt to reform the order by St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth century. This was an important return to the original vision of the order, even if it proved impossible to adopt for the order as a whole. It was necessary in practice to be pragmatic and recognise Carmelites of stricter and more relaxed observance.  

Ultimately, as the Gospel for this Sunday (which we are commemorating today) reminds us a good tree is known by the fruits that it produces. The tree may need pruning in order to grow and flourish, but it can only do so if it is securely rooted in the Orthodox Christian faith. There are many uncertainties surrounding the history of the Carmelites, but what is clear is that the order has consistently produced great saints. The tree is shown to be good by the fruits that it has produced throughout the ages.  

Let us pray for grace to discern the way for us to be faithful to the Gospel in our own time and place by both having clear principles and also being pragmatic about what is realistically possible in our situation. Let us take heed to the lessons that can be learned from the history of the Carmelite order and the great saints that it has produced and apply them to our own time and place.

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