Elijah and the Carmelite Order – The Mantle of Elijah through the Ages

The solemn march of history tends to link the symbolism of certain places to personages who lived and worked there. But in considering the figure of Elijah, we are surprised to realize that the greatness of his prophetism surpassed the limits of time and space…

Carmel!… A word that resounds through history like a bell! It evokes great events; it brings to mind prophetic deeds and extraordinary accomplishments of chosen men. Mountain of the prophets, where the fiery Elijah confronted the priests of Baal and slew them in the valley of Kishon (cf. 1 Kgs 18:18-40). The Mount of Promises, where the same prophet saw and greeted the Blessed Virgin Mary from afar (cf. Heb 11:13), prefigured in the little cloud that rose from the sea foretelling torrential rain on Israel (cf. I Kgs 18:42-46).

But Mount Carmel also holds a mystical symbolism. When referring to the bride in the Song of Songs, the sacred author says that her head “rises like Carmel” (7:6); and Isaiah prophesies that the “splendour of Carmel” (35:2) will be given to her who, like virgin land, will make the lily bloom. For this reason, some medieval authors claimed that the word Carmel could mean praises to the Bride, and the Carmelite would be the one who sings them.1

The mountain of Carmel

Elevated sites have always played an important role in salvation history. The Holy Scriptures show us this by mentioning Mount Sinai as the sacred place of Revelation and the Law, or Mount Zion, where the Lord God established his Sanctuary. The same is true of Carmel.

This mountain is located in Israel, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea to the south of the Bay of Haifa. The mountain is covered in leafy vegetation, which gives it the name Karmel, which in Hebrew means vineyard or garden,2 or, as Dom Guéranger proposes, “plantation of the Lord.”3

In Elijah’s time, access to Mount Carmel was extremely difficult, which favoured solitude and seclusion. Centuries later, St. John of the Cross would relate it to the ascent of a soul in the spiritual life when he wrote his famous work Ascent of Mount Carmel. All these characteristics probably led the Thesbite to choose this place to form a community of disciples who were to be called “sons of the prophets” (2 Kgs 2:3).

View from Mount Carmel (Israel)

The lineage of the prophets

Elijah spent his days exercising God’s vengeance against the evil that was spreading in Israel and reconciling the heart of father with son (cf. Sir 48:1-10). Blessed are those who knew him and were honoured by his friendship! (cf. Sir 48:11).

However, the Lord of Hosts, for whose sake the prophet burned with zeal, took him to himself in the presence of Elisha, who remained on earth as the holder of his master’s spirit and prophetism.

The sons of the prophets gathered around Elisha and, recognizing in him the spirit of Elijah (cf. 2 Kgs 2:15), chose him as the first among them. Elisha then became for that prophetic nucleus and its posterity what Peter would be for the Church4: possessing a primacy like Elijah, “nothing was too hard for him” (Sir 48:13a). Having received his master’s mantle, he perpetuated prophecy on earth and “when he was dead his body prophesied” (Sir 48:13b).

The origins of the Order of Carmel

As early as the time of Elisha, the sons of the prophets built a dwelling on Carmel so that they could live together (cf. 2 Kgs 6:1-7), retired as hermits. From then on, the Carmelite tradition is full of mystery. How did the existence of this elitist branch continue to develop until the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ? Did they give rise to other forms of life, such as the Essenes? Did they know, perhaps by revelation, that the time of the Messiah had come? Little is known about this…

One beautiful tradition says that the spiritual sons of Elijah and Elisha became Christians during the first preaching of the Apostles, at which time they met the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose coming their ancestors had prophesied on the mountain of Carmel. For this reason, they returned with greater fervour to the holy mountain and built a chapel to Our Lady in the same place where Elijah had seen the little cloud. This gave them the title of Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.5

Owing to the fact that they lived only on that elevation, these hermits were unknown in the West until the 12th century. At that time, due to the formation of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem which began with the Crusades, they were joined by some Europeans. It was then that St. Berthold of Calabria was elected as the first Prior General of the Carmelites, by mandate of the pontifical legate Aimeric Malafaida, and the solitaries of Carmel began to acquire the conventual customs already established in the West.6

The breath of grace: from East to West

Meanwhile, a new form of religious life was emerging in medieval Europe: the Mendicant Orders. Franciscan and Dominican friars were attracting vocations everywhere. At the same time, in the East, Saracen invasions threatened the lives of Christians and the hermits of Carmel were forced to abandon that sacred place, the cradle of prophetism and of their vocation. Providence, however, had a design in allowing such vicissitudes: the spread of Carmel throughout the West!

Thus, in 1238, the first Carmelite monks arrived in Sicily, Cyprus and Spain.7 However, such was the number of mendicant religious in those regions that it was routine to find two friars fulfilling their evangelical ideal by going from house to house asking for alms or food, and they were always generously answered. However, men wearing different habits began to appear, causing something of a stir: a brown tunic with a drawstring at the waist and a banded cloak, that is, white with beige or brown stripes. When asked the name of their Order or who their founder was, the monks replied, according to the rule, that they were the successors of Elijah and Elisha and that they came from Mount Carmel…8

The habit is reformed and the scapular appears

Thus began the Carmelite epic in Western Christendom. European customs forced them to change their cape for a white one, as it remains today. But the Blessed Virgin still wanted to confirm her predilection for her Carmelite sons.

The spirit of Elijah has animated many souls throughout the history of the Church and the manifestations of his prophetism shine with ever-renewed hues in his spiritual children
St. Elijah, St. John the Baptist, St. Simon Stock and St. John of the Cross

The first general chapter of the Carmelites in the West, which met in England, chose for its prior St. Simon Stock, who began to strive for the approval of the Order with the Supreme Pontiff. On the night of July 15-16, 1251, Our Lady appeared to the Saint and gave him the scapular as a sign of election, saying: “Whoever dies wearing this habit shall not suffer the eternal fire.”

From then on, this Marian garment would be the Carmelite’s chief insignia. Just as Elijah gave his cloak to Elisha, a gesture that symbolizes not only discipleship, but also that the disciple is the property of the master, in the same way the Blessed Virgin clearly demonstrated for all time that whoever wears her scapular is her property! And she once again confirmed to the members of the Order of Carmel – they who had lived in hope of her since the days of the prophet Elijah, had loved her even before her birth and had sung her praises at the fountain on Mount Carmel to announce her arrival – that they belonged to her; they were her disciples and her prophets!

Where is Elijah?

Our Lord Jesus Christ came to fulfil the law and the prophets, being himself the Law and Prophecy fulfilled. His words, however, are also shrouded in the mysteries of prophetism…

The Transfiguration had just taken place. Astonished, the Apostles Peter, James and John had contemplated Moses and Elijah enveloped in glory, conversing with the Master. The disciples, gathered around Him, then heard these sublime words: “Elijah indeed shall come, and restore all things” (Mt 17:11).

In fact, the spirit of Elijah has animated many souls throughout the history of the Church, and the manifestations of his prophetism have gleamed with ever-renewed hues in his spiritual children. The Baptist, pointed out by the Redeemer himself as a new Elijah (cf. Mt 11:14), had already caused astonishment in Israel. And in the era of the New Law, how can we fail to see him in the mystical raptures of a St. John of the Cross or in the fiery prophecies of a Blessed Francisco Palau? Humanity has also discerned the glory of the Thesbite in the incomparable gest of St. Simon Stock, in the heroic military deeds of St. Nuno Alvares Pereira and in the miraculous protection of Anne of St. Bartholomew in confronting the Calvinist heretics.

The Order has received countless graces from Elijah’s loftly union with God. Undoubtedly, mystics such as St. Teresa Margaret Redi, St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzi and St. Elizabeth of the Trinity are but scintillations of that same prophetic Elijah who on the peaks of Horeb ardently declared: “With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts” (1 Kings 19:14)!

What fruits might yet be expected from a spirit that has yielded souls ranging from the great St. Teresa to St. Therese of the Child Jesus, among many other mystics, warriors and martyrs?
St. Nuno Alvares Pereira, St. Teresa of Avila, Blessed Anne of St. Bartholomew and St. Therese of the Child Jesus

Finally, the blood of Elijah has abundantly irrigated history, bringing countless martyrs to bloom for the glory of Heaven, inundating the lands of Compiègne, Guadalajara, Dachau, and Gora… How much fruit can yet be expected from a spirit that has brought forth souls ranging from the great St. Teresa to the virgin-warrior of Lisieux, St. Therese of the Child Jesus?

Nevertheless, in hearts burning with hope for the glory of God, the Lord’s prophecy still resounds: “Elijah indeed shall come!” Has the Elijah prophesied by the Divine Master arrived? Is the time coming when order will be restored in the world and in society? Could it be that, as St. Paul says, “there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Rom 11:5) who have not bowed the knee to Baal (cf. 1 Kgs 19:18), a little cloud, a foretaste of Mary’s advent on earth?

Therefore, let us ascend the holy mountain of Carmel and scan the horizon for signs of the return of the prophet Elijah… Surely we will find them! ◊



1 CICCONETTI, O Carm, Carlo. El profeta Eliseo, primogénito y modelo de los carmelitas. In: VV.AA. Eliseo, o el manto de Elías. Burgos: Monte Carmelo, 2000, p.74.

2 Cf. VÁZQUEZ ALLEGUE, Jaime. כרמל. In: Diccionario bíblico hebreo-español español-hebreo. 2.ed. Estella: Verbo Divino, 2003, p.113; POLENTINOS, OSA, Valentín. Carmelo. In: DIEZ MACHO, MSC, Alejandro; BARTINA, SJ, Sebastián (Dir.). Enciclopedia de la Biblia. 2.ed. Barcelona: Garriga, 1969, v.II, col.149.

3 GUÉRANGER, OSB, Prosper. L’Année Liturgique. Le temps après la Pentecote. 10.ed. Paris: H. Oudin, 1913, t.IV, p.156.

4 Cf. CICCONETTI, op. cit., p.70.

5 Cf. GUÉRANGER, op. cit., p.149.

6 Idem, p.149-150.

7 Cf. ORTEGA, OCD, Pedro. Historia del Carmelo Teresiano. 3.ed. Burgos: Monte Carmelo, 2010, p.33.

8 The first Carmelite rule was written by St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, in the 12th century, when St. Berthold was already Prior General of Carmel. However, with the move to the West, it was necessary to reform the primitive rule, in which this detail was added about the request for alms and the answer to be given to questions about the Order.



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