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Nine Themes in Carmelite Spirituality - 6. Carmel is Marian

by Fr. Patrick Thomas McMahon, O.Carm.

Lay Carmelites seek God's presence in prayer while living an active life in the world. This duality of contemplative prayer and active ministry was modeled by the first Carmelites who lived as hermits on Mount Carmel, then later became mendicants in the cities of Europe.

Carmel is Marian

The next characteristic I would like to speak about is that Carmel is Marian. We belong to Mary. But if you notice, Our Lady of Mount Carmel is always depicted as holding the Child Jesus. Carmelites love Mary and honour her as the one who introduces us to Jesus. Strangely Mary is never mentioned in The Rule of Saint Albert, the document that initially defines Carmel and its spirituality. In fact, Mary is mentioned relatively rarely in the ancient documents of the Order until the Book of the Institution of the First Monks (The Ten Books on the Way of Life and Great Deeds of the Carmelites) which was composed in the final quarter of the fourteenth century. (I don’t mean by this to overlook John Baconthorpés Commentary on the Carmelite Rule in which he explains the Rule outlining for the Carmelite a way of life in which we can incorporate in our lives all the virtues lived by Mary in hers.) Furthermore, Mary is mentioned surprisingly rarely in the writings of St. Teresa or St. John of the Cross. Even St. Thérèse of Lisieux or Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity or St. Edith Stein mention her but rarely. Yet she is always present in the Carmelite tradition and her presence, though somewhat inconspicuous, is fundamental.

When Mary is present in the Carmelite writings she is almost invariably eclipsed by her Son. It is a reminder that, even though we cannot see the moon when the sun is shinning, the moon is always there, and it draws its light from the sun. In the same way, Carmelites remember that while our sight is focused on Jesus, Mary is still there. Like the moon she sheds not light of her own, but reflects the Light from her Divine Son.

One significant Carmelite author who does focus on the Blessed Virgin Mary is Michael of Saint-Augustine, a Carmelite friar of the seventeenth-century Touraine Reform in France. In many ways Michael of Saint-Augustine’s writings anticipate the doctrines of St. Louis Grignon de Montfort. Devotees of St. Louis de Montfort tell us that in his writings he offers a Marian Spirituality, that is, a spirituality in which Mary plays the pivotal role in defining the relationship of the believer to her Son and to the Trinity. Michael of Saint-Augustine could be said to do the same. Yet a careful reading of their writings shows us that neither Montfort nor Michael of Saint-Augustine proposes a spirituality that does not begin and end in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, the Marian emphasis of Michael of Saint-Augustine is quite unique to him among Carmelite spiritual writers. For the other authors in our tradition, Carmel offers a Christocentric spirituality in which Mary plays a key, but supportive, role. The Carmelite celebrates his or her devotion to Mary primarily by means of imitation of the Blessed Virgin. That is why we often reflect in our meditation on the mystery of salvation from Mary’s point of view. We don’t reflect on Mary. We reflect on Jesus as Mary saw him. We often, but not always, approach the Incarnation, for example, from Mary’s perspective. What is it like for an angel to come to Mary? In what ways does God’s angel come to me? What did it mean for Mary to say ‘Yes!’ to God’s request? What does it mean for me to say ‘Yes!’ to God’s request? How did Mary feel about carrying Jesus within her for nine months? In what ways do I carry Jesus in me? In what ways do I give birth to Jesus? In what ways do I nurse Jesus? In what ways do I educate Jesus? In what ways do I feed the Child Jesus? Or, how did Mary feel when she saw her son naked and bleeding and dying on the cross? How do I feel when I see Jesus naked and bleeding and dying on a cross? When and where do I see Jesus dying on the cross? What was it like when the risen Lord came to his mother? Where and in what ways does the risen Lord come to me? The possibilities for prayerfully seeing Christ through the eyes of his mother are endless, and the Carmelite often turns toward them. For the Carmelite, Mary is always offering Jesus to us – Jesus, whom our Rule calls ‘our only Saviour’ (Chapter 19). The Carmelite knows and always remembers that Jesus is our only hope, our only mediator of salvation, our only intercessor with God the Father. The Carmelite always looks at Mary smiling, as she puts your hand into the hand of her Son, and as she sees your gaze turn from her to him and the love that you have for him come alive in your heart as it has in hers ever since that moment when the angel gave his greeting.

For us Carmelites, the principle sign of our devotion to Mary is imitation. And the outward manifestation of our Carmelite devotion to her is the Brown Scapular. Unfortunately in the years since the Fatima apparitions, the connection between the brown scapular and the Carmelite Order has been broken. And many people who wear the scapular do not even know that this badge of devotion is the gift to the Church of our Carmelite family. We need to wear the scapular. We also need to learn what the Church and what the Order is teaching about the scapular. Much has changed in this regard. Very much has changed in this regard in the last four decades and we have a need to re-educate ourselves on this beautiful symbol. It must be a priority for the Order to continue to develop new catechetical materials on the scapular.

Many Carmelites find Mary and prayers and devotions such as the Rosary tremendous helps in their spiritual life. And the Order encourages us in this devotion. These devotional prayers never replace the Prayer of the Church, that is, the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, though the individual Lay Carmelite may decide from time to time, even with some frequency, to substitute the Rosary for the private recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. The Lay Carmelite community, like the friars and the nuns when they gather in prayer, always focuses on the Liturgy of the Hours which it prays as part of the official Prayer of the Church. This praying the Liturgy of the Hours is one of the signs of the unity of the Carmelite with the universal Church. It is our goal, and our hope, and our ambition, that the Liturgy of the Hours will be part of the prayer life for each and every Carmelite in their private life and also part of the meeting of each and every Lay Carmelite community. Similarly, while Carmelites are always prepared to honour the Mother of God we do so, as we normally do all our prayer, in the solitude of our cells. Carmelites may occasionally go on a pilgrimage but it is not our spirituality to go running from site to site in search of miracles and signs. We have the only sign that we need and that is the sign of Jonah. We find our joy in contemplating the mystery that just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights, so was the Son of Man in the belly of the earth, in the grave, until he was raised. And while the opportunity to visit Lourdes or Fatima or other approved shrines can be a source of tremendous grace, the Carmelite doesn’t feel the need or the inspiration to chase Mary from site to site of approved or alleged apparitions. Furthermore we always follow the authority of the Church which alone approves or can disapprove of an apparition. If you want to honour Mary then listen to her Son and put his teaching into practice in your lives.


As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."