When the first Carmelites came together on Mount Carmel some 800 years ago, they were embarking on a new quest. They were seeking the presence of God by contemplating deeply the Scriptures along with their own experiences. In this quest for God, they came to see the Blessed Virgin Mary as their preeminent guide. The earliest Carmelites were attentive to the scripture passage that described Mary as keeping “all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” And also, “his mother kept all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:19, 51) Contemplation is this act of reflecting interiorly on the things that surround us, the activities we engage in along with the light that we gain from the Scriptures. The early Carmelites recognized, then, that in order to grow in prayer and contemplation, they needed to follow the example and guidance of Mary.
Mary is also described in the Scriptures as the person most attuned to doing God's will, after her Son, of course. Confronted with the call to serve God's plan, she replied, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) When she asked her Son to help a wedding couple embarrassed by the lack of wine, and he seemed to rebuff her at first, she immediately told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) Those simple words embody her own approach to the spiritual life, doing whatever the Lord God asks of her. The early Carmelites, then, took Mary as their example of living and acting in accordance with the will of God. She is seen by them as a woman of action.
Since Carmelite spirituality is so often identified with the silent life of interior prayer, it may seem strange to refer to Mary as a woman of action. The true fruit of deep authentic prayer is the desire to love others more. The early Carmelites spent much time in silent reflection of the Scriptures and so realized that at the heart of the mystery of God is a love that reaches out to help other people. Then they saw Mary acting the same way: out of love and concern for the good of other people. She became for them the model of both, intense prayer and loving action.
When a person comes to formation in the Carmelite Order today, he or she is asked to begin by gazing on the image of Mary that is found in the Gospels. The young Carmelite is asked to take on Mary as the model for life. Mary teaches us to reflect on the events of the days, the experiences we go through and signs of the times, all the while seeking the deeper presence of God in everything. She also teaches us to go out and “do whatever he tells you.” Moved by the love and compassion of Jesus, we are to respond with deeds of mercy and forgiveness. We are to bandage wounds and give hope even in the face of death. We are to work for what would promote true justice and peace.
The Constitutions of the Carmelites have this to say about Mary, “Mary is the Virgin of wise and contemplative listening who kept and pondered in her heart the events and the words of the Lord. She is the faithful disciple of wisdom, who sought Jesus God’s Wisdom and allowed herself to be formed and molded by his Spirit, so that in faith she might be conformed to his ways and choices.” The Constitutions go on to say, “Carmelites see in the Virgin Mary, Mother of God and archetype of the Church, the perfect image of all that they want and hope to be. For this reason, Carmelites have always thought of Mary as the Patron of the Order, its Mother and Splendor; she is constantly before their eyes and in their hearts as the Virgin Most Pure.” (Article 27)
Those who seek to learn the Carmelite life are asked to keep Mary before their eyes and hearts as the perfect image of the Carmelite: prayerful, contemplative, yet eager to help other people in their daily burdens. She gives to those who come to her not only the protection of her prayers, as she prays for all the Church, but also the support of a good model, a good guide, to the deepest parts of the Christian life. She is the Perfect Image of all that we hope to be in Christ Jesus.