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Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Written by Charles Haggerty, O.Carm.

We often hear and read the title of the Carmelite Order. Here we wish to explain it and show its significance and appropri­ateness. But that we might best understand it, we will have to consider it according to the mind of the people of the Middle Ages. For it was during the Middle Ages that the Order was forced to defend not only its title, but its very existence.

The Title and its Origin

“In any official documents, let the Brethren sign themselves not merely Carmelites, but rather Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. “This is the official title of our Order. As to where and how it originated we can say little with certainty, since our first records do not appear until after the time of the ecclesiastical approbation of the Order between 1206 and 1214.

According to tradition, its origin is connected with an ancient oratory dedicated to Our Lady on Mount Carmel. Our Constitutions of the thirteenth century and the lessons in the Office of the Solemn Com­memoration of Our Lady speak of this fact in the same manner. “The hermits, urged by an extraordinary affection for the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, began to cultivate a great devotion to her. Thus they constructed a little oratory to her honor on Mount Carmel. There they gathered often during the day to express their devotion to the Blessed Virgin in prayers, ceremonies, and pious praises. Hence they were called by the people, Brothers of the Blessed Mary of Mount Carmel. “

We know definitely that in the Middle Ages there was an oratory on Mount Carmel dedicated to Our Lady, for the Crusaders refer to it in their writings, calling it the Church of the Blessed Virgin on Carmel and the Monastery of Holy Mary of Carmel. We do not know when it was built. In a fifth century letter of St. Cyril there is a reference to Aymeric, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, which says that “in honor of Mary, the Mother of God, he wished to build a monastery surrounded by a high wall so as to unite the brethren; but before the work was finished, Our Lord had taken him from this world. “In an itinerary of 1225, The City of Jerusalem, we read: “There was on Mount Carmel a mon­astery of St. Margaret for the Greek monks. “About this same time we see mention of a title similar to that which we now have. Pope Gregory IX, in a Papal Bull to the Order, calls us “Hermits of Holy Mary of Carmel. “And twenty years later, in 1247, Innocent IV refers to us as Brothers of the Order of Blessed Mary of Mount Carmel.

These are the earliest documents we have concerning our title and the reason for its origin; and from these documents it does not seem possible to say that the title was chosen by the members of the Order themselves, for we have no mention of a title in our Rule, nor does it appear in our Constitutions till the year 1294. The most probable explanation, and the one that fits the facts, is that the title arose from popular usage among the people, primarily because of our devotion to Our Lady; secondly, because of the oratory dedicated to her on Mount Carmel; and thirdly, to distinguish us from the Greek monks, who were also dwelling on Mount Carmel at this time.

Significance of the Title

The people of the Middle Ages were the first to call us the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin. What did this mean to them?

During these times practically everyone belonged to a religious Order, a guild, or some confraternity, each of which had their own title and patron, and whose feasts were celebrated with great solemnity. A title was something of an honor. It marked a man as a member of a certain society, and gave him a place of precedence in all church func­tions. The more eminent the title, the higher was one’s position. And so, when the Carmelites appeared with the title of Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the question became: were we worthy to bear the name of the Mother of God, or did we use it only to find greater favor among the people?

In order to decide this question, a public debate was held at the University of Cambridge in 1347, with a board of judges presiding. Here the Carmelites defended their title against the Dominicans, basing it upon the Marian tradition of the Order. The court handed down a decision in our favor, but still the controversy continued. It was not until later in that same year that the matter was settled when, during a public procession of religious and laity, a statue of Our Lady pointed towards the Carmelites and said: “Behold my brethren. Behold my brethren, the chosen ones.”

This whole controversy occurred because a title described, in brief, the very essence of one’s way of life. It gave some knowledge, not com­plete and perfect knowledge but at least an idea, of the life one led. As those who called themselves Franciscans and Dominicans were leading a life based upon these saints, so too the Carmelites, because of their title, were supposed to be leading a life based upon Our Lady. Thus, when our title was challenged, we were forced to defend, not merely the name by which we were known, but the whole spirit and Marian character of our Order. For our title signified that the Order of Carmel is dedicated and consecrated in a special manner to the Blessed Virgin.

But are we worthy of the name of Mary? In other words, is our life modeled upon that of Mary? Is our Order what its title claims it to be?

Appropriateness of the Title

In article three of our Constitutions we read: “Our Order is emi­nently Marian, and among other religious Orders which proclaim a special devotion to Mary, the Carmelite Order is proclaimed by the faithful everywhere to be characteristically Marian. “Then we are told why: “because of the many wonders, favors and signs of protection which Our Lady has shown towards the Order. “This reason is good, but it shows us only Our Lady’s part in the dedication of the Order to her. If we truly have a right to this title, then we must show that the spirit and essence of the Order itself pertains to Mary. And there is proof of this, firstly in our external devotion to Mary, and secondly in the internal devotion of the Order to her.

By external devotion we do not mean die devotion of individual members of the Order, but the Order as a whole, something which we can see and notice everywhere.               1 ,

The first factor which shows this external devotion are our churches. Our first church, the oratory on Mount Carmel, was dedicated to Our Lady. As we pointed out, this was also one of the reasons why we were called her Brothers. Our earliest foundations in the West were named after the Blessed Virgin: Our Lady of the Assumption in Aylesford, England (1248), Carmine Maggiore in Naples, Italy (1270). And to this day we are still dedicating churches to her, especially under the title Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Another external sign of dedication to. Our Lady is our liturgy. Here we are more fortunate than other Marian Orders. According to the Carmelite rite we recite the Salve Regina many times during the day—in the Sacrifice of the Mass, and after each of the- hours of the Divine Office. Once a week we offer a votive Mass in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and we celebrate many feasts of Our Lady which are not in the Roman Calendar.

And a third sign of external devotion to Our Lady is to be clothed in her garments. The Carmelite Order wears her habit, the Brown Scapular, approved by Our Lady herself in her vision to St. Simon Stock.

However, the two most important factors which determine the spirit of our Order or any Order pertain to the internal devotion of the Order, namely its purpose and its way of life.

Considering first our way of life: is it Marian? For this we need only to look to our profession ceremony. It shows us what we profess ourselves to be. “I make my profession and promise obedience, poverty- and chastity to God and to the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. “The reference here to Our Lady first appears in our Constitutions for the year 1281, and our early Carmelite authors tell us it is a formula which has been used in the Order from time immemorial. We do not know exactly when its usage began, but we do know the origin of the ceremony itself.

It goes back to the times prior to the Middle Ages, when there existed, in general, only two societies—the military and the clerical. In these times the plebs or common people had no guarantee of protection or sustenance, and to overcome this deficiency they pledged themselves to military or clerical service by a ceremony or rite of profession like to that used in religious professions today. The servant, kneeling, placed his hands in those of his lawful superior and dedicated his life to whatever service that superior belonged, civil or religious. This was not a temporary agreement, but perpetual: the servant gave his life till death. Today a servant works only a few hours a day for his master. But by this rite of profession, the plebs became a subject of the superior, living for him alone, and receiving in return both protection and sustenance.

When confraternities and religious Orders sprang up later, in the Middle Ages, they adopted this form of profession. Basically it was the same as that made previously by servants, but it was raised to a spiritual level. It is still in use today, and by it Carmelites give their whole life to God and the Blessed Virgin Mary; we model our lives on theirs and receive in return protection and sustenance in the physical and spiritual realm.

Many people offer up their prayers and good works for the honor and glory of Mary, but they do it as individuals. We do it as members of an Order. Therefore in that Order we must find the means that will help us to attain the end which the Order professes, namely, to be truly the Brothers of Our Lady.

Purpose of the Order

The question we must ask here is, was the Carmelite Order founded in honor of Mary? In our Rule there is nothing said about Mary. And the Rule was written for us according to a way of life already being led by the hermits of Mount Carmel: “since you request of us to give you a Rule of life adapted to your purpose... “(Prologue to the Rule).

With regard to this question we can never be sure, but we do know that less than a hundred years after we received our Rule, the members of the Order were quite definite about it. In the letters of Peter Aemi- lianus, Prior General, written to Edward, King of England, it says: “our Order was founded for the honor and glory of the Blessed Virgin.” In the General Chapter of Montpellier it was declared that our Order was founded in honor of Mary the Mother of Jesus. And the same opinion is found written in the Papal Bulls of Clement V. Jonn Baconthorpe (d. 1348) wrote three works in defense of the Marian purpose of the Order from the time of its origin. If, therefore, the Carmelite Order was not founded for the express purpose of honoring Mary, it very shortly recognized this purpose, for our Order, like all Orders, is a living thing and needs development both physically and spiritually.

In conclusion we can say that the Carmelite Order, called by the people of the Middle Ages Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, deserved this title and still deserves it today, for “our Order is an eminently Marian Order. And among other religious Orders which proclaim devotion to the Blessed Virgin, the Carmelite Order is proclaimed by the faithful everywhere to be characteristically Marian. “

Charles Haggerty, O. Carm.

Only by fidelity in the small things can we ever hope to be able to do anything great: Well done, good and faithful servant; because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I -will place thee over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.