Thursday, August 13, 2009

Mary: our mother, our model, our guide

"In the history of the Church, the Order of Carmel has come to be known for its dedication to a life of prayer and to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. From its very earliest days near the end of the twelfth century, the hermits who gathered together on Mount Carmel to lead a life of prayer built in the midst of their cells a small chapel dedicated to Mary. Soon they became known as "The Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel," and that little chapel became the focal point of their daily existence.

As the Order migrated to Europe and adopted a life-style similar to that of the mendicant friars, on more than one occasion the Carmelites successfully defended their right to be known as the "Brothers of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel." In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in the writings of Carmelites, we find many statements to the effect that the Order was founded to honor and serve Our Lady. While some would question the historical precision of such statements, still the fact remains that the earliest hermits did dedicate their chapel to Mary and that there developed a growing awareness that Mary was in truth the patroness of the Order.

While Carmelites gathered together for "a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ" (in obsequio Jesu Christi, according to the Rule given them by Albert of Jerusalem), they looked to Mary as their model and guide in this gift of their lives to the service of Christ and his church. Wherever a Carmel came into existence, it was almost always with a church dedicated to Mary under the title of her Annunciation, Immaculate Conception, or Assumption.

Because of Mary's patronage of the Order, Carmelites looked upon themselves as belonging totally to her; likewise Mary their patroness and Mother belonged in a very special way to the Order of Carmel and to each of its members. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it was Mary the Most Pure Virgin who became the focus of Carmel's Marian devotion. What was stressed was not so much Mary's bodily chastity as her purity of heart and total dedication to God.

This understanding of devotion to Mary was in complete accord with Carmel's contemplative ideal, as clearly expressed in the famous work known as The Institution of the First Monks, which speaks of the goal of Carmelite life in the following terms:

In regard to that life we may distinguish two aims, the one of which we may attain to, with the help of God's grace, by our own efforts and by virtuous living. This is to offer to God a heart holy and pure from all actual stain of sin. The second aim of this life is something that can be bestowed upon us only by God's bounty, namely to taste in our hearts and experience in our minds, not only after death but even during this mortal life, some thing of the power of the divine presence, and the bliss of heavenly glory.

This work and the consequent spirituality that it engendered had a tremendous influence, centering Carmelite spirituality on Mary as the model, personification, and embodiment of its contemplative ideal. The goal and the ideal of Mary's life came to be seen as the goal and ideal of the life of every Carmelite. While Albert's Rule for the Carmelites does not mention Mary by name, it does call all Carmelites to a continual meditation and living assimilation of the word of God, "pondering the Law of the Lord day and night." Carmelites were quick to realize that no one ever heard or kept that divine word better than did their Patroness and Mother, Mary.

It should also noted that during this same period Mary the Most Pure Virgin became increasingly known as Mary, the sister of each and every Carmelite. The Order had always been known as the Brothers of our Lady of Mount Carmel, but now a deeper consciousness emerged of what that title meant. Mary our Patroness, Mary our Mother, is also our Sister. Our very home is her home, and the habit we wear unites us in a most intimate way to her. Carmelites began to appreciate as never before that Mary is not just above and beyond us in so many ways, but is also one with us. She is our sister, and as our sister she is with us always and everywhere."

-- Mary and the Holy Spirit in the writings of John of the Cross by Fr Emmanuel J Sullivan, ocd

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