At least in our part of the world (northeastern New Jersey), there are a lot of churches dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, including my family’s parish. The simplest reason for that is historical. Emigrants from Italy typically boarded ship at Naples (the biggest city in the southwest of Italy). There is a Carmelite monastery and church right on the bay in Naples, with a couple popular images and a tower that can easily be seen as emigrants left the old country behind. With the fear of the journey, many vows were made to this last image of home.
But devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel goes deeper. It reaches, first, to St. Simon Stock, elected general of the Carmelites (1247-65) at their first chapter, in England. Simon Stock is said to have seen a vision of Our Lady, in which she offered him the scapular, the long outer garment of the monastic habit, worn like a long apron over their full-length tunic. (Mary is also said to have appeared to the Dominicans and probably other orders to give them their habits, especially their scapulars.)
In the same thirteenth century (“greatest of centuries”!) a kind of third order arose by which lay people associated themselves with the total consecration of life exemplified by the religious orders. Part of this association was to wear some version of the order’s habits; the small scapular seems to have been one of the thirteenth century approaches.
So Our Lady of Mount Carmel also stands for that scapular, given to the religious orders, and then taken on by the laity. Just as many images of Mary have her handing the rosary to the people, so too does the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel show her handing the small brown scapular to the people.
But to understand this parallel, we need to go a step further back into the history of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Mount Carmel is a range of mountains, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea sort of east-southeast towards Nazareth, in Galilee in the north of Israel. It is a few miles south of Acre, one of the main fortresses and mostly the capital of the Crusaders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
At their best (and they were often not at their best), the Crusades were about pilgrimage. Along the road, pilgrimage is a kind of penitence or repentance, putting one foot in front of the other to signal a turning of one’s whole life toward the Lord. The destination of a pilgrimage signals some connection to Christ’s coming into the world; true penitence turns us toward Christ. That was, of course, most powerfully evident in the pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
And so some of the soldiers and pilgrims settled down to live a life of conversion and union with the Incarnate Lord. Mount Carmel became a central location for this. It was the place of the holy hermit Elijah, and of a great tradition after him. It was relatively safe, because close to Acre. But it was also in the land of Jesus’s home, close to Nazareth.
The Carmelite order began, then, as hermits gathered on Mount Carmel, around a central cave-chapel dedicated, as appropriate for something so close to Nazareth, to the Mother of God: they were the hermits of the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Their habit was a sign of their consecration; their outer garment, their apron or scapular, was a sign of preserving their habit, and their consecration, spotless.
In the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, she wears the habit of Carmel. The connection points both ways. She enters into the consecration of the Carmelites, and they enter into hers. Her habit shows that the true meaning of their consecration is to live in perfect devotion to the mystery of Christ Incarnate. She holds the small scapular out to us as an invitation to join in our consecration.
So too she holds out to the rosary as an invitation to join in her consecration. Like the habit of Carmel, it is meant not just as an external, not an occasional practice, but a total conversion of life, by entering into the intense spirituality and union that is Our Lady’s consecration to Jesus.
How could you better enter into Mary’s consecration to Jesus?