What is Carmelite life? One possible definition comes from the formula of profession for the Discalced Carmelite Friars: life with Mary in allegiance to Jesus Christ. Our Lady plays a central role in the life of a Carmelite. The official name of the order puts Mary at the center: the Discalced Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The patronage of Our Lady of Mount Carmel came into existence when the first hermits on Mount Carmel dedicated their shared chapel to Our Lady. In the early thirteenth century, pilgrims traveling in the Holy Land came to hear about the Oratory of Our Lady on Mount Carmel and the hermits who lived there. Having been made the patroness of their oratory, Our Lady had a pivotal role in bringing the hermits together each day for participation in the Mass. Both spiritually and practically, Mary brings her Carmelite brothers and sisters to her son in the Blessed Sacrament. Since the Mass is the representation of the Lord’s sacrifice on Calvary, Our Lady brings her Carmelite brothers and sisters to the foot of the cross.
Mary’s patronage of the Carmelite Order was strengthened a generation later when St. Simon Stock received Our Lady’s promise when he was clothed in the brown scapular. Suffering the fluctuations of their move from eremitical life on Mount Carmel to mendicant life in Europe, the transplanted Carmelites were unsure of their future. Our Lady would not disappoint in her role as the patroness of these men, and therefore gave St. Simon a pledge of her protection in the form of her garment. Lay devotion to this garment followed, and soon people all over Europe were wearing pieces of the brown habits of the Carmelites.
Five-hundred years later in 1794, the Discalced Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne offered their lives to Jesus through Our Lady for the end of the Reign of Terror. On July 16, the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the imprisoned nuns decided to make themselves an offering for the peace of France. They were charged and executed the very next day. Approaching the guillotine dressed in the brown scapular, they chanted hymns to Our Lady, renewed their vows, and prepared to meet their Spouse. By entrusting their offering to the mother of their Spouse, the martyrs demonstrated the special way that Our Lady intercedes for us to her son.
Just as at the wedding of Cana, when Mary presents the failure of wine to Jesus, she presents our needs to him as well. However, her words do not end with the statement of the problem. Rather, she further instructs the servants to “do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) In the same way, she instructs us to remain faithful to her son’s words in return for the pledge of her patronage. It is especially appropriate that the first public intercession of Our Lady occurred at a wedding. Mary remembered God’s promise to be the Bridegroom of his chosen people, and recognized the occasion apropos of the beginning of her son’s miraculous signs. As spouse of the Holy Spirit, Mary understands the extent to which her son transforms lives. This transformation is like water becoming wine, or two becoming one.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, where those not clothed in their wedding garments will be tossed out: “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Mt 22:14). Later, he tells us that the kingdom is like five wise maidens who were ready to meet their bridegroom for the marriage feast: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13). These instructions parallel nicely with Our Lady’s command to “do whatever he tells you.” The Rule of St. Albert, the particular law of the Carmelite Order, instructs its members to ponder “the Lord’s law day and night and keep watch at his prayers.”(Rule of St. Albert, “Continual Prayer”) And like the five wise maidens, Carmelites seek to be found by “our Lord, [who] at his second coming, will reward anyone who does more than he is obliged to do.” (Rule of St. Albert, “Epilogue”)
As the patroness of Carmel, Mary intercedes on behalf of those who seek to keep their lamps trimmed and pray continually on watch for the Lord’s coming. In giving us the brown scapular, she gives us a visible wedding garment with which we can be found clothed while keeping our watch in prayer. But not only does she provide us a wedding garment, she provides us her own wedding garment. The proper Gospel reading for the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is John’s account of Mary at the foot of the cross. Many scholars of John’s Gospel point to this passage as the pivotal climax of John’s narrative. This is what John refers to as the hour of Jesus’ glory. It is his wedding feast. Mary and John represent the wise virgins who prepared themselves for the marriage banquet and in this moment receive the Lord’s instruction. “Do whatever he tells you,” Mary reminds John. “Behold your mother,” Jesus instructs John. The cross represents the wedding of Jesus the Bridegroom to the Church figured in the persons of Mary and John. The Latin Vulgate translation of this Gospel makes this meaning especially clear in the last words spoken by Jesus on the cross: “Consummatum est,” or “it is consummated” in English.
Just as Jesus ascended the cross on his wedding day, the nuns of Compiègne mounted the scaffold dressed in their wedding garments to meet their Spouse. Similarly, those of us who wear the brown scapular are brought by Our Lady to the foot of the cross to meet our Bridegroom in the representation of Calvary at Mass. Furthermore, by giving us her own wedding garment, Mary promises to preserve our own wedding garments by interceding for us in our perseverance in the state of grace. On this feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, let yourself be led to the foot of the cross to meet your Bridegroom. Wear the brown scapular devoutly as a visible reminder of Our Lady’s words: “do whatever he tells you.”