Some pilgrims, coming from the west to the Holy Land, chose Mount Carmel as the place in which to live as hermits in community. They settled near the spring known as ‘Elijah’s spring’, thus continuing a long tradition of monastic and eremitic presence. The memory of the prophet is still alive in this place: the prophet burning with zeal for his God, whose word is a flaming torch; the prophet who stands in God’s presence, ever ready to serve him and to obey his Word; the prophet who points to the true God so that the people may no longer stand with their feet in two camps; the prophet who exhorts his people to choose to focus their existence on God alone; the prophet who is attentive both to the voice of God and to the cry of the poor, who knows how to defend both the rights of the one God and those of God’s beloved ones, the weakest and the last.
Carmelites remember, and in some ways relive, the prophet’s experience. He hid in the desert in times of dryness and faced the challenge of the false prophets of a dead idol, which was incapable of giving life. He journeyed back through the desert to Mount Horeb, to meet the Lord in new and unexpected ways, and to understand that God is present even where he appears to be absent. Carmelites share in Elijah’s thirst for justice and know themselves to be, like Elisha, heirs to the mantle that fell from heaven, from the chariot engulfed in flames.
From Elijah’s spring, the Carmelite hermits set out on the long journey charted by St Albert’s Rule – a path that stretches through time to us. For them, and for those who followed them, Elijah thus became the first to incarnate the ideal of life that had motivated them to leave their homes. They felt themselves to be in some sense his children, heirs to a spiritual heritage which in various ways had been handed down to them. They collected Jewish and Christian tales about Elijah; they reinterpreted them and made them their own. Thus Elijah, who in monastic tradition was already considered the first monk and the model for contemplatives, became for Carmelites the prototype of mystics, and the prophet intent on singing and teaching the praise of God to a community of disciples; the defender of God’s rights, and the champion of the weakest and the least. The Carmelites of those early days, like the Carmelites of today, spoke of Elijah as their “Father” – not in any historical or physical sense, but in view of the values which he represents.