For most of the Catholic world May is considered the month of Mary. As they’ve done for generations, parishes and schools will be holding May Processions and Crownings of the May Queen to honor the Blessed Mother throughout these thirty-one days. Although Mary, along with the Old Testament prophet, Elijah, is considered a spiritual founder of our order, the Carmelite connection to Our Lady has traditionally had a distinctly different feel than the regal pomp generally associated with Mary during May.
I was once at a meeting with a cloistered Carmelite group of nuns where a question was brought to one of them: “Why don’t the Carmelites have a strong devotion to Mary?” The nun’s response was memorable, “It depends on what you mean by devotion,” she said somewhat cheekily. “We don’t look at Mary as someone extraordinarily special; rather, we just look at her as one of the sisters who done good.” In that moment this nun summed up not only the way we see Mary, but also the way that Carmelites see God, and ourselves. Our Carmelite spiritual tradition is certainly mystical but it also deeply familial and relational
The first people to identify as Carmelites were men who settled on Mt. Carmel because it was a safe place for both Western and Eastern Christians who were fleeing the warfare of the Crusades and had originally come to the Holy Land seeking God. All of these people from different backgrounds, geographical locations, and Christian communities were living and praying together. Historians believe that it’s very likely that the Carmelites took on Mary as a spiritual leader because she was a figure who could unite this disparate community of hermit men. They named their first chapel after her.
Then the early Carmelites did something rather unexpected and rather radical. They looked at their official name, “Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel,” and said, “if we are her brothers, she must be our sister.” With that simple line, they moved their understanding and relationship with Mary from the hierarchical/vertical to the familial/horizontal – a radical departure. For example, an early Carmelite, Arnold Bostius, by 1450, could write, “The humble Carmelite can rightfully boast that the Queen of Heaven is his sister.” The Carmelites would never leave this family-like and horizontal understanding of Mary.
St Thérèse of Lisieux once wrote about Mary “She is sometimes described as unapproachable, whereas she should be represented as easy of imitation. She is more Mother than Queen.” Rather than being remote and on high, Our Lady serves as a symbol for our belief in God as friend, as lover, as an intimate spouse. God is here with us and accessible to each of us.
A religious order maintains its health and functionality in much the same way a family does – by striking a balance between interdependence and independence. A family that provides adequate support to each member without smothering them creates solid horizontal relationships that connect all members to each other. That can be a difficult balance to strike. That mutually supportive relationship is one the Carmelites hope to embody with each other and with Mary. It’s through this horizontal relationship with the Blessed Mother that our Carmelite brothers can maintain a strong connection to one another. When we look for God inside ourselves, we have to also look for ourselves in God.
Gregory Houck, O.Carm. is Director of Carmelite Formation at Whitefriars Hall in Washington D.C.