The early Christian monk John Cassian said that a religious habit should be removed from the world’s fashions so to prevent vanity and pride and simple enough to be able to be shared as common property. Later the mendicant movement of the middle ages emphasized the meaning of the habit as penitential, similar to sack cloth and ashes. In addition to these understandings of the habit, the Carmelites have an understanding, special to our charism, which is deeply rooted in our relationship with Elijah, Mary, and the Rule of St. Albert.
The medieval Book of the First Monks, tells a story tracing the spiritual ancestry of the Carmelite Order back to Elijah and his school of prophets. This work draws the meaning of the habit from the biblical wilderness prophets. Elijah is usually depicted in icons wearing a hairy garment, and John the Baptist was clothed in camel hair with a leather belt around his waist. Thus, for Carmelites, the habit represents our spiritual heritage as sons of Elijah.
Mary is also very important to how Carmelites understand their habit. Since the earliest days of the Order, Carmelites have been devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The habit, particularly the scapular, is a symbol of Mary’s special protection and desire to clothe us in Christ. Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is depicted wearing the Carmelite Habit, and the scapular is a symbol of Mary’s desire to clothe us in Christ. Thus, for Carmelites, the habit also represents the privilege of being sons and daughters of Mary.
Finally, the Carmelite Rule of St. Albert represents the habit as symbolic armor that protects us in our spiritual warfare. St. Albert, quoting St. Paul, says “You must use every care to clothe yourselves in God’s armor so that you may be ready to withstand the enemy’s ambush. Your loins are to be girt with chastity, your breast fortified by holy meditations, for as Scripture has it, holy meditation will save you. Put on holiness as your breastplate, and it will enable you to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”