Mary and Elijah: Our Order’s Patron and Father

An ancient Carmelite interpretation of the cloud of pure rain that Elijah saw rising from the salty sea (1 Kings 18:44) is that it prefigured Mary who was born immaculate. This painting of the episode, depicting Elijah in the Carmelite habit, is in Saint Albert’s International Centre in Rome.

The Carmelite Order takes particular inspiration from two Biblical figures we regard as our spiritual patrons: the prophet Elijah, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady. Though not mentioned specifically in our Rule of Saint Albert, various phrases are often understood as referring indirectly to Elijah and Mary.

The first hermits on Mount Carmel were aware that it was a site associated with Elijah, and regarded themselves as sons in a line of prophets. They dedicated their chapel to Mary, and regarded her as ‘The Lady of the Place’.

As the Order grew in medieval Europe, so the role of these ‘foundational figures’ became increasingly important in the Carmelites’ self-understanding and identity. The feudal idea of patronage was a two-way relationship; in exchange for loyal service to a patron, a devotee was assured of his or her protection.

The idea of patronage still exists in modern society. When a group such as a charitable organisation approaches a prominent person to act as their ‘patron’, it gives prestige to the group, and shows the values that the patron approves of.

The 1995 Constitutions of the Carmelite Friars state:

All that we desire and all that we wish to be today was fulfilled in the lives of the Prophet Elijah and of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In their own way, both had “the same spirit … the same formation, and the same teacher – the Holy Spirit.” By looking to Mary and to Elijah, we can more easily understand and internalise, live out and proclaim the truth which makes us free. (§25)

The life of the prophet Elijah is recounted in the Bible’s Books of the Kings.

Elijah and his disciple Elisha, depicted by Naomi Spiers at Westminster Synagogue. We Carmelites regard ourselves as spiritual descendants of Elijah,
‘sons and daughters of the prophets’.

The 1995 Constitutions of the Carmelite Friars summarise the importance of Elijah in Carmelite spirituality today:

In Elijah we see the solitary prophet who nurtured his thirst for the one and only God, and lived in his presence. He is the contemplative, burning with passionate love for the Absolute who is God, “his word flaring like a torch.” He is the mystic who, after a long and wearisome journey, learned to read the new signs of God’s presence. He is the prophet who became involved in the lives of the people, and who, by battling against false idols, brought them back to faithfulness to their Covenant with the One God. He is the prophet who was in solidarity with the poor and the forgotten, and who defended those who endured violence and injustice.

From Elijah, Carmelites learn to be people of the desert, with heart undivided, standing before God and entirely dedicated to his service, uncompromising in the choice to serve God’s cause, aflame with a passionate love for God. Like Elijah, they believe in God and allow themselves to be led by the Spirit and by the Word that has taken root in their hearts, in order to bear witness to the divine presence in the world, allowing God to be truly God in their lives. Finally, in Elijah they see, not only prophetic wisdom, but also brotherhood lived in community; and with Elijah they learn to be channels of God’s tender love for the poor and the humble. (§26)

We are pleased to make available the chapter on Mary from the book Climbing The Mountain: The Carmelite Journey, edited by Johan Bergström-Allen and published by Saint Albert’s Press. To read the chapter (as a PDF file) please click here.

We read of Mary, or ‘Miriam of Nazareth’, in the Gospel accounts. She is the mother of Jesus, and spiritually our mother also.

Mary depicted as the ‘Flower of Carmel’
in a window by Moira Forsyth at Aylesford Priory.


The 1995 Constitutions of the Carmelite Friars summarise the importance of Mary in Carmelite spirituality today:

Mary, overshadowed by the Spirit of God, is the Virgin of a new heart, who gave a human face to the Word made flesh. She is the Virgin of wise and contemplative listening who kept and pondered in her heart the events and the words of the Lord. She is the faithful disciple of wisdom, who sought Jesus – God’s Wisdom – and allowed herself to be formed and moulded by his Spirit, so that in faith she might be conformed to his ways and choices. Thus enlightened, Mary is presented to us as one able to read “the great wonders” which God accomplished in her for the salvation of the humble and of the poor.

Mary was not only the Mother of Our Lord; she also became his perfect disciple, the woman of faith. She followed Jesus, walking with the disciples, sharing their demanding and wearisome journey – a journey which required, above all, fraternal love and mutual service.

At the marriage feast in Cana, Mary taught us to believe in her Son; at the foot of the Cross, she became Mother to all who believe; with them she experiences the joy of the Resurrection. United with the other disciples “in constant prayer,” she received the first gifts of the Spirit, who filled the earliest Christian community with apostolic zeal.

Mary brings the good news of salvation to all men and women. She is the woman who built relationships, not only within the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, but, beyond that, with the people: with Elizabeth, with the bride and bridegroom in Cana, with the other women, and with Jesus’ “brothers”.

Carmelites see in the Virgin Mary, Mother of God and archetype of the Church, the perfect image of all that they want and hope to be. For this reason, Carmelites have always thought of Mary as the Patron of the Order, its Mother and Splendour; she is constantly before their eyes and in their hearts as “the Virgin Most Pure.” Looking to her, and living in spiritual intimacy with her, we learn to stand before God, and with one another, as the Lord’s brothers. Mary lives among us, as mother and sister, attentive to our needs; along with us she waits and hopes, suffers and rejoices.

The scapular is a sign of Mary’s permanent and constant motherly love for Carmelite brothers and sisters. By their devotion to the scapular, faithful to a tradition in the Order, especially since the 16th century, Carmelites express the loving closeness of Mary to the people of God; it is a sign of consecration to Mary, a means of uniting the faithful to the Order, and an effective and popular means of evangelisation. (§28)

We are pleased to make available the chapter on Mary from the book Climbing The Mountain: The Carmelite Journey, edited by Johan Bergström-Allen and published by Saint Albert’s Press. To read the chapter (as a PDF file) please click here.

Other ‘patronal’ figures in Carmel
A long-standing Carmelite tradition refers to St. Joseph, spouse of Mary, as ‘Principal Protector of the Carmelite Order’. Mary’s parents, Saints Anne and Joachim, as regarded as ‘Secondary Protectors of the Carmelite Order’.

The Discalced or Teresian branch of the Carmelite Family reveres Saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross as patrons of their reform.


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