The memorial of a miraculous appearance of the Blessed Mother Mary of Mt Carmel in Israel that took place in England, and the evidence of that visit, a brown scapular, are recalled on July 16 annually throughout most dioceses in the United States including the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. The Church calendar actually lists this date as an optional memorial, and there has always been some controversy regarding the celebration and the event itself. The great mountain has always played a part in biblical history.
In the Old Testament and into Jesus’ time, Samaria, home of the Samaritans, was a buffer zone between Galilee and Judea, where the ‘real’ Jews lived. When the Assyrians conquered the ten tribes that comprised the state of Israel, including their capital city Samaria (721BC), they created what is known as the ten lost tribes. Jews were rounded up and displaced throughout the Middle East, and people from other lands were moved in to what had been Israel. Ten of the twelve tribes of the Jewish people were gone permanently, and the state of Israel never existed again until modern times.
What separated Samaria from Galilee was a mountain range called ‘Carmel’ (Hakkarmel in Hebrew). This is one of the places conquered by the great warrior in the Book of Joshua, which tells how the Jews came to possess the promised land of Canaan in the first place. The name means ‘park’ or ‘garden,’ depending on whose doing the translation, and the geography stands out even today for its beauty and fertility. Mt Carmel is on the Mediterranean coast of Israel, the westernmost extension of the range, and is very different from the flat coastal lands that surround it. Saul, the first Israeli king, built a monument to himself there.
Mt Carmel is also the place where the prophet Elijah defeated the followers of Baal. The pagans essentially bet the prophet that their god would descend to an altar and light a fire. After a day long ritual and self-sacrificing, nothing happened. Elijah rebuilt the altar marking the twelve tribes of Judah with stones. He called on God to light the fire. The Lord ignited the holocaust and consumed everything down to the dust and water on the ground. The people bowed down to God, and the pagan worshippers were rounded up and killed (1 Kings 18).
The thirty-fifth chapter of Isaiah provided reassurance to the Judeans who had been taken captive and held in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, who had destroyed the temple and the city of Jerusalem. The prophet told them, they would return to their homeland and all would be beautiful and wonderful once again, including the gardens of Mt Carmel and Sharon. This was once a select wine producing region, and remnants of vineyards and presses are still visible.
Somehow, the area has been able to maintain its unique beauty throughout history. The high walls of the mountain provided a difficult pass for travelers or armies in the Old Testament days and still prove to be hazardous trade routes. Mt Carmel in modern Israel is essentially the town of Haifa, which looks over the bay of the same name and creates one side of that inlet. Although the relevance of Mt Carmel in the Hebrew books is obvious, it seems to have lost the attention in the New Testament. Surely, Paul and the apostles were well aware of it as a seaport, but there is no specific mention of Jesus journeying to this location.
The lush, decorative gardens are still there today, and provide an eye-opening tourist attraction. Many of them are maintained by members of the Bahá’í Faith, one of the different religions that call the region home. The Hanging Gardens of Haifa are an example of their creative endeavor. They were originally designed by an Iranian in 1987, and he was present in Israel to oversee their development. These terraces link the Bahá’í compound and spread over more than 200,000 square meters of land.
In the descending plain beneath Haifa is Acre (Akko), another city of great importance to Bahá’í. Their faith was founded in Persia in 1844, and was delivered in this city by a man named Bahá’ú’lláh. There, the memorial gardens exceed even the magnificence at Haifa. As if to prove their spiritual leader’s teaching in the oneness of all religion, there seems to be no stereotype of the Bahá’ís. They are of no particular race, nor culture or tradition. They don’t have a particular place of national origin and they live virtually everywhere in the world, numbering more than five million.
Another group that lives on Mt Carmel is the Druze (Druse). This community came into existence during the tenth century probably originating in Egypt. The first known Druze settlement was in the area of the modern day border between Lebanon and Israel. Their faith is a blending of Islam with Ancient Greek philosophy and Eastern religions. Although they are of Arab descent and speak Arabic, they occupy a unique and distinct role in Israel, including defense of the state. Needless to say, this has often caused friction with their Arab brothers of the Islamic faith.
Naturally these are not the only religions in the region of the Jewish state, but the area of Mt Carmel seems to be a cooperative effort by all the people, Christian, Jewish, Druze, Bahá’í, Muslim among them to live under one God and a positive belief that we are not all that different from each other.
Although their appearance didn’t come until later, the Carmelites, the Order of Our Lady of Mt Carmel, almost seemed like a religion unto themselves, and their presence on the great mountain has provoked deep faith and open hostility, belief and disbelief.
To be continued