No one can say with any certainty how long there has been a congregation of religious brothers living on Mt Carmel, the great edifice that looks down toward Nazareth on the plain from one direction, and the Mediterranean Sea to another. Nor do they have a named founder. They have been recognized since the twelfth century AD, but were probably there more than one hundred years earlier. Some scholars suggest there has been a group of hermits on the mountain ever since Elijah’s confrontation with the followers of Baal. A spiritual residence on Mt Carmel was written about by Ancient Greeks, and Pythagoras is believed to have spent time there.
By the thirteenth century a group used the name Brothers of Our Lady of Mt Carmel. Their expression was one of deep devotion to the Blessed Mother: Mary is the example of Christ’s Divine love and how to live in the human family. The order is mendicant, that is, that they survive on Christian donations, at times through begging. There was definitely a church dedicated to Mary on the mountain built in the thirteenth century, but some archaeologists and historians have pointed to a much earlier date, at least for the construction of an altar. At the top of the mountain, one can visualize the altar erected by Elijah. Earlier historians believed St Helena, the great church builder and mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, had a worship space consructed on the mountain. There is even evidence that some building on Mt Carmel was dedicated to Mary prior to her Assumption into heaven, and it is clear that this is one of the first sights of the new Christian faith to commemorate the Mother of Jesus.
The order of Carmelites spread from the mountain into Europe. There, some of the greatest saints and Doctors of the Church refined and redirected the order. They include Teresa of Avila, who mastered prayer and developed it within the order, which by then included Carmelite nuns. St John of the Cross wrote “The Ascent of Mt Carmel,” apparently in response to the deprivation he experienced in a church prison, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” John and Teresa united to bring a respect and understanding of the Order of Our Lady of Mt Carmel that had never been there before. However, the most involving exploit of a holy person has been wrapped in mystery and controversy and took place far away from Mt Carmel.
On July 16, 1251 the Blessed Virgin was said to have appeared to Simon Stock in Cambridge, England. The word ‘stock’ comes from Olde English and is a sort of slang for a tree trunk. Simon was so named because of a legend that he became a hermit at the age of twelve and lived in the trunk on an ancient oak. The young man was educated extensively in Rome and at Mt Carmel, where he became a preacher. He might never have left the mountain had Muslims not secured the territory for a time and expelled all Christians. Once he made his way to England, he took the vows of a Carmelite, remained devoted to Mary, and in his 80s became the sixth superior general of the Carmelites. During his leadership, the order spread throughout Europe, and Simon converted the assembly to friars rather than hermits and they began to live a more organized monastic life.
Despite the growth of the order, they had enemies including much of the ‘organized’ European clergy. Not all saw them as a legitimate religious order, and they were even accused of lacking Christian beliefs. In some cases, their Marian devotion was seen as a little over the top. It was amidst this turmoil that the Blessed Mother is believed to have appeared to Simon and presented him with a brown scapular, made in the image of her own clothing. She told him that anyone in the order who wore the scapular in reverence and prayer would have her protection from sin and death. Even though the brown scapular has become the symbol of the Carmelites, its protection has been extended to all those who wear the emblem in faith. This was not the first or last scapular introduced to faithful Christians, and the word itself actually comes from the name of a monk’s shoulder-covering cloak.
Simon Stock expanded the Order of Our Lady of Mt Carmel greatly. Even though he enhanced the faith and the tradition of Marian devotion, he has never been canonized a saint. That is in part to the controversy surrounding how or if Simon came into possession of the scapular from the hands of the Blessed Mother. Even though he is not sainted, Simon Stock is recognized as a patron to the Carmelites and is celebrated by them on May 16, the date of his death in France.
Originally, July 16 was celebrated as a feast day for the Scapular of Mt Carmel, but it has always been a day to remember the prayerful, penitential Mother of Jesus, her example to Carmelites and to all the faithful. It is not so much a memorial of an apparition of Mary as it is a recalling of her tremendous example to those who chose to live a Christian lifestyle whether they are Carmelite or laity, praying a rosary or celebrating a Mass. It is in a way, a recollection of God’s goodness and his gift of tolerance to humankind. It is a day of inspiration and reflection on what Christian values really are.