The Carmelite Order has always claimed ‘spiritual descent’ from the great prophet of Israel, Elijah. In early Christianity a large number of hermits and ascetics gathered in caves by the hillside around Mount Carmel in Palestine, the better to observe the purity of the Gospel teachings. These were the original Carmelites, a loose organization of monasteries.
In the 13th century, political tensions between the Turks and the Christians in Palestine compelled the Carmelites to flee to safer countries. As legend has it, the abbot of the Carmelites, Simon Stock, an English monk, prayed for the protection and help of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 1251, Simon received an apparition of Our Lady, who gave him a brown scapular and told him that all who wore it would receive her particular care. Thus was born the practice of wearing the scapular, and the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was introduced into the calendar.
Since that time too, the Carmelites changed from a solitary to a community life, under the leadership of Simon Stock and his successors. They were at the beginning contemplative, but today they embrace the apostolic ministry as well, for men and for women. The big names in the Carmelite tradition are Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, both Spaniards and contemporaries of each other, who undertook – with much suffering – a reform of the Carmelite Order. The mystical writings of these two saints are classics in the spiritual life, as inspiring today as four centuries ago when they were first written.