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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

From Caesarea to Carmel

It is at Mt. Carmel where Elijah challenged and defeated the prophets of Ba'al as told in 1 Kings 18:20-46. Inspired by Elijah's zeal and intimacy with the One true God, a group of crusaders and pilgrims became hermits on the mountain with the blessing of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Each hermit lived in a grotto, similar to the one the Church is built over. These men eventually became known as the Carmelites, a religious community with a special gift for prayer, contemplative prayer in particular. They were driven out in 1291, but the community never forgot its connection with Carmel even as it spread through Italy, Spain, England and France. They came back to Carmel in the 19th Century.

Because of their gift for prayer, the Virgin Mary has always been a special patroness of the community. Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is honored in the Stella Maris church. In fact, Stella Maris is an ancient title for Mary. It means "Star of the Sea." It is the experience of each of us individually but also of the Church historically that sometimes we struggle to follow the Lord. This is because the Lord tests our hearts to purify them so that we might see Him face to face. Mary was given the title Star of the Sea with the conviction that just as sailors look to the stars to find their way, Christians can look to Mary, her Scriptural example and maternal concern for each follower of her Son, to find the Lord. The monastary in fact looks out over the ocean on the side of Mt. Carmel. The Church itself is built over the grotto where Elijah is believed to have lived according to tradition. This gift of prayer is also related to Elijah. After confronting the prophets of Ba'al, Elijah despaired of his life. But the Lord nourished him and prepared him for a special encounter on another mountain, Mt. Horeb south of Israel. There, like Moses before him, he experiences a theophany, a manifestation of God's presence. Theophanies have a contemplative character, and this is especially true of Elijah's experience. This kind of prayer is at the heart of his prophetic mission. Carmelites seek a similar life of prayer. "A mighty hurricane split the mountains and shattered Rocks before the Lord. But the Lord was not in the hurricane. And, after the storm, an earthquake. But the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthqake, fire. But the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a light murmuring sound." (1 Kings 19: 11-13)

Contemplative prayer involves two essential moments - it is first of all a listening for the voice of the Lord, an attending to the slightest murmur of the Lord in our hearts. Moses and Elijah are connected to one another by this experience and their mission to Israel that flows from it - namely, to help Israel know the Lord. To achieve this kind of attentiveness to the Lord, a secondary moment is necessary, a moment of struggling for and suffering the truth. In this moment, every falsehood and fantasy must be put to death. It is a matter of on going repentance - that is thinking with the mind of God rather than clinging to a merely human perspective. Ba'alism represents a religion based in fantasy and convenient falsehoods. It provided a sort of social order by providing a kind of myth that helped everyone relate to one another. This kind of religion, however, is ultimately degrading. Human dignity requires the truth. Only the truth raises the dignity of the human person and makes it possible to hear the voice of God. In other words, to listen to the voice of the Lord requires a spiritual battle, a fight against evil that can be exhausting. But in this fight, if we are faithful to the end, the Lord provides us the nourishment we need and blesses us with a special gift of friendship with Him.

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