Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches. I


Lecture (English)


In the Spirit and Strength of Elias


Mount Carmel, Retreat of Contemplative Life, Characterized in Elias

As in daily life, so also in spiritual life, it is of the greatest importance to have a model of inspiration, an exemplar for imitation. Carmelite spirituality has such a model.

The Carmelite Order derives its name from the holy mountain of its beginning. In that Eastern land where every mountain has its own great memories Mount Carmel has some of the most holy. Carmel is a name which is familiar in every part of the Catholic world; it is intimately known as no other, and its natural beauty seems to be exactly in keeping with its gracious associations. Its quiet outline may be seen rising above the waters of the Mediterranean and from its summit one may see the great plain of Esdraelon stretching away into the distance, where the contemplative soul looks down on the mystery of Nazareth.

Carmel is the natural retreat of the contemplative, and it is not unfitting that on its slopes should stand the Cloister of Carmel, the cradle of the Order. It stands above the turmoil of life, above the world’s stormy sea; its solitude is beyond the reach of ‘life’s fitful fever’; it is wrapped in the peace of God. Such a peace we naturally associate with Carmel, but it has other associations more stirring and more turbulent. The memory of the [8] great spiritual warfare of Elias still clings to it. It was here he gathered together all Israel and flung reproach at their heads. “How long do you halt between two sides? If the Lord be God, follow Him.” Here Israel heard his challenge in words of flame, as a burning torch. But here he was more than the Prophet of the sword, here he was also the first of a long line of those who would worship God in spirit and in truth. In his lifetime disciples gathered round him and learned from him the deep secrets of his prayer and communion with God. His double spirit passed to Eliseus, and from him to the school of Prophets, and so down through the ages, the life of Elias has been continued in these hermits who ever sought inspiration in their great Exemplar.

When Europe was full of the battle cry of the Crusaders, “God wills it”, and the Crusaders set out to recapture the holy places, Carmel was one of the first places to be won back. There they found the ruins of the old sanctuaries, and we are told some of them remained to restore the old life. From the narrative of John Phocas, a Greek monk, 1177, we know that one of the Crusaders of the West, St. Berthold, was instructed by the holy Prophet to collect together on Mount Carmel, those who were living the hermitical life there, and to unite them in community life; the year may be 1155. So the Prophet stands at the Order’s beginning. For proof of this we rely not so much on historical research, as on the fact that his memory and life have left their stamp upon the Order’s life. He has ever been the Order’s great exemplar. Indeed, so permanent has been his influence that St. Jerome calls him “the father of all the hermits and monks”. In his epistle to Paulinus (Ep. 58: Ed. Migne, Pl. t. 22, p.583), he makes reference to Elias, Noster princeps Elias, nostri duces, filii Prophetarum. Likewise, Cassian in his Conferences points to him as the [9] great example of all monks. Similarly the testimony of Phocas, already mentioned, is completed by that of James de Vitry who was Bishop of Jean d’Acre, and well known to the hermits. It was written in 1221. He tells us that many Crusaders remained in the Holy Land for the sake of their devotion, to sacrifice their lives to God in places sanctified by His life. Some of those, he says, after the example of the Prophet Elias, dwelt in the caves of Carmel near the fountain of the Prophet and the sanctuary of Saint Margarita. Is it not providential that the first monks of the Order of Carmel, symbolizing the imitation of Elias, drank the water from the fountain that bears his name?

Also we may mention here an old manuscript, the lnstitutio Primorum Monachorum, which contains the oldest traditions of the Order. It was probably written late in the 13th or at the beginning of the 14th century after the dispersion of the monks to the West, but was formerly ascribed to a much earlier date. It is a record of traditions much older than itself, and was meant to be a definite and permanent guide for monks. In it we read that the guidance which the Holy Ghost gave to Elias and the promises made to him, must be the guiding principles in the life of the hermits on Carmel. The monastic life must follow the lines indicated by his life and experience. It must reflect his double spirit, the life of activity and the exercise of virtue in individual or social activity. This double spirit has a three-fold sense.

Double Spirit

The first is the double portion of the inheritance of the Father, the portion of the first-born son, the portion of the privileged children. The Carmelites are the privileged children of the great prophet and [10] ask from him the portion of the primogenitus. But only he who has the intention of maintaining the noble traditions of the house may ask this privileged portion. If we ask his double spirit in this sense, we have to be his first sons and to follow him as well as possible.

Another sense is given to this double spirit: namely, the marvelous mixture of contemplative and active life in the great prophet. He was, above all, the great contemplative, but God called him many times from his contemplation to the active life and his place in the history of Israel is as one of its most untiring laborers. Abiit autem inde in montem Carmeli. He always returned to the solitude of the life of contemplation. So the Carmelites must be contemplatives, who from their active life always return to the contemplative as to the higher and better part of their vocation.

However, the double spirit of the prophet is spoken of in a third sense as the harmonious union of the human exercise of virtue and the divine infusion of mystical life; the union of the via purgativa and illuminativa with the via unitiva. It is in this third sense that the old institution of the Order has taken the double spirit of Elias and this double spirit we must ask from Heaven. Our institution must reflect his double spirit; the life of the exercise of virtue in individual or social activity, founded on a life of prayer, and the life of continual practise of meditation, crowned by active contemplation or prayer of simplicity and that other spirit unspeakably more exalted: the mystical, real experience of God, even in this life. It must be the union of active and passive contemplation, the union of human endeavor and the infusion of the mystical life by God. Our sufferings and sacrifices, our labors and exercises in prayer and virtue will be rewarded by [11] God with the beatifying vision of His love and greatness.

So we may truly say that “the life of Elias is the shortest summary of the Order’s life.” But we immediately have to ask: What are the characteristics of this prophetical life?

Three-fold Basis of Elias’ Life of Prayer

When Elias was being taken away from the earth in a fiery chariot, Eliseus, his faithful disciple, begged of him the inheritance of his double spirit. In the mantle which he received and with which he covered his shoulders, Eliseus received the inheritance he had asked for. The Prophet’s mantle was to him a symbol of an assurance, and through the miracles worked by this mantle his disciples understood that the spirit of Elias had descended on Eliseus. And just as Eliseus walked in the spirit and strength of Elias, so his disciples followed him. It is the same spirit the Order has ever striven to continue in its members. It ever sets before them the ideal of the double spirit and gives the promise of a double crown.

Exercise of Living in the Presence of God

To what degree of contemplation Elias was raised on Horeb, is an academic question. There are some who say he saw the Lord face to face as we hope to see Him in Heaven. All spiritual writers number Elias among the most favored mystic seers. His experience on Horeb was a reflection of what he was to witness on Thabor, when the Savior was transfigured and Moses and Elias were seen associated in His blinding glory. The Holy Scriptures say of Moses that when he descended from Sinai after his conversation with God, on his face was spread the brightness and glory of divine light, so that the [12] Jews dared not look at his face. The same is not said of Elias, but we see him coming to the Jews, as if from another world, from the courts of Heaven, and declaring at his appearance, Vivit Deus, in cujus conspectu sto. This is the foundation of his life of prayer.

This living in the presence of God, this placing himself before the face of God is a characteristic which the children of Carmel have inherited from the great Prophet: Conversatio nostra in coelis est. “Our conversation is in heaven.” Elias was not taken up to heaven, but here on earth he lived in heaven and stood with a pious heart before God’s throne: “God lives, I am standing before His face.” The words of the Archangel Raphael spoken to Tobias are reminiscent of the words of Elias. After he had accompanied Tobias under the name of Azarias and brought him safely on his journey, he revealed himself as an Angel of God. “One of the seven who stood before God.” “I seemed indeed to eat and drink with you, but I use an invisible meat and drink which cannot be seen by men.” This realization of the presence of God is of the very greatest significance in the religious life.

We need not say that this practice of the presence of God is not confined entirely to the Order of Carmel. It is at the root of all spiritual life and though methods may differ, all spiritual writers lay it down as an essential element in religious development. But in Carmel it takes a special place. It is significant that one of the most widely known works on the practice of the presence of God was written by a simple lay brother of the Parisian Carmel. He was born in 1666 and died at the age of twenty-five. The book is a slight work containing four dialogues and sixteen letters of great importance. It was published a year after his death and soon afterwards [13] translated into English. It has since been translated into nearly every language, including Esperanto.

In our own times Little Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face is the great example of this exercise of the presence of God, expressing itself in her devotion to the Holy Face. This devotion was also always characteristic of her sister, St. Teresa of Avila. In many of our old churches we may yet see traces of this Carmelite devotion to the Holy Face. The picture is painted on the big keystone of the gable of the sanctuary of old churches at Mainz and Frankfort-on-the-Main, looking down on the choir and surrounded by appropriate texts, reminding those in prayer that the eyes of God are always upon them and that they must look upwards to the Holy Face.

Love of Solitude

But if Elias is the great type of contemplation, set deep in the heart of the ancient law, he is also a great ascetic. And in this characteristic we find a second foundation of his life of prayer, which is his love of solitude, to which he always returns and to which he is sent by God. But before endowing him so abundantly God required great renunciations. “The great hermit,” says St. Jerome, “the lover of solitude, is led into the wilderness by the spirit of God.” There he understands the words of the Psalmist, Sedebit solitarius et tacebit et levabit se super se. “The desolate sets himself down there and holds his peace and lifts himself above himself.”

Detachment from the World, Including Mortification, Abstinence and Poverty


We may see a third foundation of his life of prayer in his detachment from the world. If he is lifted up to God, it is at the price of sacrifice. The Lord called him from his birthplace and from his [14] own people. And as Our Lord after him, he tastes the bitterness of the lonely world.

God tried His servant in many and difficult ways. He demanded his cooperation, but above all he asked an unquestioning faith, absolute trust in God’s Providence.

We may truly say that the life of high contemplation of the Prophet was not only founded on the practice of all virtues, but that this practice and exercise of prayer and virtue – heroic virtue – accompany and follow his visions and mystical graces. These mystical graces are a free gift of God, but God did not grant them without asking great and heroic virtue as a human disposition and preparation.

Combination of Liturgical and Contemplative Prayer

But after all, prayer is the chief characteristic of the great Prophet. His life is steeped in it. So St. James teaches that he is the great example of continual prayer. And we see in the prayer of Elias a providential union of oral and liturgical prayer with the prayer of meditation and contemplation – contemplation in its double sense, active and passive.

We may see in him an example of liturgical prayer, for the singing of God’s praises was an important item in the school of Prophets. The word, ‘Prophet’, in the ancient law had a wider meaning than we attach to it now. It was used to describe not only one who prophesied, one who had been given that special gift of God, but also one who sang the praise of God together with others, usually [15] seven times a day. At an earlier period of Israel’s history, we are told, Saul was among the prophets, not in the sense that he had the gift of prophecy, but that he joined in the singing of the praises of God in these distinct groups. Elias was the Prophet in all the meanings of the term. He had a school and disciples not in one place, but in many, and most probably led them in prayer at fixed times.

So we may say that liturgical prayer comes to us from a very ancient tradition, even though it is secondary to the deeper prayer of meditation and contemplation.

Our Order is not an Order of liturgical prayer, like the old Eastern Order of the Basilians or the Western Order of the Benedictines, but liturgical prayer has a special confirmation in our own Rite and must always hold a high place in our living with God. The Rule calls us together to the choir to say the Office in community, liturgically.

St. Teresa, in her love for liturgical prayer, would so impregnate it with holy thoughts, that it, too, in a sense, would become contemplative prayer, prayer of active contemplation. The influence and attraction of simple and devout Carmelite liturgical life has always been great. More than one Carmel on the continent has been founded because of it.

Growth of Contemplative Life in the Desert by Eucharistic Food

Very characteristic of Carmelite spirituality is its conception of spiritual life as a growing thing; and here the life of the Prophet gives another remarkable lesson. Like the natural, our spiritual life demands food. Holy Scripture tells us how Elias, on the strength of the mystical food ministered to him by the Angel, walked forty days and forty nights to [16] Mount Horeb. Here he was allowed to see God. Our spiritual life, and our mystical life desire the holy Food given to us by God in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

In the school of Carmel the mystical contemplative life is the fruit of the Eucharistic life. For the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, the fountain of our life of prayer, the life of Elias provides us with a most striking type. The miraculous bread ministered to him is a perfect image of that Eucharistic food, in the strength of which we walk in life’s journey here below.

The special cult of the Holy Sacrament has not been confined to Carmel, but we can say that it has always been a constant and important part of our Carmelite tradition. Our Carmelite Convents have in many instances been centers of Eucharistic worship. St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi was attracted to the Carmel of Florence by the fact that the Sisters received Holy Communion every day, a custom not usual in those days. To St. Teresa there was no greater joy than the opening of a new church or chapel as a dwelling for the Lord. It is prescribed by the Rule that all members of a Carmelite Community attend the Holy Sacrifice daily and that the chapel be in the center of the cloister, easy of access at all times, and that the Canonical Hours be recited in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Being a mendicant Order, its churches and cloisters are plain and simple in their architecture, but in the adornment of their churches and altars poverty is not prescribed. This is a notable departure from the custom of other mendicant Orders – from that of the Capuchins, for instance, whose rule of poverty extends even to the sanctuary.

Such in brief outline is the Eucharistic tradition of Carmel; with Elias we walk in the strength of [17] that divine bread and since we would draw near to the life of God in prayer, we must be ever mindful of the Savior’s command, “Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you cannot have life in you.” Just as the communion of Elias in the miraculous bread of the desert led him in his journey to the contemplation of God on Horeb, so too, the Holy Eucharist must lead us to the contemplation of His Holy Face. In the caves of Horeb God spoke to the Prophet by the voice of the gentle, whispering wind. The Lord was not in the storm nor in the earthquake, but in the gentle wind. So after Communion we must contemplate under the Eucharistic species and in the depths of our spirit; for now God passes.

Vision of the Mother of God Governing Carmel’s Life of Prayer

Special attention must be called to the vision of Elias on Carmel. This vision is the foundation of the Marian character of Carmelite spirituality.

It was on Carmel’s summit that the Prophet after sevenfold prayer saw a little cloud – bearer of the rain which would deliver the parched earth. It is not necessary to give an authentic explanation of this vision. Still I may say that many commentators of the Holy Scriptures have seen in this cloud a prototype of the Holy Virgin, who bore in her womb the Redeemer of the world. It is not the first time that a cloud was used as a symbol. In the wilderness a cloud covering the Ark of the Covenant was the sign of the presence of God. Numerous circumstances in which this type of cloud is mentioned are applied to God’s descent on earth and His dwelling among the sons of men. From the circumstances in which the Prophet, after his sevenfold prayer, saw the cloud rise above the sea, we may conclude that to see in it a prototype of the Mother of God – a [18] type of the mystery of the Incarnation – would be in entire agreement with the prototypal character of the Old Testament; the more so, since Holy Scripture expressly mentions this vision in the life of a prophet who would be raised to such a high degree of contemplation. At all events this much is sure – and this settles the question for the definition of the guiding principles of the Carmelite life of prayer – that in the Order this vision of Elias has always been seen as a prototype of the Mystery of the Incarnation and a distant veneration of the Mother of God. And it was because of this belief, according to the tradition of Carmel, that the old sanctuary dedicated to the Holy Maid was built on the mountain in the midst of the hermits’ caves. In the devotion of the Order, in the school of Carmel, this vision has its own place, and it has been looked upon for ages as the favorite image by which the Order looks to her. We need only read the Canonical Hours of the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel to see the importance of this vision for the spiritual life of Carmel. In a special lecture we will say more about the Marian character of Carmelite spirituality.[3]

Harmony of Intellectual and Affective Prayer. Happy Mean

Finally, we must note the providential combination of the two great visions of the Prophet on Carmel and on Horeb. These two visions are intimately connected. The last is the crown of the first and supplies what was not yet given in the first. While we admire Elias as he soars aloft in contemplation on Carmel, we must not forget that he had a human side as well and on this side he is accessible to the very least among us. He had called down fire on Carmel and rain on the parched land, yet Jezabel, unrelenting in her evil, held Achab and his people in her thrall. She was all powerful and eager for [19] revenge. And Elias, overcome with fear and disappointment, poured out all the misery of his soul to God: “It is enough, Lord, I pray You, take away my life.” In this connection we can hardly exaggerate the profound importance of God’s revelation to Elias on Horeb. We should like to remark that the vision of Elias on Carmel bears the character of an enlightenment of the mind, an intellectual revelation, the disclosing of a mystery, the mystery of the Incarnation. It is true that in this vision on Carmel there is not wanting a certain affection or attraction of the will, for we see the Prophet, under its impulse, borne before Achab to the capital town of Samaria. But this attraction, this affection of will, is of little importance in this vision. Above all, it is the communication of a mystery. In the vision of Horeb, however, the Prophet felt the spirit of God. The first vision was, in the strict sense of the term, intellectual, the second the breathing of the spirit of God. The latter completes the former. After the first, the Prophet, even though his mind was illumined from on high, was still subject to weakness and despondency, and prayed that he might die. In the second, he is strengthened and consoled and at peace. These visions are intimately connected. So in the school of Carmel there is harmony between the intellectual illumination of the mind and the affective love of the heart.

While the schools of St. Bernard and St. Francis are schools of love, seraphic love, and the Dominican, intellectual, the school of Carmel achieves a happy mean, a harmony of both. Surely those who dwell in Carmel would have caught from the flame a spark of the love and zeal which burned in the great Prophet. Fire is the most expressive symbol of love. “I am come to cast fire on the earth.” It is this fire which enveloped Elias when, according to the witness of Scripture, he was taken up to heaven [20] in a fiery chariot. Wrapped in that seraphic flame he is taken from earth. Carmel must ever feel that glow of its founder’s zeal. It is the mark of the true follower of Elias. It burns in all the Carmelite saints. Especially do we see it in the soul of seraphic St. Teresa of Avila. The smouldering fires that burned in the soul of “this undaunted daughter of desires” is Carmel’s greatest witness to the spirit of Elias. In these great souls have been fulfilled the Prophet’s words which encircle the Order’s escutcheon “With zeal I have been zealous for the Lord God of Hosts.”

But the school of Carmel warns us, in its leading figures, even in the Prophet Elias, that we must never forget the great importance of the intellectual foundation of the contemplative life: the enlightenment of the mind, the exercise of all mental faculties. By the imaginative and intellectual meditation and contemplation we have to climb to the affection of love and to be set in fire and flame. Even the Mystical Doctor – as we shall see later in a following lecture[4] – recalls the necessity of imaginative and intellectual meditation, because we cannot always soar into the higher regions of mystical life. And St. Teresa, insisting on the affection of love, leads her sisters on the way of imaginative and intellectual vision and meditation.

We should like to speak also about the apostolic character of the life of the great prophet, but his position in the Old Testament is clear enough to illustrate the zealous apostolic spirit by which he was led. Following this spirit also Carmelite life has always been apostolic. We will see in the next lecture and especially in the last the apostolic character of Carmelite spirituality.[5] We mention this apostolate here to indicate that also in this life the life of the prophet of Carmel was stimulating and inspiring even to the highest ideal of the apostolate. [21]

The Deep-Red Rose Clustering Over Carmel. Symbolic of Elias

In conclusion, we should like to see the great Prophet Elias in Carmel’s garden like a red rose, and not only the great Prophet but also those who follow him, climbing (symbol of the exercise of virtue) along the mountain, through the caves and grottos of Carmel, interlacing it with a girdle of fire. These red roses are the symbol of ardent love that burns in Elias and his disciples. It is the most remarkable characteristic of their spiritual life. It is the fire by which, like the Prophet and St. Teresa of Avila, the disciples became seraphim. Yes, we choose that symbol of the rose – the deep-red rambler-rose. I see it spreading over the whole mountain and setting it all aflame. The last flower we shall gather during these lectures in the garden of Carmel will be none other than the rose that bloomed in our own times and which trails around the mountain.[6] That last flower will be the ‘Little Flower’ who, shedding her petals far and wide, has developed to the utmost the symbol of the red rose.

May you all be like the red rambler-roses climbing along Carmel, burning in the fire of love like our great exemplar, Elias, scattering the petals of the flowers of your virtue, like the Little Flower, over those who live with you.


  1. This lecture is published in: Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches, Chicago 1936, 7-21 (Lecture I). In the summer of 1935, Titus Brandsma gave lectures in the United States. Among others he was in Washington, in Chicago and in Niagara Falls to speak about Carmelite mysticism. See also the design for these lectures: Carmelite Mysticism. Ten Lectures.
  2. In the publication the title of this subsection is presented on the next page, but it belongs at this place in the text.
  3. See: The Marian ‘Doctor Mysticus’ (Lecture VII).
  4. See: The Marian ‘Doctor Mysticus’ (Lecture VII).
  5. See: The Hermits of Carmel (Lecture II); The Apostolate of Carmelite Mysticism (Lecture IX).
  6. See: The Apostolate of Carmelite Mysticism (on St. Therese of Lisieux. Lecture IX).


© Nederlandse Provincie Karmelieten

Published: Titus Brandsma Instituut 2020