LAND OF CARMEL
by Elizabeth Ruth Obbard
(Gracewing, 1999, 174pp, $22.00 Available from Freedom Publishing)
The author of Land of Carmel writes: "The history of the Carmelite Order has not been without its share of infidelity, of obscurity, of times when sacrifice rather than mercy prevailed. This should engender in us a basic humility; a realization that God's covenant does not depend on our worthiness. It depends on his choice and his loving kindness."
John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila are synonymous with the Carmelites, but what are the true roots of this enigmatic religious order? Land Of Carmel is the work of a Carmelite nun, Elizabeth Ruth Obbard, who has examined the establishment and history of this order which has been renowned for fostering some of the Church's greatest saints, but which has a legacy extending much further back than a few famous individuals.
Essence of Carmel
Perhaps the author puts the essence of Carmel most succinctly at the start of the book when she writes, "Carmel is not for an elite ... Carmel is for anyone who loves, or wants to love, Mary and her Son - sinners and outcasts, aliens and strangers, as well as the good and the genuinely holy. If it were not so I could not love the Order as I do."
This was probably the most beautiful part of the book as it shows an unashamed, open joy at living the observance of Carmel in order to grow in faith, holiness and love for God. Obbard cites the contemplative prayer life of the order as not only one of Carmel's most distinguishing and definable characteristics, but as the most direct way in which members of the order draw into a closer union with God, most notably through the intercession of Our Lady of Carmel.
The obvious symbolisms of the religious order such as the habit and the daily way of life are elaborated on, with the influence of St Simon of the Stock on the development of the habit detailed, and the origins of the scapular as a means of identification of lay members of Carmel. This information, no doubt familiar to educated Carmel devotees, provides a good introduction for those who know little of the order.
Details such as that relating to the original purpose of the scapular are useful to anyone seeking to learn more about any of the contemporary orders of that time, for use of the scapular was not restricted to the Carmelites. The author's scholarship is evident as she draws on numerous texts, including Old Testament accounts, to document her claims.
For those with an interest in such scholarship, the book provides much food for thought.
As a purely historical account, the author achieves her purpose in seeking to help readers appreciate the Carmelite order's rich legacy. In the process, she dispels what she claims to be a common myth, the idea of Carmel only coming into being with the arrival of saints such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Indeed, Elijah is anointed as "the active element in the Carmelite vocation, [while] Mary has been present from the first as the hidden feminine principle".
Following on from the discussion of the early hermits who were the first members of Carmel, the author focuses her attention on the great reformer, St Teresa of Avila, to outline how the order, after so many years of existence, was in urgent need of renewal. Obbard regards St Teresa as being a grace from God for the order at this time of its history.
Obbard's referral to the Little Flower, St Thérèse of Lisieux, serves to underline the order's continuing relevance for the Church up to our own times.
Despite being a member of the order, the author writes with objectivity discussing the problems many orders faced at different points of their history.
In the 20th century, the Carmelites faced the challenge of being a contemplative order at a time when the Church seemed to give a higher priority to orders which ran schools, hospitals and other good works.
Its vital role depends on the strength of its community life, focused on prayer and meditation, for the sanctification of the whole world.
For those with an interest in the Carmelite order, this book serves as a helpful introduction to their history and culture.
Jacinta Cummins is a journalist working for the National Civic Council.