Around the ninth century B.C., the great prophet Elijah challenged four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal to a spiritual duel on Mount Carmel (see 1 Kings, ch. 18), a mountain range currently located in Israel. Inspired by Elijah’s faith centuries later, a group of Christian hermits settled on Mount Carmel. The exact date of this foundation is debated, but the hermits had become known as Carmelites when they moved to Europe in the twelfth century.
Following the example of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, the Carmelites became a mendicant order around that time. Just as each religious order has its own unique charism—Franciscans for poverty, Dominicans for preaching—the Carmelites place a particular emphasis in their spiritual life on contemplation and on the Blessed Mother. Because of that devotion to the Mother of God, the Church offers us an optional memorial in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16. But that’s not the only reason to think of the Carmelite order during the month of July.
Blessed John Soreth (1405-1471, celebrated on July 25) was the prior general of the Carmelites when he expanded the order to include women as well as the laity; before that time, the Carmelite order only included men. Blessed John’s decision opened the door for women to seek holiness in the Carmelite way of life. For that, we should be very grateful since some of the greatest female saints in the history of the Church, specifically Saints Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux, not to mention Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, lived quiet but very holy lives as Carmelite nuns.
Saints Louis and Zelie Martin were not Carmelites, but they deserve to be remembered with Carmelite saints all the same. This devout couple brought nine children into the world and raised each one to become a citizen of Heaven. They experienced every parent’s nightmare of having four of those children die even before reaching the age of five. Their faith was apparently only strengthened by such profound suffering, since four of their surviving children became Carmelite nuns, and the fifth became a Visitandine nun. Although it was their daughter, Saint Therese of Lisieux, who became a Doctor of the Church, her writings about her childhood show that the Carmelite spirit of joy, trust, and detachment from the world was first taught to her by her parents. This couple is commemorated on July 12.
Though Blessed Titus Brandsma (1881-1942) is not a well-known Carmelite saint, he should be. Titus was a brilliant man who was not only a priest, but knew several languages and had a PhD in philosophy. He was known all over the world, even outside his native Netherlands, traveling to America and Canada on a speaking tour in 1935. During World War II, he spoke out publicly against the racist anti-Jewish laws of the Nazis, and he encouraged Catholic newspapers to refuse to print Nazi propaganda. Unsurprisingly, the Gestapo began following him and finally sent him to the Dachau concentration camp in April, 1942. The Nazis starved and overworked all their prisoners, including Titus. Despite the brutality of the camp, Titus prayed for the camp’s guards and encouraged others to do the same. When his health deteriorated, the Nazis decided to perform medical experiments on him; he was executed when he was so ill that he was no longer useful for such experiments. He is remembered as a martyr on the Church calendar on the date of his death: July 26.
As these Carmelite memorials pass us by during the month of July, there’s one aspect of spiritual life for which our Blessed Mother and these saints can be particularly helpful: deepening our prayer life.
All you Carmelite saints, show me how to pray.