On this feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, let’s rethink a little bit about what means the title of «Sister».
The first text where the Carmelites give to Mary the title of «Sister» was «The institution of the first monks», famous work published at the end of the XIV century. This name, so sympathetic, reflects the freshness and ingenuity of their Marian piety. It appears in a legendary context that is very far to our current mentality, but which represented a mode of expression very common in the Middle Age. What interests us in these old texts is not their historical claim, but the spiritual intention. The idea they want to express is that of a relationship between the Carmelites and Mary because of the similarity of their way of life with that of the Virgin of Nazareth.
The first to develop this idea is the theologian Jean Baconthorp, who writes at the beginning of the 14th century a small treatise where he wants to show that the lifestyle described by the Rule of Carmel corresponds point by point to that of Mary. The legend of Elijah, which begins to take shape at about the same time, reinforces the author’s conclusions.
The Carmelites gradually consider the Prophet Elijah not only as their model but as their “founder” in the historical and legal sense, which will one day make Baronius say that the desire for ancient nobility «sometimes brings men to delirium! ». In any way, our Carmelites of the Middle Age are absolutely convinced that their «founder» is the one who inaugurated the way of life of consecrated celibacy and that his successors of Mount Carmel were the only ones to follow him until the Virgin Mary comes. Since, She is the first woman who has lived the state of consecrated virginity, the «sons of Elijah» naturally conclude that there is a spiritual fraternity between them and Mary.
It is not impossible that this idea came out of an innocent game of words. The title of the Carmelites were therefore «Brothers of Saint Mary of Mount Carmel» but here the word «Brothers», while having a certain spiritual resonance, had no other pretension than to signify belonging to a particular category of religious, that of ‘mendicants’.
So much naivety charms us and makes us smile. But we remain a bit puzzled as to the spiritual significance of these considerations. Let us first remark that the title of «Sister» applied to Mary can find a theological meaning. The Council declared that the Virgin Mary is our sister by the link of nature. The Virgin Mary approaches us like a sister. The Council does not hesitate to affirm that like us, «She advanced in her pilgrimage of faith» (LG 8, 58).
To return specifically to Carmelite spirituality, the intention underlying this name of ‘Sister’ is obviously the desire to imitate the Virgin Mary as the most appropriate model for this kind of essentially contemplative life. It’s especially the scene of the Annunciation that has retained the meditation of the Carmelite friars and Carmelite sisters. They saw the perfect model of their own life. A life dedicated to loneliness and silence. Silence is not primarily an outward attitude, but a deep spiritual reality designed to foster listening to the Word, welcoming the Word and total submission to the same.
Happy Feast of Our Mother and Sister, Queen of Carmel !