The Elijah Tradition

Return to Elijah Prophet of God

By Fr Silvano Giodano, O.C.D.

In the early years of the thirteenth century. the Painarch Albert of Jerusalem gave :t Rule of Life to a group of Latin hermits living near the spring called the Spring of Elijah.-It is permissible to think that their decision to live in that particular site, that had u centuries old hermitical tradition. was in response to a conscious choice that identified in Elijah an archetype and model of the Religious life. In this they were in the company of the Patristic tradition that, beginning with Athanasius. Jerorne and Cassias, presented Elijah as an exemplary realization of the Monastic Life. One can therefore reasonably affirm that the imitation of Elijah is found at the origin of Carmelite ideology.

Tile transferal of the Carmelites to Europe, happening clue to Muslim pressure, constituted a critical moment. They - under tire impulse of tire provisions taken by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), promulgated to control the proliferation of new religious groups, and more still by those of the Second council of Lyons (1274), that in fact suppressed numerous communities and put themselves in serious danger - wishing to demonstrate the legitimacy of their own existence, were led to reflect on their ot%vn origins. In fact they were not able to point to a universally known founder, as could the Franciscans Or Dominicans. and for this reason it was necessary to return to the sources of their inspiration.

Elijah, the Founder

The need to show the younger friars an answer to give to those who might question them about their origins becomes plain in the Rubrica prima, the text that began the Constitutions of the Carmelite order of 1281. Its origin was probably older, and it may be possible to date it hack to the fourth decade of the same century, during the time of the first migrations to Europe. If the hypothesis is true, one could be dealing with a response created for those who were asking for information about the origins of the Order.

"In order to give witness to the truth, we affirm that there, from the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who lived devoutly on Mount Carmel, holy Fathers of the Old and New Testaments, as true lovers of the solitude of that mountain favorable to the contemplation of heavenly things, close to the spring of Elijah, lived praiseworthily in holy penitence, continuing without ceasing through successive holy generations. At the time of innocent III, Albert, Patriarch of the Jerusalem Church, gathered them in a group, writing for them a Rule that Pope Honorius, successor of Innocent, as well as many of their successors, approved this Order, piously confirming it with their Bulls. Professing this Rule we, their followers up to today, serve the Lord in various parts of the world."

The text presents in a clear and concise manner that which will be a constant factor in the consciousness of the Carmelites: commencing from the time of Elijah, an uninterrupted series of his religious followers perpetuated the presence of the prophet on Mount Carmel until present times.

Uninterrupted Succession

The text of the Rubrica prima responds only to the question of origins, leaving obscure an interval of about 2000 years, from Elijah to the Pontificate of Innocent III. The chronicle Universis cbristifidelibus, the work of an anonymous author at the beginning of the fourteenth century, directed at all who wanted to know more about the origins of the Carmelites, tries to fill this large historical gap. He does it effectively, by adapting for its own purpose a disparate series of documents, filling the gaps in a completely arbitrary manner.

According to such a document the history of the Carmelites is divided into three parts: from Elijah to the coming of Christ; from Christ to Albert of Jerusalem; from Albert to the time of the writer. Being in the location, the followers of Elijah, who as true Israelites were waiting for the coming of the Messiah, would have rushed to hear the preaching of Jesus, establishing themselves near the Gate of Saint Anna. When the Holy City suffered destruction at the hands of Vespasian and Titus, they, would have been honored by the Romans out of respect for Christ. Their successors, to whom is applied a text from the letter to the Hebrews (11,37-38), referring to them as the just of the Old Testament, would have been dispersed throughout the world: "they went about in the skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated - of whom the world was not worthy - wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth until the year 1200. In particular, they would have established themselves at Antioch, when the apostle Peter had his episcopal chair.

A certain John, Patriarch of Jerusalem, friar of the same order, would have ordered them to observe a Rule written by the Father of the Church, Paulinus and Basil. In this state they would have remained up untf the time when Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, gathering together the dispersed brothers, placed them under obedience to one of their number.

A text contemporary to the previous one, also anonymous but coming from Dominican circles, clarifies that half way through the twelfth century the Frenchman Ayrneric of Malafayda, Patriarch of Antioch, would have gathered together the hermits who were living dispersed on Mount Carmel, and his organization would have later been perfected by Albert Patriarch of Jerusalem.

These scarce elements, in good part purely fictitious, formed the basis from which the Carmelite authors, with a constant preoccupation, tried to demonstrate the connecting link between the Order and Elijah, which wound through the Old and New Testaments. This procedure lead them to affirm that in Elijah they had their Founder.

Elijah and Maria

In his work Speculum de institutione ordinis, written in the first decades of 1300s, the English Carmelite John Baconthorpe tried for the first time to unite the Marian and Elijan traditions of the Order. Considering two texts in Isaiah - the first (7,14) in which the prophet announces the birth of the Child by the Virgin and a second (35,1-2) in itself addressed to the city of Jerusalem, but applied by many spiritual authors to the Virgin Mary in which it is affirmed that "to her is given the splendor of Carmel" - Baconthorpe made the Madonna the Lady of the Mount.

King and prophets performed their actions on Carmel, which the Carmelite presumed were done in honor of Mary. For this reason the Order of Carmel would also have arisen there at the time of Elijah and Elisha with the aim of perpetuating there the veneration of the Virgin, Lady of the Mount. Furthermore, Elijah and Elisha with their actions and miracles, prefigured Christ, the

Son of Mary. And since these prophets lived on Carmel, dedicated to the veneration of the Blessed Virgin, the Carmelites must justly bear the title of the Blessed Mary.

Jean de Cheminot, a Carmelite from Lorraine, who wrote Speculum fratrum ordinis beatae Mariae de monte Carmeli about 1350, juxtaposed the Elijan theme with the Marian theme, linking together the two personages by means of their relation to Mount Carmel. According to Cheminot, Elijah and Mary would have been members of the tribe of Aaron and would have both professed virginity; as Elijah lived on Carmel, Mary also would often have been present among the Religious living there, her presence favored by the proximity of Nazareth to the mountain. In remembrance of this the hermits, after the Ascension of the Lord, constructed a church in the honor of Mary near a spring, where Elijah had lived. Centuries later, they drew their name from the mountain.

Departing from texts taken from Jerome and Cassian that made Elijah and Elisha initiators of the Religious Life, Jean de Cheminot constructed a succession in which the prophet Jonah, identified with the son of the widow of Zarephath resurrected by Elijah, the prophet Obadiah and John the Baptist all play a part. By applying to the Order in concrete that which Jerome I and Cassian had said of Religious Life in general, he opened the way to affirm that any figure in the Old or New Testament who in some way had connections with monasticism belonged to Carmel.

The Mantle of Elijah

The French Carmelite Jean Fillons de Venette, who wrote in the second half of the fourteenth century. enriched tire proceeding tradition with new details. From lean de Chcininot he inherited the symbolism of the mantle with white and gray vertical stripes. worn by the Carmelites for almost all of the thirteenth century and substituted in 1297 by a completely white one that is still in use today. The two colors indicate the double state of the Carmelites, chaste and penitent; the seven stripes symbolize the three theological virtues (the black ones) and the four cardinal virtues (the white ones). Jean do Venette then goes on too explain the origin of the stripes. When Elijah was rapt into heaven in the fiery chariot, he threw his mantle to Elisha. Passing through the flames the exposed part of the folds would have been burnt. With this mantle, according to the Biblical account, EIisha divided the water of the Jordan: and it was the sign that the spirit of Elijah, had been transmitted to him, and from that day on his disciples began to wear it.

The affirmations of these authors constitute the central nucleus of the Elijan Tradition proper to the Carmelites, according to which there existed an uninterrupted succession of hermits from Elijah until Albert of Jerusalem. Developing this doctrine the Carmelites acquired the conviction of being sons of Elijah in a way that is completely different to that of the other monks who looked to the prophet as their initiator :and model.

Carmelite Monasticism

A later deepening of the tradition is due to the Catalan Carmelite Phihp Ribot, who, towards the end of the fourteenth century wrote the Libri decern de Institutione el pecultaribus gestis religiosorum carrnelitarum. This work attempted to unite history and spirituality, even though it uses a completely particular concept of history. Following the example of his brothers and basing himself on an assertion of Saint Isidore of Seville, in which the Monastic life was derived from Elijah and his followers, and establishing a series of his own personal criteria, Ribot allowed the Carmelites to include among their number all the personages who in some way had connections with monasticism.

Successive authors enlarged the field even more, transforming into Carmelites all the monks, who, precisely because of their profession of the Monastic life had been disciples of Elijah. or alternatively because of their imitation of him, or even because of imitation and descent together, were therefore Carmelites Thus Saint John the Baptist, the Fathers of monks Aniony and Hilarion, the bishop of Alexandria Cyril. who at the Council of Ephesus in 431 had been among those who promoted the idea that the Madonna he known by the title Mother of God, all became members of the Order.

The doctrinal tradition reached complete formulation in the historical works of the seventeenth century, which, in describing the fortunes of the Carmelite Order, always began from Elijah. A special place was occupied by the so-called

Prophetic Histories, which managed to construct the presumed complete succession of Superior Generals, listed without break from Elijah up until the times of the author.

The application of the incipient historical criticism to hagiographical legends, occurring in the work of the Bollandists of the seventeenth century, gave the first serious blow to the credibility of such constructions, even if one had to wait until the twentieth century to assign them to the place waiting for them - that of pure legend.

The Spirit of Elijah

Nevertheless, the "historical" scaffolding, constructed of dubious elements and therefore destined to come crashing down, had sustained an ideal of life, a point of reference, that impelled the first hermits to gather together near the spring of Elijah. For this reason, alongside the writings with historical pretensions, there exists another type, of a doctrinal nature, that presented the spirit of Elijah as inspiration for the life of the Carmelite.

In this perspective the work of Ribot referred to above, retains a great importance.

The first book of the collection, with the title De Institutione etpeculiaribus gestis primorum monachorum, occupies an important place in the Carmelite tradition, to the point of having been considered for a certain time as the original Rule of the group, by which Albert of Jerusalem would have been inspired.

The writing is presented as the work of a certain John XXXXIV, Bishop of Jerusalem and already hermit on Mount Carmel, who turns to Caprasius, Superior of the hermits and his old companion, with the intention of describing to him the beginning of the way in which, and the place where the institution arose. Elijah is placed at the center of the work and is considered the first monk from whom the origin of the Monastic life is drawn. Utilizing the methods proper to Mediaeval exegesis, the author comments on the text with which the Bible begins the narration of the epic of Elijah: "And the word of the Lord came to him, Depart from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the brook of Cherith, that is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded ravens to feed you there (I Kings 17,2-3)."

The journey and hiding of himself by the torrent are interpreted as human effort, operating by means of the virtues and accompanied by Grace, through which the monk offers to God a heart holy and pure from every mark of sin._ Arriving at this point the gift of God allows him to "drink at the torrent", that is to taste the Divine presence in the soul.

The instructions given to Elijah, head and prince of monks, had an exemplary value for all his imitators. The Biblical words addressed to him were commented on and became the supporting structure of the monk's journey: "Depart from here (that is from fallen reality and the world that will pass), and turn eastward (that is work against the native concupiscence of the flesh), and hide yourself by the brook of Cherith (you must not live in the city with people), that is east of the Jordan (be separated through charity from every sin)._ If you climb to the summit of prophetic perfection crossing through these four gradual stages, "You shall drinkfrom the brook". And so that you will be able to persevere, "l have commanded ravens to feed you there".

Thus, the itinerary is constructed, composed of four-stages that the author describes in detail according to the example of Elijah. This course unwinds, commencing with the renunciation of earthly goods, continuing through mortification of the passions and the search, for solitude, conducting the monk to live in charity according to the demands of love of God and neighbor, and enabling him to arrive at a clear knowledge of God.

The Meaning of an Evolution

In the prologue to the Life of Saint Paul, First Hermit, Saint Jerome, reporting the discussion about the origins of monasticism, refers to the theory of those who hold that Elijah and John the Baptist were initiators of monasticism. John the Baptist is in fact presented by the Gospel as a hermit: clothed in camel-skin and eating locusts and wild honey, he lived in the desert until his manifestation to Israel. From the moment that John the Baptist was indicated by Jesus as the new Elijah, one cannot doubt that Elijah too must have in some way lived in the desert, understood in a broad sense as a place of solitude. Since the Book of Kings associates Elijah with Mount Carmel, it was immediately identified with the site of his hermitage as well. By the fourth century the tradition was already fixed; Cassian, speaking of the hermits who live in profound solitude, affirmed that "these are imitators of Saint John the Baptist who remained in solitude for the whole of his life, following the example of Elijah and Elisha."

The development of monasticism studded the places connected with the presence of Biblical personages with cenobia, and for this reason, together with the region of Jericho and the desert of Judea, Carmel became well populated. These inhabitants quickly developed a sacred topography that localized episodes, real or imaginary, from the life of Elijah along the sides of the mountain. The anonymous author from Piacenza, for example, writing around 570, situated the visit of the Shunamite to Elisah in the monastery that bears his name on Carmel.

The Elijan tradition elaborated by the Carmelites demonstrates a coherent internal logic: impelled by the necessity to justify its existence it underlined with force its links with the proceeding monasticism utilizing the criteria of uninterrupted succession, finally arriving at him whom all held to be the common Founder - Elijah the prophet of fire.


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