THE REPOSSESSION OF MOUNT CARMEL
by Father Reginald McSweeney, OCD
Among the glorious pages of our history, written in gold letters, is the recuperation of Mount Carmel, the authentic center of the public cult of the Mother of God, our sweetest Mother Mary. This took place in 1631 when the disciples of Elijah and sons of St. Teresa reassumed the devotion to Mary that had gone on on Mount Carmel for centuries, fortified by her maternal predilection and powerful protection.
After 300 years of persecution, oppression and suffering, the biblical mountain resounds once more with joyful hymns and praises in honor of Mary. This is due to the unwavering constancy, pertinacity and strong faith of our predecessors. Documents to prove this can be found in our archives.
A Treaty signed on June 3, 1283 left the Crusaders in peaceful possession of Ptolemais, Haifa, Mount Carmel and a few other minor locations. In the meantime the Saracens were gathering a powerful army. In 1291 they set siege to Ptolemais with 400,000 men, led by Sultan Halil. The defendants fought bravely but were overcome and a massacre of the inhabitants followed.
The Saracens then moved to Haifa and Mount Carmel. They destroyed the monastery and killed the friars, who died singing the Salve Regina. Thus, the Order was eradicated from Palestine.
The Order flourished in Europe and people noted for their holiness and learning added luster to it. There was a period of decline but Saint Teresa of Jesus "like another Deborah, raised by God in her Church" restored the pristine fervor of the Order in spite of insurmountable obstacles. Indeed she added splendor to it.
Meanwhile Mount Carmel remained abandoned. There was no cult of the Virgin, no singing of the Salve Regina, no pilgrims visiting. A few Carmelites who did visit came away depressed, convinced that the Order would never again be restored there. The Virgin, however, because of her great love for the mountain, did not abandon it. Father Prosper of the Holy Spirit, a man of holiness and zeal, was inspired to regain possession of it.
II. FATHER PROSPER
One of the most beautiful and typically Marian figures of our Carmelite history is Father Prosper of the Holy Spirit. Few remember him, and yet he is one of the greatest among the sons of St. Teresa. His contemporaries called him "Il Santo" and he deserved that name.
He was born at Nalda, Spain, in 1583 and was baptized on June 17. (Nalda is a little town near Logrono - east of Burgos and north of Soria. ) His name was Martin Garayzabal.
Ordered by his superiors to write an account of his repossession of Mount Carmel he wrote a brief autobiography. This is the main source being used for this article.
He begins his account of the repossession of Mt. Carmel by saying that he has been given a very difficult task. It has been twenty years since the event took place. He wants to tell the truth but he has to rely on his memory. However, believing that obedience can work miracles and remove all obstacles, he trusts that his act of obedience will help him to recall matters as if they had happened yesterday.
Before treating of the repossession of Mount Carmel he mentions certain things that happened in his youth. To some they may seem to have no bearing on the subject but to him they are very meaningful. He is amazed at the way God directed his life until he achieved his objective and he is filled with a desire to praise the mercy and goodness of God.
The first incident took place when he was six years of age. He and a companion were playing together around a big, empty chest. When Father Prosper climbed into the chest, his companion closed the lid and sat on it. By the time he opened the lid young Martin was almost asphyxiated. When he came to his senses he found that he had a firm conviction that everything in this world was perishable and transitory.
Soon after this experience a Franciscan friar came by the house, looking for alms. Martin's mother asked him if he would take the little boy in lieu of alms. The Franciscan said he would if the boy were willing to go. The mother then said: I give him to God. Father Prosper asserts that his mother's words made such a deep impression on him that they never left him. He developed an ardent desire to become a religious. To that end, he went to the Jesuit College in Logrono and studied reading, writing, grammar, philosophy and theology.
When he was eleven years old he heard many stories about a group of hermits living in the mountains of that region. This brought on a love of solitude and a desire to imitate the life of the hermits. During the Easter vacation he asked one of his cousins to go with him to a nearby mountain so that they could renounce the world. Being of a practical nature the cousin asked him what they were going to eat. Fr. Prosper thought it was a silly question. If God could support so many animals on the mountain, surely He could support two people who wanted to serve Him. There were plenty of herbs available. The cousin was not convinced.
Father Prosper entered the Carmelite Novitiate at Santa Maria della Scala in Rome in October 1607. He was given the habit by Ven. Peter of the Mother of God and his Novice Master was Ven. John of Jesus and Mary. He made his profession of vows on November 1, 1608.
Since he had already studied Philosophy and Theology at the Jesuit College in Logrono, he was sent on the new foundation in Palermo. After a few years he was sent from there to Naples and in 1618 was assigned to the Desert of St. John the Baptist at Varazze, near Genoa.
The Desert was referred to as the Dovecot (Il Colombaio, El Palomar). He was extremely happy there and would willingly have spent the rest of his days in it. From time to time, however, he would think of Elijah and Elisha and their "Desert" on Mt. Carmel and he would experience a strong desire to go there. He would say to himself; Who knows, but someday a dove from this Dovecot may make its nest there.
Unexpectedly, a letter arrived from Fr. Matthias the Superior General, ordering him to go immediately with three other religious, to the Mission in Persia.
III. ASPIRATIONS TOWARD MOUNT CARMEL
The first land they saw in the Middle East was the sacred mountain of Carmel and they greeted it warmly. The desire to take up residence there grew in each one of them.
Father Prosper arrived in Isfahan on the Vigil of Pentecost, 1621. The journey had taken eleven months. He became superior of the house. He also established a new foundation in Basra.
Fr. Prosper returned to Rome in 1624 to consult with Propaganda Fide about the possibility of making a foundation in Aleppo and re-occupying Mt. Carmel. His superiors sent him to Spain to collect funds. While in Barcelona, he wrote to the Spanish Superior General to thank him for the hospitality received in Spain. In reply, the General assured him of his prayers and added: "There is one favor I ask in return. When you reach those sacred caves of our holy Father Elijah remember me." When he read this, Father Prosper murmured: "Being High Priest, you have prophesied."
When he returned to Rome he learned that the request of the General Definitory to Propaganda Fide had been granted. The patent letters were given to him by Fr. Matthias. The Decree of the Sacred Congregation was dated January 30, 1627. It stated: "The Sacred Congregation agrees to the request of the Discalced Carmelites to establish a mission on Mount Carmel, the place where the Order was first instituted. The Decree of Gregory XV, prescribing that the names of those assigned to the Mission be forwarded to his Secretary, is to be observed." Father Prosper left Rome during Holy Week of 1627, accompanied by Father James of St. Joseph, a Frenchman, and Brother Joachim, an Italian lay brother.
During a stopover in Malta, Father Prosper became seriously ill and the doctors feared for his life. At one point, not knowing whether he was awake or asleep, he saw himself at the base of Mount Carmel. As he tried to climb up, a venerable friar, wearing the Carmelite habit and with a beard and white hair, approached and placed his hands on his head. He said, "You are welcome, son." Then, taking him by the hand, he helped him reach the summit. When Father Prosper regained his senses he found himself completely cured. He attributed this to Fr. Alexander of St. Francis. This man had been a Definitor General and Provincial of the Roman Province. He died in the odor of sanctity April 10,1630.
When the group arrived in Aleppo, a letter came from the General telling them to stay there so that the foundation would be placed on a firm footing.
Father Prosper was very anxious to make the house in Aleppo a center of Marian devotion. When leaving Rome, he had received a beautiful image of Our Lady from Ven. Dominic of Jesus and Mary. This was placed in the church. Very soon it became a popular place of devotion to Mary. Seeing this, other Religious such as the Jesuits and the Capuchins, renamed their churches after Mary. "Thus, all the churches in Aleppo are dedicated to the Madonna. But the favorite was always that of the Carmelites. The Madonna demonstrates to those who recommend themselves to her that she is wonderful. All the other churches are closed after Mass. Ours is open day and night because there are always people praying in front of the image." People came in such numbers to receive the Scapular that Father Prosper considered establishing a Confraternity. Even the Turks and Schismatics came. On the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel there were so many confessions and communions that it seemed more like Easter.
Father Prosper was delighted to see so much honor given to Mary and he tried to foster it even more. "I don't worry about providing for this house, because I spend my time serving this great Empress and her Son. I let her take care of the providing and she does a marvelous job."
He claimed that miracles took place. Writing to Rome in 1631 he stated: "Our Father Dominic gave us a great treasure with this blessed image." He recommended that missionaries leaving Rome should always take with them a beautiful image of the Madonna, secure in the conviction that she would be the most powerful instrument for the conversion and salvation of souls.
During all this time he could not stop thinking of Mount Carmel because that was where his heart lay. Writing to one of the superiors in Rome in 1628 he said: "Make me a beautiful statue of the Madonna of Carmel to place in her church. All I am waiting for is your command to go. May God allow me to go there and thus put an end to our wanderings."
He was deeply disappointed when he received a letter from the new Superior General, Fr. Ferdinand of St. Mary, telling him to abandon the idea of a foundation on Mount Carmel. (Fr. Ferdinand was elected on May 4th, 1629). The decision to abandon the foundation was made on January 8, 1630.(1) Father Prosper tells us that he received a long letter from Fr. Ferdinand, telling him to forget about the foundation on Mount Carmel and concentrate instead on climbing the spiritual mountain of Blessed John of the Cross. He replied that he had tried to make the foundation because his superiors had ordered him to do so. From now on, if the thought came to him, he would consider it a temptation of the enemy and not the will of his superiors or of God. However, he hoped to end his days on Mount Carmel. To his friends he mentioned that he was amazed such a holy man as Fr. Ferdinand would have abandoned the foundation. He received many letters of condolence from friends. His companions in the house in Aleppo were of the opinion that the project was as good as dead. To these he replied that the time was not ripe and that he would soon receive an order to conclude the business.
IV. THE RENEWED ATTEMPT
The order came much sooner than expected. Fr. Ferdinand of St. Mary died on March 22, 1631. Shortly afterwards Father Prosper received a letter from the Procurator General, Fr. Paul Simon, informing him that the Vicar General, Fr. Nicholas of the Conception, was ordering him to set out for Mount Carmel immediately, either alone or with a companion, and try to establish a house there.
On making inquiries he found that a caravan was setting out for Damascus and he decided to join it. There was no money available, but within a few days help came from unexpected quarters. He was even able to hire a mule. The French Consul was very helpful. Others gave him letters of recommendation, which proved very helpful later.
The mule he rented was lame and it was agony trying to ride him. Every step the mule took rattled Father Prosper's bones. He found it was more comfortable to walk.
At Sidon he met a merchant who was preparing to sail from there to Ptolemais. He invited Father Prosper to come along with him. A storm forced them to land at Tyre. From there they went by road to Ptolemais. Fr. Prosper continued on to Nazareth. He wanted to drink from the famous well in that city but was chased away by men wielding sticks.
Fr. James, the Guardian of the Franciscan house in Nazareth was known to Fr. Prosper. Some years previously he had written to him, requesting that he contact Prince Tarabei, the present owner of the property on Mount Carmel. The Franciscan knew how to proceed in dealing with the Muslims. He agreed to go to Haifa with Father Prosper. They took a gift for the Prince's secretary, Demetrius. Father Prosper had brought several expensive gifts for the Prince but they were on the ship. He decided to go back to Ptolemais, hoping that the ship might have reached that port. Since it was not there he set out for Tyre, where he was informed that pirates had looted the ship and taken his gifts with them. He purchased some more gifts and returned to Nazareth. On the way there he was debating about the wisdom of taking Father James, the Guardian, with him to Haifa, thinking he might do better by himself. Not wishing to offend him, he decided to leave everything in the hands of God.
Father James was quite prepared to go with him. Just as they were getting ready to leave, a letter arrived for Fr. James from the Franciscan Procurator informing him that the Prince was very upset when he heard about Father Prosper's intentions. He wanted to know if Father Prosper was a Franciscan and was told he was not. Fr. James was advised to be very careful so as not to get the Nazareth house into trouble because of his association with Father Prosper. That decided the matter. Fr. James said he could not go. Father Prosper told him not to worry; if the business came from God, the end could be achieved without his help.
Father Prosper was delighted with the outcome and went to the refectory in a happy mood. One of the Franciscans, a very holy friar named Fr. Bartholomew, said to him abruptly: "Father Prosper, you must act quickly. The business has been concluded. Last night, after Matins, St. Teresa spoke to me and said, 'Tell Father Prosper to move quickly because the business has been concluded.'" He added: "I don't know whether I was awake or asleep when I heard this." Father Prosper assured him that it did not matter. The words put new spirit into him.
The Franciscan Procurator was kind enough to accompany Father Prosper to see Demetrius, the Prince's secretary. He put forward all kinds of excuses to avoid going with them to the Prince, but when he saw the letters of recommendation that Father Prosper had, he agreed to go along. The Prince received them very graciously and offered Father Prosper safe conduct throughout his territory. The document reads: "Father Prosper of the Holy Spirit, a Discalced Carmelite, the superior of the friars at Aleppo, came to me with the approval of the Roman Pontiff and of his own superiors, so that he could live in our territory and make a foundation on Mt. Carmel. He asked for permission to pass through our jurisdiction without hindrance from anyone. He also asked for permission to build the cave of Keder or of Saint Elijah, and to establish a house, a garden and whatever else is necessary on the summit of the mountain in the place of Elijah. We granted him his request. None of the inhabitants in my territory, be they nomad or city dweller, may presume to oppose them. Anybody who goes against these orders should not complain if he has to die. He will not escape."
V. JOURNEYS TO SEEK FUNDING
Before handing over the title to the property through Demetrius, the Prince demanded 500 reales, which he would give as a gift to the viceregent of Damascus. Father Prosper did not have that kind of money. He offered 25 reales to Demetrius who handed him other documents that entitled him to take possession of Mount Carmel. The 500 reales would be paid later. He immediately went to Mount Carmel and celebrated Mass in the cave of Elijah.
He expresses amazement when he considers how all this happened. All his success he attributed to the Lord.
Having taken possession of Mount Carmel and having received some documents, but not the real title deeds, he went to Nazareth in search of Father James, the Franciscan. Not finding him, he continued on to Sidon where he met a Maronite who was planning a trip to Aleppo. Between them they purchased a donkey and set out for Aleppo via Damascus. There they joined a larger group. Among the group were three Ottoman Turks, shepherds who had made a lot of money in Damascus through the sale of a large flock of rams. Before reaching Hamath, these three suggested that the group take a shortcut across the desert to Aleppo. With the exception of the Maronite, all declined. Since his companion insisted on going, Father Prosper was forced to go along with him. They set out at 6:00 pm on Christmas Day. The three Turks were fearful that the group left behind would follow and rob them and they kept looking over their shoulders. It would be difficult to describe how much Father Prosper suffered during the night. Afraid of being lost in the desert he had to hurry to keep up. To cheer himself he sang Christmas songs. "Vedi una verginella - apresso un bel bambino - povera si, ma bella." They could not ride the donkey because it would slow them down too much.
The Turks halted around midnight for a rest. Father Prosper wanted to take the blanket off the donkey for his own use but the Maronite would not allow him in case the donkey froze. He finally lay down on the cold ground and fell asleep from exhaustion. When he awoke he was stiff and frozen with the cold. They halted again an hour after sunrise in a secluded place and rested there the whole day. At sunset they moved on. Because of exhaustion and bad food Father Prosper had an attack of diarrhea which greatly afflicted him. He frequently fell down during the night but he had to force himself to get up so as not to lose contact with the others. At dawn the next day they came in sight of Aleppo, which they reached in the afternoon. They had completed in one day and two nights a journey that normally took six days on horseback when people followed the regular route.
Father Prosper was completely exhausted when he reached the monastery. When he felt better he convened the community and related all that had happened. He asked them if they thought he should go to Rome to inform the superiors and they answered in the affirmative. That same day a merchant visited the community and was able to tell Father Prosper that there was a ship at Alexandretta which would take him to Rome. He set out immediately, in company with a young man who wanted to enter the Order.
On the way the ship encountered severe storms. Father Prosper recalled the episode in the Gospel when Christ ordered the winds to die down and the waves to grow calm. He prayed that the Lord would again command them to do this. In a short while the storm subsided. They landed at Malta and from there went on to Rome.
Father Prosper was in Rome for the General Chapter of 1632. Fr. Paul Simon was elected General. The Chapter approved of the foundation on Mount Carmel and decided that the Superior General would be the Prior. The decision was confirmed by the Apostolic Brief of Urban VIII "Circumspecta Apostolicae Sedis," dated December 3, 1633. Father Prosper was named Vicar of Mount Carmel.
Even though Father Paul Simon, Superior General and Prior of Mount Carmel, was very generous and liberal, Father Prosper found him very tightfisted. He felt that God was permitting to test him. The General loaded him with letters of recommendation to the superiors of the monasteries he would visit on his way back to Mount Carmel, presuming that all would give him large donations for the project. All the General gave him was the miserly sum of 200 reales. By the time he reached Naples he had spent 60 of these. And he still had to give 500 reales to Prince Tarabei. However, he put his trust in God and he was not disappointed. Father John Mary, the Procurator General, suggested that, while in Naples, he should visit Joanna of Austria. (She was the illegitimate daughter of the famous Don Juan of Austria, the victor of Lepanto.) She gave him 200 reales. While in Palermo he met the duke of Alcala who gave him 300 reales.
He departed from Malta for Alexandretta and arrived in Aleppo on the vigil of Christmas.
He next set out for Damascus, where he met the French consul who treated him with great kindness. The consul was able to procure for him letters of recommendation from the viceregent for Prince Tarabei. The letters ordered the Prince to hand over the property on Mount Carmel to Father Prosper. From Damascus Father Prosper went to Sidon, where he became very ill. Fr. James, the Franciscan, who was in Sidon at the time, took great care of him.
Father Prosper was in Haifa on February 23, 1633. He said Mass in the cave on Mount Carmel on the 24th. When he got back to Haifa he was so ill that he had to take to his bed for a whole month.
On April 6, 1633, he met with Prince Tarabei. The prince demanded the 500 reales. Father Prosper told him he could give him 300 but nothing more. Finally, he promised to give 100 more when the money came from Europe. The Prince then handed over the title deeds which authorized the Discalced Carmelites to take possession of Mount Carmel.
VI. THE TRIALS OF RESIDENCE
He and a companion went to Mount Carmel and took up residence in the caves. These were more suitable for wolves and other wild animals than for friars. It was very difficult to reach the caves. One had to scramble up on hands and knees. Water was a mile away.
They decided to follow the horarium used in the Deserts. They made their prayer and recited the Office in a cave. Each stayed in a cave. Their furniture consisted of two skulls, a jug, a clock and a basket. They accommodated one of the caves for four people. His companion did the building while Father Prosper drew the stones, mud and water. As we mentioned, the water had to be fetched from a mile away.
Even though they were very busy, they followed the horarium faithfully. They made prayer, recited the Office and said Mass in the morning. After breakfast they settled down to work. The work was interrupted for the recitation of Sext and None and later for Vespers.
One of Father Prosper's first acts had been to place an image of the Madonna in the grotto of the Prophets. It was a copy of Mary, Salus Populi Romani, which is venerated in St. Mary Major's. The Muslim holy men - dervishes - strenuously objected to the picture of Our Lady and wanted it removed, but Father Prosper adamantly refused. A lamp was always burning in front of the image of Our Lady. Whenever the Fathers left, they locked the doors securely, a fact that annoyed the dervishes. The small community used to sing the Salve Regina in the grotto of the Prophets before the image of Mary. They also said Mass there and Vespers on her Solemn Feasts.
The dervishes continued to oppose the Fathers. Father Prosper, with help from the Emir of Haifa, was able to withstand them. He was not about to give up the mountain that belonged to Mary.
Sometimes, because of sickness or persecutions, the little group would go to Acre. They either brought the picture with them or locked it securely in one of the grottos. Because of these moves, the picture deteriorated and Father Prosper asked the General in Rome for a replacement. "I am sending a letter to Cardinal Barberini, begging him to send me another picture of the image of Our Lady at St. Mary Major's, the same as the one he gave me in 1634. The one we have has deteriorated because of the many times I have had to move it. I know he will give it willingly and that is why I am asking for it."
We do not know if he received the picture. It is certain, however, that Our Lady helped him in many extraordinary ways. Fr. Ambrose, his companion, tells us that many people, including Muslims, climbed the hill to honor Mary. The wife of Prince Tarabei had the picture brought to the bottom of the hill where she had her tent. She received it with great honor and devotion. The mother of Tarabei climbed the mountain in pilgrimage and saluted the Virgin. She showed favor to the Fathers who were looked on as the priests of the Virgin.
The opposition was so serious in 1635 that Father Prosper and his companions had to leave Mount Carmel, a fact that caused him great distress. He was tired physically and psychologically. When he sailed from Ptolemais on September 7, 1635, it was with the intention of not coming back. On reaching Malta, he wrote to the superiors in Rome, asking to be assigned to a monastery where he could end his days in peace. The night after he had sent the letter he had a dream. A beautiful child appeared to him and said: "Why did you leave me?" That made him reconsider his decision. There were many obstacles in the way. At the request of the Cardinal Archbishop of Palermo, the General had assigned him to the monastery in that city. To make sure he would stay in Palermo, the Cardinal wrote to the Sacred Congregation in his own name and in that of the city. The Congregation denied the request. The Cardinal felt it was a sign of the will of God and he allowed Father Prosper to choose for himself.
Father Prosper went on to Malta. Here he began to vacillate, thinking he should stay in Malta where he could do so much good. What was the use of going to a country where the people did not know his language nor he theirs? All the time, however, the little voice seemed to be saying within him: "why did you leave me?"
While in Malta he was put in charge of a convent where the nuns were experiencing a lot of problems because of the behavior of the chaplain. Father Prosper got the chaplain removed. In a short period of time he had transformed the atmosphere in the house.
A merchant friend of his came to Malta and informed Father Prosper that he had a ship bound for Aleppo. The ship was in Taranto, so he promised to bring it to Malta to pick up Father Prosper. However, when he got as far as Taranto he changed his mind and decided to sail directly to Aleppo. A sudden storm came up that drove them to Malta against their wills. It took six days to replace one of the masts that had been destroyed by lightning. That gave Father Prosper plenty of time to prepare for his departure. He reached Haifa in nine days - November 14, 1637.
A very unsavory incident took place on the mountain some time after his arrival. An Egyptian came by, feigning friendship, and was entertained by the two friars. Suddenly he threatened them with a knife. He was a homosexual. Father Prosper shouted that he would rather die than submit to such indignities. "Kill me! Kill me! I will die willingly." Seeing that he was not afraid to die the Egyptian left and Father Prosper was able to escape.
Father Prosper mentions that when he got back to Mount Carmel in 1637 and was placing the image of Our Lady in the grotto, he noticed that the child was the same as the one he had seen in his dream.
From that time on, nothing could dislodge him from the holy mountain and his Queen. He endured hunger, dangers from plague, persecution, abandonment. The "holy old man," as he was known in the area, stayed close to the Mother and Queen of Carmel.
In a letter to the Provincial of Naples, Fr. Philip of St. James, he said: "All I desire is to love God, serve Him and suffer for His love, thank Him all my life and die here on this holy mountain. Haec requies mea in saeculum saeculi. Hic habitabo quoniam elegi eam."
Father Prosper died peacefully on November 20, 1653. He had written: "I will die happily here on this holy mountain." He had served Our Lady of Mount Carmel there for twenty years.
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of
Life, Foreword; Articles 1 and 2.
2. For information on what's happening on Mount Carmel in this day and age, see:
a. The proceedings for the Seventh Regional OCDS Congress, Western Jurisdiction, St. John of the Cross - A Challenge for Us All, article title: The Mount Carmel Project 1989 Summary.
b. The Carmelite Digest, vol. 3, #2, Spring 1988, Mt. Carmel Project.
c. The Carmelite Digest, vol. 3, #4, Autumn 1988, Ongoing Report: The Mt. Carmel Project.
d. The Carmelite Digest, vol. 4, #2, Spring 1989, Mt. Carmel Project: Ongoing Report.
e. The Carmelite Digest, vol. 4, #4, Autumn 1989, Mt. Carmel Project: Ongoing Report.
f. The Carmelite Digest, vol. 5, #4, Autumn 1990, Mt. Carmel Project, Fall, 1989.
g. The Carmelite Digest, vol. 7, #1, Winter 1992, Mt. Carmel Project.
1. Cfr. Acta Def. Gen. Vol. 1, p. 179, n. 3. 2
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