A little cloud arose out of the sea


Here is the text of Father Prior’s conference to the Belfast group of Carmelite Tertiaries on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel:

On Carmel’s Height

We are compelled to ponder today what can only be called a core text of the liturgical and spiritual tradition of Carmel. I refer, of course, to the lesson from the Third Book of Kings. This is a text — no, more than a text, a living word — that has, over the centuries, captured the heart of those called to live on Carmel’s heights.

Elias went up to the top of Carmel, and casting himself down upon the earth put his face between his knees, And he said to his servant: Go up, and look towards the sea. And he went up, and looked, and said: There is nothing. And again he said to him: Return seven times. And at the seventh time, behold, a little cloud arose out of the sea like a man’s foot. And he said: Go up and say to Achab: Prepare thy chariot and go down, lest the rain prevent thee. And while he turned himself this way and that way, behold the heavens grew dark, with clouds, and wind, and there fell a great rain. (3 Kings 18:42–45)

The Glory of God

Its context is important.  First of all, a terrible drought has come over the land; God withholds his life–giving rain. Over the land ruled by Achab, a weak king, influenced by his wife’s devotion to the great sky–god, Baal, the heavens are closed. Elias determines that this state of affairs must be resolved. The true God, the God of Israel must be glorified in the sight of all. «And Elias coming to all the people, said: How long do you halt between two sides? If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people did not answer him a word» (3 Kings 18:21).

Elias summons the prophets of Baal, favourites of the wicked Queen Jezebel, to a public showdown on Mount Carmel. A holocaust is prepared. By the sign of fire from heaven the true God will make Himself known. The prophets of Baal were the first to begin the dreadful rite. The heavens were not moved by their frantic entreaties; Baal was distant and deaf to their cries, even though they cut themselves with swords and lances, joining blood to their futile ravings.

The Prayer of Elias
The holy prophet Elias prayed, with simplicity and majesty invoking the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel:

O Lord God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Israel, shew this day that thou art the God of Israel, and I thy servant, and that according to thy commandment I have done all these things. Hear me, O Lord, hear me: that this people may learn, that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart again. (3 Kings 18:36–37)

The prayer of Elias will, of course, be perfected and consummated in the Johannine transmission of the priestly prayer of Jesus in the Cenacle:

Father, the hour is come, glorify thy Son, that thy Son may glorify thee. . . .  And now glorify thou me, O Father, with thyself, with the glory which I had, before the world was, with thee. I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou hast given me out of the world. Thine they were, and to me thou gavest them; and they have kept thy word.Now they have known, that all things which thou hast given me, are from thee: Because the words which thou gavest me, I have given to them; and they have received them, and have known in very deed that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me. (John 17: 1, 5–8)

The Lord, He Is God
No sooner had Elias made his prayer than fire fell from heaven, consuming the holocaust, and the wood, the stones, and the dust, and licking up even the water that was in the trench. The people, beholding such a wonder, fell on their faces, confessing the one true God, the God of Israel, and saying, «And when all the people saw this, they fell on their faces, and they said: The Lord he is God, the Lord he is God» (3 Kings 18:39).  Here again, the confession of the people, «beholding such a wonder», is perfected and consummated in the utterance of Saint Thomas in the presence of the risen Christ after the holocaust of the Cross: «Thomas answered, and said to him: My Lord, and my God» (John 20:28).


Elias, burning with a holy passion, ordered the massacre of the prophets of Baal. Herein lies the pattern of every act of mortification — that is, of putting to death of all things «Baalistic» in ourselves. It must be merciless and entire, sparing nothing, following the injunction of the Apostle:

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, lust, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is the service of idols. For which things the wrath of God cometh upon the children of unbelief. (Colossians 3:6)

Breaking the Fast
And on that day the God of Israel was revealed great and glorious on his holy mountain. The sacrifice being carried out, it was permitted to break the ritual fast. Our Lord Himself alludes to this ancient ritual practice of the sacrificial fast when He says, «And Jesus said to them: Can the children of the bridegroom mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast» (Matthew 9:15).  The immolation of the Lamb calls for fasting; the triumph of the Lamb signals the end of the fast and the beginning of the feast. From this derives the ancient and universal discipline of the Church in East and West by which priests and faithful do not break their fast until after the Holy Sacrifice. The tradition of Carmel, articulated in Chapter XVI of the Rule of Saint Albert, has always cherished fasting and seen it in relationship to the Holy Sacrifice of the Cross. The great season of fasting is calculated to fall between the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, recalling the immolation of the Lamb, and Pascha, the glorious festival of the Resurrection.

You are to fast every day, except Sunday, from the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross until Pascha, unless bodily sickness or feebleness, or some other good reason, demand a dispensation from the fast; for necessity overrides every law. (Rule of Saint Albert, Chapter XVI)

The daily Eucharistic fast is a smaller version of the great fast. One fasts until the hour of the Holy Sacrifice, and one breaks one’s fast after the descent of the mystic fire and consummation of the Victim.

Waiting for the Promised Rain

Elias sends Achab off to eat and drink, and announces to him the end of the drought, the arrival of a rushing rain. Elias ascends to the height of Carmel there to await the promised rain. This is the essence of all Carmelite prayer: a confident waiting for the promised rain. One should be able to ask any Carmelite surprised in the act of oración (mental prayer), «What are you doing there?» and receive the answer, «I am waiting for the promised rain». This is the disposition of the psalmist:

O God, thou art my God; how eager my quest for thee, body athirst and soul longing for thee, like some parched wilderness, where stream is none! So in the holy place, I contemplate thee, ready for the revelation of thy greatness, thy glory. (Psalm 62:2–3)

Elias bows low upon the earth, putting his face between his knees in prayer. Have you ever tried to do this? I suppose that one needs to be young and limber to do it without mortally embarrassing oneself. All the same, Elias demonstrates here that prayer — even so–called mental prayer — necessarily  engages the body. It is not the body that follows the movement of the soul; it is, rather, the soul that follows the movement of the body. This, of course, is borne out in the pedagogy of the liturgy which, on various occasions, bids us stand, kneel, walk, bow, kneel, and even lie prostrate.  The so–called mental prayer of the Carmelite, the secret prayer of the cell, fittingly makes use of the ritual gestures of the sacred liturgy.

Perseverance in Prayer

Seven times Elias sends his servant to look out over the sea. Seven times the servant ascends the ten terraces of the holy mountain to the summit. Seven, a symbolic number, means many, many times. Herein lies the secret of Carmelite prayer: perseverance, even when one’s prayer seems useless and ineffectual.

And he said to his servant: Go up, and look towards the sea. And he went up, and looked, and said: There is nothing. And again he said to him: Return seven times. And at the seventh time, behold, a little cloud arose out of the sea like a man’s foot. (3 K 18:43–44).

In the little cloud, nubecula parva, rising over the blue Mediterranean, the tradition of Carmel contemplates a mysterious sign of the Virgin Mary. Today’s feast invites us to ascend the holy mountain that we, in the company of Elias, of his obedient servant, and of all the saints of Carmel, might fix our gaze upon the little cloud and, in the celebration of the holy mysteries, experience its secret. The Carmelite understanding of the little cloud is fourfold.

I. The Immaculate Conception

The first mystery of the little cloud is that it announces the birth of a child who, even in her conception, would be perfect in holiness, free of the oppressive weight of sin. The saints of Carmel love to dwell on the contrast between the sea, heavy, muddy, and murky, and the cloud, vaporous, clean, and shot through with heavenly light. The sea was, for the Israelites, inhabited by fabulous monsters and terrifying dragons; it was the abode of dark and mysterious forces. The little cloud rises pure and sweet in the heavens above the capricious and threatening tumult of the waves. The deeper sense of this interpretation has to do with the immaculate Virgin’s capacity to receive the glory of the Word under the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost. In the most pure heart of Mary the grace of God finds a space of unimpeded deployment; the Spirit of God finds a place of unsurpassed fecundity. We read in an ancient text of Carmel: «She was that cloud of which Moses wrote figuratively, ‹Behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in a cloud›» (The Book of the First Monks, Chapter 32).

II. The Birth of the Virgin Mary

The second mystery of the little cloud (that appears only after seven journeys up the ten terraces of Carmel) is the birth of the Virgin Mary in the seventieth generation after Adam, according to the genealogy of Saint Luke.  The tradition of Carmel cherishes a mystical familiarity with the Virgin; Carmel is fragrant with the presence of Mary. The sons and daughters of Carmel know the unmistakable traces of her presence; they recognize the fall of her feet upon the holy mountain; they hold themselves ready for her visitations. No Carmelite better exemplifies this mystical familiarity with the Virgin than the seventeenth century recluse, Mary of Saint Teresa (Marie de Sainte–Thérèse) Petyt (1623-1677). Under the guidance of her father spiritual, Michael of Saint Augustine, Mary of Saint Teresa came to live at every moment in the presence of Mary. She even wrote of her experience, leaving a testimony of this distinctively Carmelite grace. Three centuries later, Mother Mary of Jesus (1851–1942), the foundress of thirty–three Carmels in Britain, exemplified the same grace: life in the silence of Mary.

III. The Knowledge of Circumcision

The third mystery of the little cloud derives from the meaning of the word Carmel. Carmel means «knowledge of circumcision». This is the knowledge given to those who freely make themselves over to God alone in virginity of the flesh, the mind, and the heart. The tradition of Carmel holds that Elias and his disciples were the first men of the Old Dispensation to dedicate themselves to God in the state of virginity. The Virgin Mary, Queen of the Prophets and Joy of Israel, is thus revealed as an imitator of Elias. Jesus himself proclaims, «Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God»(Matthew 5:8). The Carmelites of the New Dispensation are those men and women who, by the circumcision of the heart, become seers of God. The title of the book of the soon–to–be Blessed Marie–Eugène de l’Enfant Jésus, I Want to See God, thus synthesises the whole grace of Carmel. To be a Carmelite is to be one consumed by the desire to see God, or, as Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity put it, «It is to live with my eyes in His eyes».

IV. Born of the Virgin

The fourth mystery of the little cloud is that the Son of God is born of the Virgin. «Behold the heavens grew dark, with clouds, and wind, and there fell a great rain.» (1 Kings 18:45). The prayer characteristic of Carmel is the prayer of longing for the breeze of the Holy Ghost, of thirsting for the drenching rain of the Word in the time of inner drought. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity exemplifies this prayer when she says:

O consuming Fire, Spirit of Love, come down upon me, and bring about in my soul a kind of incarnation of the Word: that I may be for Him another humanity in which He can renew His whole Mystery. And You, O Father, bend lovingly over Your poor little creature; cover her with Your shadow, seeing in her only the Beloved in whom You are well pleased.

Wheresoever the Virgin Mary is, there too is the wind of the Holy Ghost and the downpour of grace in Christ.  Carmelites, persevering in prayer, love to fix their gaze upon the little cloud rising above the sea, for in the presence of that little cloud they perceive, with the eyes of faith, the promise of an end to every drought, the certainty of the grace of Jesus Christ descending like the rain, restoring brightness to every colour, rendering fruitful every dry and lifeless shoot.

To the Holy Mountain
In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we are given more than the little cloud on the horizon; we are given the very reality it signifies and, not the cloud alone, but with it the wind of the Holy Ghost and the driving rain of Christ upon our thirsty hearts. Mary, the Beauty of Carmel, is present to all who keep her feast today. Mary is the little cloud who sends us from the solitude in which each one ponders the law of the Lord day and night (cf. Psalm 1:2; Joshua 1:8), keeping watch in prayer (cf. 1 Peter 4:7), to the Church’s holy mountain, the altar of the Holy Sacrifice. Invisibly, over the altar will break the mighty storm of the Holy Ghost and, then, into our hearts will fall with the fury of a great rain (3 Kings 18:45), or with the «the whisper of a gentle breeze» (3 Kings 19:11), that Elias also knew well, the indescribable torrent of love.

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