CARMEN - 16th July
Back in May,
the town of Nerja paid its annual hommage to the patron saint of
the land, San Isidro. But the towns economy traditionally
encompassed the sea as well, and this month its time to remember
how dangerous and for how little reward these waters have been worked
down the years. Few people are more superstitious than the people
who work on the sea, so its unsurprising that they have a
much revered patron, La Virgen del Carmen, to watch over them and
to whom they direct their prayers, and she is honoured on the 16th
July in coastal towns and villages all over Spain, as well as in
the Spanish navy.
the late afternoon of this day in Nerja, the Virgin, with the Infant
Jesus in her arms and a halo of light above her head, is collected
from her altar in the El Salvador church on the Balcón de
Europa. She is placed upon a flower-decked throne and carried to
the beach. Her bearers are local fishermen or members of the Virgins
cofradía, who will typically wear a white top,
a red sash, trousers rolled up to the knees, and nothing on their
feet. Just off shore, a flotilla of brightly-decked craft await
her. On arrival at the Calahonda beach on the eastern side of the
Balcón, and sea conditions permitting, she is placed, not
without difficulty, on a little boat. Then out to sea she goes on
her mission to bestow her blessing and protection for another year
on Nerjas waters, her entourage of enthusiastic vessels accompanying
her, many whizzing backwards and forwards in barely-contained excitement.
dusk falls, a claustrophic mass of people collects to watch from
the Balcón, with some of them spilling down the path to the
beach. All are waiting for her return, when a fine display of fireworks
pays a joyous and noisy tribute to her, while shrouding her and
everything else on the water in thick smoke. When that is over,
she is hauled back onto the beach, as people brush ash from their
clothes and hair, small boys collect the fallen rocket sticks from
the sand, and stressed-out birds return to their roosting perches
in the trees. Then, one of the great sights of the festive year
in Nerja: amid shouts of ¡Viva la Virgen del Carmen!
¡Viva! from her tired bearers, she is heaved up the
steep gradient back to the Balcón and her home in the church,
while a party or verbena gets under way outside.
The Virgin has
given her name, of course, to women all over Spain. To understand
where her name came from, however, we must travel to north-west
Palestine, not far from the port of Haifa. There stands a low mountain
range containing Mount Carmel, which has been considered a holy
place for millennia. The name of the mountain means something like
fertile garden, which explains why the word carmen
is also used in Granada to describe villas with fine gardens or
orchards. It was on Mount Carmen that the Old Testament prophet
Elijah had a famous confrontation with the four hundred and fifty
false prophets of Baal. Elijah was determined to defend the purity
of his peoples faith from corruption by the worshippers of
Baal, and succeeded by means of an impressive miracle involving
fire from on high and a rain storm which ended a three-year drought.
This would later be interpreted by the Catholic Church as a sign
or message from the Virgin Mary that through her Son there would
be a rain of grace on sinners.
Mountbecame a place where pious former pilgrims or crusaders would
go to live as hermits in search of spiritual perfection and sanctity,
following the example of Elijah. They lived a tough and lonely life
of silence and they called themselves the Brothers of Saint Mary
of Mount Carmel. Thus was born the Roman Catholic Carmelite order
in the 12th century. With the failure of the crusades in the 13th
century, the monks left Palestine for Europe, some settling in England,
where St Simon Stock would become their leader. It was a difficult
time for the order, and Simon prayed for help to the Virgin Mary.
She responded by appearing to him in a vision on the 16th
July, 1251. She also brought him a gift, a garment consisting of
two pieces of brown cloth which were tied together at the shoulder.
It was called a scapula, and the vision informed Simon that the
wearer of the scapula could be assured of her protection and salvation
from the fires of Hell. The scapula henceforth became a symbol of
the Carmelite Order and also of those lay people who wanted to manifest
their association with the order by wearing one under their clothes.
years later in Spain two famous saints would become involved in
reforming the order. The formidable Saint Teresa of Ávila
was convinced the order was going soft and founded the much stricter
branch called the discalced or barefoot order of the
Carmelites (although in fact they wore sandals). At her monastery
in Ávila she imposed strict rules of poverty and constant
abstinence on her nuns. She also persuaded St John of the Cross,
the great Spanish mystic and poet, to set up similar institutions
for men, which got him into considerable trouble with the authorites.
But why did
the Virgen del Carmen become the patron saint of seafarers? (It
is a role she shares, incidentally, with St Elmo of St Elmos
Fire fame.) The answer seems to lie in her symbolism: for a long
time, the people who travelled the seas and oceans of the world
depended on the stars in the night sky to guide them. In a similar
way, so the reasoning goes, Mary guides her followers through the
difficult waters of life, like a star of the sea. Hence the words
to her hymn, known to Spanish sailors everywhere, the Salve
Marinera, which translated reads as follows:
Star of the seas,
of the seas,
of eternal good fortune.
oh Phoenix of beauty
of divine love!
the sorrows of your people.
our fervent cry reach unto heaven
to Thee, and to Thee.
Star of the seas!
You can listen to the episode below.