I first heard about the herbal tonic called Carmelite Water 10 years ago. It was during either my postulancy or novitiate in the Order of the Discalced Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, also known as the Discalced Carmelites.
It was during one of our meal times that our prior, along with some of the older friars, shared memories of their younger days. There was much laughter when the subject of Karmelitengeist came up in conversation.
Karmelitengeist, which our prior swore would put hair on one’s chest, has been distilled by the Carmelites of Regensburg since 1721. Made from various herbs, the 75% alcohol spirit is used to treat a range of ailments from headaches to indigestion. Judging by the stories I heard at table that day, some novices also used it to lift their spirits.
Determined to find out more about the spirit, I hunted through books in the priory library, and then turned to Google. I managed to find a list of ingredients, and then tried to find out how one would go about turning them into Karmelitengeist. What I found out made it clear that there was no way I would distil anything like it any time soon.
It was during those searches that I came across mentions of Carmelite Water, which, from what I could tell, seemed to be an earlier version of Karmelitengeist. Most of the references I found indicated that Carmelite Water was also distilled, so I didn’t explore it any further.
As fate would have it, I managed to get my hands on a small bottle of Karmelitengeist a few months later, and that was that, at least until 2015.
The Mystical Order
The Carmelite Order, known for contemplative prayer and a strong mystical tradition, has its beginnings in 12th century Israel. The Order was formed when crusaders gave up their warlike ways, became hermits on Mount Carmel, and dedicated themselves to lives of prayer.
They built a chapel in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who they named, in chivalric tradition, as the “Lady of the Place”. It was from St Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, that they received their Rule of Life. Central to Rule is the command to “[ponder] the Lord’s law day and night and [keep] watch at… prayer”.
The legend of the Order links those early hermits with a group of prophets that had allegedly made Mount Carmel their home from the time of the prophet Elijah (it was on Carmel’s heights that the fiery prophet challenged the priests of Baal, and then prayed for rain to end the drought. The small white cloud that rose out of the sea has been interpreted as a sign of the Virgin Mary and the Saviour to whom she would give birth. Cf. 1 Kings chapters 17 – 19).
In the 13th century, Muslim invaders drove the Carmelites from their home on the holy mountain, the beauty of which is enshrined in the pages of sacred scripture. According to legend, the last remaining hermits on the mountain chanted the Salve Regina even as they were butchered. The hermits fled to Europe, and established Carmels in various countries, including England; the priory at Aylesford, Kent, being one of their first foundations.
It was around this time that the Rule was altered slightly. The hermits became mendicant friars, which meant that they were not bound to any one place, and they could engage in active, apostolic ministry. The Order also grew to include nuns and secular people (tertiaries).
In the 14th century, a tradition arose in which it was claimed that the Virgin Mary had appeared to St Simon Stock, one of the English prior generals, a hundred years earlier, and had given him the scapular (a garment worn over the tunic; it hangs down the front and the back, over the shoulders, like a long apron) as a sign of salvation. The brown scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, as a sign of consecration to Mary, remains a popular sacramental.
In 16th century Spain, the Order went through a reform driven by St Teresa of Jesus (Avila) and St John of the Cross. It was then that the Order split into two branches; the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance, which followed a much mitigated Rule, and the Discalced Carmelites, which followed an older, stricter form of the Rule.
So profound and insightful are Teresa and John’s writings on prayer and mystical theology, drawn from their own deep and rich experience, that both saints were declared Doctors of the Church. Furthermore, Teresa’s Interior Castle and Way of Perfection and John’s Dark Night of the Soul are regarded as classic works on prayer and the spiritual life by many non-Christians as well.
The heroic sanctity of Carmel doesn’t end there. The Order has continued to see its children bring forth the fruits of grace. Lawrence of the Resurrection, Therese of Liseux, Titus Brandsma, Elizabeth of the Trinity, and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) are just some of the heroic men and women of Carmel.
Edith Stein and Titus Brandsma are of especial relevance to the modern world, as both of them were imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Me
The time I spent in Carmel was my second attempt at responding to what I felt to be the call to priesthood and the religious life. Initially, I had joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (the Redemptorists), but realised very quickly that I was more drawn to contemplation and mysticism than to moral theology and missions.
I left the Redemptorists six months into my postulancy, and returned to life in the working world. Two or three years later, I entered the Discalced Carmelite Order. However, after 14 intense months, I realised that, while I had been called to Carmel for a time, it was not going to be a life-long thing.
Leaving the novitiate in April 2007 was difficult and devastating. A childhood dream lay dead, and I had to say goodbye to a life, to people, to friends, to a country I had grown to love. Carmel forced me to ask difficult questions and to face difficult truths; it provided me with new insights and taught me to pray anew. It offered me the opportunity to learn, to laugh, to sing, and to sob; to share the joys and sorrows of those around me; to nurse the sick, and to comfort the dying.
However, Our Lady of Mount Carmel was not quite finished with me. My formal association with the Order had come to an end (although I remain spiritually associated through the wearing of the brown scapular), but the process instigated by Herself had only just begun.
As painful as it was to leave, it was necessary. The Order gave me some of my most precious and treasured memories, and put me firmly on the path that led me to encounter God and myself in ways I had never imagined were possible. Nine years later, I can look back on my time with the Order, and on my life since leaving, and marvel at what has come to pass.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whose feast day is 16 July, has shown Herself to be Initiatrix, Queen, and Mother; so much so, that I can echo the words of Michael of Saint Augustine:
“…make a practice of offering yourself especially, and all you have, to this your most loveable Mother; and as you do all you have to do in the word of the Lord, do it also in the word – in the name – of Mary. Commit yourself to her completely. Have recourse to her as the best of teachers; consult her as the most prudent of virgins; in a word, conduct yourself as befits a good son, and you will learn by experience that she is ‘the Mother of fair love and holy hope,’ in whom you may expect to receive ‘every grace of life and truth,’ and in whom ‘every hope of life and virtue’ will shine before you; nor will she ever cease to obtain for you the graces you need to persevere in true devotion.
“Indeed you will find her a ‘well of living water.’
“At the hour of your death she will not refuse to ‘say she is your sister,’ indeed your Mother, so that then more than ever ‘it may be well with you, and your soul may live by virtue of her grace.’
“If you lead a devout life in her honour and service you will surely deserve to breathe your last in her love, and be joyfully borne to the haven of salvation in her maternal arms; for to him who loves Mary ‘it will go well at the last.'” – from The Mystical Instruction of Michael of Saint Augustine
A Tonic for Mind, Body and Soul
How I eventually came to make my own Carmelite Water last year has little to do with the Order itself. I’ve long had a passion for herbal medicine, and began exploring wortcunning, a curious blend of herbalism and folklore, as part of my wider traditional craft practice.
One of the books I’ve turned to, time and again, is the Element Encyclopaedia of 5000 Spells by Judika Illes. The book is exactly what it proclaims itself to be on the cover. Organised by category, it contains spells, charms, rites, and rituals from different cultures around the world.
While not all of the spells use herbs, the vast majority of them do, and at the back of the book is an incredibly handy formulary that contains, among other things, a recipe for Carmelite Water.
In her introduction to the recipe, Illes wrote:
“This formula was first created for King Charles V of France in 1379 by the Carmelite Sisters… Melissa is the crucial ingredient… its presence, fragrance and lemony flavour should predominate…
“Carmelite Water was originally intended for healing purposes and may be taken internally. Make sure all ingredients are safe for consumption. A typical dose is the size of a wine glass, consumed with or after dinner.
“Bathe in Carmelite Water to facilitate the dream process. It allegedly stimulates fun, happy dreams. [It] is a favourite Pow-Wow potion to cure headaches, protect against poison, break hexes, and as an elixir of longevity.” – The Element Encyclopaedia of 5000 Spells, Judika Illes
Finding the recipe brought back happy memories of my quest for Karmelitengeist, so I thought I’d give it a bash. I was so delighted by the results that I now make it regularly. In my experience, it certainly does improve the mood, aid restful sleep, and promote happy dreams. In fact, after a few days of taking it regularly, shortly before going to bed, I felt ready to take on the world.
The recipe says to let the herbs steep in the alcohol for at least seven days. I did that the first time I made it. The second time, however, I let it steep for two weeks, and it did make a difference. The liquid was clearer once the sediment had settled, and it made for a smoother drink.
I must add that I do not drink it by the wine glass. Instead, I take one tablespoon in a small glass of water, and it still works its magic.
Herbs of Carmelite Water
DISCLAIMER: The information below is published purely for educational purposes. It does not constitute any medical advice whatsoever, and it does not replace medical attention or diagnosis. Please consult a qualified healthcare practitioner for the diagnosis and treatment of any ailment, disease, or medical condition.
I turned to Jane’s Delicious Herbs by Jane Griffiths and the Home Herbal by Penelope Ody to find out more about the properties of the herbs that go into the making of Carmelite Water. After reading what she had to say about them, I’m not surprised the stuff is said to promote longevity!
- Melissa (Melissa officinalis): cooling, drying, slightly bitter, sedative, lowers fever, antidepressant, antiviral, relieves spasms, antibacterial, relieves flatulence.
- Angelica (Angelica archangelica): warming and stimulating, relieves inflammation, relieves spasms, pain reliever, detoxifier, strengthens immune system, expels phlegm. Caution: Not to be taken internally by pregnant women or diabetes sufferers.
- Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum): carminative, antispasmodic, prevents vomiting.
- Coriander (Coriandrum sativum): warming, detoxifying, aids digestion, pain reliever, stimulates appetite and libido, reduces cholesterol.
- Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans): carminative, digestive stimulant, antispasmodic, prevents vomiting, stimulates appetite, anti-inflammatory. Caution: Avoid during pregnancy.
- Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum): warming digestive remedy, tonic effect on kidneys, stimulates circulation, treats colds.
- Lemon (Citrus limon): a rich source of vitamin C and antioxidants (according to the Livestrong website).
Judika Illes’ Carmelite Water Recipe (Paraphrased)
3 tablespoons chopped Melissa (I used the dried herb)
3 tablespoons chopped Angelica root
1 tablespoon cloves
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
1 whole nutmeg
1 stick cinnamon
Juice of 1 lemon
Pour the vodka into a wide-mouthed bottle, and add the herbs and lemon juice. Seal the bottle, and allow it to steep for at least seven days, shaking the bottle once daily. Strain and enjoy.
- Not everyone wants to or can drink alcohol, so here’s Illes’ recipe for non-alcoholic Carmelite Tea:
Roughly chop fresh Melissa.
Place a small handful into a mug and add a cinnamon stick, five cloves, and ¼ teaspoon coriander seeds. Make a strong infusion by pouring boiling water over the botanicals.
Let it steep for at least five minutes, strain, and drink.