The prophet Elijah saw a cloud on Mt. Carmel that was later interpreted as a symbol of Mary.
The Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on July 16 each year, remembering a vision of the Virgin Mary to St. Simon Stock.
However, this Carmelite vision is not the origin of devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, as many religious before St. Simon were devoted to the Virgin Mary, based on a passage from the Bible.
In the book of Kings, the prophet Elijah ascends Mt. Carmel to intercede for the people during a severe drought. After praying fervently, a cloud approaches and brings rain to the people.
[W]hile Elijah went up to the top of Carmel, crouched down to the earth, and put his head between his knees. He said to his servant, “Go up and look out to sea.” He went up and looked, but reported, “There is nothing.” Seven times he said, “Go look again!” And the seventh time the youth reported, “There is a cloud as small as a man’s hand rising from the sea.” Elijah said, “Go and say to Ahab, ‘Harness up and go down the mountain before the rain stops you.'” All at once the sky grew dark with clouds and wind, and a heavy rain fell.1 Kings 18:42-45
According to the book, A Loving Presence, Mary and Carmel: A study of the Marian Heritage of the Order by Fr. Christopher O’Donnell, this passage was first interpreted as a symbol of Mary by a 14th-century Carmelite.
Baconthorpe seems to have been the first to view the small cloud seen by Elijah (1 Kings 18:44) as a symbol of Mary: after the drought it restored the fruitfulness of the earth.“The love of God descended on Mary….and through Mary the rains of mercy and grace descended on what was dried up, and thus restored all things.”
This was further reinforced by another Carmelite monk in the 14th century.
A fundamental idea which [Ribot] developed was a spiritual, somewhat arbitrary interpretation of the little cloud seen by Elijah (see 1 Kings 18:44). The key to its Marian symbolism is that the cloud of pure rain, that is Mary, arose from the bitter, salty sea, which is the image of sinful humanity. The prophet received by divine illumination four mysteries about the future redemption of the human race which he communicated to his followers:
* the birth of the future redeemer from a virgin-mother who from her origin would be free from any stain of sin;
* the time when this would be accomplished;
* the deliberate decision of the future mother to keep herself always virgin, consecrated to the service of the Lord;
* the fecundity of her virginity, foreshadowed by the rain, which would relieve the condition of humankind.
This is one of the reasons that the Carmelite Order counts the prophet Elijah as one of its founders.
To this day Carmelites continue to see this cloud as a beautiful symbol of Mary, and it is often featured in artwork in their monasteries.