Connecting Faith and Life
On July 16, the Church celebrates Our Lady of Mount Carmel. For most Catholics, devotion to Mary under this title is invariably linked to the brown scapular, which consists of two small pieces of brown cloth joined by string. It’s worn over the shoulders (scapula), with one piece on the chest and one on the back. Although its appearance may be familiar, its meaning might not be as well known. To this end, “The Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel: Catechesis and Ritual,” prepared by the Carmelite Provincials of North America, is a good source (the quotes herein are from this booklet).
For some religious orders, a scapular is part of their habit. Historically, monastic orders used it as a work apron. It’s made of two long rectangular panels that hang, one in front, and one in back, over the tunic. During the Middle Ages, lay people wished to visibly show their association with the spirit and mission of certain religious orders. Those who wished to be affiliated with the Carmelites were given a miniature version of the Carmelite scapular, hence the origin of the brown scapular. Consequently, there’s an unbreakable bond between the brown scapular and Carmel, which makes it important to understand Carmel’s relationship with Mary.
The Blessed Virgin is the Patroness of the Carmelite Order, and Carmelites look to her in a special way as their Mother, Sister, and Model in conforming their lives to Jesus Christ. Tradition holds that St. Simon Stock, a Carmelite, received a vision of Our Lady holding the scapular in her hand and offering it to him as a sign of her intercession and protection over the Carmelite Order. As a mother clothes her child, Mary clothes her children in Carmel, assisting them with her prayers and merits, and this is extended to all those who wear the brown scapular.
It would be a grievous superstition to reduce this special sign of Mary’s maternal love and protection to the equivalent of an amulet, an automatic assurance of salvation, or an excuse to live contrary to the Gospel. Moreover, it’s a commitment to live the sacraments and to devote oneself to Mary, praying at least three Hail Marys each day. It’s a “decision to follow Jesus, like Mary: open to God and to His will; guided by faith, hope and love; close to the needs of people; praying at all times; discovering God present in all that happens around us.” Wearing the scapular entails responsibility, and the privileges associated with it “would be meaningless without the wearers living and dying in the state of grace, observing chastity according to their state in life, and living a life of prayer and penitence.”
On a practical level, a person is enrolled in the scapular only once, using the cloth scapular. After enrollment, the cloth scapular may be substituted with a medal that has an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on one side and an image of Our Lady on the other. If the scapular breaks, a replacement one does not need to be blessed again, and the broken one, as with other blessed items, should be burned or buried.
At its deepest level, the scapular’s meaning is best summed up in the prayer said during enrollment: “Wear this sign as a reminder of the presence of Mary in your daily commitment to be clothed in Jesus Christ and to manifest him in your life for the good of the Church and the whole of humanity, and to the glory of the Most Blessed Trinity.” Our Lady of Mount Carmel, pray for us!
Joel Padgett is director of the Diocese of Evansville Office of Catechesis.