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The Sign of the Scapular

Soon after becoming a Catholic, I started collecting “Catholicana” to hang about my neck. Eventually I was wearing a brown scapular, a crucifix, and a “dog tag” chain with twenty or more holy medals. No joke, people could always tell when I was approaching by the clinking of my medals. I liked to think of that necklace as my “cloud of witnesses.” One day the chain broke, and I never replaced it. The only sacramental I continued to wear was my brown scapular.

Why was the brown scapular special to me? Frankly, it was not because of the so-called “scapular promise” attached to the scapular, attributed to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in which she is believed to have promised St. Simon Stock that “Those who die wearing this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.” No, the brown scapular was special to me because I had the privilege to be enrolled in the Confraternity of the Scapular during a visit to the Carmelite monastery on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land during the Jubilee Year 2000.

Unfortunately, many Catholics treat the promise attributed to the brown scapular quite superstitiously, as I was reminded by the reaction to my essay on superstitious prayers to St. Jude. In that blog post, I wrote:

For example, the brown scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is sometimes promoted with the promise that wearing it will ensure that the person who wears is guaranteed heaven. This guarantee is based on a misunderstanding of Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s promise to St. Simon Stock that “whosoever dies clothed in this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.” (In fact, that promise has been so misconstrued, even to this very day, that Carmelites now downplay that promise.)

My assertion that Carmelites today downplay the promise attributed to the brown scapular was scandalous to some readers, one of whom commented:

How does this sacramental stir up devotion in a person if there are no special promises or a special message attached to it? And what about those Carmelites who pushed the promises for a very, very long time? Were they fibbing? . . . You know, there are plenty of Protestant sites out there that mock the scapular. They would love to see that the Carmelites are now saying, “Oops!”

I hate to disillusion my reader, but while Carmelites of old cannot be said to have “fibbed,” modern Carmelites have been saying “Oops!” for quite some time now about some of the more extravagant claims made by Carmelites down through the centuries about the origins of the Carmelite order and the scapular entrusted to the Carmelites. Being a secular Carmelite myself, I have been one of the modern Carmelites who have said “Oops!” and tried to set the record straight.

From its very founding, the Carmelite order was unique from other orders founded at about the same time in history in that it had no known saintly founder. The Franciscans had St. Francis of Assisi, the Dominicans had St. Dominic; but the Carmelites’ exact historical origins have become obscure. To the best findings of current scholarly research, the Carmelites were founded by veterans of the Crusades, laymen and their military chaplains, who chose to retreat to Mount Carmel to live in peace as hermits. Sometime between 1206 and 1214, these men petitioned the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Albert Avogadro, to give them a rule of life. The result was the Rule of St. Albert, which inspires and guides Carmelite life to this day.

By the end of the 13th century, the Carmelites had become established in Europe, and simultaneously the remaining hermits on Mount Carmel were martyred during the fall of the region to the Saracens. Carmelites would not be able to return to Mount Carmel until the 17th century. One of the casualties of that tragedy was the loss of any archives that might have been maintained by the hermits living on Mount Carmel before their dispersion to Europe and eventual martyrdom. This in turn meant that the Carmelites have no known saintly founder, which was considered scandalous.

To fill that void, stories began to circulate that the Carmelites could trace their origins back in a direct chain to the prophet Elijah, who had long been associated with Mount Carmel and was believed to have lived as a hermit there (cf. 1 Kings 18); to all the prophets who followed him; and to Christ and his followers, some of whom it was asserted to continue to live as hermits on Mount Carmel down through the ages. This origin story sparked a great deal of vigorous debate among historians for centuries, until eventually the weight of historical evidence indicated that there was no direct link between the prophet Elijah and the Carmelites (although Elijah is still considered a spiritual father to the order).

And, if it wasn’t enough to link themselves directly to Elijah, the Carmelites also began asserting a supernatural origin for their scapular—not the little piece worn by many Catholics today, but the large, full-length scapular that constituted a significant part of the Carmelite habit. When the order was establishing itself in Europe, the garb then worn by the hermits was appropriate to a Palestinian mountaintop but strange in Europe and looked upon with suspicion. Effort was made to alter the habit to something more suited to the society in which the Carmelites now had to live. Instituting the change was slow-going—that is, until the claim was made that the Virgin herself had handed a scapular to St. Simon (who, not coincidentally at all, was an early prior general of the Carmelites in Europe) and promised that “whosoever dies clothed in this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.”

Although the supernatural origins of the brown scapular have become as historically suspect as the origin story that names Elijah as direct founder of the Carmelites, the promise of eternal salvation attributed to the scapular ensured that it would eventually become a treasured sacramental—not just for the Carmelites but for all Catholics. Which, in turn, raises questions when modern Carmelites do their part to set the record straight. Such as:

Were the Carmelites of old “fibbing” about the brown scapular?

No, they firmly believed the origin story handed down to them. It’s taken centuries of historical research to sort out fact from pious fiction, and for centuries the pious fiction was passed on as God’s truth (literally).

Why would St. Simon Stock tell such a story about an apparition of the Virgin if it did not actually happen?

He may not have been the one to start the story. He may simply have passed on the word to his brother hermits that “This is your new habit, and you are to wear it as a matter of obedience or face the possibility of eternal damnation for refusing obedience to a lawful superior” (a means of binding consciences that would not have raised eyebrows during that time period in Church history). From there the directive could have been gilded in legend. Something similar happened with the origin story of St. Dominic and the rosary.

History ultimately is a story retold down through the centuries according to the unique perspective and personal agenda of its tellers. That doesn’t mean history is false, or a lie; it only means that history is not free of the effects of human frailty. If you are interested in reading more about the origins of the Carmelite order, I recommend Journey to Carith by Peter-Thomas Rohrbach, from which much of the history I recount here was drawn.

What has been done by the Church to clear up misconceptions about the brown scapular?

Not long after Vatican II, the feast day of St. Simon Stock was removed from the liturgical calendar of the Carmelite order. It was eventually decided that this step was not necessary, and so the feast day was restored—with the condition that the liturgy for his feast day could not contain mention of the vision of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the scapular that had been attributed to him.

Does the brown scapular have any value if there is no guarantee that the wearer will be saved?

Ah, and now we are back to the point of my original essay on superstition. As I said about the so-called “never-fail” novena to St. Jude:

As a rule of thumb, any time someone promises you that a prayer is never known to fail, or that participating in a devotion will guarantee you salvation, that should be seen as a red flag warning you of superstition. Even when the devotion is otherwise encouraged by the Church, you can be certain that the Church will never sanction “guarantees of salvation.” . . . Any prayer said sincerely, with love for God and devotion to his Mother and his saints, may be fruitful for the salvation of souls. What matters is the love and devotion offered by the person praying, not the words of the prayer or the formula of the devotion.

In 2000, as part of the commemoration of the 750th anniversary of the brown scapular, representatives of the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance and the Discalced Carmelites worked together to produce A Catechesis on the Brown Scapular. The purpose of the document was to clear away misconceptions and misunderstandings about the brown scapular, and to explain the true importance of the scapular:

The brown scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is best understood in the context of our Catholic faith. It offers us a rich spiritual tradition that honors Mary as the first and foremost of her Son’s disciples. This scapular is an outward sign of the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, our sister, mother, and queen. It offers an effective symbol of Mary’s protection to the Order of Carmel—its members, associates, and affiliates—as they strive to fulfill their vocation as defined by the Carmelite Rule of Saint Albert: “To live in allegiance to Jesus Christ.”

In short, the brown scapular is not a lucky charm or a guarantee of heaven. Rather, it is a sign of the devotion of Carmelites to Our Lady of Mount Carmel and her Son; and it is a sign of Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s love for and protection of the order that honors her as sister, mother, and queen.

Note: A version of this essay originally appeared on the blog, Peace, Joy, Pancakes (6/24/14). It is republished here with permission.


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