The Brown Scapular: Garment of Our Lady

The Church celebrates the memorial of Our Lady of Mount Carmel every year on the 16th of July. During the apparitions at Fatima in the year 1917, the Blessed Virgin Mary normally wore a white habit with gold trim and a gold belt at her waist. But during her apparition to the children when the miracle of the sun occurred, she appeared wearing the Carmelite brown habit representing the glorious mysteries of the Rosary. Before that, Mary had appeared to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes around 18 times (from February to July 1858). On 16th of July (commemoration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel), Bernadette went for the last time to the Grotto and reported, “I have never seen her so beautiful before.”

The Commemoration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, instituted around 1374, was originally a celebration of profound thanksgiving for all the graciousness that Mary had shown to the Carmelite Order, helping it through many tempests and crises. Two centuries later, when the scapular devotion had taken the Catholic world by storm, the celebration on 16th July became a Scapular feast, not only of the Carmelites but of the universal Church. The scapular devotion has worked wonders in the lives of many people. But do we really know its deep spiritual significance? Let us try to understand this sign of Mary’s protection, better.Origin:The English word “scapular” is derived from the Latin, “scapulae”, which means “shoulders.”  Originally, scapulars were somewhat like aprons, worn by Benedictine monks and nuns. The Rule of St. Benedict in the sixth or seventh century, required that the monks used their religious habits most of the time, and even at night. On the other hand, the Rule emphasized the importance of manual labour, in the monastery itself, or in the garden, or, even in the fields. To protect the habit from getting soiled, aprons were introduced in the course of time. These aprons were called “scapulars.” In the course of more time, the scapulars became part of the monastic habit, and continued to be adapted to the different forms of life-style associated with the Benedictine Rule: Cluniacs, Carthusians, Cistercians, Camaldolese, Trappists; and later passed on to the new forms of religious life, like the mendicants, among whom were the Franciscans, Dominicans and Carmelites.

The Carmelite Tradition:The Carmelites have a very special tradition regarding the scapular. In 1251 the General of the Order, St. Simon Stock, implored the help of the Virgin chanting “Flos Carmeli” bountiful life, splendour of heaven, Virgin singular mother, protect your Carmelite sons. In the same year, it is traditionally reported that on 16th of July the Virgin appeared to him and gave him the holy scapular with these words: “receive my son this habit of the Order, which will be for you and for all the Carmelites the privilege of my love. Who dies with this will not suffer the fire of hell.” Arnold Bostius is one of the most eloquent fifteenth century spokesmen of this Carmelite tradition. This mariologist eulogizes the merits of the scapular, considering the scapular, a sacramental to which the Church  attaches indulgences and other spiritual effects. Bostius calls it a sign of unity and a bond of charity. He reminds the scapular wearer of his/her commitment to Mary: “to invoke her in necessities, to contemplate her life and virtues, to live in dependence on her.” Bostius also informs us of the custom of some lay folk who wished to join the confraternity of Our Lady, and secretly wore this garment and armour of the Order during their life-time, and wished to die wearing the scapular.

Biblical Connection:Today, instead of emphasizing on the scapular vision, we are invited to give more biblical and theological reasons for this practice which has been approved in the Church and promoted by many Popes. What is said in the Bible about the significance and symbolism of clothing, can be summarized in the words of Henry Cardinal Vaughan in a Pastoral Letter he wrote to the faithful: “The Holy Scriptures themselves show us that from the earliest times the bestowal of a garment has been used as an indication of love and favour. The Patriarch Jacob gave his favourite son Joseph, a many-coloured tunic as a sign of special love; Jonathan stripped himself of the coat with which he was clothed and gave it to David because he loved him as his soul. Elias ascending to heaven bestowed his cloak upon Eliseus as a sign of the descent upon him of his own prophetic spirit.”

We learn of how Mary wrapped her Son with love and affection in swaddling clothes.  Later, in his parables, Jesus speaks of the wedding garment required to take part in a wedding banquet (cfr. Mt 22:11). Further in the New Testament, Paul urges believers “to put on Christ.”  Finally, in the letter to the Ephesians, we read: “Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the enemy’s treachery” (6:11).

In the proto-history of the Carmelite Order, the scapular has a Christological significance, referring to the “yoke of Christ,” rather than a Marian significance. Whether we consider the scapular as symbolizing the “armour of God” or the “mantle of Mary,” the essential requirement is that we retain the garment of grace without which we shall not be admitted to the Heavenly Banquet. The interior armour of God are the sterling virtues of our Queen and Mother, Mary and the scapular is a standing invitation to imitate her faith, love, humility and fortitude. Scapular wearers should cooperate with Mary who tells them what she told the servants when the wine failed at the wedding-feast of Cana: “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:5).

Ecclesiastical Approval:No wonder that Popes and church documents have repeatedly recommended the use of the Carmelite scapular, as they have recommended the rosary.
Pope Pius XII writes: … Whoever wears “the scapular professes to be like the knight of the thirteenth century — the era to which the scapular traces its origin — who was inspired to bravery and confidence in combat under the eyes of his lady.”

Pope St John Paul II addressed a message to the Carmelite Family in 2001 (the 750th anniversary of the bestowal of the scapular) and ended it with these words: “I too have worn the scapular of Carmel over my heart for a long time!”
A person can be enrolled in the scapular only once. Traditionally it is done on the day of the First Holy Communion. The scapular can be replaced with a medal, which has on one side the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and on the other, the image of Mary. There is a special rite of blessing and enrolling, which should preferably take place within a community celebration. All priests and deacons have the faculties to conduct this rite and bless scapulars.

Fr. Silvestre D’Souza OCD (Superior, Carmelite Monastery, Aquem, Margao, Goa)