The Brown Scapular
A mother expecting her child may knit a sweater or a little blanket to protect it from the cold, or a pair of booties for its feet. The Blessed Virgin Mary prepared for the birth of the Infant Jesus. We read she wrapped Him in swaddling cloths that first Christmas night. What we may not have thought much about, is who wove those cloths. Why wouldn't it have been the Blessed Virgin herself? It strikes me as quite possible that she began weaving them during her visit with her kinswoman Elizabeth, and that she and her cousin wove for their expected children, as they talked and prayed together.
A Little Background
The Blessed Virgin is not only the physical mother of Jesus, but she is also our spiritual mother, and to a group of monks devoted to her, she gave a garment called a scapular with a special pledge attached to it. She promised to protect them in wearing it. The monks belonged to the Carmelite Order, and the scapular they received from the Virgin Mary was made of brown cloth, and is known as the Brown Scapular (Visualize in the above illustration a veil and the outline of a face in the third strand from the left).
The scapular is worn over the shoulders, and hangs down, both in front and back (It comes from scapula, the Latin word for shoulder). It goes over a tunic and began as a working garment to protect it, a kind of apron, and both are part of a religious attire called a habit.
And through the monks, it
was in turn given to the laity. The abbreviated form of
this Carmelite garment, the scapular laymen are enrolled in and wear,
consists of two small pieces of brown cloth joined by two narrow bands or
strings. It goes around the neck, with the strings
or bands resting on the shoulders
while the cloths themselves hang in front and in back. The benefits that
apply to the larger scapular also apply to this smaller one.
While it is a sacramental,
it is more than that. It is a sign of promise and protection on the part of
the Mother of God and men, and of dedication and devotion on the part of her
An important aspect of our part, is consecration, the giving of self to
her. And St. Louis Marie de Montfort says that the more one's consecrated to
Mary, the more one's consecrated to Jesus. The consecrated person,
through dedication to Mary, will serve her by doing things to bring souls to
her Son, and to Salvation.
But her benefits are not just in the next world or at its entrance.
She also extends to us protection from danger and peace in the
present world. The following are incidents of protection in this
world, accounts related by Rev. Howard
Rafferty, O. Carm., once the Provincial Director of the Third Order of
Carmelites in America.
In yet another incident, a French priest on a
pilgrimage to Switzerland, at a place called Einsiedeln, was on his way to
Mass when he remembered his scapular was back in his room. He went
back to get it. During Mass, a
young man drew a revolver and shot him in the
back, but the priest went on saying Mass. Afterwards, in the sacristy, the
abbot said he thought the gunman had missed him. When the priest's vestments
were taken off, "the bullet
was found adhering to the little brown Scapular."
As cloth is woven from separate strands, so the meanings of the scapular are woven from different strands of history and belief, loomed together you might say from a weft, centuries wide, and a warp, heaven high.
One of these historical strands is tied to the yoke, like oxen have. The yoke, by which these cattle serve man, goes around the neck, with the burden pressing against the shoulders in plowing and pulling. Our Lord spoke of faith as a burden to be borne. He said, "My yoke is sweet and My burden light."
The scapular took on a
spiritual meaning, hanging as it did from the shoulders. When the monk put
it on at the beginning of the day, it reminded him of his service for God
during the day.
In order to understand the scapular more fully, it's necessary to see it in this medieval setting, from which comes another strand for it. In the Middle Ages, before towns, commerce and industry, livelihood was dependent upon the land which belonged to the lords, and the people had to acquire the right to till the land from them. To become tenants, they became vassals to the lords to whom they paid homage. They served the lords, who in turn protected them.
These feudal ideas influenced religious practice. In a manner like the vassal before the lord, paying homage and receiving land, the friar presented himself before his superior, paid homage and received his habit. He looked upon God as his Master, and upon the superior as taking God's place. The scapular was an outward sign that he belonged to God.
The Tie to Mt. Carmel
But before we see the Carmelite friars upon the European scene, we must go back in history to the Holy Land, yet another strand. There at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, a highland juts out into its waters and upon it is Mt. Carmel, near the present-day Israeli city of Haifa. There, in the ninth century before Christ, the Prophet Elias and a largenumber of pagan priests had a contest to bring down fire upon their altars of sacrifice. The many priests of Phoenician god Baal, failed to bring it down, but Elias brought down the fire of the Lord, that not only burnt the offering, but the stones of the altar as well. The challenge demonstrated the power of Yahweh in contrast to the powerlessness of Baal.
Not long after this, Elias heard the sound of abundant rain. It was there on Mt. Carmel that Elias sent a servant to look toward the sea. The servant went but saw nothing. He was told to return seven times. On the seventh time, he saw a cloud that rose from the sea like a human foot, and the heavens grew dark, and a great rain fell on the parched region. Elias saw the Mother of the Messiah prefigured in this foot, and honored her coming, yet centuries off into the future.
The account of this cloud rising out of the sea, may refer to the words of God to the serpent after the Fall of Man. He said in Genesis, "I will put emnities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel." Mary rose pure from the muddied sea of humanity, and through her Christ brought the rain of grace to the parched earth, and humankind.
And there on Mt. Carmel, in time to follow, dwelt followers of Elias devoted to the Mother of God. In following Mary they found cleanliness of heart, and they regarded her as the Queen of that holy place. Carmel was her vineyard where they hoped for her guidance and protection.
They prayed for her coming, and when she came, she lived at Nazareth, not far from Carmel. There's a story that the Holy Family stopped there and rested on the way back from their sojourn in Egypt.The Crusaders found holy men living in caves there, hermits claiming succession to St. Elias. They'd built a chapel there dedicated to the Mother of God, the first to her in the world. In 1145 they were organized into a community, and later a monastery was built and they received a rule to live by.
Carmel Comes to Europe
The Crusaders took some back to France and England with them, and when the Mohammedan persecution grew in the Holy Land, imperiling the hermits, they decided to move to Europe. An old tradition says that before they left, Our Lady appeared to them while they were singing the Salve Regina, and told them she would be their Star of the Sea.
A few volunteered to remain at the monastery on Carmel, but in 1291 the hermits were wiped out by the Mohammedans and their monastery destroyed.
In Europe the hermits became friars and founded
houses, the main one was at Aylesford, England, where in 1245 Simon Stock
became their General. He was beset with troubles from within and without,
and even cries to disband the order whose ancient striped cloak was
unpopular. Maybe at times he longed for his former life in the forest.
It's said that as a youth he lived in the hollow of an oak, as a hermit.
Simon turned to Mary, in whose honor he'd taken his habit. As a vassal going to a lord, he besought her protection. On July 15th, 125l, he knelt all night in his cell, beseeching her to save the order. He prayed devoutly:
Flower of Carmel, Vine blossom-laden,
Splendor of heaven, Child-bearing maiden,
None equals thee!
O mother benign, Who no man didst know,
On all Carmel's children Thy favors bestow,
Star of the Sea!
She appeared with a multitude of angels in a flood of light during the early morning hours of the 16th, with a scapular in hand. She said, "Receive, my beloved son, this scapular of your Order. This shall be to you and to all Carmelites a privilege that whosoever dies clothed in this shall never suffer eternal fire. It is a badge of salvation, a protection in danger, a pledge of peace and eternal alliance." The scapular he received appears to have been loomed in heaven.
Consoled and inspired, he sent two Carmelites to the Holy Father who adopted their cause and placed the order under his protection. Simon wrote to all the Carmelite monasteries about the visit and promise. Miracles began to occur through the Scapular and devotion to it started to spread.
At first the scapular stayed within the order as a sign of profession and total consecration to her. But in the following century, lay people wanted to live the Marian life and share in the spiritual benefits. As a sign of affiliation, they were given a scapular. In time it spread to the whole church and it grew to become a leading devotion to Mary.
Popes and the Scapular
Vatican Council II (1962-1965) said in its
document Lumen Gentium that the practices and exercises of Marian
devotion "recommended by the teaching authority of the Church in the course
of centuries be highly esteemed." Pope Paul VI, who approved the Council
decrees, specifically endorsed the scapular. He said on February 2nd, 1965,
"Ever hold in great esteem the practices and exercises of devotion
to the Most Blessed Virgin which have been recommended for centuries by the
Magisterium of the Church. And among them we judge well to recall especially
the Marian rosary and the religious use of the scapular of Mt. Carmel."
Scapular in Our Time
On Carmel Elias called down fire, showing the power of God. Could it be that in our time, His power will manifest itself through the Woman of Carmel who will destroy the altar of atheism with the fire of the Holy Spirit. No other person enjoys Mary's special relationship to the Trinity. She's the first daughter of God the Father, mother of God the Son, and the spouse of God the Holy Spirit. Such honor, such privilege! And being the spouse of the Spirit, it would seem natural that they would work together in holiness.
The Spirit was manifest at Pentecost by "a sound from, heaven, as of a
mighty wind coming" and there appeared "parted tongues as it were of fire."
On October 13th, 1917, when Mary appeared at Fatima, there may've also been
a sign of the Holy Spirit, in the wind.
that as soon as the sun resumed its place in the sky, the wind started
blowing very hard without the trees moving at all. The wind blew
and blew "and in a few minutes the ground was as dry as the floor here.
Even our clothes had dried..."
In Proverbs, it speaks of a worthy wife rendering good to her husband, and clothing her domestics in double garments so they won't be cold. Mary provides us with a second garment, called a garment of grace, for our protection. When Elias was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot and a whirlwind, he dropped to earth his mantle for his successor Eliseus who asked his double spirit, maybe meaning that Elias had twice that of other prophets. In bestowing the scapular, Mary imparts to us the benefit of her greater spirit.
Her scapular for us is small, but its importance is not measured by its size, but in the power of God behind it. A grain of sand or an atom are small, but behind their existence is the power of God. God made the world from nothing, and He can bring peace from something small if He desires, and through whom He desires.
Our Lady said that sin causes war, and from this we can say, what helps
reduce sin, helps peace. The scapular, like the rosary, is a means to
Christianize our personal lives, and through them, the world. And a world
that's more Christlike, is a world closer to peace.
Copyright © 2005 - John Riedell - All