During the Crusades in 12th century, a group of Westerners took up the life of hermits by the well of St. Elijah on Mt. Carmel. They built a chapel in honor of the Mother of Jesus, conscious that they were living in the area made holy by Jesus and his Mother (Nazareth is less than 20 miles away).
When Saracens toppled the Latin kingdom of the Crusaders, the hermits of Carmel had to flee the holy mountain and return to the West — to Cypress, Sicily, France, England, Ireland and other countries. They brought with them little more than their title of “Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.”
In Europe they were entering a hostile world cluttered with many new religious families. The arrival of strangers from Mount Carmel was inauspicious, they were frowned upon. Internally, they were divided as to whether they should cling to their background as hermits or adapt to a new status of begging friars.
According to tradition, as an important fact in the midst of these difficulties, Our Lady of Mount Carmel appeared to the prior general, St. Simon Stock, at Aylesford, England. According to tradition, Our Lady appeared on July 16, 1251.
The Blessed Virgin promised St. Simon Stock, oppressed with worries, that whoever would wear the Carmelite habit devoutly would receive the gift of final perseverance. The habit was taken to mean the scapular in particular.
The scapular was a broad band of cloth over the shoulders, falling below the knees toward the feet front and back as an apron, worn still as part of the religious habit by a number of orders of monks and friars. As it was gradually adapted for use by the laity, it became two small panels of brown cloth joined by strings and worn over the shoulders as a familiar Marian sacramental.
From the 16th century until the Second Vatican Council the scapular received warm welcome from the faithful and enjoyed a singular approval by the Church magisterium. Part of the reason for this esteem was undoubtedly the constant stream of wonderful graces, spiritual and temporal, that were poured out on individuals through its devout use.
But another reason for its popularity was its strict connection with the last things, with the salvation of our soul, which takes priority over all our other duties here below.
After the Council, the scapular devotion suffered the same “crisis of rejection” that so many other practices and teachings within the Catholic Church underwent.
First, it was said that St. Simon Stock never even existed. As a consequence, his feast day, which had been celebrated on May 16, the date of his death, was expunged from the liturgical calendar.
Second, if he never existed, then we must do away with the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and the scapular devotion. The effort was then made by a liturgical committee to expunge Our Lady of Mount Carmel from the liturgical calendar, but the Latin American bishops protested so vehemently that the feast was kept; however, on condition that nothing be mentioned about the scapular.
One of the internationally renowned Mariologists of our order, Father Nilo Geagea from Lebanon then set about doing a very thorough research into the whole history of devotion to Mary in our order.
The result of his years of study is a huge wonderfully researched and documented volume published by the Teresian Historical Institute in 1988; so it is a fairly recent study. The title of the book is “Maria Madre e Decoro del Carmelo.”
Through painstaking demonstration, Father Nilo shows how even the most intransigent critic could not put into reasonable doubt the historical existence of St. Simon Stock. St. Simon Stock’s feast day was, in fact, restored by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments in 1979.
Is it true?
As for the historicity of St. Simon Stock’s vision of Our Lady, in which he is reported to have received the scapular promise, there are difficulties.
The earliest testimony comes at the end of the 1300s. That would place this testimony at an historical distance of over 100 years. Without taking away the validity of the testimony, the distance in time does lessen the power of the testimony to convince from a scholarly point of view.
Practically speaking there are two attitudes we can take:
First, from a scholar’s historical point of view, we must admit that there is a lack of documentary evidence that would demonstrate irrefutably the truth or historicity of the apparition. At the same time, there exists no cogent reason for denouncing the apparition as false and definitively denying its truth.
Second, on the pastoral level one should not contradict those who may want to continue accepting the traditional data. We should not then oppose those who say that for centuries the Carmelite order has held that the Blessed Virgin appeared to the prior general St. Simon Stock and promised eternal salvation to him and to all those who like him wore the scapular.
Another point is that in the minds of many, devotion to the scapular is the equivalent of devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. This is understandable, but in reality the two are distinct in theory, and ought to be so in practice. The scapular is the means; the devotion is the end toward which the wearing of the scapular tends.
Yoke of Christ
If we look for the earliest references to the scapular, we find them in the Carmelite constitutions of 1281 in which it was prescribed that all Carmelite friars should wear their tunics and scapulars to bed under penalty of a serious fault. It was also prescribed that the white mantle be made in such a way that the scapular would not be hidden.
But the reason for these prescriptions was not a Marian one. At the time, the scapular was seen as signifying the “yoke of Christ.” This yoke of Christ in turn pointed to obedience. And that explains the strictness of the legislation. Taking off the scapular was like taking off the yoke of Christ, or rebelling against authority.
Only gradually did the scapular take on a Marian tone and grow until it reached such a point that it became identified with Carmelite piety toward Our Lady. In fact the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel began to be called the scapular feast.
Devotion to Mary expressed by wearing the brown scapular seems to be resilient and resists the attempts made in various periods of history to diminish its value. The faithful keep coming back to it.
From the official teaching of the Church, we can gather that the scapular of Carmel is one of the most highly recommended Marian devotions. This is true through the centuries, and into our own times with popes Paul VI and John Paul II.
One of the early Carmelites in his enthusiasm went so far as to call the scapular a “sacrament.” Actually the category into which the scapular fits is that of a sacramental.
Sacramentals are sacred signs. The scapular is not a natural sign in the sense that smoke is the sign of fire. Smoke is intrinsically connected with fire. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, the saying goes.
The scapular is what is called a conventional sign. In the case of a conventional sign, the meaning is assigned to the object from outside. Thus a wedding ring is a sign or pledge of mutual love and enduring fidelity between two spouses. In this kind of sign, which is a conventional sign, there has to be an intervention from outside that establishes the connection between the object and what it represents. In the case of sacramentals, it is the Church that determines the connection.
Sacramentals also signify effects obtained through the intercession of the Church, especially spiritual graces. The sacramentals — as holy pictures or icons, statues, medals, holy water, blessed palm and the scapular — are means that dispose one to receive the chief effect of the sacraments themselves, and this is closer union with Jesus.
St. Teresa of Avila for example speaks in her life about holy water and the power she experienced that this sacramental has against the devil. She mentions as well how this power comes not through the object in itself but through the prayer through the prayer of the Church.
Along with the sacraments, sacramentals sanctify almost every aspect of human life with divine grace. The passion, death, and resurrection of Christ is the source of the power of the sacramentals as it is of the sacraments themselves.
Such everyday things as water and words, oil and anointing, cloth and beeswax, paintings and songs are ingredients of the sacraments and sacramentals. The Son of God became the Son of Mary. What could be more down-to-earth, more human, indeed more unpretentious, plain, and simple?
With regard to the scapular as a conventional and sacred sign, the Church has intervened at various times in history to clarify its meaning, defend it, and confirm the privileges.
From these Church documents there emerges with sufficient clarity the nature and meaning of the Carmelite scapular.
1. The scapular is a Marian habit or garment. It is both a sign and pledge. A sign of belonging to Mary; a pledge of her motherly protection, not only in this life but after death.
2. As a sign, it is a conventional sign signifying three elements strictly joined: first, belonging to a religious family particularly devoted to Mary, especially dear to Mary, the Carmelite Order; second, consecration to Mary, devotion to and trust in her Immaculate Heart; third an incitement to become like Mary by imitating her virtues, above all her humility, chastity, and spirit of prayer.
This is the Church’s officially established connection between the sign and that which is signified by the sign.
No mention is made of the vision of St. Simon Stock or of that of Pope John XXII in relation to the Sabbatine privilege, which promises that one will be released from Purgatory on the first Saturday after death.
Nonetheless, the Carmelites have also been authorized to freely preach to the faithful that they can piously believe in the powerful intercession, merits, and suffrages of the Blessed Virgin, that she will help them even after their death, especially on Saturday, which is the day of the week particularly dedicated to Mary, if they have died in the grace of God and devoutly worn the scapular. But no mention is made of the “first” Saturday after their death.
Even the Sabbatine privilege, then, is not so unconnected with the rest of our Catholic faith and practice. The Second Vatican Council has also insisted on Mary’s solicitude toward those who seek her protection. “From the earliest times the Blessed Virgin is honored under the title of Mother of God, under whose protection the faithful take refuge together in prayer in all their perils and needs (“Lumen Gentium,” No. 66).
If some day an historian were to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that there are no grounds to the Marian apparition to St. Simon Stock or the scapular promise, the scapular devotion would still maintain its value. The Church’s esteem of it as a sacramental, her appreciation of its meaning and of the good that has come about through its pious use on the part of the faithful is all that is needed.
St. John of the Cross teaches that we ought not waste a lot of time and energy trying to discern whether or not a vision is authentic, but that we accept and follow it only insofar as the message is in accord with the Gospels and with what has already been revealed in Jesus Christ. Faith requires us to live with complete trust in God and in darkness with respect to seeing God or his saints.
The scapular as a sign is rich in meaning. I think that after we consider the official interpretations of the scapular, we can discover in it our own personal meaning. I like to think of it as a sign of Mary’s quiet presence, for the scapular is a silent devotion.
There are no prayers to be said. It reminds us of the contemplative aspect of our Christian life. Contemplation is what our saints wrote so much about. Contemplation is an ever-deepening silence in loving presence to God. It is in this silence that God best speaks to us.
Mary is the Church’s greatest contemplative. In her silence she heard those extraordinary words spoken to her by the Lord — “Blessed are you among women.” And so Elizabeth could add: “Blessed are you who believed.”