Brown Scapular: A "Silent Devotion"


Brown Scapular: A "Silent Devotion"


Father Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD


Father Kavanaugh is the English translator of the writings of both St.Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. He is a member of the Instituteof Carmelite Studies and was the vice postulator for the canonization of St.Edith Stein.

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During the Crusades in 12th century, a group of Westerners took up the lifeof hermits by the well of St. Elijah on Mt. Carmel. They built a chapel inhonor of the Mother of Jesus, conscious that they were living in the areamade holy by Jesus and his Mother (Nazareth is less than 20 miles away).

When Saracens toppled the Latin kingdom of the Crusaders, the hermits ofCarmel had to flee the holy mountain and return to the West -- to Cypress,Sicily, France, England, Ireland and other countries. They brought with themlittle more than their title of "Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary ofMount Carmel."

In Europe they were entering a hostile world cluttered with many newreligious families. The arrival of strangers from Mount Carmel wasinauspicious, they were frowned upon. Internally, they were divided as towhether they should cling to their background as hermits or adapt to a newstatus of begging friars.

According to tradition, as an important fact in the midst of thesedifficulties, Our Lady of Mount Carmel appeared to the prior general, St.Simon Stock, at Aylesford, England. According to tradition, Our Ladyappeared on July 16, 1251.

The Blessed Virgin promised St. Simon Stock, oppressed with worries, thatwhoever would wear the Carmelite habit devoutly would receive the gift offinal perseverance. The habit was taken to mean the scapular in particular.

The scapular was a broad band of cloth over the shoulders, falling below theknees toward the feet front and back as an apron, worn still as part of thereligious habit by a number of orders of monks and friars. As it wasgradually adapted for use by the laity, it became two small panels of browncloth joined by strings and worn over the shoulders as a familiar Mariansacramental.

From the 16th century until the Second Vatican Council the scapular receivedwarm welcome from the faithful and enjoyed a singular approval by the Churchmagisterium. Part of the reason for this esteem was undoubtedly the constantstream of wonderful graces, spiritual and temporal, that were poured out onindividuals through its devout use.

But another reason for its popularity was its strict connection with thelast things, with the salvation of our soul, which takes priority over allour other duties here below.


After the Council, the scapular devotion suffered the same "crisis ofrejection" that so many other practices and teachings within the CatholicChurch underwent.

First, it was said that St. Simon Stock never even existed. As aconsequence, his feast day, which had been celebrated on May 16, the date ofhis death, was expunged from the liturgical calendar.

Second, if he never existed, then we must do away with the feast of Our Ladyof Mt. Carmel and the scapular devotion. The effort was then made by aliturgical committee to expunge Our Lady of Mount Carmel from the liturgicalcalendar, but the Latin American bishops protested so vehemently that thefeast was kept; however, on condition that nothing be mentioned about thescapular.

One of the internationally renowned Mariologists of our order, Father NiloGeagea from Lebanon then set about doing a very thorough research into thewhole history of devotion to Mary in our order.

The result of his years of study is a huge wonderfully researched anddocumented volume published by the Teresian Historical Institute in 1988; soit is a fairly recent study. The title of the book is "Maria Madre e Decorodel Carmelo."

Through painstaking demonstration, Father Nilo shows how even the mostintransigent critic could not put into reasonable doubt the historicalexistence 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 heis reported to have received the scapular promise, there are difficulties.

The earliest testimony comes at the end of the 1300s. That would place thistestimony at an historical distance of over 100 years. Without taking awaythe validity of the testimony, the distance in time does lessen the power ofthe 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 thereis a lack of documentary evidence that would demonstrate irrefutably thetruth or historicity of the apparition. At the same time, there exists nocogent reason for denouncing the apparition as false and definitivelydenying its truth.

Second, on the pastoral level one should not contradict those who may wantto continue accepting the traditional data. We should not then oppose thosewho say that for centuries the Carmelite order has held that the BlessedVirgin appeared to the prior general St. Simon Stock and promised eternalsalvation 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 theequivalent 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 inpractice. The scapular is the means; the devotion is the end toward whichthe wearing of the scapular tends.

Yoke of Christ

If we look for the earliest references to the scapular, we find them in theCarmelite constitutions of 1281 in which it was prescribed that allCarmelite friars should wear their tunics and scapulars to bed under penaltyof a serious fault. It was also prescribed that the white mantle be made insuch 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 ofChrist in turn pointed to obedience. And that explains the strictness of thelegislation. 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 itreached such a point that it became identified with Carmelite piety towardOur Lady. In fact the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel began to be calledthe scapular feast.

Devotion to Mary expressed by wearing the brown scapular seems to beresilient and resists the attempts made in various periods of history todiminish its value. The faithful keep coming back to it.

From the official teaching of the Church, we can gather that the scapular ofCarmel is one of the most highly recommended Marian devotions. This is truethrough the centuries, and into our own times with popes Paul VI and JohnPaul II.


One of the early Carmelites in his enthusiasm went so far as to call thescapular a "sacrament." Actually the category into which the scapular fitsis that of a sacramental.

Sacramentals are sacred signs. The scapular is not a natural sign in thesense that smoke is the sign of fire. Smoke is intrinsically connected withfire. Where there's smoke there's fire, the saying goes.

The scapular is what is called a conventional sign. In the case of aconventional sign, the meaning is assigned to the object from outside. Thusa wedding ring is a sign or pledge of mutual love and enduring fidelitybetween two spouses. In this kind of sign, which is a conventional sign,there has to be an intervention from outside that establishes the connectionbetween the object and what it represents. In the case of sacramentals, itis the Church that determines the connection.

Sacramentals also signify effects obtained through the intercession of theChurch, especially spiritual graces. The sacramentals -- as holy pictures oricons, statues, medals, holy water, blessed palm and the scapular -- aremeans that dispose one to receive the chief effect of the sacramentsthemselves, and this is closer union with Jesus.

St. Teresa of Avila for example speaks in her life about holy water and thepower she experienced that this sacramental has against the devil. Shementions as well how this power comes not through the object in itself butthrough the prayer through the prayer of the Church.

Along with the sacraments, sacramentals sanctify almost every aspect ofhuman life with divine grace. The passion, death, and resurrection of Christis the source of the power of the sacramentals as it is of the sacramentsthemselves.

Such everyday things as water and words, oil and anointing, cloth andbeeswax, paintings and songs are ingredients of the sacraments andsacramentals. The Son of God became the Son of Mary. What could be moredown-to-earth, more human, indeed more unpretentious, plain, and simple?

Church position

With regard to the scapular as a conventional and sacred sign, the Churchhas intervened at various times in history to clarify its meaning, defendit, and confirm the privileges.

From these Church documents there emerges with sufficient clarity the natureand 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 onlyin this life but after death.

2. As a sign, it is a conventional sign signifying three elements strictlyjoined: 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 becomelike Mary by imitating her virtues, above all her humility, chastity, andspirit of prayer.

This is the Church's officially established connection between the sign andthat which is signified by the sign.

No mention is made of the vision of St. Simon Stock or of that of Pope JohnXXII in relation to the Sabbatine privilege, which promises that one will bereleased from Purgatory on the first Saturday after death.

Nonetheless, the Carmelites have also been authorized to freely preach tothe faithful that they can piously believe in the powerful intercession,merits, and suffrages of the Blessed Virgin, that she will help them evenafter their death, especially on Saturday, which is the day of the weekparticularly dedicated to Mary, if they have died in the grace of God anddevoutly worn the scapular. But no mention is made of the "first" Saturdayafter their death.

Even the Sabbatine privilege, then, is not so unconnected with the rest ofour Catholic faith and practice. The Second Vatican Council has alsoinsisted on Mary's solicitude toward those who seek her protection. "Fromthe earliest times the Blessed Virgin is honored under the title of Motherof God, under whose protection the faithful take refuge together in prayerin all their perils and needs ("Lumen Gentium," No. 66).

If some day an historian were to prove beyond any reasonable doubt thatthere are no grounds to the Marian apparition to St. Simon Stock or thescapular promise, the scapular devotion would still maintain its value. TheChurch's esteem of it as a sacramental, her appreciation of its meaning andof the good that has come about through its pious use on the part of thefaithful is all that is needed.

Gospel message

St. John of the Cross teaches that we ought not waste a lot of time andenergy trying to discern whether or not a vision is authentic, but that weaccept and follow it only insofar as the message is in accord with theGospels and with what has already been revealed in Jesus Christ. Faithrequires us to live with complete trust in God and in darkness with respectto seeing God or his saints.

The scapular as a sign is rich in meaning. I think that after we considerthe official interpretations of the scapular, we can discover in it our ownpersonal 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 aspectof our Christian life. Contemplation is what our saints wrote so much about.Contemplation is an ever-deepening silence in loving presence to God. It isin this silence that God best speaks to us.

Mary is the Church's greatest contemplative. In her silence she heard thoseextraordinary words spoken to her by the Lord -- "Blessed are you amongwomen." And so Elizabeth could add: "Blessed are you who believed."