“Our Lady of Mt. Carmel” is the title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary in connection with her apparition to St. Simon Stock, prior general of the Carmelite Order, late in the 13th century in England. In this apparition, Our Lady gave St. Simon a scapular, a part of the religious habit, and promised him that whoever wears it until death will be granted the grace of final perseverance. This gesture was extremely important and a later on it gave rise to perhaps one of the most popular Catholic devotions, the wearing of the Brown Scapular. Even the beloved pope Bl. John Paul II has worn the Scapular of Carmel over his heart from youth.
The Carmelites started as a group of hermits who lived in caves on Mt. Carmel near the Fountain of Elijah early in the 13th century. Inspired by the examples of the prophet Elijah and of Our Lady, their life was centered on prayer and on pondering the Holy Scriptures. They took Our Lady as patroness and had the oratory near their caves where Holy Mass was celebrated dedicated to her.
However, when the Moors rose against the Christians in the Holy Land, the Carmelites fled to Europe. Finding themselves away from Mt. Carmel, they found it very difficult to live the heremitical life in a fairly urbanized Europe. So the Carmelites were faced with the difficult challenge to become friars in a foreign land while preserving their contemplative charism.
An external reflect of their challenges was also in their peculiarly striped habit. Besides being an unusual characteristic, the materials used in its making were not readily available in Europe and were not appropriate for its temperate climate. As the religious habit is part of the identity of the religious, it was not without anguish that the Carmelites had their habit changed to one using just one of the original colors, brown, made of wool.
Amidst these challenges was when Our Lady appeared to St. Simon Stock and confirmed the new habit by clothing him with the Brown Scapular and, in some representations, wearing herself the new habit of the Carmelites, further guaranteeing them her motherly protection.
By the end of the 13th century, the Carmelites had successfully transitioned to their new way of life in Europe and received official recognition as a religious order of friars from pope Innocent IV. The Carmelites attributed this success to the patronage of Our Lady and they developed a great devotion to their habit as her special gift to them.
As the Carmelite Order grew in size and spread all over Europe, they shared their zeal for the Lord and their devotion to Our Lady with all who wanted to listen and by the 15th century the devotion to the Brown Scapular among the faithful was already popular.
The Brown Scapular is a sacramental, a sign that prepares us to receive God’s grace. It has several aspects, but the most relevant is that it is a Marian sacramental. As such, it inspires us to follow the example of Our Lady in being open to God, prayerful, attentive to the Word of God, and sensitive to the needs of others.
Another aspect is that the Brown Scapular is a piece of clothing. More specifically, a religious habit, or, in a way, a habit in miniature. Therefore, one who wears it becomes associated with the Carmelite family.
But clothing is rich in biblical symbolism too. We learn from the Holy Scriptures that when the mantle of Elijah fell on Elisha, he inherited the spiritual blessings of his master and when the Holy Spirit covered Mary, Jesus the Christ was conceived.
So all those who are inspired to follow Jesus by the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary find in being clothed with the Brown Scapular an excellent sign of their familiarity with her as mother, sister and model. Moreover, just like our mothers clothed us, being clothed by our Heavenly Mother with her own habit has such a significance that needs no explanations.
Wearing the Brown Scapular is an excellent symbol of filial and grateful recognition to the mission that God willed to confide to Our Lady, a mystery of mercy. In the words that Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity placed on Mary’s lips:
“I bring you a scapular as a sign of my blessing and my love and, at the same time, as a sign of the mystery which will be accomplished in you. I come to fully clothe you in Jesus Christ so that you may be rooted in Him, the royal way, in the depths of the abyss, with the Father and the Spirit of love.”