Today is the feast of Our Lady Of Mt. Carmel. I’m taking this opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about the Brown Scapular, often called Our Lady’s Habit.
Traditional religious habits include a scapular–a garment worn over the shoulder blades, similar to a long poncho. If you’ve ever seen The Sound of Music, the nuns fold their arms or hands under the front of their scapular.
Legend says that Our Lady appeared to St. Simon Stock, a 13th Century Carmelite friar. She told him that whoever wore the brown scapular of the Carmelites would be saved from Hell. Of course, the scapular she spoke of was the Carmelite habit. Later, smaller versions of the habit were made for people who wanted to be associated with the order.
A later legend claimed that a medieval pope had a vision in which Mary promised that those who wore the scapular would be released from Purgatory on the Saturday after their death. This legend was rejected as false by the Church centuries ago. We don’t know how much about St. Simon Stock is historically accurate. Today, neither the Church nor the Carmelite order teach that Mary made promises to those who wear the scapular. However, the Church does allow individuals who wear it and are truly devoted to Mary to believe she will rescue them from Purgatory on that first Saturday.
The Brown Scapular is not magic
I’ve known people who were not practicing their faith, yet they wore the Brown Scapular. Maybe some of them had a devotion to Mary of sorts. I don’t know. The scapular is not “fire insurance.” It can’t save an unrepentant soul.
Not even the sacraments are efficacious for someone who rejects their essence. Absolution requires contrition. You can’t baptize a person against his will.
The Brown Scapular is a sacramental. It does not give grace in itself. The grace comes from the devotion with which it is worn.
It is a sign that you practice Carmelite spirituality
Wearing the Brown Scapular shows that at some level you are associated with the Carmelite order. You may be a lay or secular Carmelite, a member of the Confraternity of the Brown Scapular, or simply someone who practices Carmelite spirituality.
A Catechesis on the Brown Scapular, written by the two main branches of the Carmelites in 2000, identifies several ways to practice Carmelite spirituality:
- frequent participation in the Mass and reception of Holy Communion;
- frequent reading of and meditation on the Word of God in Sacred Scripture;
- the regular praying of at least part of the Liturgy of the Hours;
- imitation of and devotion to Mary, the woman of faith who hears the Word of God and puts it into practice;
- the practice of the virtues, notably charity, chastity (according to one’s state of life), and obedience to the will of God.
Children and the Brown Scapular
Children used to be enrolled routinely in the Confraternity of the Brown Scapular at their First Communion. Today, the Carmelites discourage this. The reasons for their doing so are already stated above: the scapular is a symbol, does not give grace or save souls in and of itself, and should be accompanied with the practice of Carmelite spirituality.
Confirmation seems to me a much more fitting time to suggest your children begin wearing the scapular. They should not be pressured into it, nor enrolled en masse as a class, for instance. They should study Carmelite spirituality and embrace it first.
You will find lots of misinformation on the Brown Scapular on the internet–sometimes even from Catholic sites you trust. If you question what I have written here, please read the entire Catechesis I linked to.
I don’t mean to discourage you from wearing the scapular, but I don’t want you to place hope in promises that the Virgin Mary never actually made. If you have been wearing the scapular without practicing Carmelite spirituality, now is your chance to begin. I will try to help you through this blog. You could start by reading my little e-book on the subject, if you haven’t already.