For some time, I have worn a brown scapular. If you don’t know much about this devotional practice, here is a very quick-and-dirty version, greatly lacking in detail: it’s two little pieces of brown cloth, connected by a cord and worn around the neck beneath one’s clothing. One of the cloth pieces depicts Our Lady of Mount Carmel appearing to St. Simon Stock, and the other piece — the one that is sometimes visible at the nape of my neck — depicts Our Lady’s “scapular promise:” Whosoever dies clothed in this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.
This reflection is not about the brown scapular, but let me just quickly say that, while I believe the scapular promise, I do not view the scapular as a get-out-of-jail-free card, and neither does the Church. I don’t wear it for the purpose of avoiding eternal fire. I wear it as a reminder to myself of my Marian consecration and as an act of humility and prayer.
I have sometimes cringed at the thought of how it looks to the person standing behind me in line at the coffee shop, should they happen to glimpse my scapular and read its brazen promise. We don’t go in for talk of hellfire and salvation in polite society these days. I wonder if they think I’m a crazy person. I wonder if I should try to tuck the scapular back down below my collar.
Sometimes I do. But more often than not, I take a deep breath and decide that it’s okay for me to feel self-conscious and trust that, if God wants to use this moment for His glory, he will — and if He doesn’t, all I’ve lost is the esteem of others, which isn’t worth that much to begin with.
I’ve always heard it said that if you do Christianity right, the rest of the world should think you’re just a little bit weird.
“...the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him.” — John 14:17
Although little is known about Simon Stock's early life, legend has it that the name Stock, meaning "tree trunk," derives from the fact that, beginning at age twelve, he lived as a hermit in a hollow tree trunk of an oak tree. It is also believed that, as a young man, he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where he joined a group of Carmelites with whom he later returned to Europe. Simon Stock founded many Carmelite Communities, especially in university towns such as Cambridge, Oxford, Paris, and Bologna, and he helped to change the Carmelites from a hermit Order to one of mendicant friars.
In 1254 he was elected Superior-General of his Order at London. Simon Stock's lasting fame came from an apparition he had in Cambridge, England, on July 16, 1251, at a time when the Carmelite Order was being oppressed. In it the Virgin Mary appeared to him holding the brown scapular in one hand. Her words were: "Receive, my beloved son, this scapular of thy Order; it is the special sign of my favor, which I have obtained for thee and for thy children of Mount Carmel. He who dies clothed with this habit shall be preserved from eternal fire. It is the badge of salvation, a shield in time of danger, and a pledge of special peace and protection."
Beginning in the 16th century, the Carmelites began giving the Brown Scapular to lay people who wanted to be affiliated with the Order, and it became increasingly popular as a Sacramental. There was an investigation as to whether or not the vision ever really took place. Shortly after Vatican II, the historical uncertainties resulted in the Church briefly striking the feast day of St. Simon Stock from the Carmelite Liturgical Calendar, though it was restored in 1979 as an optional memorial, on the condition that no mention be made of the scapular vision.
Devotion to the Brown Scapular remains widespread and recommended by the Catholic Church, and the Carmelites continue to find meaning in the traditional story and iconography of St. Simon the Stock receiving the Brown Scapular, particularly his and their relationship with Mary.BACK TO LIST