The Brown Scapular
The Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel offers us a rich spiritual tradition that honors Mary as the first and foremost of her Son’s disciples. It is an outward sign of the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, our sister, mother, and queen.
The word scapular indicates a form of clothing that monks wore while working. The Carmelite family has been custodian of the Brown Scapular for over 750 years. It is the identifying and distinctive part of our Carmelite religious habit. Wearing it signifies some degree of membership in our Carmelite family.
At first, the Brown Scapular belonged only to the Carmelites. Later, some lay men and women were formed into groups called “confraternities” or “societies.” They gathered together to pray the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They were instructed to fast from meat on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It was for these devout souls—lay folk living the basics of religious life in the world—that the smaller scapular we now wear was devised so it could be worn under civilian clothing. It is preferably plain.
An authentic appreciation for this sacramental requires a living faith in Jesus Christ and walking, as co-disciples with Mary, in the Communion of Saints.
As a material and external element, the scapular is, in itself, still a small thing, just as all that is material and external is small in comparison with what is moral and religious (spiritual and internal). It is a sign of faith, a sacred symbol, entirely directed to the great realities of the interior life and sanctification. It is a sign—and nothing more than a sign—of a total giving of ourselves to the service of God through the hands of the Blessed Virgin and within the body of the Church.
The Brown Scapular is an external sign of love for Mary, of the trust her children have in her, and of a commitment to live like her. It stands for a commitment to follow Jesus as did Mary, the perfect model of all Christ’s disciples. This is the commitment made in Baptism, by which we become children of God.
The Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel echoes the promise of Divine Revelation: “The one who holds out to the end is the one who will see salvation” (Matthew 24:13), and “Remain faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). The scapular, a sacramental, does not mediate this saving grace but prepares us to receive grace and disposes us to cooperate with it.
Well-meaning people have often spread the devotion with extravagant claims that have no historical background and cannot be reconciled with sound Christian Doctrine.
In the 1200s, a Carmelite named St. Simon Stock prayed to Our Lady for a privilegium (L), a special kind of protection that a medieval lord gave to someone who asked him to protect his life and property in return for his complete loyalty. Our Lady responded with a special promise. The popular tradition of Mary’s promise was that anyone who remains faithful to the Carmelite vocation until death would be granted the grace of final perseverance. Some have interpreted this to mean that they would be taken straight to Heaven, or at least on the Saturday after they died. The wording of the promise (the exact words of which have been lost) makes it absolutely clear that the Virgin Mary never intended to substitute the wearing of the brown cloth for living the Christian life.
The scapular, then, is not: (1) a magical charm to protect you, (2) an automatic guarantee of salvation, or (3) an excuse for not living up to the demands of the Christian life.
The Church clearly teaches that all grace, including that of final perseverance, is won for us by the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord. Simply wearing the Brown Scapular does not confer that same result. The wearer must live and die in the state of grace.
True devotion to Mary consists in three things: veneration, confidence, and love. Without saying to Mary that we venerate her, love her, and trust her, we tell her these things every moment of the day by simply wearing the scapular. St. Alphonsus says, “Just as men take pride in having others wear their livery, so the Most Holy Mary is pleased when her servants wear her scapular as a mark that they have dedicated themselves to her service, and are members of the family of the mother of God.”
The scapular, then, is a prayer! “O Queen who art the beauty of Carmel and the mediatrix of all grace, pray for us” (prayer from the Raccolta).