The Carmelite Order is preparing to celebrate the great Solemnity of Mary, Lady and Mother of Carmel on July 16th. The story of the Carmelite Order really began with the story of Elijah, the great prophet of the Old Testament, as told in the 2nd Book of Kings. The Order calls him its spiritual father and claims him as their founder because Carmelite spirituality is inspired by his life and example. All the great historians and spiritual writers of the Order recognize Elijah and Mary as the two pillars that define the Carmelite way of life: contemplation and action.
Historically, the early Carmelites living near the spring of Elijah on Mount Carmel in Palestine Holy Land went to Albert Patriarch of Jerusalem. They went to request from him a formula of life. St. Albert of Jerusalem wrote the formula of life which will be mitigated and developed to become the Carmelite Rule in 1247. These hermits were considered to be pious lay men, crusaders and even noble men seeking a deeper relationship with God. They chose to live in Mount Carmel after the example of the prophet-hermit Elijah. They lived in caves, did manual work and sought a purely contemplative existence. They pledged obedience to a leader known as the "prior." They built an oratory or chapel in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The faithful called them “Brothers of the Most Holy Mary of Mount Carmel." This title remained down through the centuries.
In 1238, a pagan group called the Saracens, invaded the Holy Land and Christian persecutions followed. The Carmelites were forced off Mount Carmel and had to leave the Holy Land. They migrated back to Europe. A new era for development of the Carmelite way of life began as the Order grew in this new environment. Because of political and religious situations there, the Rule given by St. Albert was mitigated. Among the mitigations, community life was emphasized over hermit lifestyle, the vows of poverty and chastity were added, eating of meat was permitted and the pursuance of an active life of ministry was adapted. Because of the turmoil present in the Church at the time, there was a prohibition on the establishment of any new religious orders. It seemed the very existence of the Carmelites was in jeopardy. According to pious tradition, in the midst of this turmoil in 1251, the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Simon Stock, Prior General of the Order, and gave him the Brown Scapular with these words: “This will be for you and all Carmelites a sign of my protection. Whosoever dies wearing this Scapular will not suffer eternal flames.” The Carmelite Order continues to prosper worldwide under the special protection of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The Scapular, as part of the Order’s habit, became its visible sign of devotion to Mary. What was once the sole property of the Carmelites soon became part of the treasury of the whole Church. The Scapular was accepted by the people of God and devotion to Mary through the Scapular flourished. So as to impart greater blessings on the laity, a plenary indulgence is granted to those who wear it. Today, the Brown Scapular is one of the most popular Church sacramentals, along with the Holy Rosary. The article “Official Declaration of the Church on the Scapular Devotion” emphasizes the truth that those who wear the Brown Scapular bind themselves to the obligations and privileges of the Order of Carmel. These obligations and responsibilities differ according to the different types of Carmelite lifestyles.
Carmelites are members of the consecrated life: priests, Nuns, Brothers or Sisters. Some hold a lifestyle that is more eremitical, with emphasis on the contemplative life, such as the cloistered branch of the Order. Others, such as the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm, balance the contemplative spirit of prayer while engaged in an active ministry within the Church. The Third Order Lay Members are men and women called by God to live a life of holiness while actively living in the world. These men and women seek the way of perfection as inspired by Elijah and Mary within their homes, families and workplaces. Often husbands and wives or whole families belong to the Third Order. They make simple promises to live the spirit of Carmel and follow the Rule of Saint Albert according to their particular state of life. The Confraternity members are lay men and women who seek only an association with the Order which has devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel but without the life commitment signified by the profession of promises to the Rule of Carmel and the monthly meetings and Formation classes required.
The true meaning of the scapular can only be understood by indicating what it is not.
It is not an amulet or charm one wears around the neck to obtain favors or drive away evil spirits. It is not a "membership card" to an elite club or religious family. It is not a protection against fire, flood or disaster. It is not a premium card that guarantees a special entrance to heaven.
What Is It?
A sacramental blessed by the Church. It is a miniature form of the full habit of Carmel and a sign of participation in the life of Carmel: prayer, discipleship, christian witness. It is s sign of our filial devotion, surrender and trust in Mary, Mother of God and a willingness to imitate Mary's virtues of obedience, chastity and complete trust in God, It is a reminder that we have "put on" the yoke of Christ and we are sharers of His Passion, Death and Resurrection.
The Brown Scapular also has modern day significance.
The Brown Scapular embodies Mary’s spirit. In our world of noise and frenzied activities, the Scapular invites us to remember our origin and roots as Carmelites. We were founded in the caves of Mount Carmel, in the spirit of Elias, to contemplate God “in whose presence we stand.” The Brown Scapular calls us to silence and contemplation and intimacy with God. This intimacy must be sought not just by the “contemplatives” of the Order but by anyone who wears the Carmelite scapular.
In our world of consumerism and materialism, the Brown Scapular reminds us of the simplicity of Mary in Nazareth, content with what God had to offer. The simple brown cloth worn as an apron should remind us of the Gospel call to service and humility. At the Last Supper, our Lord put on an apron and began to wash the apostles feet. It should be a constant reminder to us of an interior disposition to make ourselves available in any way we are called upon to serve. The brown color of the scapular reminds us of earth from which we were formed in creation and a reminder that it is through our frail humanity that we ascend to God. The scapular, which is worn over the shoulder, is a “yoke” that we put on. Once we put on this yoke, we freely commit ourselves to a “way of life” that will lead us to the mountain of Carmel which is Christ.
In our modern age, there is a growing fascination with different schools of spirituality. More and more people show a growing thirst for spiritual things. I believe that there is a richness to be re-discovered in the Brown Scapular. There is a growing awareness , even within the Order, of the great treasure we have in the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
And lastly, the Brown Scapular is a constant reminder to us that Mary is the Mother for all generations. She is the one who comes to her children’s aid in times of trouble. She did it to Saint Simon Stock 750 years ago. She still does it in our day.