During the Crusades in the 12th century, a group of Westerners took up the life of hermits by the well of St. Elijah on Mt. Carmel. They built a chapel in honor of the Mother of Jesus, conscious that they were living in the area made holy by Jesus and his Mother (Nazareth is less than 20 miles away).
When Saracens toppled the Latin kingdom of the Crusaders, the hermits of Carmel had to flee the holy mountain and return to the West—to Cypress, Sicily, France, England, Ireland, and other countries. They brought with them little more than their title of “Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.”
In Europe, they were entering a hostile world cluttered with many new religious families. The arrival of strangers from Mount Carmel was inauspicious, they were frowned upon. Internally, they were divided as to whether they should cling to their background as hermits or adapt to a new status of begging friars.
According to tradition, as an important fact in the midst of these difficulties, Our Lady of Mount Carmel appeared to the prior general, St. Simon Stock, at Aylesford, England. According to tradition, Our Lady appeared on July 16, 1251.
The Blessed Virgin promised St. Simon Stock, oppressed with worries, that whoever would wear the Carmelite habit devoutly would receive the gift of final perseverance. The habit was taken to mean the scapular in particular.
The scapular was a broad band of cloth over the shoulders, falling below the knees toward the feet front and back as an apron, worn still as part of the religious habit by a number of orders of monks and friars. As it was gradually adapted for use by the laity, it became two small panels of brown cloth joined by strings and worn over the shoulders as a familiar Marian sacramental.
As for the historicity of St. Simon Stock’s vision of Our Lady, in which he is reported to have received the scapular promise, there are difficulties.
- The earliest testimony comes at the end of the 1300s. That would place this testimony at a historical distance of over 100 years. Without taking away the validity of the testimony, the distance in time does lessen the power of the testimony to convince from a scholarly point of view.
Practically speaking there are two attitudes we can take:
- First, from a scholar’s historical point of view, we must admit that there is a lack of documentary evidence that would demonstrate irrefutably the truth or historicity of the apparition. At the same time, there exists no cogent reason for denouncing the apparition as false and definitively denying its truth.
- Second, on the pastoral level, one should not contradict those who may want to continue accepting the traditional data. We should not then oppose those who say that for centuries the Carmelite order has held that the Blessed Virgin appeared to the prior general St. Simon Stock and promised eternal salvation to him and to all those who like him wore the scapular.
Another point is that in the minds of many, devotion to the scapular is the equivalent of devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. This is understandable, but in reality, the two are distinct in theory, and ought to be so in practice. The scapular is the means; the devotion is the end toward which the wearing of the scapular tends.
St. John of the Cross teaches that we ought not waste a lot of time and energy trying to discern whether or not a vision is authentic, but that we accept and follow it only insofar as the message is in accord with the Gospels and with what has already been revealed in Jesus Christ. Faith requires us to live with complete trust in God and in darkness with respect to seeing God or his saints.
The scapular as a sign is rich in meaning. I think that after we consider the official interpretations of the scapular, we can discover in it our own personal meaning. I like to think of it as a sign of Mary’s quiet presence, for the scapular is a silent devotion.
There are no prayers to be said. It reminds us of the contemplative aspect of our Christian life. Contemplation is what our saints wrote so much about. Contemplation is an ever-deepening silence in loving presence to God. It is in this silence that God best speaks to us.
Mary is the Church’s greatest contemplative. In her silence, she heard those extraordinary words spoken to her by the Lord—“Blessed are you among women” [Lk 1:42]. And so Elizabeth could add: “Blessed are you who believed” [cf. Lk 1:45]
Father Kieran Kavanaugh, o.c.d.
Brown Scapular: A Silent Devotion (excerpts)
Note: This article was originally published on 16 July 2008 by ZENIT. We are grateful to the Discalced Carmelite friars of the Washington Province for republishing this article in its entirety on their website, discalcedcarmel.org.
Featured image: Saint Simon Stock receives the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, ceiling fresco, Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Marostica, Italy. Image credit: isaac74 / Adobe Stock
A lack of evidence cannot disprove any historical event or phenomena in itself. If a lack of evidence were to be an infallible rule to reject a claim then we would be forced to conclude that both the New Testament and Christianity were invented in the 2nd century. Also, the Church after years of investigation by the Holy See has affirmed and confirmed the visions of Fatima in which Our Lady appeared as Our Lady of Fatima requesting everyone wear her Scapular and pray the Rosary. This should be sufficient evidence in itself to realize Our Lady proved the vision of St. Simon Stock by her own affirmations to the children visionaries at Fatima. Moreover, we are people of faith not requiring evidence. For if evidence were a requirement in order to believe then no one of sane mind would ever be a Christian because we cannot prove by scientific evidence Jesus rose from the dead or that his death saved anyone at any time from anything.
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A lack of evidence doesn’t disprove anything. If a lack of evidence is the infallible rule to prove a thing never happened then we would be forced to conclude the Gospels and Christianity were invented in the 2 nd century. Also O. L. Of Fatima requested everyone wear the Scapular of Mt. Carmel and pray the Rosary a vision the Church has confirmed as authentic. We must approach faith as people of faith, not scientists looking for evidence to prove what the Apostles or for that matter any saint taught. Our Lady herself proved the vision of St. Simon Stock is true by her affirmation to Sister Lucy of Fatima 106 years ago which the Magisterium has affirmed.