Five Things to Know about the Brown Scapular

Five Things to Know about the Brown Scapular

Have you ever seen a Catholic wearing something like a necklace with two small brown squares of fabric on either side? It’s called the Brown Scapular – They’re not as common today as they used to be, but wearing one is still a popular Catholic devotion. Here are five things to know about the Brown Scapular:

1. It’s the Habit of Carmelites

The Carmelites are a Catholic religious order founded in the thirteenth century on Mount Carmel to imitate the solitude and prayer of the Old Testament prophet Elijah, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus himself. Part of the Carmelite habit, i.e., clothing, is a large brown scapular, an apron-like cloth that is draped over the shoulders. During the Middle Ages, many lay Catholics wanted to follow some of the spiritual practices of the Carmelite Order and were permitted to wear this large scapular. Eventually, the much smaller brown scapular that is common today began to be used by lay people instead.

2. Its History is Uncertain

Wearing the Brown Scapular became widespread because of the story of St. Simon Stock, an early English Carmelite: It is said that the Virgin Mary appeared to him with the Carmelite Scapular and told him, “Anyone dying in this habit shall be saved.”1 Many lay people naturally wanted to wear the Carmelite habit after hearing of the vision. According to the Carmelites today, however, there are a number of reasons to doubt this story, since it seems unknown until almost 150 years after it supposedly happened.2

3. It’s Not a Good Luck Charm

Many Catholics past and present still trust that the Virgin Mary did appear to St. Simon Stock, which is certainly possible. It’s important to understand, however, that the scapular is a “sacramental” not a magic charm. Sacramentals – such as crosses, rosaries, medals, holy water, and blessings – are meant to be tangible reminders of Jesus Christ, who alone gives us eternal salvation.3 Wearing the Brown Scapular without faith in Jesus and a desire to learn from the spiritual life of the Carmelites misses its point entirely. It is perseverance in faith and love, not wearing the Brown Scapular, which saves us (Matthew 24:13).

4. It’s a Biblical Symbol

When the Old Testament prophet Elijah anointed his successor, Elisha, he placed his own cloak upon him (1 Kings 19:19). With that garment, Elisha received a “double portion” of the Spirit of Elijah and was able to perform the same miracles as his spiritual mentor (2 Kings 2:8-14). Wearing the Brown Scapular is a symbolic way to put on the garment of Elijah and of great Carmelites saints like St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and St. Therese of Lisieux. The Carmelites see it as a reminder that “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27).

5. It’s a Symbol of Mary’s Protection

Carmelites have always had a great devotion to the Virgin Mary, the first disciple of Jesus and one of the greatest models of prayer in Scripture. As Mary experienced firsthand the events of her son Jesus’ life, the Gospel says that she “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). This prayerful contemplation of Jesus is at the heart of Carmelite spirituality, and the Brown Scapular is a symbol of a deep bond with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Carmelites both strive to imitate her example and trust that she is praying for us from heaven. Pope St. John Paul II, who wore the Brown Scapular throughout his life, summarized it this way:

Therefore two truths are evoked by the sign of the Scapular: on the one hand, the constant protection of the Blessed Virgin, not only on life’s journey, but also at the moment of passing into the fullness of eternal glory; on the other, the awareness that devotion to her cannot be limited to prayers and tributes in her honour on certain occasions, but must become a “habit”, that is, a permanent orientation of one’s own Christian conduct, woven of prayer and interior life, through frequent reception of the sacraments and the concrete practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.4

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