Skip to main content

The Scapular

Fr. Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm.

From the late 14th century the brown scapular summed up Carmelite devotion to Mary. The scapular was a part of the Carmelite habit and probably originally served as an apron. There were various legends connected to religious habits in general in medieval times. Apparitions of the founder of the particular order or of Our Lady were frequently involved. It was related that Our Lady had appeared to Simon Stock, the Prior General of the Carmelites, in the year 1251,

had taken hold of his scapular and promised that anyone who died wearing this garment would not perish eternally. There is little concrete historical evidence concerning the scapular vision of Simon Stock but there is "a venerable tradition"25 of the Order in its regard. In any case, the symbolism of the scapular as a sign of consecration to Mary, the Mother of Cannel, was and remains very important. Very many people began to wear a miniature version of the scapular. Scapular societies were set up all over Europe and missionaries used the scapular as a catechetical tool wherever they went. The wearing of the scapular

became so popular that by the end of the 16th century, for example Spain and Portugal were described as one immense Carmel.26

Many Carmelites through the centuries have written about the scapular. Arnold Bostius (1445-99) said that the wearing of the scapular is a commitment to live the virtues of Mary.27 Mathias of St. John (d. 1681) piled up biblical examples of how God has used material things as instruments of grace. The scapular for him was one such material thing, which God could use for the benefit of humanity. However he insisted that wearing the scapular was no magic talisman. He wrote, "It would be far better to have holiness under a worldly habit than a worldly heart under a holy habit".28

Through the scapular the Carmelite family desired to share the gifts of God, and in a particular way, the maternal love of Mary, with all those who wished to be included. As Mary clothed her child in swaddling clothes when he was born, so she still takes care of Christ's body, the Church. The scapular is understood to be symbolic clothing signifying the protection of Mary for the one who wears it. A mother helps a child to grow up and so Mary also helps us to become what God knows we can be. A mother teaches her child especially by her example. At Cana she tells us, "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn. 2,5). By looking at her we learn what it means to be a follower of Christ.

The scapular is a reminder of Mary's commitment to us and our commitment to Mary. It is a reminder of her constant presence in our lives and her interest in us. She really is a Mother and a Sister, leading us and guiding us to Christ her Son in whom we find salvation. She is with us in life and in death. We say to her often, "Pray for us now and at the hour of our death". Pope John Paul wrote in regard to the scapular: "It is a sign of the continual protection of the Most Holy Virgin, not only throughout life but also at the moment of the transition towards the fullness of eternal glory."29

There are many sons and daughters of earthly mothers who make a big splash on Mother's Day with flowers and chocolates but who cannot be bothered with their mothers throughout the rest of the

year. Chocolates and flowers are very nice but if there is no regular contact to back them up, their significance gets watered down. Devotion must express itself in some way. If the outward signs of devotion emerge from a real relationship with Our Lady, then they have a deep significance. Jesus heavily criticised the Pharisees because of their outward displays of religion that had no basis in reality. If the outward signs are just a passing emotion, they will have no lasting impact on our lives. We show our devotion to Our Lady by living as she has shown us.

Wearing the scapular is intended to be an outward reminder of what should be going on within. The danger with any outward sign is that it remain merely outward and therefore the stress today is on the necessity of living what the scapular symbolises. Mary is seen to be the perfect example of what it means to follow Christ. The meaning of the scapular today can perhaps be summed up in one of the prayers over the people at the end of the mass of the Solemnity of Our Lady of Mount Cannel:- "Lord, grant that those who in devotion have put on the habit of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, may put on her virtues also and enjoy her unfailing protection"."


As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."