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Sacred Badge: The Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

It's the middle of the 13th century, the age of Gregory X and the Crusades, chivalry and the Knights of the Round Table. Learned men of the time still think the earth is flat and America will not be discovered for another three hundred years. But there are a few moments of glory in the gloomy chapters of the Middle Ages, and one of them is about to happen inside the crude cell of a Carmelite Monastery in the middle of a small English village named Aylesford. A 90 year old priest is huddled on the floor, his back bent under the weight of his years, his withered lips murmuring the words of what will soon become one of the most legendary prayers in the history of the Church. "O Most Beautiful Flower of Mount Carmel, Splendor of Heaven . . . O Star of the Sea, help me!"

The old man's room is suddenly flooded with light. He jolts upright with a spryness that hints of the vigorous young man who gave his life to the "Order of the Virgin" and spent his youth living in solitude in the tree trunks of an English forest. And now here She is, the love of his life, standing in an almost blinding radiance with a babe clutched in one arm and the other extending toward him, a strip of plain brown wool clasped in her hand. "Take this scapular and wear it," She says, "and whosoever does so shall receive my protection in time of danger; it shall be a pledge of peace between them and me, and whosoever dies in it shall not suffer eternal fire." St. Simon Stock takes the cloth, clutches it to his heart and watches the heavenly vision fade back into eternity.

The world has just received the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Seven centuries have passed and it's a brighter world, smarter, and much more round. Almost everything has changed, even this sacred livery that came from the hands of Our Lady Herself. Size-wise, it has been commuted from its original long length to two small brown wool patches about the size of a postage stamp that can be worn under the clothing of the laity. But the important part, the promise, remains intact. Not a word of it has changed since its original delivery to St. Simon Stock in 1251, although it is no longer the exclusive possession of the Carmelite Order. Now it can be worn by anyone who agrees to have themselves invested [which can be done in less than 10 minutes by any parish priest] in the oldest existing confraternity of a religious order, the Confraternity of the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel; and who will thereafter wear the scapular with the proper disposition, namely, unlimited faith and confidence in the intercession of the Mother of God.

Could anything be this simple, this plain, and yet extraordinary enough to fill over 300 volumes in the Vatican Library of miracles attributable to the faithful wearing of it? Absolutely. Over the centuries, devotees of this remarkable sacramental have survived fires, calmed hurricanes, cured the incurable, endured half a century in the tomb and seen millions rescued from eternal damnation. Called the devotion of "Popes and Peasants" it attracts a rich diversity of people. While being plain enough for children to understand, it is spiritually sound enough to satisfy the very Princes of the church, three of whom are declared Doctors: St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Lisieux. Blessed Claude de Colombiere and St. Francis de Sales are among the users, as well as St. Alphonsus Liquori, St. Louis Marie De Montfort, St. John Bosco, St. John Vianney. Popes too numerous to list are among its devotees and Our Lady has granted special favors to several of them.

Take Pope Gregory X, for instance, who was the first Pope to be buried in the Brown Scapular. He died in 1260, only 9 years after St. Simon received it. Five centuries later, in 1830, his tomb was opened and the coffin removed. Upon opening the casket, they found nothing but dust - and the Brown Scapular he was wearing at the time of his death. After 554 years in the grave, it was perfectly intact, down to the last stitch. [This remarkable artifact is presently on display in the famous museum in Arezzo, Italy.]

Pope Leo XI regarded the promise of the scapular with such tenderness that when it was accidentally removed from him at the moment of his papal investiture, he remanded, "Leave me Mary, lest Mary leave me!"

Pope John XXII received one of the most significant privileges. Our Lady of Mount Carmel appeared to him almost 100 years after St. Simon Stock's apparition and extended the privileges of the Scapular to now include the heralded Sabbatine Privilege. Not only would She spare the wearer of the scapular an eternity of fire by either leading them to full repentance before death or preserving them in life from committing grave sin, She now promised to have them released from Purgatory on the first Saturday after their death if they agreed to fulfill two additional requirements. First, they must maintain the chastity required of their state in life. Second, they must recite daily the Little Office of Our Lady [the Rosary can now be substituted]. St. John of the Cross is supposed to have rejoiced over the privilege of dying on a Saturday because of the Sabbatine Privilege in which he so steadfastly believed.

As is the case with most Catholic sacramentals, however, there have been plenty of abuses over the years, particularly by using them in superstition rather than in faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly defines sacramentals as ". . . Sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments" [CCC 1667]. They are given to us ". . .For the sanctification of certain ministries of the Church, certain states of life, a great variety of circumstances in Christian life, and the use of many things helpful to man. (. . .) They can also respond to the needs, culture and special history of the Christian people of a particular region or time . . ." [CCC 1668].

This particular sacramental seems to transcend all regions and all peoples because of its universal and timeless appeal. Ancient it may be, but for the wearer Her promise is always there, unchangeable and forever new. For all of its notoriety, however, one cannot ignore the fact that this enormously popular sacramental is surrounded by serious doubts about its authenticity. There is very little in the way of authentic documentation to back it up. The original records of St. Simon's apparition, once housed in the Carmelite library in Bordeaux, were burned during the razing of that town to prevent the spread of the Black Plague. Whatever survived, was destroyed a few centuries later when Henry VIII ordered the London library burned during the Anglican schism. The earliest record we have of the apparition was written two hundred years after it occurred, in 1389, when the General of the Carmelite Order, John Grossi, wrote an account of it in a book about Carmelite Saints entitled, The Viridarium. To complicate matters even further, the original Papal Bull about the Sabbatine Privilege, written by John XXII, has never been found, only later versions that commute the promise from "...The first Saturday following death..." to "...a Saturday shortly after death."

But in spite of these severe shortages of documentation, Popes have vied with one another to heap favors upon it, making it one of the most indulgenced sacramentals in the history of the Church. In addition to Papal recognition, many theologians believe that the very lack of documentation is why Our Lady has been so prolific in the number of miracles She is willing to work on behalf of the laity who openly profess their faith in Her by wearing the scapular. She seems particularly determined to eliminate all doubt about its authenticity. Irregardless of what records managed to survive the centuries, even now, seven centuries later, She is willing to work sometimes astonishing miracles to prove its heavenly origins.

For instance, in 1996, a seven year old boy was invested in the scapular in preparation for his First Holy Communion [a practice that is being slowly phased out of our Catholic schools] and given an extra scapular to take home. His mother had been suffering with a thyroid dysfunction for almost seven years, and had recently been experiencing additional symptoms that could only be controlled through surgery, radioactive treatment, or a medication that caused many side effects, including the loss of hair. Because she's still a young woman, this is devastating news. When her son comes home with the scapular, she doesn't hesitate to put it on and give herself to the Blessed Mother. A feeling of great calm comes over her, a gentle peace that makes her feel strangely confident no matter what might happen next. This newfound courage gives her the strength to undergo the blood work that will be necessary before a final diagnosis can be made. A few weeks later, the tests come back. They're negative. All of them. Not only are her recent troubles gone, so is the thyroid dysfunction. She is completely healed.

Only ten miles away, another mother rushes to the hospital to comfort her daughter. The girl is dehydrated and bleeding, obviously in the process of a miscarriage - her fourth. Not again, she thinks, not another one. The sight of the crushing disappointment on her daughter's face is too much to bear and in a moment of desperation she removes her brown wool scapular and puts it around the girl's neck. As a mother to a Mother, she begs Mary to protect this unborn child, to plead for it's life, to do something, anything.

The bleeding stops. Suddenly. The doctors are never able to say exactly when or how it happened, but it did. By the following afternoon, the young woman is pronounced perfectly fit - and perfectly pregnant. She walks out of the hospital and, six months later, gives birth to her first child, a daughter. Strangely enough, she is born on the Feast of the Visitation of Our Lady to St. Elizabeth - and her mother's name just happens to be Mary Beth.

Time has no bearing on the Promise Our Lady made to the wearers of Her brown scapular. What matters is faith, and faith alone. When She says that whoever wears it ". . . Shall receive my protection in time of danger . . ." She's talking to us as well as the French priest who was saying mass a century ago in a church in Einsiedeln, Switzerland when a scuffle broke out in the congregation. A young man pulled our a revolver and started shooting. The priest felt a sharp impact against the middle of his back, certain it was a bullet, but he felt no pain, no weakness or even seemed to be bleeding. After the culprit was subdued, the priest continued the mass. Afterward, in the sacristy, when his vestments were removed, a metal bullet was found in the middle of his brown wool scapular. It was as crushed as if it had impaced with a wall of solid steel.

One-hundred years later, in 1997, almost the same thing happened in a police precinct in a large city in the northeastern US. A clerk was making copies and listening to a group of officers prepare for a narcotics raid. One of them complained about going on the raid without his scapular. How could he forget his scapular? Of all days! Of course, the other officers were ribbing him, calling him superstitious, over-zealous, a fanatic. But the officer remained nonplused. The clerk was so moved by his unabashed faith that she immediately gave him her own scapular. The next day she learned that this officer was caught on the walkway of the house when the occupant began firing a high-powered weapon through the front door. Every shot was aimed straight at the man's chest. While the other officers cringed in horror, bullets flew everywhere, over the man's shoulders, under his arms, over his head, but not a single shot hit him. He wasn't even grazed. Impossible! How could anyone escape such a barrage of bullets without being killed, or at least left with a few dents in their bullet-proof vest? The only man on the scene that day who wasn't astonished beyond description was the faith-filled officer. He knew exactly how it happened. Our Lady. Because he had gone to the trouble of professing his faith in Her, She went to the trouble of saving his life.

Her promise goes even further than simple protection, however. Our Lady also vows to consider the wearing of the scapular as ". . . A pledge of peace between them and me." This doesn't seem like much of a promise at first, at least not until one reviews the history of how this part of the promise is usually kept, by restoring peace between a soul and Her Son. There is no better illustration of how any sacramental is supposed to be used, as an "agent of grace," than the following stories.

A young mother of twin sons was diagnosed with ovarian cancer less than a year ago. Because the cancer has already spread to her stomach, her chance of survival is slim. The woman is so devastated by this news she can no longer face life and sinks into a deep depression. No one can reach her. Family and friends are sent away and because she has long neglected her religion, Catholicism, her faith isn't strong enough to sustain her either spiritually or emotionally. But someone finally convinces her to attend a local Catholic prayer cenacle where her sad story is told. One woman was so moved with compassion for the young mother, she took off her brown scapular and put it around her neck. "Give yourself to Mary," she said. "She can handle this better than you." The advice was strangely comforting, perhaps because she knew she had completely fallen apart and needed exactly that - someone to handle it better than she felt capable of doing. For the first time since her diagnosis, the woman finally opened her despairing heart - to the gentle Mother of Jesus.

Almost at once, she became aware of a new hunger for all things spiritual. She suddenly wanted God, the Saints, Angels, rosary beads and novenas. Anything Catholic. She wanted the Faith she grew up with and knew the time had come to reconcile with the Church. A priest was called and she received the sacraments of confession, Eucharist, and Anointing of the Sick - all on the same day. Such a torrent of grace upon her long-dead soul was like sunlight flooding a tomb. The woman was instantly, totally transformed. The face that was once so full of anxiety and fear was now radiant and full of peace. When asked about this sudden change, she calmly explains, "I have been totally transformed by God." She can face anything now. Even death.

Another man was caught up in a life of gambling, drugs, loan sharks. He paid little attention to heaven, or his health, for that matter. The lifestyle finally caught up with him and he got sick, very sick, sick enough to believe he might even die. After living this kind of life, he knows he's no candidate for heaven - and probably not Purgatory either. There's only one place left - hell. The thought terrifies him. From somewhere in the back of his frightened mind comes a memory of his Catholic grade school years and a certain sacramental that carries with it the promise to be spared from eternal damnation. He calls his brother, a Catholic deacon, who tells him it's the brown scapular and brings him one. The man offers everything he's got to Our Lady if She'll ask Jesus to please spare his life. He puts on the scapular the very same day.

His health begins to improve almost immediately and before long, he's back on his feet and doing great. But the first twinges from a sin-deadened conscience made themselves felt. Maybe he ought to keep his end of the bargain with Our Lady, he thinks. Maybe he ought to stop in a Church once in awhile. He finally gets around to it and is shocked at how much he's forgotten after all these years - like how he should genuflect in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and when to sit or stand or kneel at mass. He can't even pray the rosary because he forgot how to say the Hail Mary! But for some reason, he finds comfort in church and keeps going back. Gradually, he learns Catholicism all over again, but this time it's with fervor, conviction. This time, it's with his heart. Eventually, he takes the big step and goes to confession, then starts receiving Communion again. This man is now a daily communicant who makes a weekly holy hour in the middle of the night.

Our Lady keeps Her promises, especially the final part, which is the most famous and best known. "Whosoever dies in it, shall not suffer eternal fire."

No time was wasted here. Before the end of the very day St. Simon Stock received the scapular, a local man came to the Aylesford Abby to summon a priest for his dying brother. Of course, St. Simon went at once and brought the brown wool mantle with him [he was either wearing it or carrying it - the records are unclear]. The dying man was in his last agony, fitful, frightened, crying out. St. Simon could hardly calm him long enough to give him the last rites and hear his final confession. It wasn't until the Saint showed him the scapular and began telling him about Our Lady and Her promise that the man fell strangely quiet, almost enchanted by what the old priest was telling him. With the man's permission, St. Simon draped the brown wool across his body and claimed him for Jesus, the Son of Mary. A few minutes later, the man passed peacefully into eternity.

Eight hundred years have passed and now there are thousands of similar stories of people clinging to life until they receive the Sacred Livery with its powerful promise for the hereafter. But no matter how often one reads about it, nothing compares to actually witnessing such an extraordinary event.

In 1998, only a few blocks from my own home, a woman was hospitalized in serious condition. A neighbor decided to visit and brought along a brown scapular which she hoped would bring the sick woman spiritual comfort and peace. Arriving at the hospital, she got off the elevator on the wrong floor but didn't realize it until she walked into the room and discovered someone else in the bed. It was a forty-four-year old man in a deep coma. Members of his family were sitting around him. She expressed her sympathies for the interruption and asked about the man. He had been perfectly healthy until three months ago, the family explained, when he suddenly became ill with a mysterious disease that doctors were unable to name. Even though there was no hope for his survival, the family was determined to remain at his side until the last.

Our neighbor was so moved by the story she decided to give him the scapular instead. The family gladly accepted it and listened, misty-eyed, as she claimed him for Our Lady and laid the brown scapular on his chest. It seemed like the very moment the cloth touched him that his eyes suddenly opened. The startled family watched him sit straight up in bed and his face fill with a look of sudden amazement, as if he was seeing something that positively thrilled him. And then, just as suddenly, he fell backward, closed his eyes, and died.

For the longest moment, no one could move. They could only sit there in shock and stare at the man as if waiting for it to happen again. But it didn't. The man was dead. Slowly, like people rising out of a deep sleep, they began to ask one another what had happened, if they had seen him sit up and open his eyes and look like he was seeing something that thrilled him. Yes, yes, they all agreed on it. He woke up, sat up, and apparently saw something fantastic. But what? The scapular. Every head turned toward the woman who could only shrug helplessly. Who would ever know what happened in the last second of that man's life, just a moment after receiving the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The only salient fact was this - after three months in a coma, the man woke up in the same instant that a scapular was laid on his breast. As far as his family was concerned, no further explanation was needed. This was proof enough that the scapular had something to do with it.

Can anything as simple as a piece of cloth worn as a statement of faith in a promise be this powerful? Certainly! Its this very simplicity si what gives the Scapular its universal appeal. Just wearing it is a prayer, a sign of faith in God, of hope in His mercy, of love for all the Truth He deposited in the Catholic Church. Even non-Christians have been known to respect it, like the black slaves who were ministered to by St. Peter Claver, many of whom were converted to the faith. But one of the most remarkable examples of the respect shown by non-Christians toward the scapular was recorded by the people who inspected the carnage left in the wake of Custer's Last Stand at the battle of the Little Big Horn.

The body of Colonel Keogh, an Irishman of deep Catholic faith, was found propped against a tree. His shirt had been torn open and there, neatly arranged on his breast, was the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The news correspondent who reported this discovery for L'Univers, report that, ". . .Without a doubt the Sacred Badge awakened recollections of the teachings of some devoted missionary; one could see that several of the savages had assisted in bearing the body of an enemy, only a few moments before an object of detestation, to a sheltered spot; there placing it in a reclining position, the head leaning against a tree, carefully arranging the Badge so loved by the deceased upon his breast . . ."

What a fantastic testimony to something so seemingly plain and simple as the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel! Even the natives could discern a mysterious importance in that pair of unpretentious brown wool patches. Perhaps we should all revisit, from time to time, our ability to discern the power of the Almighty where it so often hides itself - in the most ordinary places - such as the long-awaited Messiah Who once hid Himself in the arms of a humble maid from Nazareth.

-- by Sue Brinkmann

E-mail comments to the author at:

To obtain a free Blessed Brown Scapular, along with a printed copy of this article, write to:

Sue Brinkmann
PO Box 1723
Horsham, PA 19044
Donations are also welcome.

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