Mary’s quiet presence in the brown scapular
“What’s that thing plastered on your back—Salonpas?” a male colleague in the newsroom asked. “Oh that? It’s a scapular.” I didn’t realize it was semi-visible through my white shirt, and so, assuring him that I wasn’t in need yet of Salonpas—a pain-relieveng patch for arthritis or other muscle aches—I felt obliged to tell him a bit about the brown scapular. For us Secular Carmelites, it is formally imposed during a ceremony marking a stage in our formation; it’s made up of two pieces of plain brown wool cloth the size indeed of a Salonpas patch.
Maybe he was just kidding about the Salonpas bit, but it led to his virtual initiation into Carmel and the brown scapular devotion. Serves him right. “Don’t believe what you hear about the brown scapular protecting you from bullets or knife attacks,” I warned him, “Hindi iyon anting-anting (amulet) or a lucky charm to make you rich and famous or find you the right spouse. It’s our Carmelite habit, a sign that we belong to Mary.”
I like what author John Zmirak said about the scapular being a “sleek and minimalist version of the Carmelite habit”. The one we Secular Carmelites wear may be sleek and minimalist but being made of wool, it’s itchy—to better fortify us against the pursuit of vainglory? Yes. Remember the sackcloth worn by Elijah and John the Baptist. We’re also not supposed to display it, alhough some of us, probably believing it expresses our “zeal for the Living God”, wear all sorts of ornate scapulars during “gala” occasions—huge like the ID cards during the papal visit, embroidered with the Carmelite logo, hung with a crucifix, and bearing the text of the so-called Sabbatine privilege. All sorts—all unnecessary, but all tolerated for the love of God.
Come to think of it, judging from the volume of devotees (in the Philippines) who unabashedly wear the brown scapular—from prison inmates to celebrities—one would think that Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (OLMC) must be the best known of Mary’s manifestations in the Church. But no, despite the thousands of brown scapulars sold in religious bookstores and distributed for free during her feast on July 16, countless others have yet to be introduced to the truth about it, and how it relates to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel whose popular image wears brown with a cream colored mantle, holds the Child Jesus in her left arm and in her right hand—you guessed it—a brown scapular.
The Church teaches that “The scapular is a Marian habit or garment. It is both a sign and pledge. A sign of belonging to Mary; a pledge of her motherly protection, not only in this life but after death. As a sign, it is a conventional sign signifying three elements strictly joined: first, belonging to a religious family particularly devoted to Mary, especially dear to Mary, the Carmelite Order; second, consecration to Mary, devotion to and trust in her Immaculate Heart; third, an urge to become like Mary by imitating her virtues, above all her humility, chastity, and spirit of prayer.”
More specifically, a Discalced Carmelite priest and a revered authority on Carmelite spirituality Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi, OCD, wrote that devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel means “a special call to the interior life, which is preeminently a Marian life. Our Lady wants us to resemble her not only in our outward vesture but, far more, in heart and spirit. If we gaze into Mary’s soul, we shall see that grace in her has flowered into a spiritual life of incalculable wealth: a life of recollection, prayer, uninterrupted oblation to God, continual contact, and intimate union with him. Mary’s soul is a sanctuary reserved for God alone, where no human creature has ever left its trace, where love and zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of mankind reign supreme… Those who want to live their devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel to the full must follow Mary into the depths of her interior life. Carmel is the symbol of the contemplative life, the life wholly dedicated to the quest for God, wholly orientated towards intimacy with God; and the one who has best realized this highest of ideals is Our Lady herself, ‘Queen and Splendor of Carmel’.”
“If we gaze into Mary’s soul…” Whew, tall order in this day and age of verbal diarrhea! Gazing implies a numbing silence—shutting out all words and thoughts as noise impeding the ascent to the Divine through Mary’s portal. How dare we gaze into Mary’s soul! But we must at least try, humbly, as the brown scapular—devoid of popular superstitions and self-serving notions—reminds us of Mary’s quiet presence in our lives and assures us beyond words of her untiring maternal guidance. In “following Mary into the depths of her interior life” we heed her advice in Cana, “Do as He tells you to do,” knowing beyond doubt that our faith will lead us to “a spiritual life of incalculable wealth” and an itimate friendship with our Lord Jesus. And that’s the truth.