The world in which we live is full of material things that have symbolic meaning: light, fire, water… there are also, in everyday life, experiences of relationships between human beings, which express and symbolize deeper realities such as taking part in a protest march (as a sign of solidarity), joining together in a national celebration (as a sign of identity).
We need signs and symbols to help us understand what is happening at present, or what happened before, and to give us an awareness of who we are, as individuals and as groups.
Jesus is the great sign of the Father’s love. He founded the Church as a sign and instrument of His love. Christian life also has its signs. Jesus used bread, wine, water to help us understand higher things, which we can neither see or touch.
In the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments (baptism, confirmation, reconciliation, matrimony, orders, the sacrament of the sick) the symbols, (water, oil, the laying on of hands, the rings,) all have their own meaning and bring us into.
As well as liturgical signs, the Church has others related to some event, to some tradition or some person. One of these is the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
It is a sign approved by the Church and accepted by the Carmelite Order as an external sign of love for Mary, of the trust her children have in her, and of commitment to live like her.
The word scapular indicates a form of clothing, which monks wore when they were working. With the passage of time, people began to give symbolic meaning to it: the cross to be borne every day as disciples and followers of Christ. In some religious orders, such as the Carmelites, the Scapular turned into a sign of their way of life. The Scapular came to symbolize the special dedication of Carmelites to Mary, the Mother of God, and to express trust in her motherly protection as well as the desire to be like her in her commitment to Christ and to others. Thus it became a sign of Mary.
In the Middle Ages many Christians wanted to be associated with the orders founded at that time: Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Carmelites. Groups of lay people began to emerge in associations such as confraternities and sodalities.
All the religious orders wanted to give these lay people a sign of affiliation and of participation in their spirit and apostolate. That sign was often a part of their habit: a cloak, a cord, a scapular.
Among the Carmelites, the stage came when a smaller version of the Scapular was accepted as the sign of belonging to the Order and an expression of its spirituality.
The Blessed Virgin teaches us:
To be open to God, and to his will, shown to us in the events of our lives;
To Listen to the Word of God in the Bible and in life, to believe in it and to put into practice its demands;
To pray at all times, as a way of discovering the presence of God in all that is happening around us;
To be involved with people, being attentive to their needs.
The Scapular finds its roots in the tradition of the Order, which has seen in it a sign of Mary’s motherly protection. It has therefore, a centuries old spiritual meaning approved by Church.
It stands for a commitment to follow Jesus, like Mary, the perfect model of all the disciples of Christ. This commitment finds its origin in baptism by which we become children of God.
It leads us into the community of Carmel, a community of religious men and women, which has existed in the Church for over eight centuries.
It reminds us of the example of the saints of Carmel, with whom we establish a close bond as brothers and sisters to one another.
It is an expression of our belief that we will meet God in eternal life, aided by the intercession and prayers of Mary.
Text by the joint OCD and OCarm Commission in Rome, 1999