A Reflection for the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

C. O’Donnell, O.Carm. 2005.

“The Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is truly universal and undoubtedly
one of the pious practices which Vatican II described as
‘recommended by the Magisterium throughout the centuries’.”
(Vatican Directory Popular Piety and the Liturgy (2001) n. 205)

There are many “Our Ladys.” When we have “Our Lady of somewhere,” we usually concentrate on how she is honoured in a place – the Virgin who invites us to repentance and healing at Lourdes, the Virgin of the poor and marginalised at Guadeloupe. When we speak of Our Lady of an order or congregation, we are alluding to the way in which she is honoured in that institute.

The feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is celebrated on 16 July. It draws our attention to the way in which she is manifested to the Carmelite Order and the way in which Carmelites see her. We know that the hermit brothers on Mount Carmel dedicated an oratory to St Mary early in the thirteenth century. In medieval times that was the equivalent of their declaring that she is their Patron who will look after them, and whom they in turn will serve.

Later when the Carmelites came to Europe and joined the ranks of the mendicant friars, other images of Mary arose among them. They took of course the notion of Mother common to all Christians of the East and West. They also saw her as Sister, and honoured her as the Most Pure Virgin, that is the Virgin of undivided heart. From this time too, Carmelites were much taken by the beauty of Mary, so that a favourite invocation was “Mother and Beauty of Carmel.”

A significant Carmelite devotion to Our Lady is through the Brown Scapular. A scapular is part of a religious habit, a wide piece of cloth worn back and front over the shoulders (Latin scapulae—shoulder blades) and reaching to the knees or lower. From the Middle Ages lay people sought some association with religious orders, and a common way was to invest them in part of the habit, frequently a reduced scapular. The Brown Scapular of the Carmelite Order has been very popular since the fifteenth century.

The scapular is a symbol, that is, a sign that carries a deeper meaning. In a letter to the whole Carmelite Order, the Superiors General, J. Chalmers and C. Maccise wrote in 2001: “reflection on the Scapular symbolism implies that we think out and make our own the fact that Mary is our Patroness, who cares for us as Mother and Sister. Our Mother nurtures the divine life within us and teaches us the way to God. Our Sister walks with us in the journey of transformation, inviting us to make ours her own response: ‘Oh let it what you have said be done to me’ (Luke 1:38). But patronage is a two-way relationship. We receive Mary’s care; in turn we are called upon to imitate her and to honour her through fidelity to her Son.”

Wearing of the Brown Scapular is not a quasi-magical totem. It must be a sign of a relationship with Christ along with Mary, one of dependence and love. It will have its fullest meaning only when we are drawn into the contemplation of the divine mysteries. As the symbol of a religious garment the scapular should also remind us that we are to be clothed with Christ (see Col 3:10; Rom 13:14). We may go further and see Mary clothing us with her Son.

For many centuries the Brown Scapular has been seen as a sign of Mary’s care and help not only in life’s dangers, but also at the time of death and during any purification and healing a person in Purgatory that a person might need.