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In devotion to the brown scapular

The feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was instituted as a sign of gratitude for the many favours she bestowed on the Carmelite Order. Today, Catholics the world over honour her and the brown scapular on July 16 every year

John Malvino Alfonso OCD

The Church celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16 every year. Our Lady of Mount Carmel is the patroness of the Carmelite Order and her feast was instituted in thankfulness to Mother Mary around the year 1386 for bestowing many favours and blessings on the Carmelites and helping them survive through many storms.

The Carmelites had been greatly threatened during an ecumenical council held in 1274. Some of the council fathers wanted to suppress the order because there were already too many religious orders. The Carmelites were fortunately not suppressed, but were asked to give some reasons for their existence. This feast was gradually adopted throughout the Order.

When we speak of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, we cannot leave out the brown scapular. It has a rich biblical meaning attached to clothing. A great deal is said in the Bible about clothing and the spiritual symbolism of clothing. This can be summarised in the words of Henry Cardinal Vaughan in a Pastoral Letter: “The Holy Scriptures themselves show us that from the earliest times the bestowal of a garment has been used as an indication of love and favour. The Patriarch Jacob gave his favourite son Joseph, a many-coloured tunic as a sign of special love. Jonathan stripped himself of the coat with which he was clothed and gave it to David because he loved him as his soul. Elias ascending to heaven bestowed his cloak upon Eliseus as a sign of the descent upon him of his own prophetic spirit.”

We learn of Mary in the New Testament, wrapping her son in swaddling clothes, and of Paul asking the believers ‘to put on Christ.’ In Baptism we are given a new white robe to symbolise the new life we are beginning in Christ. To be clothed with the scapular would imply our desire and endeavour to practice the virtues and so adorn ourselves with the virtues of Mary.

According to Fr Kavanaugh, who translated the works of Carmelite saints, the Church’s official position regarding the brown scapular is that it is a garment that we wear as both a sign of our belonging to Mary and pledge of her maternal protection in this life and the next. It is also a sign of three entwined elements: a) belonging to the Carmelite family, b) consecration to and trust in Mary, and c) an incentive to imitate Our Lady’s virtues, especially her humility, chastity, and prayerfulness.

However, it should not be used as a magical charm. It is not an automatic guarantee of salvation. It stands for the decision to follow Jesus like Mary, to be open to God and to his will.

We have many popular devotions in the Church. There is nothing wrong in having devotions to any saints or Mother Mary but we need to understand the real meaning of these. Every devotion should lead us to Jesus.  It should help us to imbibe the virtues of the saint and thus help us to strengthen our relationship with Jesus.

(The author is a member of the Karnataka-Goa Province of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, based at Carmelite Monastery, Margao.)

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