“Our Lady of Carmel” is the title bestowed on the Blessed Virgin Mary, patroness of the Carmelite order. Founded in the 12th century on Mount Carmel, the Carmelites still have their spiritual headquarters on the slopes of this mountain, overlooking the bustling city of Haifa and the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Why did they choose this particular place?
Mount Carmel has a place of great significance in sacred history. As early as the third or fourth century, it has been a place of pilgrimage. It is on this mountain that all of Israel gathered to witness the triumph of Elijah over the prophets of Baal.1 Sheltered within the walls of the present Carmelite Monastery is the cave where Elijah prayed to God for rain, bringing an end to the drought. In the First Book of the Kings we read, “Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he bowed himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees. … And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain” (1 Kings 18:42, 45). Inspired by the example of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, a small group of hermits founded a small monastery – the beginning of the Carmelite order – near the grotto of Elijah in 1185.
One of the characteristics of Carmelite spirituality is devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi, OCD, wrote that this devotion encompasses …“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’.”3
One of the signs of devotion to Our Lady of Carmel is the wearing of the Brown Scapular, which is a sacramental of the Catholic Church. The Catechism explains that sacramentals are “sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy.”4 In this case, the Scapular is the sacred sign, and the spiritual effect is the protection of our souls through the prayers of Mary.
According to tradition, on July 16, 1251, Our Blessed Mother appeared to St. Simon Stock (the Prior General of the Carmelite order at that time) and gave him a brown woollen scapular, saying, “This shall be a privilege for you and all Carmelites, that anyone dying in this habit shall not suffer eternal fire.” She continued, “Wear the Scapular devoutly and perseveringly. It is my garment. To be clothed in it means you are continually thinking of me, and I in turn, am always thinking of you and helping you to secure eternal life.”5
Those who wear and are enrolled in the Scapular participate in a special promise called the Sabbatine Privilege.6 This promise states that if we keep the necessary requirements of the privilege and depart from this life in charity, Our Lady will release our souls from purgatory on the first Saturday after we die. The requirements are as follows:
- You must wear the Scapular faithfully.
- You must observe chastity in your state in life.
- You must recite the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin (or the rosary) every day. If this is not possible, you must observe the fast of the Church, together with abstaining from meat on Wednesdays and Saturdays, except when Christmas falls on these days.7
Today, the wearing of the Brown Scapular has become widespread, not just within the Carmelite community but also amongst the general Catholic population. Many miracles have been attributed to it. For example, “In May 1957, in Westenboden, Germany, an entire row of houses had caught fire. The inhabitants of one of the houses fixed a scapular to the front door of their home. Five hours later, 22 homes on the block had burnt to the ground. Yet amidst the destruction, the home with the scapular attached to it stood unharmed. This miracle was witnessed by hundreds of people.”8
The words addressed to Carmelites by Arnold Bostius (a 15th century Carmelite) are still a rich source of reflection for us today. He wrote, “All Carmelites, encouraged by the dignity of the honor and the graces of Mary, rejoice to wear this gift of Our Lady night and day as an impenetrable shield. It reminds them that they always consider the holy life of Mary as their model, that they must engrave her image, along with her Son’s, on the shield of their faith, and that they must place all their trust in the all-powerful protection of this sovereign queen who is always ready to come to their aid. Happy are they who affectionately receive the gifts of Mary in the embrace of reciprocal spiritual love. They can look at this habit and joyfully remember the special love their most loving benefactor bestows on them, and thus know that they have been selected by her for so great an inheritance.” (Patronatu, 1479)9
– Sharon van der Sloot
Prayer to Our Lady of Mount Carmel10
O most beautiful Flower of Mount Carmel, fruitful vine, splendor of Heaven, Blessed Mother of the Son of God, Immaculate Virgin, assist me in this my necessity. O Star of the Sea, help me and show me herein that you are my Mother.
O Holy Mary, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven and earth, I humbly beseech you from the bottom of my heart, to succor me in this my necessity. There are none that can withstand your power. O show me herein that you are my Mother.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us that have recourse to thee. (3 times)
Sweet Mother, I place this cause in your hands. (3 times)
1 1 Kings 18:19-40.
2 Stella Maris, the name of the chapel in the monastery of Mt. Carmel, is Latin for “Star of the Sea.” It is an ancient title of the Blessed Virgin Mary that emphasizes her role as a sign of hope and a guiding star for Christians.
3John Henry, 6 Things You Should Know About the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel; St. Peter’s List; available from http://www.stpeterslist.com/9345/7-things-you-should-know-about-the-brown-scapular-of-our-lady-of-mt-carmel/; Internet; accessed 13 July 2013.
4 CCC, 1667.
5 John Henry, 6 Things You Should Know About the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.
6 The Sabbatine privilege was approved by Pope John XXII and later confirmed by Pope Gregory XIII, Pope Clement VII, and Pope St. Pius V.
7 Cf.Joseph Hilgers, “Sabbatine Privilege,” The Catholic Encyclopedia vol. 13 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912). Available from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13289b.htm; Internet; accessed 13 July 2013.
8 Cf. Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus, “Spirit of Carmel: Brown Scapular”; available from http://www.carmelitedcj.org/saints/scapular.asp; Internet; accessed 13 July 2013.
10 Scott P. Richert, Prayer to Our Lady of Mount Carmel; available from http://catholicism.about.com/od/tothevirginmary/qt/OL_Mount_Carmel.htm; Internet; accessed 13 July 2013.