I am celebrating my first Christmas as a Priest this year. I was ordained back in August by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York. As I am working on homilies for the week leading up to Christmas and my Christmas Day homily, I just find myself approaching the infancy narrative texts in new ways. As I sit with passages from Matthew and Luke, the person of Mary keeps jumping out to me as the person that is allowing me to enter the stories of the birth of Jesus.
At one level, I am not surprised. Because I am a Carmelite and we see ourselves as one of the first Marian Orders, due to my formation, Mary would jump out at me in the scriptures. However, I am also surprised at the same time, because the image that is coming to me as I read the Christmas passages is Mary as “the One Who Carries.” The expression “the One Who Carries” is a new thought that is shaping how I view and understand our Blessed Mother and my relationship with her.
Traditionally, as a Carmelite, I viewed myself as one who has been entrusted with Mary’s garment, the brown scapular. It is a sign of her beloved place upon me to carry with me throughout my life. Yet, am I the one who carries the scapular or am I being carried by it?
Mary, More Mother than Queen
Why do Carmelites use a lot of motherly images for Mary? Let us look at the Gospel of John. One of Jesus’ dying acts upon the Cross was to give his beloved disciple over to his mother Mary and to give his mother Mary over to his beloved disciple (John 19:25-27).
For us Carmelites, this has always been the key text for our relationship with Mary, because it shows us the love and trusts Jesus has in both Mary and us. He loves and trusts his mother to care for the community he has begun because he knew they would need her presence for what was to come at Pentecost. It is in fact at the upper room during Pentecost that we see her living out her motherly ministry in a truly humble way by praying with the very men that betrayed and abandoned her son on the Cross.
Also, Jesus entrusted and loved his disciple enough to know that he would open himself up to her presence in his life. It is in the disciple’s openness to the presence of Mary is what we Carmelites try to maintain through our lives of prayer and service to the Church. It is the relationship between child and mother that shapes the devotion of the brown scapular, and why St. Therese of Lisieux wrote to remind us, “She is more Mother than Queen.”
What Is It: The Scapular in the Carmelite Order’s View
I believe it is important to offer a little explanation of how we in the Carmelite Order understand our devotion to the brown scapular. Functionally, a scapular was just a cloth monks wore for work purposes, like an apron. However, over time this little piece of garment took on many different spiritual meanings. For some groups, it is the yoke of Christ (Matthew 11:30), an outward sign of a person’s commitment to the work of Jesus. For others, it was a sign of the cross he or she carried throughout her or his life.
For the Carmelites, the scapular became a sign of our lives shaped by our devotion to Mary. It is a sign of her maternal care, protection, and embrace of the Order. Over the years, the scapular shrank in size, to accommodate lay people so they could wear it while they worked and show their connection to Mary through and by the Carmelite Order. In recent times, the Carmelite Order has voiced several spiritual meanings about the brown scapular as a way Mary teaches us.
Our Mother Mary teaches us to be open to God and His will for us, which is made known to us through the events of our lives, both sacred and secular. The constant touch of the scapular rubbing on our skin reminds is to be open to God’s presence as Mary was during her life.
Carmelites are called to listen to the Word of God, through the Church, the Bible, our Spiritual Leaders, the Poor, and silence. When we learn to listen, our hearts become open to believing in the presence of God among those messengers, so we can begin to put them into practice. The silent touch of the scapular as it wraps around our necks reminds the Carmelite that God uses even the littlest of messengers to speak with us and that it is our choice to listen.
The Carmelite Rule embraces St. Paul’s call to pray without ceasing as a foundation stone for our religious life (1 Thessalonians 5:16). When a Carmelite begins to pray without ceasing, he or she beings to discover the presence of God within her or his life at that moment. The rubbing motion of the scapular awakens the heart to the call for us to constantly be praying to God, which resides in always remembering we rest in His presence.
To Be Active
Carmelites are not their own persons but are called to go out and care for other people, as Mary did for Elizabeth. The fruit of Carmel cannot remain locked up but is a source of nourishment for all. That is why Carmelites never had one type of ministry, but reached out in so many apostolic endeavors to share the gifts of the Order, helping others to find protection in Mary, and to aid the person in what every physical or spiritual need he or she may have at any moment of her or his life.
All four spiritual areas of openness, listening, prayer, and activity are all made possible because we live under the protection of Mary as we seek to live in allegiance with Jesus Christ, with a pure heart and a stout conscience, as called upon by the beginning of the Carmelite Rule given by St. Albert of Jerusalem.
Also, please note: Carmelites do not see the scapular as a magical amulet or as a guarantee of salvation. As Catholics, we are called to “work out [our] salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). The scapular does not excuse us from living a life of charity that our Christian life demands; in fact, as stated above the scapular supports and spurs us along a life of charity.
The Swaddling Cloth of the Carmelite Order
Let us return to our question about a scapular devotee being carried by Mary. The Carmelite Order sees the brown scapular fundamentally as a sign of Mary’s protection for the Order.
What does that mean to be under Mary’s protection? Luke 2:7 reads “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes ….” Mary wrapped the baby Jesus in a long tight cloth to keep him from being hurt. This action of Mary allowed her as a mother to control, care for, and protect her child. One thing I learned from my two nieces when they were babies is that the nails on a baby can harm the skin of the child, so restricting the baby’s movement helps them. Mary, out of love for her child, wrapped him up so he would not hurt himself and to also protect him from his surroundings.
It is in those ways that Mary offers her protection to us. How often do we invite things into ourselves that we know at some level may be harmful to us, I am thinking about things like alcohol, drugs, porn, etc. Mary, through her brown scapular, keeps us close to her and restricts our movements by recalling her motherly gaze in our minds through the touch of her scapular.
I cannot tell you all the times that I drive around in the traffic in New York City and, in moments of terrible traffic, just when I lose my temper and start to say something uncharitable, my scapular starts to itch me. I know that itch is from Mary, waking me up to what I am about to do to keep me from doing something that may take me away from her Son, my brother and Lord, Jesus. In moments when I am about to carry myself away from my Lord due to my anger, Mary, through her garment she has wrapped me in, carries me back to my path by waking me up that moment of choice.
A Hug from Mary
I have yet to meet a person who, in an hour of need, has not wanted a hug from her or his mother. As a Carmelite, I know when I place the brown scapular around my neck that my Mother is giving me a hug. Within her hug lies the one thing needed: the gift of her love in my life.
At moments when I fall short, my Mother Mary’s gentle embrace is made known to me through my scapular. And I feel in its warmth her gentle hands lifting me up and helping to carry me for just a few steps so I may return on my way again — a way her son, my brother and Lord, has fashioned for me and calls me to walk down. I believe it is in that loving embrace through the scapular that she carries me in my times of need and calls me back when I am getting too ahead of myself.
We see this loving behavior of her through the infancy narratives of the Gospels and Christ’s act of ensuring its continued presence in the Church through the gift of his Mother. The brown scapular devotion just helps make to make Mary’s embrace tangible to us in a way that we not only spiritually but physically need in our lives. As Carmelites, it is our duty and honor to help others know the gift of Christ’s mother for her or his life. As Mary carries us with her warm embrace through the scapular, she will always carry us to her son, for it is in him that all our hearts rest.
The sign of the Scapular points to an effective synthesis of Marian spirituality, which nourishes the devotion of believers and makes them sensitive to the Virgin Mother’s loving presence in their lives. (St. John Paul II, Message to the Carmelite Family [March 25, 2001], 5)