Legend has it that Simon went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he met the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. This hermit order claimed to be the successors of Elijah and his followers, and Simon joined them for a time. Then, when the situation in Palestine became too dangerous for them to remain, he returned to England, bringing the brothers with him. In Europe, they became mendicant friars along the pattern of the Franciscans and the Dominicans.
The new order faced many problems: internal difficulties as the former hermits adjusted to communal living; external jealousies from existing orders.
Simon withdrew to his monastic room or ‘cell’ – probably at Cambridge by this time – to try and gain some relief from the problems faced both by himself and his Carmelite order, and in order to pray to Mary; it was then that he had his famous vision of her bringing the Brown Scapular to him with the following words, which are preserved in a fourteenth century narrative: “This will be for you and for all Carmelites the privilege, that he who dies in this will not suffer eternal fire.”
The Scapular promise is based on the two elements of Mary’s spiritual maternity and her mediation of grace, that is that she is the ‘spiritual’ mother of all mankind, as well as the ‘channel’ by which all grace comes to us, understood in the sense that she too is dependent on the sole mediation of Christ, her son.
This promise implies that Mary will intercede to ensure that the wearer of the Scapular obtains the grace of final perseverance, that is of dying in a state of grace. [theotokos.org.uk]
Our Lady also instructed St Simon to seek confirmation of the order from the Pope. The Catholic Encyclopaedia says:
In a general chapter held at Aylesford in 1245, Alanus resigning his dignity, St. Simon was chosen the sixth general, and in the same year procured a new confirmation of the rule by pope Innocent IV., who at the saint’s request received this order under the special protection of the Holy See, in 1251.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
In the middle of the fourteenth century, the wearing of the Scapular spread to the laity, and it continues as a devotion today. The modern Scapular consists of two pieces of brown cloth, usually decorated with Marian pictures, joined by two narrow cords. It is worn around the neck with one brown cloth hanging at the front, and one at the back.
- 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.
As this Carmelite site points out, the Scapular is not magic. It is not a ‘get out of jail free card’. It is a sign and a reminder: a sign, as you wear it, of your commitment; a reminder, as you take it off to shower or put it on again afterwards, of all that it stands for. By constantly wearing the Scapular, you call the things of Heaven to mind through the day, every day.