Monday, June 13, 2016

Considering the Scapular (Part III)

Elijah bemoans the devotional wasteland of the modern Church. (Washington Allston)

You can find a scapular for every occasion. There’s one for increasing the theological virtues (red), one for honoring the Passion (black), one for ransoming captives (white), one for devotion to St. Joseph (gold and violet), one for avoiding Hell (brown), one for converting sinners (blue), and one for converting unbelievers (green). Each one is adapted loosely from the habit of a different religious order, but you can always skip all those complications and just get yourself enrolled in a package-deal scapular.

Now, Mr. Grump is not especially well-versed in the theology of sacramentals. He knows that piously crossing oneself with holy water can expiate one of venial sin, but that’s about it. He wears a cross and has what he considers a healthy amount of religious art displayed in his home. He carries around a miraculous medal in his wallet, although he can’t quite remember how it got there. For the most part, his brown scapular sits in a desk drawer along with a few other Catholic trinket-y items that he is still deciding what to do with. He doesn’t believe much in outsourcing his spiritual life to jewelry, but he keeps them around on the theory that there is much more going on around him in terms of spiritual warfare than he knows, and prefers to keep certain weapons handy even if he isn’t certain how useful they actually are.

Except for Chartreuse, which he is certain is blessed by monks to be a sacramental of the highest order, and is probably one of the seven spirits which sit before the throne of God (Apoc. 1.4).

The credulity given to certain promises around the brown scapular borders far too often on outright superstition. Even so, one must admit that the spiritual practices of average Catholics before the Counter-Reformation would be considered superstitious today. They had a vivid perspective of life as a constant warfare between angels and devils, between witches and priests, between cursed objects and blessed sacramentals. We tend today to lean in the opposite direction of incredulity towards stories of the supernatural. We are picky about which miracle stories we believe—why do we disbelieve that St. Denis carried his own decapitated head for miles, but believe that Christ raised Lazarus from the dead?

I, for one, find no reason to think that the Blessed Virgin did not promise eternal salvation to those Catholic religious who faithfully kept the rules of their orders, symbolized by the faithful wearing of their orders’ habits. The counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience were given to us to make salvation more certain, and religious orders were founded to make the practice of the counsels more practical. Why wouldn’t Mary step in occasionally to assure Catholics in those orders that they were on the right track to ensuring their own salvation?

But therein lies the problem. The further away the popular devotion of scapular-wearing gets from the religious orders that originated these scapulars, the more similar it becomes to superstition. One need not become even a Third-Order Carmelite in order to “receive the graces” of the brown scapular, anymore. The scapular need not even be a scapular, but can now be a medal, destroying the one physical tie it had to a religious habit.

Stories of even worldly Catholics being saved from physical harm by wearing this scapular proliferate in its popular literature—a priest is saved from a bullet wound during Mass by the scapular, an enrollee stops a violent storm by throwing his scapular into the waves, a woman attempting suicide is unable to sink whilst wearing her scapular, etc.—and while I am not so incredulous as to doubt the reality of spiritual warfare spilling over into the material realm, one notices that the subject matter of these stories tends towards the sensational rather than the sober. Even Pius XII warned the Carmelites against presumption when considering Mary’s promise: “But not for this reason, however, may they who wear the Scapular think that they can gain eternal salvation while remaining slothful and negligent of spirit, for the Apostle warns us: ‘In fear and trembling shall you work out your salvation.’”

Crank up the heat, he's about to be canonized!
Wearing a brown scapular without any concern for the Carmelite order seems also to be yet another example of the disintegration of religious life in the Church. The scandals of unchastity, avarice, and plain disobedience in religious life are bad enough without also removing the devotional items they created from their possession. Those poor monks need all the help they can get. Carmelite spirituality leaves me cold (I do admire some of St. John of the Cross’s writings from an abstracted distance), but it is a help for many souls, and there is something perverse about recommending the order’s scapular without requiring any unique part of its spiritual life.

Every time a Catholic with some attachment to my parish dies, the question of whether or not he died wearing his scapular immediately arises. Better to ask if he died with the sacraments and with a clear contrition for his sins. How well did he fight off the final temptations of the Devil? How firmly did he hold to the Faith as the angel of death drew nearer? Wearing the scapular until death may indicate a love for Mary, or it may indicate presumption. No doubt she can work many miracles through her sacramentals, but should we insist that she will, even for obstinate sinners?

St. Joseph, patron of a holy death, pray for us!


  1. I wear a scapular now for more than ten years. Though I agree that the scapular is not a simple freecard to heaven, in some of my darker periods, when life and God seemed to be all against me, oftentimes the temptation arose to tear off the scapular from my neck. Not only because of the promise you highly doubt but also because of the completely conscious decision to apostasy it would encompass I always decided against it. I had the impression that the dwvil wanted me to get rid of the scapular and its promise. Beside these temptations it was also the scapular around my neck which was a sign for Gods presence, protection and guidance - even in these dark times.

    So, is the scapular a magical safecard to heaven? No, but at least we can think of it as a sign, like a wedding ring. Up to now the Lord has blessed me with the good times, but I know from couples who went through some bleak times. Some people in those couples told me that the wedding ring was what kept them together and helped them to overcome some temptations.

    Both the wedding ring and the scapular, even looked upon without the associated promise or the sacramental nature of the scapular, are signs for a bond chosen because of love. In dark times when questioning these bonds the physical signs remember me about the promises associated with them abd the gravity of the step when deciding against it. So, in that sense, the scapular around my neck is a sign not only of Marys promise but of mine to stay faithful on Gods side.

    1. I know that, for many people, the brown scapular is simply a sign of devotion to the Virgin, and through her to Christ. So for them to remove the scapular is tantamount to rejecting Mary and her intercession. I see nothing wrong with wearing something as a sort of sign or reminder, but the brown scapular is so historically and devotionally tied to one particular religious order, that I think it wrong to make so much out of it.

      By all means wear whichever scapular you wish, but don't disregard the extra responsibilities that come with wearing it. The brown scapular is not just a sign of Mary's intercessory power, it is a sign of extraordinary religious obligations.

  2. Thanks for this. I have been enrolled in the brown scapular. I attend Third Order meetings monthly. However, I've been negligent in looking into the proper way of honouring this sacramental. I've been thinking about the Little Office for a while; a friend said he would give me a spare one, but he hasn't, so I'm going to just order it now and start praying it. I wish to be a Carmelite (even if only Third Order), so it's more than just a medal for me. What is it about Carmelite spirituality that leaves you cold? I felt immediately drawn to it; it's filled with the most profound psychological insight, and aspires towards mystical and personal union with God. Perhaps Carmelite spirituality appeals only to a certain type of person; I think it appeals naturally to introverts and people with a preference for solitude, who want an absorbing love of God and man. Is there any other Order in the Church that so fully mapped out the safe road to mental/contemplative prayer and union with God? There's a famous Carmelite book, "Divine Intimacy"; perhaps you need a romantic personality that longs for personal union, and maybe some people are put off by the idea of intimacy with God, though I don't see why they should.

    I admit I may have been drawn in by "baroque devotionalism" a bit, but this is because I'm a convert with the typical convert's zeal. Private devotions are good in themselves, of course, it's just that people need to be aware of the responsibility that they are often taking on. I've often been unfaithful to the devotions I've taken up, to my own detriment.

    St. John of the Cross talks about the dangers of "spiritual avarice", of attachment to spiritual items. I think it's easy for people to fall into a bad devotionalism these days because of a lack of spiritual direction. You have to be careful not to go the other way though, and stamp out all personal piety in the name of curbing excesses. The thing that must be avoided is when the devotion becomes a religion unto itself, and the gospel fades into obscurity as some pious devotion practically takes it place. Like the woman who said, "I don't believe in God, but I do believe in the rosary," which whiffs of idolatry. So there is a true piety which means pledging yourself to God in a conscious way, and there is a false devotionalism that leads away from God by becoming an end itself. It can be hard sometimes to see the difference though. I have less sympathy for those who want to rubbish all forms of piety than those who encourage a false piety, because at least the latter often have good intentions.

    1. I'm reminded actually of an anecdote from eastern Europe. A young Orthodox girl was reading the Imitation of Christ, and an Orthodox priest removed it from her, telling her to, "stop trying to have a romance with God." Well, if a young girl isn't going to have a romance with God, who is she going to have a romance with? The truth is that scripture is full of romantic and conjugal symbols when talking about the loving union of God and man. IMO this the final object of religion and of our very lives. Those that want to keep God at a distance are doing themselves a disfavour. I think a lot of Eastern Orthodox spirituality in general is influenced by a hyper-asceticism which would deny legitimate human longings. I think Carmelite spirituality is the perfect balance between dispassionate contemplation and passionate love of God, appealing equally to the mind and the heart.

    2. Maybe I will write something about Carmelite spirituality on this blog at a future date, but I don't mind jotting down a few preliminary thoughts. I think the Modern-Romantic aspect of Carmelite writing is actually what bothers me the most about it. (I say Modern-Romantic, because in medieval times, "romance" was simply the term used for an adventure story, with or without an amorous subplot.) I know that a spirituality describing the interaction between God and the Christian soul as an amorous one goes back a long way, but it has always felt rather alien to me.

      When the Evangelists and Epistolists considered the relationship between Christ and the Christian, they used a wide variety of metaphors. God is our Father, and we are adopted brothers of Christ; the Church is one body, which is Christ's, and we are all members; Christ is not only Lord, but Friend; and so on. The bridal imagery in the New Testament always applied to the Church as a whole (the Bride of Christ), rather than to the individual Christian. Early interpretations allegorized the "Song of Songs" as the love of God for his Church. Early medieval interpreters applied it allegorically to God's love for Mary. I think it was St. Bernard who popularized the allegory of the SoS to God's metaphorically amorous love for the individual soul.

      Far be it from me to suggest that God does not love each of us individually and uniquely, but as far as metaphors go, I find those of adopted brotherhood and friendship to be most helpful in my own spiritual growth. Carmelite spirituality is very much focused on the lone soul in communion with the Divine Lover. I lean much more towards liturgical practice, which emphasizes the ecclesia rather than the soul. In searching after a Divine Romance, it is too easy to lose sight of the fact that we are all soldiers in the Church Militant, and that we don't all receive our orders straight from the General, himself.

    3. @J.
      i subscribe to every letter of your last paragraph

    4. @J.
      It might have been St. Bernard who popularized the allegory during his time, but the love of Christ for the individual soul certainly has been one of the main themes of Christian mysticism since the time of Origen. It doesn't get much earlier then that, I'd think.

    5. Indeed, Origen’s commentary on the Song of Songs focuses on both the church and the individual soul and that the church is where the soul meets Christ as well as others who are baptized and made righteous.

    6. @J.
      I respect that. I see you would be more fitted for the Benedictines as far as contemplative orders go.

      Carmelites trace their lineage to Mt. Carmel and Elijah the Prophet. It's based on a hermetic spirituality, the lone prophet in communion with God. There is a communal aspect to Carmel, but I suppose it is originally a "community of hermits".

      I think the Psalms show a deeply personal relationship with God. The Psalmist very often addresses the Lord directly: "my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee."

    7. I have considered packing everything into storage and moving into a desert cave, before. Even then, I probably wouldn't have anything to do with the Carmelites, and I think I would just bring a copy of the Holy Writ and Augustine's Confessions or City of God.

  3. I must admit I have have not yet made me acquainted with the Carmelite spirituality. One fact makes me think, though. As it is said: by their fruits you will know them. The Carmelite order throughout its history and into the modern times is producing saints. The 'classical' monastic orders seem to have no canonized saints (males, at least) who lived after 13-14th century.

    1. That still doesn't mean the monastic orders haven't produced saints. Even if they're not canonized. I'd rather think that they don't really care about being officially recognized as saints.

    2. I believe the Carthusians do not mark their deceased for this reason.

    3. How many hermits were there that are unknown to us, how many cenobites, how many carthusians - there could be a thousand of them and every one of them more saintly than st. Theresa and st. John, and we know none of them.

      It's just that the "classical" monasticism wasn't popular after the emergence of mendicant orders.