Millions of people wear the brown scapular thanks to this English mystic

A detail from the scapular vision shrine at Aylesford in Kent

I wonder what you were thinking when you dressed this morning. Had you already laid out your clothes for the day? Did certain expectations dictate your choices?

The simple fact is that how we dress can say a lot about who we are, what we do, how seriously we take life and its tasks.

I have clear memories of one Christmas, when a child, having received a soldier’s outfit as a present and I can remember to this day the sense of pride and purpose that those play clothes invested me with.

I also wonder whether, as you dressed you might have put on your clothes over two squares of brown cloth that make up the Carmelite brown scapular. Millions of Catholic Christians around the world wear this garment but may be unaware of its story or symbolism.

Tradition has handed on to us the story of St Simon Stock. Simon was an Englishman and one of the early leaders of the Carmelite order. Indeed, it was Simon who led the order through the time of transition when the hermits who had found a natural home in the hills of Mount Carmel found themselves in a different reality in the Europe of the 13th century and who were called to respond to the needs of the Church by living their life in the midst of the people, especially the poor and the marginalised.

Tradition tells us that Simon, a man who by his vocation was dedicated to God in a life of prayer and service, had a special devotion to Our Lady. From the earliest times Carmelites have felt a kinship to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She has a special place in our communities as the mother of the house. Around her we gather in service of her Son.

The scapular as worn by Carmelites is seen as marked by this relationship of prayer and service. This part of our habit that was originally an apron, becomes for us a sign of commitment for those who seek to labour in the Lord’s vineyard.

One of the ways that emerged for people to associate themselves with the work and spirituality of a particular group within the Church was to wear a token of the religious habit. Originally for those who sought a kinship with Carmel, the white cloak was the thing that set us apart.

Bur slowly the brown scapular began to capture the imagination of the people. I also see a relationship with the tallit, or prayer shawl, worn by Orthodox Jews. For the Jewish people the tallit is a garment that manifests the relationship they have with God. When at prayer, they cover themselves with the tallit, a symbol of the intimacy of God covering them with his love.

During the day a small shawl is worn, like our scapular, that they can see and touch as a reminder that they belong to God, that they have been chosen by him. Those who wear the scapular are people who seek to live out their relationship with God through prayer and the service of God’s people.

This year sees the 750th anniversary of the death of St Simon Stock in Bordeaux in 1265. Upon his death people prayed for favours from him. Soon his body was brought to the cathedral in Bordeaux where a chapel is dedicated to him. In 1951 the Archbishop of Bordeaux brought his cranium back to Simon’s old home at Aylesford, and since then the relic has rested in the chapel dedicated to his memory.

To the Carmelite friars who live and work in Aylesford the relics are a reminder of the beautiful truth of our vocation; that we are to be people seeking a vital and intimate relationship with the God who brought us into being and this relationship is to be lived out in the service of others.

A great preacher of the life lived by St Simon Stock was Fr Malachy Lynch, who was the first prior of Aylesford since the Reformation. Fr Malachy would refer to those who wear the brown scapular as the “use me today apostolate”. Those who wear this simple garment make a statement in this scrap of clothing: I belong to God and, with him, I want to be of service to his people.

So what are you wearing today? What does your dress say about you to others? How does what you wear affect your attitude to life and its cares? Today I will put on my habit and go out to those pilgrims who will come to Our Lady’s Shrine at Aylesford.

I will do so in the knowledge that millions across this good earth will do the same and touch the lives of the people that they will meet in the course of their work and play. And the world is better for it.

Fr Damian Cassidy, O. Carm is the Prior of the Carmelite Community in Aylesford.

On Saturday 16th May 2015 a pilgrimage will take place at Aylesford Priory to mark the 750th anniversary of the death of St Simon Stock. During the day there will be a talk on the brown scapular and the day will finish with Mass at 2.30pm on the Shrine. All are welcome.