It is the oldest Marian site in the world, located in northeastern Israel: Mount Carmel, which means “garden of the Lord”.
The prophet Elias prayed on its summit for rain after a three-year drought. From the Mediterranean emerged a tiny cloud in the shape of a foot, which slowly rose into the sky and poured torrential rain over the parched land. The foot-shaped cloud, Dom Guéranger tells us, prefigures the heel destined to crush the serpent: Mary, Mediatrix of all graces, bringing redemption to a world parched with sin.
Followers of Elias came to live as contemplatives in the caves nearby and under the guidance of the prophets began honouring the woman who was to overcome the serpent.
Tradition holds that the hermits of Carmel converted at the first Pentecost. Privileged to meet Our Lady in person, they built Christianity’s first Marian chapel on the spot where Elias watched the cloud rise from the sea.
In the 13th century, persecution drove the Carmelites to Europe. There St Simon Stock received the Brown Scapular from Our Lady, together with the generous promise that those who died wearing it would not suffer eternal fire. A new wave of devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel began.
The Brown Scapular quickly became one of the most popular sacramentals. To the promise of salvation was joined the Sabbatine Privilege, early release from Purgatory through Our Lady’s intercession on condition of chastity according to one’s state in life, along with daily recitation of Our Lady’s office (or nowadays, the rosary). Both privileges were confirmed by the Roman pontiffs, who enriched the Brown Scapular with copious indulgences on their own account.
On July 16, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, those enrolled in the Brown Scapular may obtain a plenary indulgence under the usual conditions, as well as on July 20, the Feast of the Prophet Elias. In past centuries, the munificence of the popes meant that there were over 55 days in the year on which scapular wearers could obtain a plenary indulgence; the lean years of Montini saw them reduced to seven.
It’s a small investment with guaranteed returns—certainly the best investment made by the resourceful Talleyrand. After a life of iniquity and double-dealing, the wily old statesman lay on his deathbed. Someone called a priest, and unexpectedly, the Prince declared he was ready to repent. He received the sacraments and signed a recantation of his errors (backdating his signature lest anyone should think he’d gone soft in the head).
Why the eleventh-hour reversion, Abbé Dupanloup asked? Talleyrand showed him the scapular he wore, kissing it with tears in his eyes.
The 20th century received its own encouragement to wear the scapular at Fatima. During the apparition of October 13, 1917, the day of the Miracle of the Sun, Our Lady showed herself to Lucia dressed in a Carmelite habit, Brown Scapular in hand.
Putting on a scapular is a simple, perhaps humbling, way to earn Our Lady’s favour. Yet if Talleyrand could find the requisite humility in his cynical heart, why can’t we?