The Saint and the Scapular: Simon Stock and Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Our Lady of Mount Carmel, pray for us.

We were motoring through the French countryside, on a tour of the wine country which took us from Paris to Bordeaux and the walled city of St. Emilion, into the Loire Valley and the vineyards of southwestern France.  We learned about the gravelly soil which provides the perfect drainage for the vines, and about the roses which mark the end of each row and, like the proverbial canary in the mine, warn the vintner of potential threats to the vines laden with muscadelle and pino gris grapes.

Along the way, we stopped for Mass at small chapels and grand cathedrals.

The evidence of theological strife was everywhere:  There were churches that had been burned, cathedrals which had been overtaken during the French Revolution and used to stable horses.

At last we reached the Cathedral of St. André at Bordeaux, which had been consecrated by Pope Urban II in the 13th century.

On the day of our visit, workmen were busily installing a new statue of Our Lady with the Child Jesus at the front entrance.  We stopped to pray, then toured the magnificent cathedral.  One interesting feature was the seating:  Not the traditional pews, the French instead had created thatched chairs, each with a similarly thatched prie-dieu, or kneeler.

Our small tour group moved toward the left altar with its Marian art and ornate altar railing when friend Paula, a Third-Order Carmelite, gasped.  There he was!  St. Simon Stock, early prior of the Carmelite order, was entombed beneath the altar! Since the saint had spent most of his life not in France but in England, it was a complete surprise to find his remains there in Bordeaux.

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On July 16 we remember St. Simon Stock, as we celebrate the memorial of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Who was this holy man, to whom Jesus’ Mother had entrusted the brown scapular?

He lived so long ago, and the accounts are murky.  According to early biographies, even as a child the 13th century Englishman Simon Stock was devout.  It is believed he left home at the age of 12 to live in the hollowed trunk of a tree—where he spent his days in prayer and sacrifice.

Simon grew and joined the Carmelites, a mendicant religious order with a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  He lived in a monastic community at Aylesford in Kent, and was eventually chosen to be prior general of the Order as they grew from a hermit community in Palestine, to establish themselves in Europe.

On July 16, 1351, the Virgin Mary appeared to Simon holding the Brown Scapular—which became the habit of the Carmelite Order—in her hand saying, “This is for you and yours a privilege; the one who dies in it will be saved.” The promise meant that Carmelite religious who persevered in their vocation would be saved. Beginning in the 16th century, the Carmelites began giving a diminutive version of the Brown Scapular—two squares of cloth or imprinted paper, joined by two brown cords which are worn over the shoulders—to lay people who wanted to be affiliated with the Order, and it became increasingly popular as a sacramental.

When Pope John Paul II addressed the Carmelites in 2001 on the occasion of the 750th anniversary of the bestowal of the Scapular, he said,

“Over time this rich Marian heritage of Carmel has become, through the spread of the Holy Scapular devotion, a treasure for the whole Church.   By its simplicity, its anthropological value and its relationship to Mary’s role in regard to the Church and humanity, this devotion was so deeply and widely accepted by the People of God that it came to be expressed in the memorial of 16 July on the liturgical calendar of the universal Church.”


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