The World’s Tiniest Hair Shirt…

Brown Scapular

My husband was noticed a brown cord peeking out from the neckline of my shirt and asked, “what’s that?”

Oops. Caught. “It’s a brown scapular,” I admitted.

“That’s like, hardcore fanatical Catholic stuff, isn’t it,” he asked. “When did you start wearing that?”

He wasn’t being critical, exactly. My husband is a tolerant sort, and if a person wants to practice a lot of devotions that he doesn’t feel particularly called to, that’s alright by him. But he did seem a little leery. After all, I have recently put together a makeshift oratory, complete with altar cross. I’m exploring the use of headcovering, not just during private prayer, but at mass, too. I rise early for the Office of Readings. Now, the Brown Scapular? No one I know wears it; it does seem to be -in our age- skating on the edge of an extreme.

Feeling he had a justified concern about balance, I confessed, “I started wearing it a few days ago, as a discipline; for penance and correction. It is my hair shirt.”

A scapular is worn by some religious over the shoulders (scapula), and hanging down in front and back, usually to about the bottom of the habit. Sometimes the scapular will be a different color than the rest of the habit. You can see them here and here and here. They started out as practical aprons, but over time took on a spiritual significance as an outward manifestation of one’s willingness to “take up the yoke” and learn from Christ.

Those scapulars are pretty, aren’t they? They’re a symbol of humility.

The scapular I am wearing is different. It is a small scratchy woolen thing, with reference to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. When I say it is the world’s tiniest hair shirt, I do not really exaggerate. Currently the one between my shoulder blades is itching me; it is uncomfortable. It is annoying because it keeps reminding me that it is there, and why.

Well, good. I need to be made uncomfortable and annoyed; I need to be reminded of something.

As I wrote elsewhere, there is a situation in my personal life that I am not dealing with as best I might; the situation is trying to teach me things, but I am not learning them well. It is trying to teach me patience. It is trying to teach me humility. It is trying to teach me to shut my mouth, sometimes.

Since I am having so much difficulty learning these lessons, so much difficulty falling in line with them, I am like a dumb ox, in need of a yoke to get me in line; to guide me and help me to obey. The scapular is that yoke. It is not heavy; as yokes go, it is light, and even “easy,” but it is a very helpful discipline. When the impatience comes surging to the surface, my awareness of this uncomfortable thing restrains me, and that restraint is humbling. That resultant humility forces me to remember that I am in the middle of hoeing a hard row, and that I need help. Knowing I need help, the impatience ebbs, and the trust kicks in. I trust that if I am willing to be open, I will learn to what I need to know -will be able to eventually do with God’s help what I cannot now do on my own.

And that, of course, reminds me that while I am learning this, submitting to this discipline, I need to also be a little patient with myself. So, to be honest, this scratchy little penance is a very helpful, very useful spiritual tool; it is helping me to slowly become aware of the grace notes in the middle of the noise of my life and heart, much the way a musician finds music within the spaces of the notes. As I wrote to someone recently, brokenness is real in the world, both in spirituals and temporals, which is why we need tools both spiritual and temporal to do battle.

My brown scapular has been hanging on the bedpost for forever, wholly ignored by me, until -feeling undone and helpless- I spied the thing and knew immediately that I had to take it up – to put on the penance and allow myself to -with God’s help- be trained. The prompting was, I am convinced, a gift I could only receive, like the Office of Readings, when I was ready to receive it.

In one of those happy moments of synchronicity, Webster Bull declares he can never wear a hairshirt. But perhaps he can wear a yoke? :-)

UPDATE II: An update on my brown scapular

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • saveliberty

    Anchoress, I may be missing something, but I am at a loss to see how you are not humble. I think that you may be much harder on yourself than the Almighty wishes you to be.

  • saveliberty

    BTW if I may – I just finished watching the John Adams HBO series on DVD and it did strike me that when Adams was being accused of vanity (other than when charged by his amazing wife, Abigail), it seemed that it was more the projection of the vanity of those making the charge.

    OT the book was different and did give a fair assessment of John Adams and those whom he loved, befriended or simply knew. I loved the book more, although the series was good.

    At any rate, is it not possible that you are imagining a non humility? Even to some extent?

    [Absolutely not! As a helpful emailer just wrote me: In a piece where the you intone, "It is trying to teach me humility," you uses the word "I" 33 times, "my" 11 times and "me" nine times. In other words, "In searching for humility, let's talk about ME!" So you see, I need a lot of help. Me, I do. Me, me, me! :-) -admin]

  • Terry Hansen

    Thank you. I needed that.

  • Left Coast Conservative

    The brown scapular does indeed seem to be “hard core” but, I love wearing mine. I’m not “hard core” – just Catholic. After so many years, I don’t feel fully dressed without it.
    It is a reminder of what I am and what I’m called to be.

  • Ruth Ann

    I, and most of my Lay Carmelite friends wear the brown scapular. You don’t have to be a Carmelite to be enrolled in the brown scapular, but it’s a good idea to have some catechesis about it. Here’s a good Carmelite website with both general and detailed information about it.

    I love the Office of Readings and the other hours. I too, have an “oratory” which I call my prayer room. But a head covering? No way. I grew up on chapel veils and hats. I’ll never return to that practice.

  • Sally Thomas

    I — I, I, I, me, me, me — don’t know that talking about yourself is necessarily in itself a sign of deficient humility. Seems to me — me, me, me, I, I, I — that making yourself vulnerable by revealing your shortcomings is in itself something of a penitential act, and a gesture of humility. And who else is there for you to subject to that, but yourself?

    This has its pitfalls, of course. It’s as easy, I guess, to to arrogantly transparent/confessional as it is to be humbly that way. Definitely something I — I, I, I — struggle with.

    Once my husband found himself seated at dinner beside a man, an Anglican oblate of some order whose rule involved never talking about oneself. My husband would ask the man a question, by way of making dinner conversation, and the man would respond, “Oh, that’s of no interest,” and subside into silence.

    This was, as my husband said, completely maddening after a while. He was never so interested in anyone in all his life. Maybe the intent of the rule was to make *other people* humble by driving them to think about someone other than themselves . . .

    Though I can see how it might be a good discipline. That is, one can see how it might be a good discipline. What I think is of no interest . . .

    [What a marvelous story! One is so very amused to hear it! One appreciates that one has had it related to one! admin]

  • SjB

    This is completely off-topic, but I thought you might possibly get a kick out of this short piece on the awarding of the Nobel to Obama. I love the wry humor and hope you do too. :)

  • Gayle Miller

    My very dear Elizabeth. You are the least prideful of women and yes, like all of us, you have your struggles. But I think you are consistently way too hard on yourself and hold yourself to an impossible standard. I used to attempt to tamp down my snarky side and then I found that I lacked punch without my snark. I try very very hard not to be unfair or hit below the belt, but beyond that, I express myself. Or as one of my dearest friends has been wont to say, “But Gayle,dear, what do you really think?” That is when I know I have gone a tad too far!

  • Scott Brooks

    Thank you, for a thoughtful and educational piece.
    I think many of we Catholics may well don the Brown Scapular without embracing the responsibility, thinking that its mere wearing brings holiness.
    At the very least, it should be a reminder and a call to daily prayer. Asking for humility and mercy and love and patience are worthy intentions in prayer.
    We are living in very frightful and dangerous times. And such times cry out for the prayers of our daily rosaries.

  • Brian Crane

    I’ve been wearing the brown scapular for years. Its like a wedding ring to me.

  • anniebird

    A, I applaud you for listening to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit and hope that your wearing of the brown scapular yields the spiritual fruit you hope for!

  • March Hare

    “I am like a dumb ox”

    Hmmm… Thomas Aquinas was nicknamed “The Dumb Ox” and we all know how accurate THAT was! :)

    I received a scapular–as I think we all did back then–as part of the First Confession/First Communion rite. IIRC, I remember the itching! We were told that should we die while wearing it, we would immediately go to heaven. (My memory could be faulty–this happened nearly a half century ago!) I have no idea where my scapular is, although my scapular medal is in my jewelry box: Our Lady of Mt. Carmel without the itch! ;)

  • dymphna

    I’ve been wearing my scapular so long that I hardly ever notice that it’s there until I take it off at night. A lot of times, if I’m tired I don’t even bother to do that. I have an extra long cord for mine so most people never see it.

  • M

    A fascinating post. I was raised Catholic, drifted away, and came back in the past few years. I was raised to wear a lace head covering, and after spending a few years living in latin america in the 60s, was shocked to discover that they were no longer being worn in the US when I returned. It is still very uncomfortable for me not to wear one, not to kneel up front to receive Communion, etc. But I may start wearing one again because of this post! It is a sign of humility to God and His Will, a lesson I’m working on, myself.

  • Russ

    We sing a song at my church that starts out:
    Arise o Lord, lift up your eyes, can’t you see I’m helpless?

    It is amazing how much comfort that song gives me.

  • Suz

    Brown scapular, night and day!
    The Sisters of Carmel sew lovely scapulars—of woven wool, like the Carmelite habit, rather than felted wool.
    And you can swim in them, whatever anyone may say to the contrary….

  • Russ

    The song is Twenty Three by Aaron Strumpel.

    It is supposed to be “Don’t forget I’m helpless” but my memory leaks like a seive.

  • Frances

    Anchoress, I love you even more as my sister in Christ for posting about the brown scapular.

    Y’know, maybe its not the wool that is itching but the accumulated dust from all those years on the bedpost.

    I feel vindicated that someone publicly mentioned the itch factor. I’m such a sinner I can’t afford to take mine off, but I do get to crabbing at Our Lady at times about the itch. Bet she never ever complained.

    Well, from one big mouth to another, I deeply appreciate your naked honesty. I sent up a prayer in the California hour of Mercy here. :)

    Spiritual hugs!

    Frances xo

  • Joseph Marshall

    Me Me Me

    So who else are you going to talk about? Everybody you know and know about is a character in your autobiography and I can’t see how it’s possible to speak of them any other way.

    Exaggerated awareness of “the narrator” is simply a part of what is causing us suffering, a way of entertaining ourselves with our own dissatisfaction. Think of something you really love doing. Eating one of those marvelous dishes by Pioneer Woman, say. Does your “narrator” intrude then? Not likely. The narrator is beside the point.

    You can teach yourself to experience pain in the same way. In fact you do experience the 8-10 pain that our doctors are always asking us to number that way. Does your “narrator” get in the way then? Again, not likely.

    In both of these cases you are overwhelmed, forced to be fully present. You can do that with anything. All you have to do is to tell your narrator that her issue is on the agenda for later. You won’t be lying. The issue is going to come up again and again anyway, whatever it is this week or this month, right?

    What better use is there for your scapular than just being present with it? Grounded. Focused. Not being interrupted by the narrator telling you something about the scapular, like how unpleasant it feels, or how devoted she feels, or how humble you should feel.

    They are all excess, all newspaper reviews of the movie you are already in. The projector is already rolling, so who cares?

    Even when it’s not perfectly blissful or absolutely horrible, and you are forced to give it your full attention: Who cares?

    You can give all of it anyway and quit worrying about it.

  • saveliberty

    Thank you for your comments. I support what Sally Thomas said.

    Isn’t this more like finding a way to still love yourself even though you think that you could do better? God wants you to do your best, but really, do you think He wants you to drive yourself loo-loo?

    One biology teacher would write on a non-A test paper, “YCDBOG”, which stood for “you could do better, old girl”. It was encouraging that he thought so.

  • datechguy

    The Biggest problem I tend to have with the scapular is they are constantly falling apart and I have to tie knots to keep them in one piece as I wear them.

    Or if it sticks to the shirt when I take it off and it ends up washed. I go though more of them that way.

  • coffeemom

    I too wear a scapular, because I need it. It bugs me, gets in the way, stuck in my clothes etc. I wear it always. It stays wet for too long after I shower and so on…(grossed you out? I swim w/ it too). But it is a constant reminder to me to remember, or try, where my priorities should lie. All to often I forget…but then I get that tug or itch or tangle and I have to pull it back into place literally on my body and in my heart. And so too, it is a little embarrassing sometimes to have folks ask “what’s that cord” or just notice it or have my toddler pull it out of my shirt and play w/ it…..but I need that so I don’t get too full of myself anyhow, the prick of “I’m embarrassed, what do they think” and then immediately, “I shouldn’t care”.
    Anyhow, wanted to say brava. Love the post. And I too, now love wearing my scapular, always.

  • Opinion Pole

    My brother gave me a very small brown scapular the last time I saw him. I put it in my jewelry box and didn’t think about it again until he was rushed to the hospital last week. Wearing it has helped me to accept his death. It not only reminds me of my brother, it also helps to keep me humble, helps me to accept what I can’t understand, to trust in God’s plan.

  • Gail F

    Have you read “Swimming with Scapulars” by Matthew Lickona? I LOVED that book, although it starts with a story that I think was designed to shock, and it did — my 15-year-old daughter, who read it and said, “You are not allowed to read this book!” (The story is about the author yelling at his wife to suffer for Christ while she was in labor, and let me tell you, no matter how devout I ever became my husband would get punched for that!) But the rest of it is great.

  • Sue from Buffalo

    Opinion Pole, I am so sorry to hear about your brother. How beautiful that he gave you the brown scapular before he died. He must have been a wonderful and loving man.


    I, too, wear my scapular but I must confess that I don’t suffer any of the things that others have written about here due to itching, etc. I’ve gotten so used to it that the only time I take it off is when I shower.

    Can I ask a stupid question? Why do people get embarrassed about having it show? (I’m a convert). If mine shows, I’ve had people whisper it to me in church and friends tuck it in for me in the back. They act as if my undergarments were showing. :O

    I have no problem at all letting my scapular or its cords show. I figure it’s a witness.

    Am I missing something?

  • Maggie45

    [What a marvelous story! One is so very amused to hear it! One appreciates that one has had it related to one! admin]

    LOLOL, you are stupendously, awesomely hilarious! I totally LOVE coming here!! LOL

  • Jerry Siler

    I have a brown scapular that I have had for years. When I first got it I put it in my pocket where I keep my money. Every time I need some money out comes the scapular all tangled up with the bills. That triggers an immediate prayer of thanks to God. Over the years the cord has braided itself into a beautiful work of art. I may not be able to take my money with me when I die, but I do wish that God would make an exception to the rule, and let me take my scapular.

  • Victor

    I recall receiving a scapular when I also did my First Communion over half a century ago also and “IT” did make me feel great. I don’t remember where and or how I lost “IT” but I do kind of miss “IT”. I saw a picture of my dad warring one when he did his First Communion and for whatever reason I thought that only the boys got a Scapular back then.

    I could tell you why I no longer where any kind of metals around my neck but that would be too long a story so I’ll simply thank you for taking me down “Memory Lane” one more time.

    God Bless all true Christian’s hitch! :)


  • Mike

    Good to see that I am not alone. I have been wearing one for the last 10 to 15 years. It seems to have become part of me, even when it itches or rides up my neck. My current one is fabric. The strings kept breaking off until I reinforced the attachment points with needle and thread. I think the spiritual effect has been subtle but significant. In spite of all my back sliding and wishy-washy ness, I am still Catholic, still Christian and still trying to lead a life pleasing to my Lord. As the others above point out, its intrusive presence is a reminder of more important things not seen, those that don’t intrude until it is almost too late.

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  • A Non E-Moose

    Give it a month and it won’t itch much, which means you’ll need to cast about for another hair shirt. I thought about having one tatooed to my body. That way I’d be more likely to die wearing it and jump the line to heaven on the first Saturday after I died. (Sabbatine Privilege)
    Said that to a priest one time as a joke and he said it WAS being tatooed to my body each day with each act of charity I performed (or not).

  • Joseph

    Funny this would come up. Today is October 13..Our Lady of Fatima had a lot to say about wearing the brown scapular and the recitation of the rosary. These are such mundane things that they must be very important. I think Chesterton would know how to explain that, but intuitively Catholics know it.

    I wore the scapular for years, then stopped, even though I was practicing the faith as much as ever. One day I saw my younger brother was wearing it, and I don’t know the last time he willingly went to Mass. But seeing him wear it made me put it back on. It’s not a big thing at all. But it does remind every day what is important and what is not. It reminds me to pray and leave the rest to God. I wish everyone would use it. One little annoying and meaningless thing done out of faith every day probably means a lot in the measure of the eternal.

  • Sally Thomas

    I’m a scapular wuss, by the way — hate things around my neck that I can feel. But both my older children wear them day and night. My teenager wore hers with her prom dress, even.

  • EJCMartin

    I have been wearing a brown scapular for a couple of years now. Initially it was at the request of my wife, but now I don’t feel right without it. A year or so ago I went to a golf tournament about 40 miles from where I live. I had to get up very early to make my tee off time. At about the 5th hole the course marshall comes around and asks for me. He tells me that my wife is here and she needs to see me. As I travel back to the clubhouse my mind reels with all the horrible possibilities of why my wife came out and needs to see me. When I arrived back out the clubhouse there was my wife standing there with my brown scapular hanging from her hand, “you forgot this”. I strapped it on said goodbye and went back to my round of golf.

  • NanB

    I’ve been wearing the Servite Black Scapular for about two years. The discomfort it often causes is lovingly offered up. I am saddened by the quality though; the front part is paper and it falls apart. I hope some of the religious orders can start producing quality embroidered Servite (and other order) scapulars that last. Hint hint.

  • Rebecca

    Wow – It saddens me that you feel alone wearing a scapular. I don’t have mine on at the moment, but my kids wear them, their classmates wear them, their teachers wear them, my friends wear them. They are all over. We are at a Catholic school and parish which tends to the conservative side. We have lovely Carmelite nuns teaching there. They wear the big scapulars. I wish you great fruits to come from your penance. How little our world appreciates humility. I have a friend who says that she thinks prayers for humility are the prayers most quickly answered. You are in my prayers.

  • Frank Davidson

    I’m a little puzzled that you describe the scapular as “penitential”. I may be wrong, but I don’t think this is its original purpose. Rather it is a sign of consecration to Our Lady, a symbol of her protection. Remember, the scapular was, as you say, a sort of apron, an outer protective garment. The idea of the hair shirt has a different origin. See Our Lady’s promises to St Simon Stock, the origin of the original Carmelite brown scapular. Bur good for you for wearing it anyway.

    [For me, it's penance! :-) -admin]

  • J. Fraser Field

    Dear Anchoress,

    I quite enjoyed “The World’s Tiniest Hair Shirt… ” and wonder if we might reprint it to the Catholic Education Resource Center web site.

    I’m in Korea just now for our daughter’s wedding, so don’t have my usual description of who we are and how we’ll use your article, but you can have a look at our site and see for yourself who we are and what we’re about.

    A full attribution and link to your blog would accompany the article.

    Bless you,

    J. Fraser Field
    Managing Editor
    Catholic Education Resource Center

    [That would be fine. In future if you'd like to do that, pls email me at -admin]

  • Jim Hicks

    My wife and i have been wearing the Brown Scapular for over a year. Although the itching is noticable on my back, I would feel naked without it.

    Regarding head coverings: watch Mass on EWTN. Many women are wearing a head scarf again. This is particularly true of Hispanic women.

  • George

    Yet another example of Catholic superstition. Catholics should spend more time reading their Bible than get suckup in Medieval superstition. Evangelical Protestants have for years explained to Catholics that Ministerial Priesthood, Rosary, Papacy, Marian devotions, and praying to saints ALL come from pagan sources. This is further confirmed by Cardinal Newman. However Catholics refuse to do their homework, blindly following their blind guides.

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  • Kris, in New England

    I read you everyday, but rarely comment. Today I have to.

    I too am having serious family problems. False accusations have been made against me – painting me as a selfish, hateful, hurtful person to my own family.

    Nothing could be further from the truth – and I’m not sure why my family is doing this. Projection comes to mind but they aren’t like that either.

    It’s puzzling and profoundly hurtful to me. And this sentence caused me to cry openly:

    it is helping me to slowly become aware of the grace notes in the middle of the noise of my life and heart

    Because that is what I’m trying to do now. Find the spaces between the noises to find the lesson I’m supposed to be learning.

    I am not a religious person – turned away from it many years ago. I am deeply spiritual however and believe in God fully and deeply.

    I am in awe of your faith and your commitment to it. I have been thinking many times in recent days about going back to church – I miss the fellowship.

  • dymphna

    I’m not embarassed when people see it but I do get irritated when they carry on about it. My Jehovah’s Witness sister acted like I was dressed liked Lady Gaga.

  • Tre

    Yesterday I happened to stumble upon a site dedicated to scapulas and then found this post.

    You might find it of interest. I know I learned a few things about scapulas that I didn’t know before, such as the different types, need for blessing, etc.

  • Jo Flemings

    I wear one, too, but I get convicted now and then about my failure to pray the daily rosary to go with the devotion of wearing it. In those weaker periods, it at the very least, reminds me to dress modestly because it looks kind of tacky on the plunging neckline or even on the dipping just bit too far neckline. (Obviously I am not among the very pious, some might not rank me among even the moderately pious, but I hope would not be scandalized by the frank admission.) I do have a tip on extending the penitential experience of wearing the scapular- when you no longer notice the itch, wear it in the shower- in the winter.
    (LOVED the tattoo comment! God bless that priest!)

  • Hantchu

    Well, now I finally know what a scapular is. Kinda like Catholic tzitzit (y’know, those fringes the guys wear). Coming from a medical background, I thought it was a bone.

    And with friends like us telling you how humble you really are, you haven’t got a chance…

  • Sue from Buffalo

    George, you must be kidding. Everything you mentioned is biblical. Everything. I think, sir, you need to do some homework. And this is coming from a convert who had to do her homework.

  • Sue from Buffalo

    Kris in New England: I’m sorry that you’re going through so much. I’ll say a prayer that all works out for you. Hang in there. And yes, do come back to church. It will help.


  • http://disqus freelancer

    The world’s tinest hairshirt is such a good description of the scapular. I never thought of it as a penance. I think that wearing one was more of a devotional practice which I somehow allowed to fade over time. I do know exactly where my scapulars are. In a box with medals, rosaries, missals and holy cards. And some other etcs. In the drawer of my nite stand. I do not remember when I stopped wearing one or the other but it was not to shun a saint or the reason for the practice. I like that I have been reminded of another very practical and constant way of staying in touch with the spiritual side of life. I need nudging. I would like to have a new one so will be checking out the above mentioned sites.