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