The Church celebrates the life of St. Simon Stock on May 16, a life that every day touches a significant percentage of Catholics worldwide – because he is remembered especially for the popular brown scapular devotion.
His scapular and the Carmelite spirituality that he personally brought to prominence worldwide in the 12th century was already popular in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s time, and she shows precisely the kind of attitude one should have toward it.
St. Simon is one of those saints whose life story largely escaped record keepers during his lifetime.
But since his story was so loved, repeated, and rich in detail, the Church gave him a feast day to meet the overwhelming demand.
He was born in 1165 in Aylesford, a landlocked town in England’s seaside county Kent, not far from Dover and its port. As the tale is told, at age 12 Simon went to live in a hollowed-out tree in the forest as a hermit, praying and fasting, and was over 30 when he emerged again into civilization.
At this point, stories of his life diverge. Some have him heading to Jerusalem where the crusaders were defending the city and meeting the Carmelites there; others have him meeting Carmelites who accompanied crusaders returning from Jerusalem. Either way, Carmelites landed in County Kent and Simon joined them.
The Carmelites were a strict, contemplative order from the Holy Land intensely interested in the Blessed Mother and the Prophet Elijah. St. Simon Stock joined them in their prime. They would later slip in their asceticism, and undergo the celebrated reform of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, both doctors of the Church from the late 16th century.
Here we do have records of Simon: He joined the order in 1212 and studied in Oxford, before being appointed vicar general in 1215. In 1237, he welcomed more Carmelites from the Holy Land as Muslim invaders took the holy places there and persecuted Christians.
St. Simon’s greatest managerial act was installing the Carmelites in the great university towns of Cambridge, Oxford, and Paris, a key move that established the order’s influence in Europe.
But what he is best known for is the brown scapular.
That’s the name for the large monastic garment that hangs from the shoulders of friars, monks and nuns — but quickly began to refer more often to the small woolen devotional squares worn by Catholics for centuries, right up to today.
The most frequently quoted story of St. Simon Stock receiving the scapular says, “To him appeared the Blessed Virgin with a multitude of angels, holding the Scapular of the Order in her blessed hands, and saying: ‘This will be a privilege for you and for all Carmelites, that he who dies in this will not suffer eternal fire.’”
The scapular devotion in its purest form reminds professed Carmelites to be faithful to their vows until death. In its most widely used form, however, it is an informal sign of one’s faith and devotion that most users wear without an official enrollment.
As St. John Paul II described it: “Two truths are evoked by the sign of the Scapular: on the one hand, the constant protection of the Blessed Virgin, not only on life’s journey, but also at the moment of passing into the fullness of eternal glory; on the other, the awareness that devotion to her cannot be limited to prayers and tributes in her honor on certain occasions, but must become a ‘habit,’ that is, a permanent orientation of one’s own Christian conduct, woven of prayer and interior life.”
Citing the “Formula of Enrollment in the Scapular,” he added: “Those who receive it are associated more or less closely with the Order of Carmel and dedicate themselves to the service of Our Lady for the good of the whole Church.”
Over the years, the scapular promise has given rise to the worry that it is a superstitious “Catholic good luck charm.”
It is easy to misunderstand the devotion since, on many scapulars, only the last words of the promise to St. Simon are quoted: “Whoever dies in this garment, will not suffer everlasting fire.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s community was very much alive to the promise of the scapular. The attitude of her Sisters of Charity toward the scapular — and the general attitude of Catholics of the 19th century — can be seen in Sister Rose White’s journal. In it, she mentions the death of Elizabeth Ann Seton’s sister-in-law, Harriet Seton, who had become a Catholic, and was dying of tuberculosis when she came to Mother Seton’s community. Before she died, Sister Rose reports, Harriet received the consolation of two sacraments and one sacramental: her first communion, anointing of the sick — and the scapular.
Of the three, according to the Catholic Church, the two sacraments guarantee saving grace, but the scapular, a sacramental, merely disposes the user for grace with no guarantee. In her own musing on salvation, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton makes it clear that she has the right attitude toward the scapular.
In a remarkable letter to Father John Hickey in 1820, not long before her death, Mother Seton writes “your letter and Scapulars came” in time for use by one dying sister. But with her own death approaching, she in no way sees the scapular as her ticket to salvation. “Oh my father friend could I hear my last stage of cough and feel my last stage of pain in the tearing away my prison walls, how would I bear my joy-thought of going home called and by his Will! What a transport! But they say, ‘Don’t you fear to die?’ Such a sinner must fear, but I fear much more to live and know as I do that every evening examine finds my account but lengthened and enlarged. I don’t fear Death half as much” as her own sinful nature, she wrote.
Mother Seton saw the scapular as a pathway to a spirituality of surrender, not as a way out of a lifelong way of the cross.
Mother Seton understood the scapular because she understood Carmelites.
St. Elizabeth Ann kept in touch with former students of hers who entered the Carmelites and had great respect for the Carmelites’ fervor.
She writes in her commentary on St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises that spiritually zealous young novices can be tempted to neglect their mundane duties and take on too much — and “take a disgust to their situation because they are not Carmelites or Trappists.”
St. Elizabeth Ann’s own spirituality was deeply influenced by St. Teresa of Avila. Sisters of Charity Regina Bechtle and Judith Metz, the editors of Mother Seton’s spiritual writings, note echoes of St. Teresa of Avila when Mother Seton directs her advisees’ imaginations to Jesus: “See, he holds a paper in his dear hand — what is written on it? ‘Speak little, my child; pray much; cherish no attachment; keep close to me; let everything that passes, pass; mind nothing but what is eternal. I never take my eyes off of you night or day. How can you forget me so often?’”
That’s the right attitude to have toward the scapular, a perspective no doubt shared by St. Simon Stock. The scapular isn’t meant to be the last word on our thoughts of heaven; it is meant to remind us daily to look to Jesus and offer him our lives, now and forever.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
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Image: St. Simon Stock, Public Domain