The Sign of Her Heart is a powerful presentation on the history of the scapular and the spirituality of this Marian sacramental grounded in the Old Testament and flowering in the New.
Origin of the Promise
It is eight hundred and sixty years before Christ. A striking scene is being enacted in Palestine. The entire Jewish nation is assembled there on the summit of the Scripturally famous Mount Carmel. Dinning within a circle formed by the thousands of Israelites, four hundred and fifty pagan priests are screaming fiendishly about a stone altar upon which they have laid a dressed bullock. Early this memorable morning they began dancing about according to their rite and slashing themselves with their lancets. Their shouts have been rising shrilly, their lancets waving more and more wildly until now, at noon, they mill about in an exhausted frenzy, covered from head to feet in their own blood.
Deafened by the shrieks of the many hysterical, blood-covered priests, the Jewish King, Achab, presses foremost in the tremendous crowd of onlookers. His face is contracted with worry and pain; the faces of his entourage are crestfallen. But to the side, alone, a white-bearded old man stands wreathed in smiles! His eyes glint like fire and quick gestures betray a great nervous strength in his thin and poorly clad body. He is jesting with the priests and taunting them!
Behind this mysterious and horrible scene lies a tense drama.
The Jewish nation has fallen into idolatry and three years and six months before this day, that old man — who was dwelling on this same mountain — walked down the streets of the royal city and up to the palace. He then proclaimed before the king that if the nation did not return to its God it would be divinely punished. Since that very day, when he was sent away from the royal palace unheeded, it has not rained in all Palestine. But now, at the summons of the king, the whole nation is gathered on Mount Carmel. The venerable old man — who is the fiery prophet, Elias — having once more presented himself, commanded the capitulating monarch to “gather unto me all Israel, on Mount Carmel, and with them the pagan prophets who eat at the queen’s table: four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of the groves.”
Early this unforgettable morning, Elias stood before the vast, wondering throng and cried: “How long do you halt between two sides? If the Lord be God, follow Him! but if Baal, follow him!” No one spoke a word. Not a move was made. So the prophet fairly proposed a contest. The pagan prophets would build an altar and he would build one. Then they would both offer holocausts and pray for miraculous fires to consume their offerings: the God Who sent down the consuming fire would be acknowledged by the nation as the true God. The pagans have been storming their idols for hours while their holocaust only dries in that relentless sun from a sky that has been cloudless so interminably long.
However, it is not so much for the fire-contest between the prophets that we interest ourselves in this strange sight but for the after-event. After he has brought down a miraculous fire and thus proved that “God is God” and after he has seen the whole nation fall to its knees with the cry, “The Lord is God! The Lord is God!”, the mysterious prophet turns to the king and says that now it will rain. And while the king goes to take dinner at the prophet’s bidding, we follow Elias as he proceeds to a place near the side of Carmel. The murmur of the Mediterranean, which laves Carmel’s foot in a perpetual homage to her mysteries, seems to rise like the overture of some great event. Preoccupied, the old man sits on the ground and crouches there, his head between his knees, and tells his young servant to go and look out over the sea; six times we see him return only to report to his venerable master: “There is nothing.”
What an unusual scene! What if the Israelites, feasting nearby, were to know that this venerable old man is destined to live until the end of the world! … What if they knew that in a future century, he is to appear with the greatest of their prophets in that one moment of the earthly life of the Incarnate God when He will let fall the veil from His divine splendor! Yes, right over there on that peak facing them — of Mount Tabor — this old man will appear at a moment that will astound the world down through the ages to a streamlined century of which they do not even dream. What if they knew that at this very moment that awesome figure is not only about to present a material salvation to them but is also about to behold a prophetic vision of the spiritual Salvation of all mankind through an Immaculate Virgin. …
We see the servant return the sixth time to be again sent by Elias to “look out over the sea.” This seventh time he hastens back for, rising out of the sea at the foot of the Mount, he has seen a small cloud in the shape of a human foot!
In the near tomorrows, sainted Doctors of the true Church will explain to the world how this little cloud, rising pure out of its bitter sea and leaving all impurities behind, is a figure of an Immaculate Virgin who will rise pure out of the sea of humankind, free of its universal impurity of original sin. As soon as Elias is told of the tiny cloud ascending over the side of the mystic mountain, we see him rise from his unusual position. Within an incredibly short while: “The Heavens grew dark with clouds and wind and there fell a great rain” (Kings III, ch. 18).
Two thousand, one hundred and ten years later, we see another king expectantly climbing up Mount Carmel. He is not clothed in a toga-like robe but in glistening armor with a large Cross blazoned upon his shield and upon his breastplate. Surely, he does not expect to find a fiery prophet on this Mount; Elias has been taken to Heaven centuries ago, has come in the spirit of John the Baptist to herald the approach of the Son of God, has appeared at the Transfiguration, and has even entered the mystical life of the new Church, a “saint” and a mystery. No, but this king is the holy Louis IX of France, who will one day be canonized a saint. He is interested in some most holy men who, he has been informed, dwell in the grottos of this Mountain and call themselves “Hermits of Saint Mary of Mount Carmel.” Due to the gains of the infidels into Palestine these men are being forced to emigrate to Europe; since their sanctity is a byword, Saint Louis wants some of it for France.
Having ascended Mount Carmel and having met the monks there, Saint Louis is astounded by the account of a most unusual tradition.
The saintly monks say that they are the descendants of the Prophet Elias and call themselves “Hermits of Saint Mary of Mount Carmel” because the fiery prophet, whom they imitate, had beheld, in a foot-shaped cloud that had divinely soared from the sea below them, a prophetic image of the Immaculate Virgin Mary who was to bring forth man’s Salvation and to conquer the pride of Satan with Her heel of humility. He had instructed his followers to pray for the advent of this Virgin, saying that the vestigial form of the cloud bore out the divine malediction against the devil: “I shall place enmities between thee and the Woman, thy seed and Her seed … thou shalt lie in wait for Her heel and She shall crush thy head …”
They informed Saint Louis that, from the time of Elias until the birth of the Blessed Virgin, the great prophet’s successors on Mount Carmel handed down from one to another the great revelation of their Founder, all the while praying for the appearance of that Immaculate Virgin. She had finally come right down in that little town of Nazareth, over at the other side of that plain which lies at the foot of the Mount, where they could look down on its mystery. And then Mary visited them, and the Holy Family, on the return from the seven-year sojourn in Egypt, rested awhile among them. They had erected, here on Mount Carmel, the very first chapel on earth ever to be dedicated to the Mother of God. Furthermore, when the Church was spreading and Mary had gone to join Her Divine Son, because of Her predilection for them they received custody of the Holy House in Nazareth.
“Hermits of Our Lady!” Saint Louis must have thought. “Truly if what these holy men believe is fact, they are indeed the ‘Family of the Blessed Virgin.’”
Our Lord Himself, in a colloquy with His beloved Saint Teresa, designated these hermits “The Order of the Virgin”! And if St. Louis was struck with a reverential awe by the holiness of this family of Mary, what would have been his feelings were he to know what was happening at that very
moment, in another part of the world, between Our Lady and Her Order?
Some thirty years before Saint Louis came to Mount Carmel to persuade six of the hermits to return with him to France, two English crusaders took a few of the hermits to England. A strange but holy man joined them there in whom they could not help but recognize a great likeness to the fiery prophet whom they ever emulated. He took the name “Simon”; his surname, “Stock,” was symbolic of the life he had led prior to their coming: he had been dwelling alone in the fastnesses of an English forest in a tree-trunk hollow even as Elias had dwelt in Carmel’s natural caves. Our Lady, in a personal apparition, had told him that Her devotees were coming from Palestine and that he should join their society.”
The persecutions, which now were a tremendous force in Palestine and the reason for Saint Louis’ presence there, caused so many of the ‘Carmelites’ to move West that a Vicar General had to be appointed there. Simon Stock received this honor. He found himself at the helm of Mary’s bark, in more than usually troublous waters. By the time he was made General of the entire Order, six years later (1245), it became apparent that nothing less than heroic faith was required to pilot the sea fearlessly.
Adapting the heretofore contemplative Order to a mixed life, in a seeming awareness that a marked change was about to take place in the body of Mary’s special sons, the saint sent the younger men to the Universities. He thereby alarmed the old men who had led lives of utter solitude on Carmel. However, he recognized that they had been providentially forced from Carmel and, guided by Mary, he braved the ugly dissension that his policy evoked.
But this inward cancer was not the only affliction. Outside the Order, the whole secular clergy was raising a din at the sight of another group joining the ranks of the odious mendicant friars; not only did they persecute the men from Carmel everywhere, but they carried their cries to Rome, demanding the suppression of these “newcomers.” Moreover, strange as it may seem, the barred-cloak, which these Palestinians wore, seemed violently to irritate Western sensibilities. Saint Simon thought to change it because the unpopularity of the Elian garb was hindering the growth of his family of Mary; he refrained in deference to the views of the older members who naturally loved their ancient cloak, redolent of Elian traditions.
For the first five years of his generalship, the opposition from within and without grew daily stronger. Hence, in the year of 1251 we find Simon retiring to the Cambridge monastery, weighed down by his ninety years and a trial well beyond the strength of even a far younger man. He seems to be seeking the solitude of his cell even as he had been wont to retire to his tree-trunk, in his youth, to pray. Probably he is thinking to himself, as Saint Teresa of Avila said later, “Can the hand of God be shorter for the Order of His Mother than for other Orders?”? And it is not merely a question of removing obstacles that confronts the Saint now; it is a question of preserving the Order’s very life.
This sickness of the Order that was “fomented by Satan,” as a contemporary of St. Simon describes, may put one in mind of a certain “Little Flower’s” childhood sickness. Carmel is Mary’s Flower, She its blossoming vine; now the Flower droops her head. Let us apply the words of Therese:
“It was an illness in which Satan assuredly had a hand … He wished in his jealousy to avenge himself on me for the grave mischief my family was to do him in the future … He little knew, however, that the Queen of Heaven was keeping a faithful and affectionate watch from above on Her Little Flower, and was making ready to still the tempest just as the frail and delicate stem was on the point of breaking!”
Yes, the Order of Carmel, Mary’s Flower, sinks and droops her head; dissension and persecution, fomented by Satan who hates Mary and Her seed, are the raging sicknesses that stretch her upon a bed of death. Since the worst suffering takes place in the head of a body, the aged General and Saint is the most cruelly weighed upon by the multiple afflictions that beset his Order of Mary. Kneeling in his tiny cell, he pours forth his soul with deep and longing sighs in what has been often called “after the Hail Mary, the most beautiful of all Marian prayers:”
“Flower of Carmel,
Splendor of Heaven,
None equals thee!
O Mother benign,
Who no man didst know,
On all Carmel’s children
Thy favors bestow,
Star of the Sea!”
As the Saint lifts his tear-dimmed eyes, the cell is suddenly flooded with a great light. Surrounded by a great concourse of angels, the Queen of Heaven is descending towards him, holding forth the Brown Scapular of the friars and saying: “RECEIVE, MY BELOVED SON, THIS HABIT OF THY ORDER: THIS SHALL BE TO THEE AND TO ALL CARMELITES A PRIVILEGE, THAT WHOSOEVER DIES CLOTHED IN THIS SHALL NEVER SUFFER ETERNAL FIRE.”
The purpose, the raison d’etre, of that long established and special “family of Mary” stands revealed.
“O Mary, who from that hour (that Elias beheld the foot-shaped cloud over Carmel) didst preside over the watches of God’s army, without ever failing for a single day: now that the Lord has truly come through Thee, it is no longer the land of Judea alone, but the whole earth that Thou coverest as a cloud, shedding down blessings in abundance. Thine ancient clients — the sons of the prophets — experienced this when, the land of promise becoming unfaithful, they were forced to transplant their customs and traditions to other climes; they found that even into our far West the Cloud of Carmel had poured its fertilizing dew, and that nowhere would its protection be wanting to them … Since their tents have been pitched around the hills where the new Sion is built upon Peter, the cloud has shed all around showers of blessings more precious than ever, driving back into the abyss of the flames of Hell.”
— Dom Gueranger
“This most extraordinary gift of the Scapular — from the Mother of God to Saint Simon Stock — brings its great usefulness not only to the Carmelite Family of Mary but also to all the rest of the faithful who wish, affiliated to that Family, to follow Mary with a very special devotion.”
— Pope Pius IX
The Queen of Carmel gives the Scapular.
(Reprinted with permission from World Apostolate of Fatima, Washington,