In the last forty years many of the sacramentals of the Church, such as the scapular, have been either forgotten or misinterpreted. I have seen some very sophisticated Catholics on the internet mock the scapular as being superstitious. It requires a certain child-like piety to understand such things; an understanding of the history of the devotion does not hurt either. Here is an explanation of the origins of the scapular:
This monastic scapular, like the whole monastic habit and indeed the liturgical vestments of the priest, developed from the ordinary clothing of the laity. And, just as the stole is the special sign of the priestly dignity and power, the scapular is now the sign of the monk. In the West, in the case of St. Benedict, the scapular was at first nothing else than a working garment or apron such as was then worn by agricultural labourers. Thus, in the Rule of St. Benedict, it was expressly termed "scapulare propter opera" (c. xxv in P.L. LXXVI, 771). From this developed the special monastic garment, to which a hood could be fastened at the back. In fact, the original scapular of the Dominican Order was so made that it acted also as a covering for the head, and thus as a hood. The scapular of the West corresponded to the analabus of the East.Since many of the religious orders had a version of the monastic scapular, lay people who were affiliated with those orders wished to a tangible sign of their dedication. In the beginning, tertiaries were permitted to don the habit of the order with which they were affiliated. Later, since a religious habit was not always conducive to the duties of secular life the small scapulars were worn instead, as the following relates:
Like the large scapulars the first and oldest small scapulars originated to a certain extent in the real monastic scapular. Pious lay persons of either sex attached themselves to the Servites for instance; many of those who were in a position to do so attached themselves to the third order with vows, but in the case of many others either this was impossible or the idea of doing so had as yet not occurred to them. In this manner developed, shortly after the foundation of the Servite Order, the Confraternity of the Servi B. Mariae Virginis. Similarly originated the Confraternity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel; that this existed in 1280 is proved by the still extant "Libro degli ordinamenti de la compagnia di Santa Maria del Carmine scritto nel 1280" (edited by Giulio Piccini at Bologna, 1867, in "Scelta di Curiosità letterarie"). The members of these confraternities were called the confratres and consores of the respective orders; they had special rules and participated in the spiritual goods of the order to which then belonged. It is probable also that many of those who could not be promoted to the third order or who were special benefactors of the first order received the habit of the order or a large scapular similar to that of the oblates, which they might wear when dying and in which they might be buried. It was only later and gradually that the idea developed of giving to everyone connected with the order the real scapular of the order in miniature as their badge to be always worn day and night over or under their ordinary clothing.The scapulars, especially the brown scapular of the Carmelites, became so popular among the Christian people that even those who did belong to a religious order began to wear them. The brown scapular became the most highly indulgenced so that children were enrolled in the scapular confraternity around the time they made their first Holy Communion. Fr. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, discusses the facts surrounding the Carmelite scapular:
If we look for the earliest references to the scapular, we find them in the Carmelite constitutions of 1281 in which it was prescribed that all Carmelite friars should wear their tunics and scapulars to bed under penalty of a serious fault. It was also prescribed that the white mantle be made in such a way that the scapular would not be hidden. But the reason for these prescriptions was not a Marian one. At the time, the scapular was seen as signifying the "yoke of Christ." This yoke of Christ in turn pointed to obedience. And that explains the strictness of the legislation. Taking off the scapular was like taking off the yoke of Christ, or rebelling against authority. Only gradually did the scapular take on a Marian tone and grow until it reached such a point that it became identified with Carmelite piety toward Our Lady. In fact the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel began to be called the scapular feast. Devotion to Mary expressed by wearing the brown scapular seems to be resilient and resists the attempts made in various periods of history to diminish its value. The faithful keep coming back to it. From the official teaching of the Church, we can gather that the scapular of Carmel is one of the most highly recommended Marian devotions. This is true through the centuries, and into our own times with popes Paul VI and John Paul II.Fr. Kieran goes on to explore how sacramental aspects of the brown scapular developed:
One of the early Carmelites in his enthusiasm went so far as to call the scapular a "sacrament." Actually the category into which the scapular fits is that of a sacramental. Sacramentals are sacred signs. The scapular is not a natural sign in the sense that smoke is the sign of fire. Smoke is intrinsically connected with fire. Where there's smoke there's fire, the saying goes.
The scapular is what is called a conventional sign. In the case of a conventional sign, the meaning is assigned to the object from outside. Thus a wedding ring is a sign or pledge of mutual love and enduring fidelity between two spouses. In this kind of sign, which is a conventional sign, there has to be an intervention from outside that establishes the connection between the object and what it represents. In the case of sacramentals, it is the Church that determines the connection.
Sacramentals also signify effects obtained through the intercession of the Church, especially spiritual graces. The sacramentals -- as holy pictures or icons, statues, medals, holy water, blessed palm and the scapular -- are means that dispose one to receive the chief effect of the sacraments themselves, and this is closer union with Jesus.
St. Teresa of Avila for example speaks in her life about holy water and the power she experienced that this sacramental has against the devil. She mentions as well how this power comes not through the object in itself but through the prayer through the prayer of the Church.
Along with the sacraments, sacramentals sanctify almost every aspect of human life with divine grace. The passion, death, and resurrection of Christ is the source of the power of the sacramentals as it is of the sacraments themselves.
Such everyday things as water and words, oil and anointing, cloth and beeswax, paintings and songs are ingredients of the sacraments and sacramentals. The Son of God became the Son of Mary. What could be more down-to-earth, more human, indeed more unpretentious, plain, and simple?Pope John Paul II, who was a Carmelite tertiary, wrote profoundly of the brown scapular in March 2001:
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....
The sign of the Scapular points to an effective synthesis of Marian spirituality, which nourishes the devotion of believers and makes them sensitive to the Virgin Mother's loving presence in their lives. The Scapular is essentially a "habit". 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.... Those who wear the Scapular are thus brought into the land of Carmel, so that they may "eat its fruits and its good things" (cf. Jer 2: 7), and experience the loving and motherly presence of Mary in their daily commitment to be clothed in Jesus Christ and to manifest him in their life for the good of the Church and the whole of humanity....
Therefore 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 honour 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, through frequent reception of the sacraments and the concrete practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. In this way the Scapular becomes a sign of the "covenant" and reciprocal communion between Mary and the faithful: indeed, it concretely translates the gift of his Mother, which Jesus gave on the Cross to John and, through him, to all of us, and the entrustment of the beloved Apostle and of us to her, who became our spiritual Mother.
...A splendid example of this Marian spirituality, which inwardly moulds individuals and conforms them to Christ, the firstborn of many brethren, is the witness to holiness and wisdom given by so many Carmelite saints, all of whom grew up in the shadow and under the protection of their Mother.
I too have worn the Scapular of Carmel over my heart for a long time!