The scapular was originally a garment that went over the shoulders and covered the wearer on both sides. The word is from the Latin, scapula, which means shoulder blades.
Many different religious communities, both male and female, wear these outer garments, which are considered part of their religious habit. In the thirteenth century, lay people began to wear scapulars as a sign of being attached to a religious community through prayer and devotion. The scapular became reduced in size and could be worn underneath street clothes.
There are many different kinds of scapulars. For example, the red scapular is for the passion of Christ, the black is in honor of the seven sorrows of Mary, the blue is devoted to the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the white is for the Holy Trinity, and the green is for healing. The most famous of all scapulars is the brown attributed to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
This scapular is brown because the Carmelite priests and nuns wear a brown habit. The devotion to the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel goes back to Saint Simon Stock of England, who received the scapular in a vision from Our Lady. By wearing the brown scapular, one becomes a member of the Confraternity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Those who have been enrolled in the confraternity have a spiritual relationship with the Carmelite order. With this affiliation one observes certain practices: frequent participation in the Mass and reception of Holy Communion; frequent reading of and mediation on the Sacred Scriptures; the regular praying of at least part of the Liturgy of the Hours; imitation of and devotion to Mary; and the practice of the virtues of charity, chastity, and obedience to the will of God.
The brown scapular is not a magical charm to protect you, an automatic guarantee of salvation, or an excuse for not living up to the demands of the Christian life. It is, however, a sign which has been approved by the Church that stands for the decision to follow Jesus like Mary: open to God and to His will; guided by faith, hope, and love; close to the needs of people; praying at all times; and discovering God present in all that happens around us.
Those who wear the scapular are reminded daily of their vocation to be saints.