Our story starts in the 13th century, with a man named Simon Stock. He will eventually become a saint (though he may never have existed, which is a trick some saints do; and then again, he may have absolutely existed, since parts of him are scattered throughout Europe, with some bones in Bordeaux, a tibia in Kensington, and part of his skull that he no longer needed, resting in Aylesford), but he isn’t when we meet him, on 16 July 1251, experiencing a vision of the Holy Mother, a brown scapular in her hand, and a promise that anyone wearing it would be delivered from Purgatory (if to Purgatory they were sent) on the immediately subsequent Saturday, which was the Holy Mother’s day to run errands, selecting the not-yet-holy who sported the divine object.
(You are asking, because you aren’t Catholic, and neither am I, what is a scapular? My first encounter was when Zach’s Aunt Sue gave him one for Christmas and I thought it was a bookmark and it absolutely isn’t. The term derives from the Latin for shoulders, and there are two kinds: devotional and monastic. Scapulars, that is. There are two kinds of scapulars and only one kind of shoulder I am not an anatomist. Aunt Sue, who left convent life after Vatican II when the Church became “too liberal” and she worried she’d be expected to play folk music on a guitar, gave Zach a devotional scapular, which you’ll see pictured, and you, too, will say, in your Best Baptist, “That is absolutely a bookmark.” But you wear it, I promise, with one end over your chest, and one end down your back. Monastic scapulars look like something women of a certain age would buy at Elaine Fisher as they blossom and bloom into the sorceresses all women become eventually. They’re both holy garments, like what Mormons wear, only older, and with not as much secrecy. As of this writing, there is no porn where scapulars play a significant role. There are, however, entire series devoted to getting young Mormon boys out of their spiritual underwear.)
Later, after Simon’s vision of the Holy Mother, even after his death in 1265, if he died, Pope John XXII in 1322 issued a Papal Bull titled Sacratissimo uti culmine. Pope John XXII, whose human name was Jacques d’Euse, and who fretted about witchcraft, having believed himself the target of an assassination attempt by poison and sorcery, also claimed a vision of the Holy Mother, telling him about her deal with Simon (who, if he existed, still isn’t a saint yet at this point), and that he, Pope John XXII, should tell the world to buy brown scapulars, both devotional and monastic, drink Ovaltine, and elevate the Carmelite Order above all others, because of this gift of fabric and promise.
(Do we have a copy of this Bull? No we do not. But things get lost and the Vatican is large and we’ve lived in our house for over 15 years and there are boxes we haven’t unpacked so one feels generous with one’s patience, and simply lives in hope. Yet also it seems important to also mention that Jacques was, for a time, a fervent non-believer in the Beatific Vision — the ultimate union of the soul to God — and so, if he did write this Bull that no one can find, yet, he must have done it later, when he calmed down about Beatific Visions, and agreed that those who died in grace immediately enjoy a glimpse of God.)
(This, too, feels parenthetical, but John XXII had a counter, an anti-pope, Nicholas V, set up in papal finery by the King of Bavaria, a land that only exists in our hearts, even though the literal land of Bavaria is still there, or the memory of the land, since you can’t step into the same river twice, and you can’t trust land, either, after seven hundred years, to be where you left it, so that physical space is as liminal as sacred space. Nicholas is eventually excommunicated by XXII, but he pled so eloquently for forgiveness that John showed mercy on him, absolving him of the excommunication, and held him in honorable imprisonment, in Avignon, which is fun to say, Avignon, until Nicholas’s death in 1333.)
Eventually, no one believed in Saint Simon, even with his jigsaw puzzle of a body, and no one believed in Pope John XXII’s Papal Bull. They — a list to long to list — said, “It’s a nice story.” They said, “It’s a metaphor.” And now official Church teaching is that the Sabbatine Privilege — that is, the privilege to wear brown and get out of Purgatory — is not official Church dogma at all. A man named Patrick, a good Catholic name, said in 2001, “People are free to believe it if they wish, but we cannot say that the Church teaches it.”
There is a Carmelite monastery in Colorado where one can, through the Internet, purchase a brown scapular. It comes with an instruction manual that proudly announces its belief in Saint Simon Stock (who is believed to have slept in the hollowed-out trunk of a tree, by the way, which accounts for his last name). It also says, “Without saying to Mary that we venerate her, love her, and trust in her protection, we tell her these things every moment of the day by simply wearing the scapular.” Because we all of us are busy, but we all need to get dressed.