A True Story About the Miraculous Power of the Brown Scapular

“Those who wear the Scapular are brought into the land of Carmel,” said Pope St. John Paul II, “so that they may ‘eat its fruits and its good things.’”

Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Our Lady of Mount Carmel (photo: Jorge Barrios)

Of the many sacramentals that Catholics may avail themselves of, the Brown Scapular or the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is one of the most venerable. Suffice to say that, along with devotions like the Miraculous Medal, Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s gift to St. Simon Stock is perhaps the most widely disseminated (and actually worn) sacramentals of Catholics.

But what I wanted to write about was my maternal great-grandfather, who was a shepherd back in the Abruzzo region of Italy in the late 19th century. He was, as are most shepherds, poor — as was the entire town he grew up in. (Though to call it a “town” is being overly-generous. It’s more of a collection of hovels and second-world domiciles in fin de siècle Italy, which had only become a nation a few decades before this story takes place.)

In the mountainous region of Collach, Italy, shepherds like my great-grandfather would take the sheep out to pasture in groups of three or four shepherds at a time. But apparently you can’t have too many sheep too close together in any one place or one time since they tend to eat the grass right down to the ground, and they tend to crowd about. So the shepherds, including my great-grandfather, would fan out — always moving, always keeping the sheep slightly moving to avoid “strip-mining” the grass.

So far this seems like the world’s easiest (if not most boring) profession, and I can’t say that it’s one that appeals to me on any level except maybe on a theological one. In addition to keeping the fractious and restive flocks on the move — and, yes, I suppose I’m obliged to acknowledge the shepherd would have to make sure that they kept the ewe-crew together to avoid having to go after the “One Lost Sheep” while leaving the 99 behind — which Our Lord could certainly do, but an everyday shepherd could not (at least without expecting a mass exodus of other lost sheep upon his return).

Another part of this daily grind, after the spreading-out of the flocks, was keeping in touch with each shepherd. Today we’d simply pull out an iPhone and text one of the other shepherds — “IM OK, HOW R U?” But in 1875, high up in the mountains of L’Aquila, the shepherds would each have their own unique whistle — and by “whistle” I mean putting two fingers in their mouths or puckering up like a fish since the concept of owning a “mechanical” whistle like a football referees would have seemed fantastical, and outrageously expensive.

So these poor (literally) shepherds would take the flocks up the mountains out grazing, and, since they couldn’t see one another, whistle one to another to another to another, just to make sure everybody was okay, and then call everybody back together for lunch, and finally, at the end of the day, to go home.

One day, while the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks, a violent thunderstorm broke out — torrential rains, lightning and thunder-shaking-the-valleys. This naturally scared the sheep, as animals have a weird sixth sense for these natural phenomena. They scattered for cover, making my great-grand father’s job all that much more difficult at exactly the point he needed calm and to “shelter in place” until the storm passed.

Once the storm had passed, as was their custom, the shepherds whistled one to another to make sure that they were all fine. Everyone whistled their own tune of “I’m Safe!” back — except for my great-grandfather.

So the other shepherds began looking for him, whistling and awaiting his whistle back.

But no return whistle came.

When they finally found my great-grandfather sprawled out on the ground, a few things were evident: first, he had been struck by lightning, since his entire body was charred. Second, the nails in the soles of his boots had been shot out by sheer force of the electricity that had gone through him. Third, his burnt body was completely denuded. 

Completely, that is, except for his Brown Scapular.

Great-grandpa was in rough shape, to put it mildly. He had indeed been struck by lightning, but was still alive. Barely. The other shepherds brought him back to the village where my great-grandmother and the other shepherd’s wives applied a poultice of egg-whites to help with the burns all over his body.

Great-grandpa was alive. Which was a miracle of sorts. But sometimes miracles are also accompanied by signs. And the fact that his Brown Scapular remained unburnt and intact is (perhaps) that this was a sign of a miracle. 

I keep thinking that this is how we will appear before the merciful but just Judge on our day of judgement, which may strike any of us at any moment just like lightning: stripped, but for help of Mary (in this case, devotion to her via the wearing of Mount Carmel scapular).

“This is nothing but a tall tale,” I can hear someone carping. I don’t think so. For one thing, my great-grandfather made a full recovery (or at least as fully as possible given that there was no real medical treatment), and attested that he had indeed been struck by lightning and attributed his being saved to the merciful Lord through Mary’s intercession. 

Also, unlike many of my other relations, great-grandpa never emigrated to the United States where he might have spun this yarn at the dinner table and family gatherings. Rather, the tale itself crossed the ocean in his other relations who were edified by it. And they had no reason to make up Old World lies to go with their New World lives.

And finally: what on earth would be gained by making up this story? Who would find a sense of bravado and braggadocio in saying, “Yes! I was struck by lightning, burnt to a crisp, but because I wore the Brown Scapular, I was saved from death!” As I mentioned, I never met my great-grandfather, but my atavistic tendencies and the family begotten by him does not include a lot of loud-mouthed liars — especially when it comes to their faith.

His family does, however, include many devout, pious and extremely hard-working, and merciful believers who wear Our Lady’s Scapular or the Miraculous Medal.

(It does not include any more shepherds, though).