On May 16, the Catholic Church remembers Saint Simon Stock, a twelfth- and thirteenth-century Carmelite monk whose vision of the Virgin Mary is the source of the Brown Scapular devotion.
Simon was born during 1165 in the English county of Kent. He is said to have been strongly devoted to God from his youth, to the point that he left home at age 12 to live in the forest as a hermit. Following the customs of the earliest monks, he lived on fruit and water and spent his time in prayer and meditation.
After two decades of solitary life in the wilderness, he returned to society to acquire an education in theology and become a priest. Afterwards, he returned to his hermitage until the year 1212, when his calling to join the Carmelite Order – which had only recently entered England – was revealed to him.
During the early 13th century, a group of monks in the Holy Land sought formal recognition as a religious order. Their origins were mysterious, and by some accounts extended back to the time before Christ, originating in the ministry of the Biblical Prophet Elijah.
The Carmelites’ ascetic, contemplative lifestyle was combined with ardent devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is she who is said to have appeared to Simon Stock, telling him to leave his hermitage and join the order that would soon be arriving with the return of two English Crusaders.
Impressed by the Carmelites’ rigorous monasticism, Simon joined in 1212 and was sent to complete a course of studies at Oxford. Not long after his return to the order, he was appointed its vicar general in 1215. He defended the Carmelites in a dispute over their legitimacy, later resolved by the Popes.
In 1237, Simon took part in a general chapter of the Carmelites in the Holy Land. Facing persecution from Muslims, a majority of the monks there decided to make their home in Europe – including Simon’s native England, where the order would go on to prosper for several centuries
After becoming the general superior of the Carmelites in 1247, Simon worked to establish the order in many of Europe’s centers of learning, including Cambridge, Oxford, and Paris.
Late in his life, Simon Stock reportedly received a private revelation about the Brown Scapular, a monastic garment worn by Carmelites.
“To him,” an early chronicle states, “appeared the Blessed Virgin with a multitude of angels, holding the Scapular of the Order in her blessed hands, and saying: ‘This will be a privilege for you and for all Carmelites, that he who dies in this will not suffer eternal fire.’”
This vision was the source of the Brown Scapular devotion – a tradition which involves the wearing of an adapted version of the garment, along with certain spiritual commitments, by lay Catholics as well as priests and religious.
St. Simon Stock died in France in 1265, 100 years after his birth. He has been publicly venerated since the 15th century.