Dressing Like a Handmaid: The Brown Scapular

When news broke that the Supreme Court was planning on overturning Roe v. Wade, the protests began almost immediately. In some, women showed up at Catholic Masses dressed in the famous “Handmaid’s Tale” costumes in protest of what they saw as the Catholic Church’s misogynistic meddling in American politics. What they missed is the fact that the most famous woman called a handmaid is described by that Church as the Queen of Heaven and Earth.

This irony was not lost on me, as I am sure it was not lost on the many faithful Catholics who call themselves both pro-woman and pro-life. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on how I dress as a handmaid and how clothing myself in this way does not mark me as a suppressed slave to the patriarchy but, rather, empowers me as a beloved daughter of God.

I am speaking not of a strange white hat or a red cloak but a scapular that no one can even see, two brown pieces of fabric that lie on my back and on my chest that remind me of the handmaid whose example I follow.

Scapulars are traditionally worn over the habit of male and female religious. Small scapulars have also become a popular devotion among laypeople. The most popular is the brown scapular affiliated with Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who promised the Carmelite St. Simon Stock in 1251 that anyone who dies while wearing the scapular “shall not suffer eternal fire.”

In the fallout of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision at the end of June, I became even more convinced that the scapular is exactly what I want to clothe myself with. We all need the reminder that it was Mary’s motherhood that will crush the head of Satan (Genesis 3:15). The response to the court’s decision has been demonic—there is no other word for this level of violence and anger aimed at motherhood and children—so we all need the mother whose Son is the only one who can overcome it.

“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord,” Mary told Gabriel. “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary chose to be a handmaid. She chose to align her will with God’s, no matter the cost (and we know it was high), and she received the gift of motherhood—of the Son of God, no less.

The world does not understand this kind of submission. It does not understand this kind of love. Mary’s life flies in the face of everything both women and men are told about what it means to be strong and what it takes to be successful. Yet, she is the Queen of Heaven and Earth. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his 1995 “Letter to Women”:

“Putting herself at God’s service, she also put herself at the service of others: a service of love. Precisely through this service, Mary was able to experience in her life a mysterious, but authentic ‘reign’. It is not by chance that she is invoked as ‘Queen of heaven and earth’. The entire community of believers thus invokes her; many nations and peoples call upon her as their ‘Queen’. For her, ‘to reign’ is to serve! Her service is ‘to reign’!”

The other day, I was having a challenging morning with my one-year-old daughter. We were both cranky, I wasn’t feeling well, and just when I thought I’d reached my limit, I desperately prayed Mother Teresa’s famous prayer: “Mary, Mother of Jesus, please be a mother to me now.” I didn’t think it would change anything, and on the surface, it didn’t. We were both still cranky. I still wasn’t feeling well. But for a moment, I felt like I was hugging my Mother. And her Son gave me the grace I needed to get through the rest of the morning.

It was a small moment, a seemingly insignificant moment, especially in comparison with the battles we are fighting in our culture. But building a culture of life begins at home, and sanctification happens in those small moments. Whether it’s the struggle to get through a difficult morning or the struggle to create a pro-life culture, the best advocate and support we have is the Mother of God.

And so, I clothe myself with my scapular as a reminder that I belong to God; that he and his Mother protect me; and that far from describing a slave, “handmaid” is the title I aspire to.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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