Saturday, July 15, 2006

Our Lady's Keepsake

The memorial of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is omitted this year because it falls on a Sunday. But for us who are especially devoted to Our Lady's Scapular, today remains a special day to celebrate Our Mother's gift.

The story goes that the Order of Carmel was then undergoing a severe crisis following their flight from the Holy Land after it was occupied by the Moors. The hermits wanted to keep intact their way of living in the desert, but many also wanted to adapt to the new situation they were in and the group was beginning to tear apart. Saint Simon Stock, then at the helm of the order, was desperate and in his great anguish burst forth in a cry to the Mother of God: “Flower of Carmel, blossoming vine, splendor of heaven…”—the poignant and beautiful hymn Flos Carmeli that we still sing even today. At this most trying moment, Our Lady appeared to him and gave him a scapular, a garment commonly worn for protection. It is a badge of her favor and patronage, she said, an assurance even that “whosoever dies wearing this scapular shall suffer not eternal fire.” Our Lady's keepsake sustained Carmel during these difficult times, and many others who have since accepted this badge as Our Lady's gift to them as well.

A keepsake is a token, a small representation of what is infinitely bigger than the thing that is given to us. In the liturgy of marriage, there is a rite where the groom presents to the bride the arrhae or some other material symbol. The groom in fact is giving to the bride, not just a string of coins, but he is entrusting her with all that he has, and indeed his very self. When a lover gives his or her sweetheart a keepsake, what it actually means is that he or she is giving his or herself for the beloved to treasure and to cherish, to always keep close to the heart. It also means that the lover always keeps the one who receives the token in his or her own heart.

There is a promise of protection in a keepsake, an assurance that despite physical barriers, there is a love that reaches out to us wherever we are. A keepsake comes with a promise of spiritual fellowship, of constant prayer and support. When somebody is going away for a long time, we give keepsakes to remind him or her that we are always behind him or her wherever he or she may go. When we look at keepsakes during difficult times, we find strength, consolation and comfort as if we actually touch the presence of the giver.

Finally, a keepsake is a constant invitation to return home. When her child leaves home for the first time, probably on the first day of school, a mother prepares a sandwich or gives a little toy to assure the child that there is nothing to fear since even if he or she will be far from her for a brief period of time, there will always be a homecoming when there will be infinitely more sandwiches and toys. Whenever we notice the keepsake that we sometimes put away or forget to appreciate, we are reminded that there is someone expecting us, that there are loving arms waiting to embrace us.

Whenever I think of the scapular, I am always reminded of the passage from Isaiah in which the Church also sees Our Lady: “The Lord has clothed me with a robe of salvation, wrapped me in a mantle of justice.” The scapular cloth is not just Our Lady’s mantle but the brooding wings of Our Father who is like a mother eagle sheltering us. If we put this on spiritually and not just physically, then we can be sure to experience the Lord’s love and protection, and if we will let ourselves be, led safely home.

In today's Gospel, Jesus strictly instructs his disciples whom he is sending to preach the Kingdom, to bring nothing along, but allows them to bring 'but a walking stick'. For people like them who are strong and vigorous, a walking stick may not mean so much. But when they begin to tire and weary, whether bodily or in the heart, then the walking stick serves as a pillar of support, a source of comfort, a constant reminder that they are not alone.

On this day we remember Our Lady, and ultimately Our Lord, who gives us through her in the scapular of Carmel, a keepsake of love and care, a walking stick to bring along on our pilgrim way.

Flower of Carmel,
tall vine blossoming laden;
Splendour of heaven,
child-bearing yet maiden.
None equals thee.

Mother so tender,
who no man didst know,
on Carmel's children
thy favours bestow.
Star of the Sea.

Strong stem of Jesse,
who bore one bright flower,
be ever near us
and guard us each hour,
who serve thee here.

Purest of lilies,
that flowers among thorns,
bring help to the true heart
that in weakness turns
and trusts in thee.

Strongest of armour,
we trust in thy might:
under thy mantle,
hard press'd in the fight,
we call to thee.

Our way uncertain,
surrounded by foes,
unfailing counsel
you give to those
who turn to thee.

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