“Preach the gospel always, and when absolutely necessary, use words.”
Despite having 12 years of Catholic schooling, I had never before heard the above quote, which is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Ironically, it wasn’t in a homily, Bible study or hanging around my daughter’s Religious Education class that I finally heard it, but it was an in an interview with an NFL quarterback not named Tim Tebow. Having read the quote, it immediately resonated with me because it perfectly summarizes my view about my faith.
My Catholic faith is very important to me, but I am not a big fan of public displays of faith, mine or others. To me, “walking the walk” is more important than “talking the talk”. I don’t have enough wisdom or enlightenment to say whether this is truly right or wrong, but it works for me and, for the most part, I stick to it. Like many things in my life, my faith is something that I keep close to the vest. So much so that, one time, in response to something horrible being discovered about a patient we had both been helping to take care of, I stated talking with one of my former colleagues about faith and human suffering. She was genuinely shocked, saying “I didn’t know that you were religious.” I took the comment in stride and kept the conversation going, but inside I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that comment.
It may have just been the baseline skepticism that people assume to go along with those in science-related careers or it may have just been genuine surprise at learning something about me that she did not know. Hopefully, it wasn’t that my actions would lead her to surmise that I am destined to reside in one of Dante’s Circles of Hell.
At the time, I wish I would have known about St. Francis’ quote, because I would have quoted it back to her and seemed much more together. Like I had a unifying and well thought-out reason for why I act the way I do in regards to my faith. But instead I just quickly moved past the moment with some half-baked platitude and then turned the focus back on to the patient.
There is, however, one outward sign of my faith that I carry with me at all times. It is invariably hidden as I don’t tend to go around without my shirt on (silly health codes!)(oh… and my lack of physical fitness.), but it is there as a constant reminder of a couple of aspects of my faith. A simple, brown wool scapular.
I have been in the practice of wearing a scapular since I was in high school. I went to a Carmelite high school in Chicago and to the Carmelites, the scapular is an important symbol of faith and devotion. (I suppose if I would have gone to a Franciscan high school, I would have been much more aware of the quote that led off this post!)
In 1251, tradition holds that St. Simon Stock, an early Carmelite, had a vision of the Virgin Mary holding the scapular. She then offered it to him stating that those who faithfully wore the scapular would receive Mary’s protection and would not suffer the eternal flame. From this point forward, the scapular became the primary outward symbol of the Carmelites, and it was this tradition that was passed down to me as a young and eager high school freshman.
And we took this tradition very seriously. The scapular was a tremendously important symbol for all of us at the school. Many of us wore one. During every football game, we would affix a scapular to one of the goal posts. Some members of my class even managed to bury a scapular at our rival high school’s new football field. One of the more interesting traditions that our school had was that we would “roll” our scapulars.
Supposedly, this is something that is unique to our high school. To be honest, I haven’t seen many other people wearing a scapular that were not from my high school, so I cannot verify this to be true. But it sure makes for a good story.
After high school, I am not sure how much meaning the symbol has to most graduates. I can imagine that for most people it is a tradition that is held on to for a little while longer. A nice connection to the past and their faith that slowly fades away over time. The hustle and bustle of college/adult life slowly takes over and the youthful ways of the past are cast aside. Since they are only wool or cloth, they eventually degrade with constant wearing and I can easily see it being something that eventually does not get replaced.
But for me, I plan to always wear one. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, I am very proud of my high school. I am definitely more attached to Mount Carmel High School than I am to my college and my medical school. I think this is partly because I was relatively successful in high school on multiple fronts and I know I blossomed as a person and a man there (it sounds like I took that directly from a school brochure or the school’s motto, but I really believe it.) (Oh, and that IS the school motto). It is also a connection back to Chicago, which I view as my true hometown. (Much love to Calumet City though!)
Secondly, devotion to Mary has become a touchstone of my faith. As a Catholic, God and his Son Jesus are the central point of all faith and belief. But I find Mary to be a very accessible way to try to understand what my faith means and what life is truly all about. As a human being, she was a truly humble servant, willing to do what was asked of her by her God. Even if it sounded strange, odd or ridiculous.
When you actually stop and think about what Mary did, it is a lot to take in. Imagine being 15 years old and being told you are going to bear a child who is God on Earth. The Savior of the World. Oh, and this is going to happen even though you are engaged to some other guy and you are a virgin. While none of us would have the grace or faith to so be calm and resolute, Mary’s answer was simply “Yes”. Not “Yes, but…”, not “Let me think about this” or “Can this at least wait until after Joseph and I get married?” Simply, “Yes”.
Being so near to the celebration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, it is a perfect time to reconnect to what my little piece of brown wool means to me and to place it in the bigger context of my faith and my life. Connection to a greater purpose and devotion are powerful things. And, whether you are a person of faith (mine or another) or not, I hope that you have found a purpose to which you are devoted. It can make all the difference. You can feel free to share it with those around you, or it keep it close to your heart like a scapular. And I hope that you learn how to simply say “Yes”. You never know what that might lead to…