Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches. II


Lecture (English)


The Hermits of Carmel


Carmelite Crusaders

According to the travel story of the Greek monk, Phocas, St. Berthold, “a monk white with age and invested with priestly dignity, came to Carmel in 1155, built a small chapel and collected ten brothers.” He did not, however, give them a Rule, being unwilling to interfere with the customs of the hermits which among them had the force of an unwritten law. It is difficult to determine in what these customs consisted; we may see, however, a broad outline in two documents which doubtless embody these customs. The first is the Rule drawn up by St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem (fifty years afterwards) and given to St. Brocard, the successor of St. Berthold. It begins by declaring that it is building on foundations already laid and declares as its object the setting down in writing of traditions of life already long established. The second document is the already-mentioned Institutio Primorum Monachorum, which is a summary of the spirit and principles of life which obtained among the hermits. It is not less valuable even though it was written as late as the 13th century.

Ordering to Contemplative Life in Solitude and Detachment

These two documents are remarkably alike in spirit and in the points they emphasize. Both would regard prayer as the essential life of the Order and [23] they agree in the provisions they lay down for its preservation. The ideal they place before the early monks is one of solitude and detachment from the world, as a condition and safeguard for the life of prayer. Their dwelling places are to be in the deserts, apart from the busy life of the world. These places are recommended as most fitting to their seclusion, but aloofness from the world may also be achieved in conditions less remote from the world’s busy life. But the Rule demands that the cloister must ever be a cloister and its provisions guarantee that atmosphere of peace and quiet in which the spirit may commune with God. Each one must have a separate cell, which the Rule regards as the individual’s own particular sanctuary and others may not enter except for grave reasons. The cell is regarded as a place for personal devotion and intimate prayer. All the constitutions drawn up at different times have laid definite and particular emphasis on the cell as the sanctuary of the individual soul. St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzi used to kiss the walls of her cell, while she repeated the words ascribed to St. Bernard: “O blessed solitude, O only salvation”, O beata solitudo, O sola beatitudo. In Carmel there are no common dormitories and work is not done in common when it is possible to do it alone. When necessary, there is a common workshop, but the Rule insists that the work be done in silence. On the other hand, there are places where community life prevails. There is a common refectory and a common room for recreation. With these exceptions, life is lived as far as possible in the retirement of the cell. He who would attain to holiness and more fervent communion with God according to the spirit of Carmel, must love solitude and aloofness from the world. It is a peculiarity of the Carmelite Order that although one of the Mendicant Orders, living amongst people in the world and [24] engaged in active life, it retains the greatest love for solitude and aloofness from the world and considers solitude and contemplation as the better part of its spiritual life.

Necessity of Active Life

But the Order of Carmel is not only contemplative. The active life of the apostolate is not alien to the spirit of Carmel. There are times when the priests of Carmel must engage in the active life of the church; when God must be forsaken for the sake of God. This was implied when the Order was given the status of a Mendicant Order. Henceforth its life must be mixed. Even the fiercest advocate of the contemplate life, Father General Nicholas Gallus, successor of St. Simon Stock, avows in his Ignea Sagitta that not only then (about 1275) but even before that time the hermits of Carmel, as circumstances demanded, left not only their cells but their cloisters also and descended from the Mountain to devote themselves to the work of the active Apostolate. However, this was an exception, since the Rule laid down that “The monks should remain in their cells or near them, day and night meditating on the law of the Lord.” Maneant singuli in cellulis suis … die ac nocte in lege Domini meditantes, vel in orationibus vigilantes, nisi aliis justis occasionibus occupantur, “unless they are engaged in other legitimate works”.

The Dominican and the Carmelite Ideal

In the mystical life, this appears as a contradiction of the ideal of the Friars Preachers: Contemplata aliis tradere: which according to the interpretation of St. Thomas represents the highest ideal of the spiritual life, the imparting the fruit of contemplation to others by active life. We must not regard these two ideals as contradictory. Both ways [25] lead to God and from both the faithful derive the greatest graces. These different religious ideals only manifest the more the superabundant variety of the Church’s life.

“Mary hath chosen the better part which shall not be taken from her.” So said the Lord to Martha – Martha who was troubled with much serving, and who complained that her sister had left her to serve alone. Holy Church applies these words to Mary, the Mother of God; and the Order of Carmel, so dear to its heavenly Mother, vindicates for itself Mary’s part in the spiritual life of the Church. We may truly say that the Contemplative Orders have ever had to meet the most serious hindrances in the life of prayer. Carmel, notwithstanding, has ever borne witness to the preeminence of contemplation. Inevitably, in almost all circumstances of modern life, the active apostolate makes its great demands on Carmel and then the Carmelite priests gladly adopt the motto of the Dominican Friars. They must root this activity deep in contemplation, for them its only source and warrant of fruitfulness. When this is necessary, Carmel will be honored and blessed by such an apostolate. But it must never forget that the better part is contemplation – the active life must always take a second place. The first hermits of Carmel loved solitude. After the noise and tumult of battle, they withdrew from the world into the quiet of Carmel’s caves, henceforward to devote their lives entirely to God. With Elias they had known the perils of the wilderness and hoped to find God on the Holy Mountain. But almost immediately we find them scattering over the world, founding cloisters and engaging in apostolic work. Nicholas Gallus might safely say they did it rarely, but they did concern themselves with work of this kind under the stress of necessity and it was not regarded as being contrary to the Rule. [26]

Difficulty of Drawing Dividing Line

It is difficult to say when that necessity arises, but the Rule does suggest limitations when it speaks of justa occupatio as a reason for deserting the life of solitude for a time. There have been times, especially in the first centuries of the establishment of the Order in the West, when urgent needs of the Church were neglected for the sake of the contemplative ideal. At other times the spirit of contemplation has been lost in too great activity. The combination of these two lives has presented a difficult problem even to St. Teresa, who in her reform finds it difficult to draw a dividing line. We find St. John of the Cross frequently leaving his cell to preach the Gospel to the poor. At the very beginning of the Reform, we find a majority of the reformed Order considering the work of the missions so urgent that missioners were sent out to establish cloisters in the lands where the practice of the contemplative life was impossible. To those who were opposed to this missionary work, St. Teresa in her Book of the Foundation says: “In solitude, some may say there are fewer occasions for offending God and purity is more easily kept. But when obedience or charity bids us run the risk of occasions, love comes out far more clearly than it does in the recesses of solitude … Believe me, we make much greater gain and that beyond comparison, even if we commit more faults and suffer some slight losses” (St. Teresa, Foundations, Chap. V; Pourrat, 178).

Apostolate of the Contemplative Life

But the principal point to remember is that the school of Carmel, while rating at its highest the cure of souls in the world, cannot forget that it is called to a higher vocation. Elias was called to a life of prayer in the midst of a life of intense activity, yet he is one of the greatest Prophets of the [27] Old Testament. His life and prayer tell us that his prayer was the strength of his life. So the contemplative prayer of the Carmelite is also the strength of the active apostolate. The influence of the contemplative soul is not withheld from the apostolate. In the mystical Body of Christ – we shall see that more clearly in the last lecture[2] – the prayers and sacrifices of the contemplatives represent an organ of high value. So there is no opposition of the contemplative life to the active. The former is the great support of the latter. The mystical life is in the highest sense apostolic. Without activity it has the greatest influence. St. Teresa of Avila, St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi and especially the little St. Therese of Lisieux teach us the apostolate of prayer. Many Carmels are considered the real centers of missionary work, not because of their activity but because of their contemplative life.

Love for Mystic Life Characteristic

It is remarkable that even in the first century of the foundation of the Order in the West we find the mystic life, as already explained, very clearly outlined and with it this distinction. Carmel thus takes her own peculiar place in the Church. Perhaps we may see in this special grace which the Order received in view of its mystical life, an affirmation of its vocation. The Order is privileged to honor as a model and example the great Prophet of the Old Testament and to regard his life as the expression of the life lived in Carmel’s school. Upon this model Carmel built its own school which sees in contemplation the highest ideal. “All of us who wear the holy habit of Mount Carmel are called to prayer and contemplation; there is the place of our first institution, we belong to the race of the holy Fathers of Mount Carmel who in such deep solitude and in such entire contempt of the world, sought for the treasure, the precious pearl of which we are speak- [28] ing. And nevertheless, I declare to you that very few among us prepare themselves to see the Savior reveal it to them” (Interior Castle, Fifth Mansion, Chap. I).

The Mater Spiritualium and the Doctor Mysticus, St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, are the great masters in the spiritual life of this school. They are the great examples of Carmel’s mystic life and the most widely known. But beside these great outstanding personages, there is such a large body of mystical writers, men and women, that Carmel takes a front rank among the writers and leaders of spiritual life. The ancient history of the Order shows us that this special election to the mystical life revealed itself from the beginning and was the constant ideal of the Order long before St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross accomplished the reform which brought contemplation into such prominence.

Double End of Contemplative Life: Ascetical and Mystical

In this school the mystic life properly so called is without reserve a pure gift of God. None-the-less, it is set forth as the aim of Carmelite life, as the glory with which God may crown our lives here below. This carries with it the implication that Carmelite spirituality must be concerned to produce these exalted dispositions of soul with which alone this free gift of God is compatible. It is true, however, that no dispositions, however perfect, may demand this gift as a right. It ever remains a free gift of God. On this particular aspect of the mystical life, there has been much discussion among the theologians and it is closely connected with the question, which has been answered in different ways, as to a special election or vocation to the mystical life. On this question we have widely differing opinions. Some lay great stress on the mystical life as a special gift from God and as such [29] not the object of vocation. Others go further and say we may not even desire such a grace, nor pray to obtain it. In such a view there can be no preparation for the mystical state, nor any question of suitable dispositions; and although this school admits of ‘receptivity’, still it declares that this receptivity weighs as nothing in the balance because God grants His gifts as He wills, nor can human effort increase or augment that receptivity. This is the school of the Oratio Infusa, in which the principal emphasis is on the mystical grace as a free gift. Holding a contrary position is the school of the Oratio Acquisita, which rather puts human activity into the forefront and sometimes in such terms as to imply that God, Who is not to be surpassed in generosity, would be obliged to grant this grace to those who use every effort to make themselves worthy of it. This grace being the legitimate crown of the spiritual life, the fact that it is not granted to all is not a proof that He does not wish to share it with all men, but only that few have made themselves worthy of it.

Combination of Oratio Infusa and Acquisita: Happy Mean

The school of Carmel, at least in its representative members, observes the happy mean between these two extremes. According to the ancient document concerning the Order’s spirit, the attainment of this high state of mystical communion is put forward as the aim of all Carmelites and all are obliged to conform their lives to this lofty ideal, but at the same time the free character of the mystical grace is insisted upon. St. Teresa in her own masterly way describes how the life of grace is built on natural foundations. The life of grace even in its highest degree is ingrafted into the natural and under its impulse the whole human personality grows to its ‘susceptibility’ for [30] these exalted states of grace, but on the other hand the practice of the virtues and the active contemplation must precede, accompany and follow the mystical experience. That is why, after giving glory to God as the giver of all gifts, she lays particular emphasis on the practice of prayer and virtue. May I say how gratifying it is to me to put before you this idea of the spiritual life of the Order? It has been the constant tradition of Carmel. We find it in the beginning. It is the spirituality of the Institution of the First Monks. The Carmelite life has a twofold end. We obtain the first by our toil and virtuous efforts, aided by divine grace. It consists in offering to God a holy heart, free from actual stain of sin – the other is communicated to us by a free gift of God, ex mero Dei dono, not only after death but even in this life, and consists in tasting in some way in the heart and experiencing in the mind the strength of the Divine presence and the sweetness of the glory from on high.

Carmel, unlike the children of our day, is not afraid of the mystical life. The spirit of the Order does not regard it as doing violence to nature but knows that nature in the last analysis is destined for such perfection. Nor is the mystical way the only way. Great sanctity may be achieved without mystical graces and favors. This is apparent from the lives of many Saints. It is enough for those on Carmel to live in God’s presence, in loving humility, content with what the good God may send. Time and place are of little importance. Sometimes on earth the flower blooms in all its glory in the garden of God but most often comes only to bud. But in heaven all God’s flowers will open in the glory of the Sun. If the good God, like a good gardener, brings some to perfection here, others hereafter, that is His own mysterious choice.

So again let us insist that the school of Carmel [31] demands preparation, the exercise of the greatest virtue. Our lives must be ordered, oriented in the direction of the Order’s aim.

Common Way: Characteristic Virtues

In order to appreciate better in what this training consists, let us consider in brief three points emphasized by our Rule. The introduction reminds us that many of the things in the Rule are common to all who bind themselves by the three vows, to lead a life of perfection.


But it brings the Vow of Purity into special prominence. It is true that in the beginning, the Vow of Obedience was understood to contain the other two. Obedience is a virtue that implicitly contains all others. But among these virtues there is one which has a particular glory and the Rule singles out that of Purity to emphasize its excellence. Our service of God should be characterized, it says, by a pure conscience and a pure heart. The Order sees as its good exemplar the Mother of God, the Virgin of Virgins. In the clothing ceremony of the Carmelites, the white mantle is put on with the admonition that it should ever be a reminder of the following of the Lamb without spot.


A second point emphasized by the Rule is silence and recollection as a necessary condition for a life of prayer. Active recollection, by which we put ourselves and keep ourselves in the presence of God, has always been regarded as the essential preparation for communion with God in the mystic life. Just as the Prophet did not hear the voice of God in the storm, but in the gentle breeze, so the heart of the spiritual man must not be shaken by the storm but must listen for God’s voice in the silence of its own interior. The constitutions of the Order [32] have always stressed this. To recover recollection of spirit has ever been the first step of all reform.

Spiritual Armor

Thirdly, let me remind you of a third chapter of the Rule, which recalls so vividly the crusading spirit. That particular chapter is full of the noise of battle. But it is no longer the battle against the Saracens, but against a more terrible enemy of the holy land of our own souls. It bids us buckle on a spiritual armor of six pieces. The first is the cincture of chastity, which must be put on in penance and mortification. By mortification is meant not only corporal penances but also the bending of our will to the will of God as the most direct way to purity of heart. In His Will, says Dante, is our peace. To unite our will with God’s means a continual effort at self-conquest. So the Ritual speaks of the girdle as a chain which binds us and causes us to be led by another.

The second piece of spiritual armor, the breastplate, protects the most vital part of the combatant. Your breast must be protected with holy thoughts. They must fill your heart and strengthen it inwardly and defend it as with impenetrable armor. The cuirass of righteousness is the third piece we put on. It is difficult to walk in armor but facility comes with practice. We must wear our armor as true knights of Christ, not bring dishonor on our arms. We must wear our habit with the understanding that it marks us out as following Him, Who is God.

Then the shield of faith. Only a living faith can sustain us against attack. Without a living faith, our vocation is meaningless. Our faith is the source of all our power. It is the faith which gives us our life’s purpose and direction. Half-faith can accomplish little. But a living faith is a creative and an unfailing source of strength and energy.

The fifth piece is the helmet of salvation, symbol [33] of hope and confidence. The helmet protects the head – with it we can walk with head erect and no fear can overcome us.

But armor is to protect us; we need weapons for the warfare. For a sword we have, sixthly, the word of God. It must be in our hearts and on our lips. All is to be done in His name. God’s holy name is the watchword given to us by our Rule.

Through the parable of the two standards, St. Ignatius taught his disciples to see life in terms of battle; the following of the great leader for the greatest of all causes. The same idea is contained in the chapter of the Rule we have been considering. For if the spirit of the Order is characterized by modesty and simplicity, it also inherits the high and spirited chivalry of the Crusaders. In this there is nothing harsh and militaristic but it is the gracious gallantry of the true knight who lays his sword on the altar of his Lady to undertake in love and simplicity the most lowly services she may demand.

Carmelites, Busy Bees

James of Vitry has compared the contemplatives of Carmel to busy bees. Over the great moors they fly in their quest for honey. Away from the dust and grime of life, in the cool and open spaces, they collect their honey-store. For worldlings it is an arid place and uninviting, but for them the desert blooms as the rose. In early autumn every little sprig of heather on these moors puts on its royal livery and the rough places glow from end to end in the purple symbol of penance. Deep in those tiny bells the honey lies. Is not this a perfect image of our lives? All the myriad sprigs, the simple duties of our daily round, done in the spirit of love and penance, bloom along the autumn moorland of our lives. They are rich with honey. So like the busy fees, let us build up our spiritual store from the actions of our daily routine.


  1. This lecture is published in: Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches, Chicago 1936, 22-33 (Lecture II). In the summer of 1935, Titus Brandsma gave lectures in the United States. Among others he was in Washington, in Chicago and in Niagara Falls to speak about Carmelite mysticism. See also the design for these lectures: Carmelite Mysticism. Ten Lectures.
  2. See: The Apostolate of Carmelite Mysticism (Lecture IX).


© Nederlandse Provincie Karmelieten

Published: Titus Brandsma Instituut 2020