Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches. III


Lecture (English)


The Order Flourishing in the Holy Land


Menaced by Mussulmen

The attempts of the Crusaders to win back the holy places for the faith were begun with much enthusiasm. At first their attempts were successful but with the weakening of the first great impulse, the Arabs returned to the places from which they had been driven and only with difficulty were the principal places kept in the hands of Christians for two centuries.

In the 12th and in the beginning of the 13th century, the new Order of Friars of the Blessed Mary of Mount Carmel had spread throughout the Holy Land and Syria.

It is impossible in this short review to give in any detail the history of the Order in the land of its origin, but from its rapid growth we may conclude that its beginnings were characterized by intense spiritual activity. The holiness of the principal figures stands out in bold relief and although we know only a few details of their lives, tradition records the veneration they inspired.

But difficulties were to come and some of the monasteries were threatened with extinction. Under the third General, St. Cyril, troubles increased and matters went from bad to worse. St. Cyril, a man of great faith and personal sanctity, saw the breaking of the storm of persecution. He was not dismayed and it is recorded that God granted him [35] reassuring visions of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and of the future triumph of the Order and of the Church. So despite material ruin and desolation the Saint could still look with glad confidence to the Lord and be the support of his brethren in their time of trial.

Difficult Position

But with the growing dangers and the ever increasing attacks of the Mussulmen, such confidence was not easy. One by one the monasteries were burned and the monks driven out or murdered. Very soon those Friars, many of whom had come from the West, were forced to consider returning to their native land. Some of them had already departed, for in the beginning of the 13th century we find foundations of Carmelite Friars in Cologne and other places. These were composed of the early fugitives who had been forced to abandon the East before the General Chapter on Carmel in 1237 finally decided that it was impossible to remain there.

Marvelous Transplantation of the Order to Europe

The prophecy of St. Cyril was wonderfully fulfilled. In a short time, let us say within a space of ten years, the main body of the Order was transplanted from the East to the West. How quickly this change was brought about may be seen from the fact that although the great Mother House of the Order was still on Carmel – the cradle of the Order’s most venerable traditions – it is at Aylesford in Kent that the General Chapter is held in 1245. This was the first General Chapter of the Order held in the West. At that Chapter, a General was elected who was to have a profound influence on the development of the Order in the West.[36]

St. Simon Stock Raised Up by Providence

This was St. Simon Stock. The magnitude of his achievements places him in the ranks of the great. In his lifetime the enormous work of adaptation to new conditions was accomplished and the Order given a form and direction which needed little alteration during the succeeding centuries. Providentially, need called him forth. His accomplishments were such as to demand not only energy but great sanctity. He was endowed with a capacity not only for extension but what is more important, for consolidation. We find him leaving England to take part in the foundation of cloisters in Cologne, Haarlem, Brussels and in several of the towns of France. He made many journeys to consult the Holy See concerning the affairs of the Order. After a life which was truly crowded with achievement he died in 1265 at Bordeaux. He had ruled the Order for twenty years. It is to his lasting merit to have established discipline and order in that difficult time and to have inspired an activity which did not do violence to the life of prayer and the original spirit of the Order. The adaptation of the Rule sanctioned by Innocent IV was so perfectly in harmony with the traditional spirit of Carmel, that St. Teresa accepted it as the embodiment of the true life of the Order. It is this mitigated Rule and not the earlier one that St. Teresa uses in her reform. That in itself is a great tribute to the spiritual genius of St. Simon.

The coming of the Carmelites to Europe at this particular time was opportune. It was in the beginning of a new awakening which they were in great measure to share and influence. They brought with them an original element in this, that through adopting the status of a mendicant Order, they yet retained their deeply contemplative character. It is [37] at this time that the apostolic character of the mystical life appears more and more. The example of the great contemplatives leaving the shelter of their monasteries to preach to the people is already familiar. Peter of Amiens is a notable example of this and later St. Bernard. Also the two great founders of religious Orders, St. Francis and St. Dominic, were soon to prove that the life of contemplation does not exclude the active life.

The contemplative element in the tradition of Carmel increased the difficulties of adaptation to the new environment. Hoping to pursue their old ideals, their first hermitages were founded mostly in solitary places, far from towns. But very soon the active apostolate called them out of isolation.

Mitigation of Solitude, Abstinence and Poverty

When St. Simon petitioned Pope Innocent IV for a mitigation of the original Rule, the Pope appointed as advisers, two Dominicans, one of whom was the famous Hugo of St. Cher, the other William, Titular Bishop of Andorra. Two representatives were also appointed by the Order. It is probable one of these was Fr. Peter Swanyngton, the secretary of St. Simon Stock, and the saint’s most trusted friend, whose name is involved in the history of the holy Scapular. The outcome of these negotiations was the permission to have their houses in towns and the admission of the Friars to apostolic work. Community life remained enjoined in the retaining of a common refectory and common liturgical prayer. Although still insisting on the strict observance of poverty, the Rule was slightly modified in conformity to the observance of the other Mendicant Orders, but more in the direction of the Dominican observance than the Franciscan. No individual may possess property and the superior may only administer it for the common good. The Franciscan Rule [38] goes further, in this that their property is administered for them by others.

Form of Abstinence Discussed

On the question of abstinence some interesting points were raised before the final decision was effected. From the report of the discussions, all were in agreement of the importance and necessity of abstinence as an essential of the Rule, but the representatives of the Order advocated abstinence from wine in place of abstinence from meat. It seems the same question had arisen between St. Brocard and St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, in the drafting of the original Rule. The Carmelites confessed a prejudice in favor of abstinence from wine, as being more in keeping with the old Testament traditions of the Order. They, as St. Brocard before them, urged the customs of the Rechabites and Essenes, the prescriptions for the Nazarenes and for some of the Prophets of the ancient law. These ancient sects did not abstain from meat, nor could they do so, since they were obliged to eat the Paschal Lamb. St. Albert had chosen the form of abstinence from meat for his Rule with a qualified permission in case of grave illness or weak health. He based his contention on this that just as in the Old Testament the eating of meat was not forbidden because of the Paschal Lamb, neither should the drinking of wine in the New Testament be forbidden because of the wine of the Holy Eucharist. Still the Friars saw great difficulties in the practice of this rule. It was difficult to observe since a too benevolent indulgence to sickness or ill health might easily lead to laxity of observance. Abstinence from wine did not seem to involve such difficulties. Meat was regarded as an important element in the diet of those engaged in the active apostolate. But both the Dominican advisers and the Pope favored the [39] abstinence from meat and so it was reaffirmed in the Rule. But the very fact that such an alternative was proposed is an indication of the fresh initiative which characterized these early Fathers of Carmel and especially of their love for abstinence in a form that could be strictly observed.

Struggle to Maintain Contemplative Life

The mitigation of the Rule did not accomplish all that was expected. In theory the double life seems to have been provided for; in practice, however, after a period of fervent progress, the active life seemed to destroy the contemplative. In the succeeding century this discrepancy gave rise to grave misgivings among the more contemplative souls. So serious had their doubts become that Nicholas, the Frenchman, the seventh General and successor of St. Simon Stock, and Theodoric, his successor, finding the responsibility too great, retired from their high office to live lives of solitaries. Nicholas was a true contemplative and gave expression to his ideals in language intense and impassioned. For him contemplation was the high and inalienable ideal of the Order and he warns his brethren against the active life. He saw only too well that many would lose their spirit of union with God by an activity not always necessary. With deep regret he saw that many, betrayed by a too absorbing activity, were wandering far from the spirit of the first Fathers on Mount Carmel. Yet although this may be true, the life of many Saints in the Order proves that the true spirit of the Order could still live and flourish under the new conditions.

Five Great Figures

For predominant figures in the history of Carmel in the West, I need only point to five great saints [40] who summarize in themselves the Order’s life. Three are from the 13th century and two from the 14th. The great Saints, Berthold, Brocard and Cyril, are deeply contemplative souls, as one would expect of those who dwelt on Carmel. St. Simon Stock stands at the beginning of the Order’s history in the West. In the 13th century, it is Sts. Angelus and Albert; while in the 14th appear Sts. Andrew Corsini and Peter Thomas. These are living proofs that the life of Carmel could still flourish in the West and it is remarkable that these saints of the West are examples of the perfect harmony of the active and contemplative life. We are inclined to judge this transition period by the sharp denunciations of Nicholas Gallus. But this judgment is not just, as this period also had its shining stars.

School of St. Simon Stock

The lives of these Carmelite Saints are a proof that contemplative and active life can be successfully combined and can lead to sanctity. They show us that religious were not unmindful of what constitutes the great essential character of our life in Carmel. It is because of this life especially that so many have asked admission to the Order. We must again emphasize the predominance of the double spirit in the period of transition. St. Simon Stock was great enough to be the founder of a tradition. He was founder of a school and his spirit continued in his disciples. I would here state my conviction that St. Teresa was not the founder of the school of Carmel, as is very often taken for granted. A study of her life shows that she built on ancient foundations. Contemporaneous with St. Simon Stock we find a mystical teaching which is in harmony with what St. Teresa was afterwards afraid to develop. It takes in her a more complete form, [41] it is true, due to the outstanding religious genius of this great Saint, but it is not essentially new.

One of the great figures on whom St. Simon relied for the building up of Carmel in the West was Henry de Hanna or Henry Hane, an Englishman. He was a man who achieved fame not only in England but also on the Continent. He was St. Simon’s great collaborator, and his influence was tremendous. In an ancient manuscript at Oxford, three sermons are preserved which in my opinion cannot be ascribed to anyone but Henry Hane. They are in a collection of Sermons of Eckehart and his school. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the mysticism of Eckehart was predominant in the German lands and the mysticism of Carmel especially in these lands came under its influence. In his works, however, Henry Hane avoids the tendency to excessive subtlety which characterizes the works of Eckehart. He ever takes a middle position between the intellectual school of the Dominicans and the school of the Franciscans emphasizing more the affective method and the importance of the will. Just as in the mysticism of St. John of the Cross, the influence of pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite, is clearly seen, so also in the system of Hane we find the six degrees of the soul’s ascent to God taken from the same source.

The Six Degrees

The first degree is the opening of the soul to God: “Open to me, my beloved,” says the Bridegroom in Solomon’s Canticle. The second degree is reached when God – and here is meant the Holy Trinity – draws the soul up to Himself and comes to dwell therein. God is born in the soul. Quoting from St. Augustine, Hane says that there is a re-birth when love and desire are united. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is light, love, joy and peace. Here there is already a departure from the intellectualism of [42] Eckehart, in the insistence on the element of love as the means through which God is born in us. The third degree is the transformation of the soul in God. This takes place through the indwelling of light. In this light the soul sins no more and the beauty of God is seen in such a way that the darkness of sin no longer appears. The soul becomes oblivious of everything which is not God. It walks in the light as a child of light. Gustate et videte, ‘Taste and see’: first, the mystical experience of God, and in its wake – illumination. First light breaks in the soul and then in this light the soul sees the source of light. But the soul must have this light before it can see. In this connection, Hane uses a figure, afterwards used by St. Teresa. “The soul must not try to fly before its wings are fledged.” It must bear the yoke of Christ and feel how sweet it is, before it knows who it is who has laid the yoke upon it.

In the fourth degree God releases enormous energies in the soul and the natural faculties of the soul are elevated and become supernatural and deified. In the effulgence of its new light the soul becomes keenly aware of its own natural infirmities, but God draws it above itself and in the realization of its own infirmities, the soul understands ever more perfectly the omnipotence of God and His condescending love. In this way, to use St. Paul’s words, the soul goes from light to light.

In the fifth degree there is complete union of the soul with God. God takes the form of the soul and the soul takes the form of God and is transformed in God. The heavenly light penetrates the soul entirely and in this heavenly light it sees itself. Air in the light of the sun appears no longer air but only light. [43]

In the sixth degree not only does the light shine in the soul, but the soul is wrapped in the light. In the midst of this effulgence, the soul, like a precious stone, is pierced through and through with the brightness of the light and reflects itself in it and this light beams forth from all its facets. Now it is all light. The soul becomes translucent and a mirror of divinity, as Dionysius says of the Angels.

Ideas of Hane Familiar to St. Teresa

Thus does Hane explain the coming of the Lord into the soul. He exclaims with St. Paul: “Rejoice, the Lord is at hand.” St. Teresa is in remarkable agreement with Hane in many of the images which he uses; so much so that it would seem as if Teresa were familiar with his works. Like him, she insists in the first instance that we should open our souls to God. Acknowledging our sins, we should betake ourselves to God and being consumed in God, we should be cleansed from our sins and imperfections and be free to advance to His love. She also knows the image of the Bridegroom knocking at the door of our souls and waiting for admission. Remarkable also is the stress laid on the necessity of practicing the virtues as a preparation, accompaniment and fruit of mystical life. They have in common the image of flying before the wings are fledged. By her also love is emphasized as a means of union with God. St. Teresa especially loves the image of the sun and its light and the image of the precious stone, the diamond, in whose inmost heart the light dwells, shining forth on all sides. Not only in the deepest meaning of the metaphorical language is there agreement but also in the description of the successive degrees of the mystical life. Henry Hane’s description and St. Teresa’s are almost identical. Also it is most interesting to note how both teach that the supernatural is built upon natural founda- [44] tions and that the supernatural is the development of the natural potentialities.

Old Tree Flourishing Again

So we see that the old tree, transplanted to new ground, maintained its growth. That growth was influenced, of course, by new conditions but it survived the storms and winters of its new environment. By its inner vitality and the care of the Heavenly Gardener, it struck its roots deep into the new soil. At times the storms tore off a branch here and there, and its life was threatened, but the old trunk could not be destroyed. It put forth new shoots and its branches spread wider than ever before. And now it stands, not the least among the noble trees in the great garden of the Church.


  1. This lecture is published in: Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches, Chicago 1936, 34-44 (Lecture III). 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.


© Nederlandse Provincie Karmelieten

Published: Titus Brandsma Instituut 2020