Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches. IV


Lecture (English)


The Brothers of Our Lady


Cloud Seen by Elias, Symbol of the Mother of God

We have already mentioned the pious tradition in the Order of Carmel that the Prophet Elias saw in the little cloud bearing the redeeming rain for the parched land of Israel a prototype of Our Lady, the Mother of the Redeemer, a revelation of the mystery of the Incarnation.

Long before the Order became definitely established under St. Berthold, there was a sanctuary in honor of Our Lady on Mount Carmel. This sanctuary became the center of the Order in its new form and the first members of the Order were called after it ‘the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.’

Name, ‘Brothers of Mary, Inspires to Devotion

This gave ample scope to their piety and while they daily hurried to Our Lady’s Chapel and before her altar performed their divine Office and meditation; while they led their lives of prayer under the very eye of their heavenly Mother, so to say, their devotion to Mary became more and more fervent and earnest. It was a wonderful dispensation of Providence that the first monastery of the Order should be built round a little chapel which had long been a center of devotion to Mary. That dispensation of Providence enjoined on the Brothers the devotion to Mary as something intimately allied to their [46] institution, and the name with which the neighboring population called them after this sanctuary, stamped the former crusaders, who had laid down their swords on the altar of Mary, as Knights of Our Lady.

When the second General of the Order, St. Brocard, lay on his death-bed, he gathered the hermits about him to address them with some parting words of farewell and exhortation. The words he spoke to them excited the Brothers to honor Mary by deeds tried in virtue, “You are called,” he said, “Brothers of Our Lady. Take care that after my death you prove worthy of that name.” Evidently he had during his life, more especially during the twenty-five years of his office as General, always insisted on this. He had even looked to it that they should remain worthy of that name. His generalship, therefore, must have especially fortified and confirmed that devotion in the hearts of his brethren.

Devotion to Mary Confirmed in Europe

When Pope Innocent IV admits the Order to the West and adapts its Rule to fit the changed circumstances, he retains the name, Order of the Brothers of Our Lady, and confirms it officially. With the expansion of the Order in Europe this special devotion to Mary will be its beloved characteristic, a title of which the Brothers are proud and which they put forward time and time again when they have to defend their rights.

Pope and Bishops, even in that first century, affix indulgences to the use of that name and moreover endeavor to grant to the Order a distinction by which it may more easily be recognized. In Northern Europe, we see this being done by the Bishop of Cologne in 1271. [47]

The tradition of the first Generals was splendidly maintained by the man of divine election, St. Simon Stock, who figured so largely in the Order’s removal to Europe. The Order has preserved two fine prayers of his which he is said to have recited many times each day. Our Order still recites them daily in imitation of the Saint. The first is the ‘Ave Stella Matutina; the second is the beautiful Flos Carmeli. This latter was his favorite prayer.

He realized that devotion to Mary was a feature of highest value to the Order, that the title must render the Order loved by the people, and that if Our Lady should confirm the title by special privileges the future of the Order would be assured. The Popes had already favored the Order, but their authority had not succeeded in breaking entirely the resistance the Order experienced when settling in Europe. However much the Saint appreciated the privileges of the Popes, having recourse again and again to the Holy See, he nevertheless appealed incessantly to the Holy Virgin with unswerving faith, convinced that she would not withhold her special help and protection from the Order which, with the Pope’s approval, was called the Order of her Brothers and which tried to live in accordance with this title.

Times were hard. We are told so not only in the life of St. Simon Stock, but also an account of William de Sanvico written at the end of the 13th century emphatically confirms this. Not only the local clergy, but even the bishops did not realize the necessity of a new Mendicant Order and did not see in what respects this Order was distinguished from the Orders already approved. The foundation of new monasteries in the various countries was everywhere attended with serious difficulties. Not only was the Order threatened from within by the loss of [48] her vital, original power through the difficulty of attuning itself to new circumstances and through the increasing demands of the active life, but from the outside also there were enemies who had to be taken into account and whose resistance was not so easily broken, even though the Brothers presented commendations of the Pope and of Bishops and Prelates who were kindly disposed towards them.

In that distress the Saint again had recourse to Mary and his confidence was not betrayed. How could it be otherwise? In the night of the 16th of July, 1251, Mary appeared to the General of the Order, who was in Cambridge at that time. He was kneeling, as was his wont, far into the night before the statue of Our Lady; from his lips flowed again the devoutly insistent Flos Carmeli. He begged privileges for the Order. In answer to his fervent prayer, Our Lady appeared in the habit of the Order and pointed to it as a pledge of her special protection. Whosoever should die in that habit should not suffer the eternal fire.

This apparition left the Saint enraptured with joy. The Order’s habit, hitherto a token of devotion to Mary, now became likewise a pledge of her special protection. The disclosure of this motherly promise in a short time modified the attitude towards the Order. People vied with each other to beg the Order’s habit, either to live or to die in it. In receiving the habit of the Order they secured Our Lady’s motherly help in those times which were so rich in devotion to Mary. A stronger confirmation of the Marian character of the Order was hardly imaginable and very soon, therefore, it was regarded pre-eminently as the Marian Order.

It is quite certain that the title became more and more known and recognized, and especially in the Netherlands, where the stock-title of the Order [49] became ‘Our Lady’s Brethren’. By that name the Carmelites are usually, nay, nearly always called. This quite outstanding name of Brothers of Our Lady led to a rapid extension of the Order, while at the same time many people living in the world received the habit of the Order to participate in its privileges. In the Order of Carmel, the Scapular supplied the whole habit. Hence, the stamp of Mary was put more and more on the Order.

Our Lady Especially Venerated as Mother of God

We ought, however, to discuss for a moment the character of the devotion to Mary. This devotion has marks and traits of its own in the Order of Carmel. Whereas in the Order of St. Francis of Assisi Mary’s Immaculate Conception is especially regarded, in our own Order attention is focused upon Mary as Mother of God. As such she had already been foreshadowed in the little cloud above Carmel; as such she was honored on Carmel; and as such she has ever been invoked in our Order. When the first members of the Order looked out from their high mountain towards the country, their looks met first of all Nazareth, and this little town recalled to their minds the coming of the Angel to Mary and the accomplishment of the mystery of the Incarnation in the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost. The contemplation of this mystery has led to a twofold devotion to Mary, which we had better describe as an imitation of Mary, gradually deepening into a closer union with her. We may see the same in the Imitation of Christ in the 14th and 15th centuries, which matured in the 16th century into a close union with Christ. One should not think of the imitation without thinking of the union, nor of the union without the thought of the imitation. Both flow into each other, but in one period the former is more prominent, in another more attention is paid [50] to the latter. One should rather see both trends blended together into one harmonious whole.

Mary Before Us as our Example

The imitation of Mary, the most elevated of all creatures, set as an example before us by God Himself, shows Mary as the pattern of all virtues. She is the mirror in which we should ever watch ourselves, the Mother whom her children ought to resemble ever more.

A remarkable treatise on this has come down to us in the collection of old manuscripts of the first part of our Order’s history, collected by the Spanish Carmelite, Philippus Riboti, and printed in the beginning of the 16th century. How old this utterance of devotion towards Mary may be cannot be solved satisfactorily. At any rate, it is older than the end of the 14th century, when it already belonged to old manuscripts. Father Gabriel Wessels ascribes it without any hesitation to the famous English Carmelite, John Baconthorpe, who lived in the early part of the 14th century.

The author gives a brief outline of the Rule of the Order and concludes that the Carmelite, in order to observe this Rule, has only to look at the example of Our Lady. He thinks that our Order is fully entitled to bear the name, Order of Brothers of Our Lady, seeing that Mary already practiced before us everything that is prescribed in the Rule. Then he praises her obedience, purity and apostolic poverty. Just as the Order’s Rule commanded, she had chosen her places of residence far from the turmoil of the world: in the loneliness of the little house of Nazareth, in the solitary cave of Bethlehem, in the poverty of Egypt. As to the observance of silence, he points out how few words spoken by Mary have been noted down in the Scripture. And thus he goes [51] on with his examples. Sometimes his parallels are somewhat far-fetched, but on the whole his explanations are in keeping with the words and intentions of the Rule. All these facts of Mary’s life are pictured to the Carmelite in order to show him how he follows Mary’s life closely by observing his Rule.

Mary in Us as Living Through Us

There is, however, yet another profounder idea in the devotion to Mary on Carmel. It is based on the former indeed, and we cannot say that it was unknown in the first stages of our Order’s history, even though it was more prominent in later times. I have called it the union with Mary. If we wish to conform ourselves to Mary in order to enjoy more fully the intercourse with God, by following her example, we should obviously be other Marys. We ought to let Mary live in us. Mary should not stand outside the Carmelite, but he should live a life so similar to Mary that he should live with, in, through, and for Mary.

Even in the Middle Ages, in the first period of the Order’s history, the idea was propagated that we should be serfs of Mary; in those days, even a stronger term, ‘slave’, was used. In the 18th century, Blessed Grignon de Montfort drew attention again to this most vigorous Marian devotion. He wrote a work on True Devotion to Mary but it remained hidden during his lifetime and even for years after his death. It was not until 1842 that it was discovered, published and spread to all countries. It is a glorious utterance of Marian life. However, it is not new. Not only did the idea exist even in the Middle Ages, but also in later times it was brilliantly elaborated in the mystic school of Carmel. The admirers of the True Devotion to Mary by Blessed Grignon de Montfort admit willingly that [52] the Saint had a remarkable prototype in the mystic writings of one of the dominant figures of later Carmelite mysticism, the Provincial of the Dutch Calced Carmelites, Michael of St. Augustine (Ballaert), in the middle of the 17th century. His treatise on Devotion to Mary was printed two years before Blessed Grignon de Montfort was born and was reprinted during the latter’s life in Latin and Dutch.

As he sees in Mary the Mediatrix of all graces, he says that just as the grace of God or of the Holy Ghost, communicated to those who are susceptible of it, makes them active and excites divine life in them, so all graces, received through Mary and the spirit of Mary, will excite in us a truly Marian life. He wants the spirit of Mary to dwell in us so that we all may live in that spirit. As we should live in God, work and labor in Him, live and die in Him, so we can live in Mary because of the intimate union of Mary with God and because of her election to the office of Mediatrix of all graces.

Carmelite Another Mary

However beautiful the description of the devotion to Mary in the works of Fr. Michael of St. Augustine may be, there is yet another representation of that devotion living in the tradition of Carmel, which in the above-mentioned work is indeed touched upon but not elaborated. Still, in order to sound the deepest depths of the school of Carmel, it is necessary to see its characteristic features. We should attain similarity to Mary, especially in that we recognize her as the highest perfection which human power by the grace of God has attained. This perfection can also be developed in us to a considerable extent, if we reflect ourselves in Mary and unite ourselves to her. This ought to be the aim of our [53] devotion to Mary, that we be another mother of God, that God should be conceived in us also, and brought forth by us. The mystery of the Incarnation has revealed to us how valuable man is to God, how intimately God wants to be united to man. This mystery draws the attention of our minds to the eternal birth of the Son from the Father as the deepest reason for this mystery of Love. In the celebration of the three Holy Masses on Christmas, the birth from the Father is first celebrated, secondly from the Holy Virgin Mary, thirdly God’s birth in ourselves. This is not done without significance and this threefold birth must be understood to be a revelation of one eternal Love. It should be ever Christmas to us and we should always remember that threefold birth as phases of one great process of love. Mary is the daughter of God the Father, Mother of God the Son and Spouse of God the Holy Ghost. In her that threefold birth has been realized. We should learn from Her how to realize it in ourselves. We also have been chosen by the Holy Trinity for a dwelling, to share the privileges which we admire in Mary, but which God is willing to bestow on us also. Seen in this way, I should like to say that “the mystery of the Incarnation is another summary of Carmelite mysticism, Carmelite spiritual life.”

Sunflowers in the Garden of Carmel

The devotion to Mary is one of the most delightful flowers in Carmel’s garden. I should like to call it a sunflower. This flower rises up high above the other flowers. Borne aloft on a tall stem, rich in green leaves, the flower is raised yet higher from among the green foliage.

It is characteristic of this flower to turn itself towards the sun and moreover it is an image of the [54] sun. It is a simple flower; it can grow in all gardens and it is an ornament to all. It is tall and firm and has deep roots like a tree. In the same way, no devotion is firmer than that to Mary. The fresh foliage, the green leaves point to the abundance of virtues, with which the devotion to Mary is surrounded. The flower itself represents the soul created after God’s image in order to absorb the sunlight of God’s bounty. Two suns shining into each other, one radiant with an unfathomable light, the other absorbing that light, basking in that light and glowing like another sun, but so enraptured by the beams of the Sun which shines on it, that it cannot turn itself away from Him, but can only live for Him and through Him. Such a flower was Mary. Like her, so may we, flowers from her seed, raise our flower-buds to the Sun, Who infused Himself into her, and will transmit to us also the beams of His light and warmth.


  1. This lecture is published in: Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches, Chicago 1936, 45-54 (Lecture IV). 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