Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches. IX


Lecture (English)


The Apostolate of Carmelite Mysticism



St. Therese Draws the World to Carmel

Now, as never before, the eyes of the world are turned toward Carmel. In its garden a flower has opened its petals, of such ravishing beauty that countless numbers have directed their step hither, wishing to remain in the pleasance where such lovely flowers bloom. They examine anew the secrets of this beauty and once more ask themselves of what the loveliness of Carmel consists. This one flower has in turn drawn attention to so many others that the world has been filled with admiration for life in Carmel and on all sides new convents have been founded in order to fill the world with those sanctuaries in which one may live so saintly a life.

I refer to the flower of Lisieux, Little St. Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, whose name has flown over the world, whose life’s story has been translated into all languages, who is called by God to add new lustre to the glory of Carmel.

Characteristics of Her Life

To describe in a few minutes a life so filled with proofs of intercourse with God, with virtue and abundant infusion of grace, is next to impossible. However, I will try to summarize briefly that which is most characteristic in her life and which at the same time shows her to be one of the loveliest and most eloquent examples of the school of Carmel. [103]

Practice of the Presence of God

In the first place surely, comes her desire to converse with God, to lead a higher life for and through Him. She thoroughly understands that the living God who fills heaven and earth, and at the same time dwells in our innermost heart must be the object of our thoughts and love. Most striking in her life is, therefore, her living in God’s presence. She may justly repeat the words of Elias the Prophet: “God lives and I stand before His face.” To strengthen this in her mind she fostered the devotion to the Holy Face, called herself after it, pictured it for herself. It was an unsurpassed means, not only to see God as man, but to ascend through His Manhood to the Deity, and to live in the bosom of the Trinity as she had lived there from eternity.

Her Love of God

As a result of this contemplation of God, love for God wells up in her with irresistible power. Her spirit has been called a spirit of love and so it is. However, it is no blind desire, but love sprung from intellectual contemplation, from knowledge acquired through faith. In order to remain firm in our love towards Him, she wants us continually to contemplate God’s works and notice the proofs of His love. It is noteworthy that she very eagerly admires Nature and the loveliness of our earthly creation, that she enjoys the magnificence of flowers, the glory of a starry sky, but yet she wishes us to leave all this after a short time in order to mount up through this to God. They are a means, not an end.

Her Humility and Simplicity

From her life before the Face of God, and her love and admiration for His power and majesty a third idea springs forth, fitting remarkably well into the [104] scheme of the Order. I mean the idea of her own nothingness compared with God, her wonderful consciousness of her own smallness and slightness, her humility and her conception of herself as being only a child. This characteristic is often met with in the older saints of the Order, as simplicity and humility are the special hall-marks of the Order. How has Blessed John Soreth not stressed this speciality! Cardinal Gasquet quite pithily points out the characteristics which distinguish the Order of Carmel from the various other Orders: Simplices et sinceri. The life of little St. Therese has indeed given this phrase a peculiar weight and strength. It is so often said by various Carmelite spiritual authors – and it tallies so well with our spirit – that the Order is not called to do great things, to be spoken of, but to make itself loved and attractive by doing ordinary things well, without much talking or noise; to live in a certain seclusion for and with God more than for and with men; to attach value to what God desires more than to what man sets high store by. The first demand of the school of Carmel is a silent introversion in order to live in and with God. From this contemplation springs the feeling of smallness and nothingness, modesty and simplicity. “Unless you become like little children, you shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” In the Collect of the Mass of the Little Flower (Oct. 3rd) the Church expressly mentions these words of Our Lord, so that with the help of St. Therese we may be able to lay these difficult yet necessary foundations for the house of our sanctity.

Her Trust in God

One of the paradoxes of St. Therese’s life is that she, while making herself small and weak, enlists the help of Him in Whose strength she can undertake anything. Her hope and trust are wonderful. [105]

Importance of ‘Little’ Things

A second paradox is that by paying attention to the most trivial things of daily life and seeing them with the eye of God, this saint makes them great and meritorious. Leading the most ordinary life, without being in the least remarkable, she knows how to make of her life an uninterrupted series of the most heroic acts of virtue and to be continuously busy with God. In perfect accordance with all this, we notice, fourthly, little St. Therese ‘s perfect surrender to God. It is, as it were, one with her consciousness of her littleness and nothingness.

Her Conformity to the Will of God

She is quite in the hollow of God’s hand and surrenders herself absolutely to what His Providence decrees. She strives after, as perfectly as possible, a conformity to the divine will. In this St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi was a wonderful example for her in her own Order, and she loved to meditate upon her. This latter saint, one of the greatest glories of our Order, and so exalted in mystic contemplation, above all in the contemplation of the holy Trinity, was forever repeating: “It is God’s Will.” This was for her absolutely final. Little Therese was like her. She was deeply convinced and firmly persuaded that without mortification a spiritual life is an impossibility. Only for little St. Therese there was no better opportunity for mortification than accepting everything from God’s hand just as He sent it. Constant conformity is not so easy, but this is just the reason why it is the most proper means of mortifying and suppressing ourselves. She absolutely secluded her own will and never wanted to give it play. The image of the rose shedding its petals had a particular charm for her. She wanted to shed all her leaves, to tear off all her petals and strew them [106] on the path of the Lord. He had to come along that road; she wanted to force Him, as it were, to come and fulfill her desire that He visit her. One of her favorite maxims was: “If you faithfully please Him in the small things of life, He will be bound, nay He cannot but help you in the more important ones.” She wanted to be Jesus’ flower, not to rock idly on its stem, but to be picked by Him, to die for Him before His eyes, to be strewed in His path and to be trodden on. Another rule of life for her she embodied in an ejaculation or aspiration: “I fear but one thing, to retain my own will. Take it, Lord, for I choose only what Thou choosest.”

Mary Her Ideal

As a fifth trait in her character I should like to mention that her ideal on the ‘Little Way’ was Our Lady. Two words of Mary were deeply impressed on her memory: Ecce ancilla Domini – “Behold the handmaid of the Lord”. From her youth she had a fervent, childlike devotion for Our Lady. Her statue stood in front of her in the small room of her paternal home, and it seemed to her as if it smiled down upon her. She entered the Order of Carmel to be her child and to imitate her especially in her union with Our Lord. Just as the life of Our Lady was ordinary and consisted of a series of the most common, everyday acts, so Therese wishes her own life to be. If God had looked down with such great complacency on the humility of Our Lady and had even wished to descend into her, then He would also look down with pleasure upon her, if only she tried to grow a little like Mary. Mary surrendered herself unreservedly to God’s wishes through her “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to Thy Word.” So little Therese gave herself unreservedly to God, wishing to please Him only, to trust Him, to be His alone. Like Our Lady [107] who was not disturbed when Joseph did not understand her condition, but left the explanation of this mystery to God, so little Therese gave everything into God’s hands with a limitless confidence.

God had also descended upon her, she also saw God slumbering in her. She also wanted to taste of union with God with the same delicacy as that with which Mary enjoyed this delight. But just as the descent of God into Our Lady at once incited her to an act of humility, made her go to Elizabeth, Therese likewise wanted her union with God, her surrender to Him, to manifest itself in humble acts of charity. Therefore, she best liked to hear Our Lady praised as the example of all virtues. What does Our Lady want with admiration if we do not imitate her and respond to the great grace which God gave us by making her our example and giving her to us as our protectress? She put herself, therefore, with the Infant Jesus, with Whom she felt one, in the hands of the Virgin Mother. To describe this she employed the most childish images. “When my frock is awry from play and my hair is disheveled, then Our Lady comes and pulls my pinafore straight, sets a flower in my hair and so I can go to Jesus.”

Two Final Points

First Point: Her Apostolate of Prayer

Finally, there are two points in the life of Little St. Therese, deserving special note which stamp her as one of the loveliest representatives of the school of Carmel.

The mysticism of the school of Carmel could not claim to be true mysticism if it were not apostolic in its own peculiar way. St. Therese of Lisieux shows us the true sense of the Apostolate of the school of Carmel. “I would be a missioner,” she says, “I [108] should like to have been one from Creation till the end of the world. I should want to preach the Gospel in all continents at once, as far as the farthest isles. Above all I should like martyrdom. One torture would not satisfy me, would not be enough. I should want to undergo them all. Open, O Jesus, the book of life in which the acts of the saints are written down, I should like to have performed them all for You.” But then she recollects that God calls her along a different road to the practice of the Apostolate. The Apostolate as a work of God’s grace has to be seen as a work of the mystical Body of Christ of which God is the head and the soul, of which we are the members, animated by God. Not all have to fulfill a like duty. Love gave to St. Therese the key of the vocation of Carmel in the Apostolate. “I understood,” she says, “that if the Church has a body, built up of different organs, the chief, the most necessary organ of all, could not be wanting. I saw that it must have a heart burning with love. I understood that only love sets the limbs in motion, that if love were to be extinguished, the apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, the martyrs would refuse to spill their blood. I understand that love contained all vocations. My vocation is love. I have found my proper place in the Church. I shall be love. In this way I shall be everything. In this way my dream has come true.”

Great St. Teresa Practiced It Before Her

The vocation which so transported little Therese was not hers only, even though hardly anyone has understood it as well as she has. Great St. Teresa of Avila at the foundation of the first convent of her reform had already explained this vocation to her sisters. “Prevented from promoting as I desired the glory of God, I resolved to do the little which lay in my power, viz., to follow the evangelical counsels as [109] perfectly as I was able and to induce the few nuns who are here to do the same, confiding in the great goodness of God Who never fails to assist those who are determined to leave all things for Him; and hoping that all of us being engaged in prayer for the champions of the Church, for the preachers and doctors who defend her, might to the utmost of our power assist my Lord Who has been so much insulted – O my sisters in Christ, help me to entreat Our Lord herein, since for this object He has assembled you here; this is your vocation, these are your employments; these your desires; hither your tears, hither your petitions must tend. When your prayers and desires and scourgings and fastings are not directed to this object, remember that you neither aim at nor accomplish that end, for which Our Lord assembled you here together.”

Here we see that St. Teresa not only has recommended to her sisters the apostolate of prayer, but has given it to them as a vocation.

Mary Magdalen de Pazzi: Another Model of Apostolic Prayer

To take an example from the Order of the Old Observance, I call your attention to the great Italian mystic, Saint Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, of the convent of Florence. I would I had the occasion to speak longer about her spiritual life and her mystic works. But time does not allow. In this connection I will say, however, that her vocation above all was to pray and do penance in order to obtain the reform of all classes in the Church, religious, priests, laity, and even heretics and pagans. “I desire,” she says, “ to offer Thee, O my God, all creatures class by class. Would that I had the strength to gather all infidels, to lead them into the bosom of Thy Church. I should pray her to purge them from their unfaith- [110] fulness, to give them new life.” It is in flashes of fire and with impassioned accents that she pours forth her prayer to God for the salvation of the souls redeemed by the Holy Sacrifice of Calvary.

Contemplative Convents, Aids to Missions

The Little Flower dreamt of conquering the world for God and to realize this dream she entered a convent where she was quite shut off from the world and then cried out, transported with joy, that her dream had come true. Only he can grasp this who has penetrated into the secrets of God’s grace; who understands that in praying for grace and in sacrificing our life in union with the Sacrifice of Calvary, God’s grace is obtained. In this the chief part of pastoral care and of missionary work consists. This is the most splendid and intimate joining of the active and contemplative life, not in one person but in the mystical Body of which we are all members. We must be glad that the unity of the mystical Body of Christ recreates even the most secluded life, spent quite shut off from the world and in the service of God, making it a fit soil for missionary work, from which the latter can ever draw new sap of God’s grace. This thought has led to the foundations of Carmels in the missionary countries also. Over and above the other sacrifices, these Sisters give up their country and climate and take a lifelong farewell of parents, relations and friends of their own. This idea drew little Therese in desire to Indo-China. “Here,” she writes, “here I am loved and this affection is very sweet to me. But that is just why I dream of a convent in which I should be unknown, in which I should have to bear the exile of the heart as well. I should like to go to Hanoi, to suffer much for the good Lord. I should like to go there to be lonely, to have no single consolation, no single joy on earth.” [111]

Besides, the sight of these convents in the missions keeps alive the idea of the value of the Apostolate of prayer, both for those who practice it and for those who remain outside. It is edifying to see how missionaries themselves vie with each other in founding Carmelite convents: how Popes and Bishops insist on the building of these houses; how the Pope, to further this thought, has made little St. Therese to be the patron saint of all mission work as well as the work of the reunion of Churches.

We Should Imitate the Little Flower

This should induce all who are called to the spiritual life of Carmel – but especially those who cannot now, or who can no longer, take an active part in the Apostolate of the Church – to regard contemplation as the better part of the Order and should urge them to follow as strictly as possible the contemplative life, calling down the indispensable blessing of God on the activity of the others.

From the small convent of Lisieux St. Therese has preached her ‘Little Way’ by sweeping the corridors and washing dishes, cleaning the oratory and working in the garden, by nursing the sick and helping the needy, by studying at the proper time and reading what the mind requires for its development. She has so conquered the world. It is no wonder that this conception of inner life of the school of Carmel, laid down in her History of a Soul, has drawn thousands to Carmel, that in our busy, hurrying time she stands high, like a lighthouse in a churning sea.

Second Point: Her Continued Apostolate After Death

When we look up from the often storm-tossed waves of the Mediterranean to Carmel, lifting its [112] serene height in peerless beauty as a safe haven of refuge, then the image of Little Therese beckons us to land there and take our rest; then it is her hand that rings the bells of its silent chapel inviting us to pray with her.

History describes how St. Louis, King of France, while on his Crusade, was overtaken by a gale at the foot of Carmel and heard its bells ringing, calling the monks for the night hours; how he went on shore and joined the fathers in their prayers. At his departure he took six monks with him to found a monastery in his capital.

You also are in a gale on your way to the Holy Land, the Kingdom of God on earth. I have been allowed to ring the bells of Carmel for you, to make you hear the voices that speak of prayer and apostleship, of prayer on the flanks of that Holy Mountain. Do you also step ashore for a moment to join in this prayer and take back with you the spirit of Carmel, to make it live in the capital of your kingdom, the kingdom of your thoughts, the center of your lives.

St. Therese of Lisieux has said that after death she would strew roses on earth. And of what else is a rose the symbol, if not of love of God, for Whom she wanted to be a rose, a rose shedding its petals on the road of God through the world?

Carmel is the mountain of shrubbery and flowers. With full hands the children of Carmel strew those flowers over the earth. Such a picture of St. Therese is widely spread. The Saint scatters widely the flowers which she receives from the hand of Our Lady, the Mediatrix of All Graces. And this is the second noteworthy point in the life of the Little Flower: her continued activity after death.

Mary, the Mother and glory of Carmel, once appeared above Carmel in a cloud bearing redemption. [113] Elias beheld her and with him we all look up to her. She has her hands filled with flowers and she brings her divine Son the source of all bounty and grace. On those who pray the first drops of the redeeming rain descend, roses of divine grace.

At the feet of Mary, the Mother of Carmel, I see kneeling in prayer with St. Therese the many saintly and blessed women and men who were the very flowers of Carmel during the preceding centuries. The flowers of their example rain down upon us. But they must be transplanted to the garden of our soul.

In our own times St. Therese, the ‘Little Flower’ is elected to make that rain more abundant than ever. May she give us from the hand of the Mother of Carmel, from the Holy Mountain, the roses we need for the garden of our soul. The two-fold spirit of the Prophet of Carmel will fill the garden of our heart with its sweet odors. And may God walk in its sweetness.

“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”


  1. This lecture is published in: Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches, Chicago 1936, 102-113 (Lecture IX). 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