Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches. V


Lecture (English)


A New Dawn. The Carmelite Nuns. B. John Soreth


Foundation of Carmelite Nuns Increasing Number of Contemplatives

The Benedictine Abbot, Trithemius, calls Blessed John Soreth, “a mirror of monastic life, an honor and glory for the Order of Mount Carmel, a reformer such as the future will seldom see, absolutely bound to God and the furthering of his Order, in contemplation and prayer.”

The Dominican, Magister Rolandus Briso, praises him at his election as General, 1451, as the most worthy priest of God’s church, and Father Brugman, a Franciscan, although loving his own Order, exclaimed: “Father Soreth, firm leader, light and prop not only for his own Order but for all mendicants. O immortal God, how I wish the Order of Friars Minors had received from Thy bounty such a governor. How our affairs would prosper, how my beloved Order would grow and flourish.”

Indeed, he was God’s man for our Order in this difficult age, and above all things, elected to give life to so elevated an institution as the Order of Carmelite Sisters. St. Teresa says that God always grants special grace to the founders of an Order. They have to give so much that unless they themselves have richness and affluence of spiritual goods, they cannot share with those whom they have to lead and support. [56]

Was there still another intention, besides that of letting a new group of souls partake in all the gracious privileges of the Order of Mount Carmel? I will have to answer this question in the negative and history confirms my statement. No, the object was not merely to swell the numbers, but to let thousands of women share in what thousands of men enjoyed in the Order.

It cannot be denied that through contact with the world the Order had lost much of its original fervor, in spite of having as its head a man who had no peer in his age and in spite of the fact that the Order numbered among its ranks several hidden saints, whose holiness time has revealed and the Church confirmed. Portugal had a Blessed Nonius, the father of the royal house of Braganza, who became a lay brother in the Carmel of Lisbon. Italy had an Angelus Augustinus Mazzinghi, the chief instrument of the Italian reformation; a Blessed Bartholomaeus Fanti and a Blessed Baptista Mantuanus, chief actors in another North-Italian reformation; the blessed Avertanus and Romaeus, pious pilgrims dying on the way from home and revered as saints in Luca; Blessed Jacobinus, a lay brother, a miraculous example of obedience. But the list would grow to an inordinate length if I called to mind the names of all those of this age whose memory is blessed for the sanctity of their lives.

We may say that on the one hand the sanctity of many of its members earned for the Order new graces and favors from God: on the other, that the institution of the Sisters was a free and entirely voluntary gift conferred by God on the Order. Blessed John Soreth put a high value on this institution as the Sisters through their stricter contemplative life could supply in the Order what the Fathers, because of their growing activity in the [57] world, not precisely forgot, but put more or less into the background, in spite of the fact that it was a salient characteristic of the Order.

Not only was the Community of the Order increased by the access of new members, so essential to its being, but the mystical God-bound life received at once a great number of new aspirants to its delights. A large number of saintly women joined the Fathers to emphasize yet more the contemplative element in the Carmelite vocation. Yet we should not conclude that by this displacement the Fathers left contemplation and its joys to the sisters entirely –the life of the Bl. John Soreth himself shows the contrary. As before, the contemplation of the Law of God remained the chief aim of the Order, but there is no room for doubt that the increasing active life often left the Fathers little time to devote to contemplation and the fullness of a mystic life and that it distracted them from this high ideal.

The institution of the Carmelite Sisters as a second Order in an organization that from then onwards should contain both men and women gave the assurance that the first and highest aim of the Order was henceforth to be worthily striven after. The Sisters were not only called upon to supply what the Fathers in the stress and trouble of pastoral duties in the world were likely to forget, but they are called upon to do even more. Their service was to strengthen and confirm the mystical character, to make it more brilliant than ever.

Being much stricter in their seclusion from the world, they could easily occupy themselves with more intensity with God and God accordingly rewarded their intercessory efforts. They were, so to speak, the crown and glory of the Order. They proved that the most blessed thing on this earth, the contemplation of God, was again Carmel’s own. [58] They were an untiring group of women who considered it their vocation to be a Mary in the solitude of their convent, a Mary who chose the better part, which should not be taken from her.

Thus, not only was a formidable shortcoming made good, a telling want filled, but there was also a positive gain to be set down because the Order now again fulfilled its calling in the greater part of its members. It is best to try to see all things in a positive light and the surety of the attainment of its set purpose, be it only in a restricted number of its members, must be called an inestimable gain.

So we welcome the Carmelite Sisters of Geldern and of all convents that came after, with unmitigated joy. We see with our mind’s eye the interminable procession of Sisters as so many fellow soldiers, and successful ones, for the ideal of our Order. Together we feel stronger and safer; with them we may go through the world sharing the same ideal. Generally, the Fathers are called upon to keep the memory of this ideal green in the souls and hearts of the Sisters; conversely, the example of the Sisters will stimulate the Fathers to a more complete striving after their mutual ideal. When Holy Scripture says that brother aided by brother is strong, like a fortified town, how strong is the Order, how strong the brothers, now that they see at their side, since the founding of Geldern, this numberless host of Sisters. It is as if the vision of the prophet Eliseus displays itself before my eyes, as if I see the Order surrounded and enclosed by a numberless armed host who banish the fear from my heart that the spirit of this world will one day drag them down.

Frances d’Amboise and Her House. Example of Observance

The convent of Geldern did not long remain the only one. The foundation of many convents and reli- [59] gious houses in Belgium, in the Northern provinces of Holland and the Northern part of France followed after. A little later they sprang up in Italy and Spain as well. A very favorable circumstance, such as Our Lord often allows to happen at the beginning of an Order, occurred in the north of France. It was the entrance into the Order of a saint who drew much attention to the new Order and made it known in wider circles. I refer to the Blessed Frances d’Amboise, Duchess of Brittany, who scorned all earthly love after the early death of her husband, and completely dedicated herself to Our Lord. God had intended the ways of Blessed John Soreth and Frances d’Amboise to cross and the two saintly souls at once understood each other. Notwithstanding all opposition, even of the royal house, Frances entered the Order and received the veil at the hands of John Soreth. Her example attracted many followers and soon the community where she had been received had grown so large that a second house had to be founded. This house, Les Couets, near Nantes, came under her direction only because the Pope commanded her under Obedience – on no other account could she be moved to accept the leadership. Under her direction this place became known for its heroic virtue and God rewarded it by many a mystical experience. For long years it was looked upon as the prototype of Carmelite convents. Not only during her lifetime, but many years after, it maintained its splendid reputation. When in later times St. Teresa, contemplating a stricter observance of her Rule, as she writes in one of her books, thought of going to a convent in the North where the Rule was better observed and which flourished in an exceptional way, it is thought that she meant the convent of Nantes, set on this path of virtue by Blessed Frances d’Amboise. [60]

Explanation of the Rule. Solitude in Interior and Exterior Cell

Blessed John Soreth, also wrote, as an aid to his attempts at reformation, an exposition of the Rule after its new mitigation in 1431. It is worthy of note that BI. John Soreth founded the Carmelite Nuns under this mitigated Rule and that the observance of this Rule brought the Sisters to the highest heights of mystical life and the greatest perfection. We can in some chapters see what was foremost in his mind when he founded the Carmelite Nuns. It strikes us at once that he is lavish in his praise of solitude and the high value in sanctifying the appointed cell. He makes a play on the Latin word, coelum , and points out how the fervent intercourse with God in the silent cell is found to lift the mind to God. But he at once distinguishes between an internal and an external cell. The latter is the means of communing as much as possible with God; to know Him as present. Besides he indicates that the cell must be a positive good, not only to keep us free from the world and its shortcomings, but above all to bring us nearer to God, to give us peace and quiet of heart and total surrender.

Threefold Subject of Meditation

This treatment of contemplation, to which the life in the cell must be primarily devoted, is especially noteworthy. He distinguishes a threefold meditation and calls special attention to all three forms.

In the first place, he proposes the admiration of Nature, then the reading of the Sacred Scriptures and finally an introspection of our own lives. These three kinds of contemplation he does not regard as necessarily connected but rather as subjects deserving a separate treatment in various hours of medita- [61] tion. Only now and then they will have to be retarded in their relation to each other.

Admiration for the wonderful works of God is the very first thing to which he calls our attention. If we call up these feelings of admiration, the question as to the secret designs of God, why He created all this, forces itself upon our minds and from this problem we shall deduct and understand the intention and the meaning of all creation.

Six Steps of Meditation on Holy Scripture and Books

The second form of meditation is reading the Sacred Scriptures and spiritual books. Here as well, he distinguishes various steps by which we can mount upwards: (1) Primarily we must read to get to know truth and to extend our knowledge of heavenly things. Love for this knowledge must urge us to take up Holy Writ and edifying books. (2) Not only must we read to know, we must let ourselves be caught by truth, we must invite it to work its influence upon our minds by mentally pondering the words. Only then will our reading be not a barren knowledge, but a power to lift us up and support us. (3) Truth should not be something that only illumines our mind and satisfies our craving for knowledge; it should be a motive power lifting us above ourselves, not keeping us shut up in our own minds. (4) The fourth step is not to remain inactive, but to turn that which we have read over and over in our minds, to combine it with what has been read or heard before, that it may grow into a living whole, giving a certain direction to our acts. (5) After we have assimilated it, we must again make it the subject of our contemplation so as to find joy in the possession of truth. (6) This contemplation should vivify our love for God’s laws, should deepen our [62] sense of that same law and our sense of God’s grace, so that we may be inclined to do those things that, though not obligatory, yet tend to God’s honor and glory and which we ought to do if we truly love God.

This love for the divine law and the glory of God will in the end bridle our passions and, ever freer and less hampered by our evil inclinations, we shall cleave to God and serve only Him.

Six Steps of Meditation on Ourselves

The third form of meditation, the inspection of our own life, also calls for a six-fold explanation.

It has, to start with, always a double aspect, an inner and outer way of approach. We must keep our conscience spotless so that we always can account for our acts before God. Yet externally we must ever think of leading an exemplary life in the eyes of our neighbors. We have been placed here among our brethren by God to strive together toward the high ideals which He placed before our mind’s eye but unless we guard jealously the purity of our conscience, we cannot gather merits internally.

The second point is a most perfect knowledge of ourselves. We must not only know what we are doing but we must also account for the motives which prompt our deeds, the inclinations to which we are subject when acting and try to find out where they are able to lead us. Secret inclinations are to be revealed before our own minds and above all the end to which they tend should be distinguished. This knowledge of ourselves, of our deepest being, though it is difficult, is absolutely necessary.

This will give, in the third place, a fixed direction to our life and show us the road along which we can most easily make progress. Our successes, as well as our defeats, should be subjects of meditation, so as to evolve at the end the most perfect schemes for success in the campaign of life. What we intend to do should not be left to the inspiration of the moment but our whole life should be planned beforehand in such a way that we are sure of victory. Many people work and labor and achieve many things which perhaps appear meritorious in the sight of others, whereas they are not keen on searching out what is asked of them for their own welfare and improvement.

A fourth introspection makes us see over and over again what we have undertaken in choosing this life which we live by our vows and by the orders of our superiors. The obligatory acts should always have precedence over such deeds as we perform of our own free will. Naturally we should not restrict ourselves to meeting only the obligations: charity should urge us to go beyond this; but never should such free acts be undertaken at the cost of duty.

The fifth point is more or less a warning. It goes without saying that in those meditations which are the result of the review of our life we should neither undervalue ourselves so that we too easily despair of attaining our goal, nor overrate ourselves and attempt too much. There are hazards on both sides and we are to keep on the middle of the road.

Blessed John Soreth concludes with a sixth consideration which forces us to shut our eyes to everything except what the moment demands, so that we may not break off what we are doing under the pretext of doing some other good work.

Methodical Spiritual Life

From what I cited here from the exposition on the Rule, it is evident that BI. John Soreth had a [64] very systematic way of practicing virtue and using prayer; this is in perfect keeping with the time in which he lived and the school which he represented. The question has been raised whether St. Teresa in her wonderful writings about the Way of Perfection and the Interior Castle has not undergone in some degree the influence of the Dutch school of the Devotio Moderna which brings methodical prayer and systematic practice of virtue strongly to the fore in its Exercitia. I am inclined to see some influence but should like to look farther than the works of Thomas à Kempis, Zerboldt van Zutphen and Garcia de Cisneros and look to BI. John Soreth and the influence which he has had in the Order. His mysticism is doubtless very firmly bound up with that of the Devotio Moderna. He lays great stress on active holiness and the exercise of virtues and in this he proves himself a child of his time and of the country in which he labored for the benefit of the Order. But in this case, the connection which is found between the demand for a more methodical mode of prayer and the school of St. Teresa is at the same time an indication that St. Teresa built on the foundations of John Soreth, on what he had stressed so particularly in his reformation and his institution of the Carmelite Sisters.

Position of Prayer in Life

He inserts a whole chapter to recommend both the practice of virtue as well as the preparation for prayer, followed by the practice of prayer. He speaks of a very slow and deliberate raising up of the building of our spiritual life and of the lasting influence of its foundations. He rejects the idea that the hours of prayer should lie like oases in the desert of life but affirms strongly that prayer should be woven into our lives, grafted into it, so that our prayer is proof of our life and conversely our life [65] proves the sincerity of our prayer. Before we begin to pray, we should first get into such a mental state as we should wish to be found in while praying. Therefore, the Rule says that we are first to contemplate the Laws of God and our own life in order to obtain the required state before beginning to pray. That which is to dominate our prayer should first be evoked by meditation. Speaking later about the spiritual armor, he reverts to this image. He points to David, who had to take off the armor which Saul had given him because he had not practiced in it. That is the reason, he says, why our Rule demands a never-ending activity, both of body and soul. We must exercise all our faculties and in this connection he points out to us the two sublime examples which should be ever in the mind of a perfect Carmelite: Our Lady and Elias the Prophet.

The Precious Pearl

Blessed John Soreth compares the practice of the Rule, in the section about the weekly chapter, with the precious pearl of the gospel which keeps its value in spite of its being despised by some. The wise merchant sells everything he possesses in order to buy the field in which the treasure is hidden. Then the treasure must be dug for. I should like to apply this image here, to explain how we are to draw ever farther back into ourselves to find Christ and live with Him. BI. John Soreth has made the Rule known to us like the pearl of the Gospels and has taught us to sell everything to obtain it, but at the same time he has taught us how to dig up the treasure by living a life of the greatest possible piety. Therefore, this life has to be aided, borne upward and nourished through a never flagging exercise of virtue. In the shining of these virtues the glory of the pearl will be set off.


  1. This lecture is published in: Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches, Chicago 1936, 55-65 (Lecture V). 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.


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Published: Titus Brandsma Instituut 2020