Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches. VII


Lecture (English)


The Marian ‘Doctor Mysticus


No Sign of Opposition, but of Union

It is a great joy for me, a Carmelite of the mitigated branch, to be allowed to take part in the choir of praise sung in honor of St. John of the Cross, who has been, together with St. Teresa, the reformer of our Order. It gives me pleasure to have occasion here to tender my small mite of glory; to be the interpreter of what I am sure all Carmelites of the mitigated observance see with me in this hero of Carmel, called by God, to restore its ancient glory, to make that glory, the glory of his mystical gifts of grace, glow more brightly.

Indeed, we do not look upon him as the prior of the monastery of the Old Observance of Segovia did, as a sign of opposition, but rather as a bond of unity, binding us all together. The fact that we call ourselves Calced Carmelites of the Old Observance might create the impression that we despise his lessons, that we do not intend to follow him. It is a pity that we are so apt to place contradiction above agreement. Even during St. John’s lifetime many unreformed friars admired and imitated him in a way which gained them praise from himself.

Up to a certain point the papal dispensations of the old Rule have given occasion for a certain deviation from the spirit of the Order, yet they do not touch this spirit in any vital point. Saintly, blessed and venerable men and women have proved that [79] with these dispensations the spirit of the Carmelite Order can live on. Not the letter, but the spirit vivifies. To strengthen that spirit we welcome the works of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross with filial affection. We, even more than the reformed branch, need to study and absorb their works, and let them blossom forth in life and deeds. We love them and we follow their footsteps in the cold snow of this world; to warm ourselves where our own heat is insufficient to keep us from freezing in the cutting North wind of earthly troubles.

A Marian Mystic: His Life Was Truly Marian

I think it is a favor to have occasion to speak here about Our Lady in the mystical system of St. John of the Cross, and to show how this mystical doctrine fits into the frame of the school of the Brothers of Our Lady of Carmel.

St. John of the Cross, together with St. Teresa, has reformed the Order of Mount Carmel, has called it back to its pristine state. I do not hesitate to say that they should not be entitled to this name of reformers, had not Our Lady impressed her hallmark on their life and doctrine.

Mary, Ideal of the Soul

For St. John of the Cross, Our Lady is the ideal of the soul that strives upward toward God, and is drawn by God towards Himself. But she is so under more than one aspect. Not always does he express himself with equal force.

Particularly does he praise in her the fact that she, who is indeed called by the angel “full of the Holy Ghost”, always let herself be led by the Holy Spirit, an ideal which we must strive after in our intercourse with God, however difficult it may be [80] and however few will be found who know and follow up the counsels of the Holy Ghost.

As an example of a soul that always followed the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, he cites in the same chapter the example of Our Lady ‘la gloriosa’, the glorious one, Mother of God. From her earliest existence she was raised to this state. Never was the image of any creature impressed in her mind, which could withdraw her from God and consequently she was never moved by any matter of this kind. Her motive was always the Holy Ghost.

Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, also quotes these words in his essay L’Union Transformante, in the fine periodical dedicated to mysticism La Vie Spirituelle, in which he treats of the new Doctor of the Church:

“Indeed, she is for him, as is truly reasonable, the ideal of a soul aspiring to the summit of Mount Carmel. He has not dedicated many words to her, but the few which he has written about her show that he regarded her as the arche-type of a soul aspiring to the enjoyment of that unity, to the teaching of which he seems to have dedicated his life as an author. Other souls approach this ideal only in a lesser degree.”

Marian Images: Window Through Which Sunlight Passes

How often does the saint employ imagery that can generally be applied to Our Lady. It is next to impossible that he has not thought of his Holy Mother in this connection. But even if this should not be the case, nevertheless the use, and therefore the suitability, of these images stamp his mysticism as a mysticism of a Marian character. It is impossible to sum up all these imageries in this short [81] space. I want only to draw your attention to a few outstanding ones.

A much loved comparison of the saint which he employs to express the necessity of our being susceptible and pure in order to partake of the grace of God, and even share the divine nature, is the image of the window through which the sunlight passes. The painters of the Flemish country, the land of Memlinc, of Quinten Matsys made a plentiful use of this image through their wonderful miniatures. No creature absorbed more purely the divine light that came into this world; no creature gave it back with less blemish or spot and grew more one with God than Our Lady. In the cherished metaphor of St. John of the Cross, Mary appears before our mind’s eye as the greatest example of all; nay more, as the first pane of glass without spot, who gave us the light of the world. To her, more than to anyone else, may be applied the words of St. John of the Cross explaining the divine communing of the mystic life: “So close is the created communion, if God grants it this excellent and elevated favor, that the soul and everything that is proper to God are united by a participating re-creation. The soul seems more God than soul, even is God, through this participation, although its natural being, in spite of its re-creation, remains as distinct from God’s being as before; just as the pane of glass, however lit up by the sun’s beams yet retains its proper essence, different from the beam that passes into it.” He further explains the image in a way that more directly concerns Our Blessed Lady. If the pane of glass be clean and spotless, the sunbeam will light it up and change it in such a way that it seems to be the light itself and gives out light itself. That is the reason why Our Lady deserved to become the Mother of God; because she offered not the slightest [82] hindrance to the divine indwelling. Like Our Lady we must absorb the divine light.

To be sure, this is divine election. St. John says so elsewhere: The pane of glass cannot prevent the light from lighting it. Prepared by its purity, it is passively lit up without any cooperation. But he[2] adds that although we cannot force God, nor prevent His doing certain things, it is the soul’s duty to bring itself into the right condition, to cleanse itself of all blemishes.

The Overshadowing

In his explanation of another metaphor, the Living Flame of love, St. John draws Our Lady as closely as possible into the circle of his imagery. In speaking about the glittering and shining of the lamps of God in us, about our absorption of that divine light like the pane of glass, about our participation in God’s qualities and works, he says that this figure has yet another aspect: to overshadow. For a clear understanding it must be understood, he says, that overshadow means to cover with a shadow, or to protect, favor, pour full of grace. For to say that one covers another with his shadow means to say that he whose shadow covers the other is ready to protect him and intercede for him. That is the reason why the Archangel Gabriel called the excessive favor conferred on Mary at the conception of the Divine Son an overshadowing, when he said “The Holy Ghost will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

To understand what this spreading of God’s shadow, or overshadowing, means, it must be borne in mind that every object throws a shadow according to its own particular shape and outline. So will the shadow thrown by the lamp of God’s beauty be another beauty, according to the kind and quality [83] of God’s beauty; and so will the shadow spread by the lamp of God’s strength be another strength, etc. Or in other and perhaps better words, all these shadows will be God’s beauty, God’s strength, etc., themselves, but in shadow, because the soul cannot understand perfectly here on earth. But because this shadow so well accords with the essence and the real being of God, indeed because it is God Himself, therefore the soul knows in shadow the exquisite loveliness of God. In this way we may say the soul equals Our Lady, upon whom the Holy Ghost descended in all His fullness and whom the strength of the All-High overshadowed in the most perfect way.

The Incarnation Again

Towards the end of this commentary St. John approaches the image of the Incarnation in Our Lady to express the most close communion of God with the soul, when he explains the words spoken by the loving soul to God: “Where thou dwellest in secret.” By this the soul means, says St. John, that God secretly dwells in it because this oversweet embrace takes place in the very depths of its substance.

It is here that the Holy Ghost, as it were, brings His Bride to meet the Bridegroom, that they may embrace. In that clasp He slumbers in her. He is not there unknown to the soul itself, but he dwells there hidden from the devil who cannot penetrate the scene of this embrace, and from man who cannot understand, whose mind cannot grasp its meaning. O how happy is the soul who always feels God living in her, and resting in her. She is bound to separate herself from everything, to fly all intercourse with men and to live in the deepest silence so as not to disturb by the least movement or sound, the rest of the Beloved. Generally He will lie there, as asleep, [84] clasped by His bride in the substance of the soul, and she is well aware of Him[3] and usually joyfully so. If He were always awake, and continually showering His light and love upon her, that would already be a dwelling in glory for her. And seeing that only a state of half-awakening, in which the Bridegroom only partially opens His eyes, already transports the soul so violently, what would happen to her if in her and for her He were always perfectly awake? In reality we have here a double image. The image of the Incarnation of the Son of God in us, and of His divine slumbering in us merge into each other. The image of the overshadowing, placed side by side with this, leaves no doubt that the outward image of the sleep is nothing but a new metaphor of the still more intimate indwelling.

The Field with the Precious Pearl

This becomes still more clear when in the commentary on the Spiritual Canticle we see, placed over against each other, the hiding of the Bridegroom in the Bosom of His Father and His discovery by the Bride, when He sleeps in her own lap by virtue of her overshadowing. “Beloved,” the bride cries to her loved one, “Beloved, where dost Thou hide Thyself?” “O Bride,” says St. John of the Cross, “Your Bridegroom is the treasure hid in the field of your own soul, a treasure for the obtaining of which the wise merchant gave all his possessions.”

It is reasonable to renounce all your private interests if you receive this treasure; to withdraw from all created things and to hide, secrete yourself in the innermost hiding place of your soul. There you will shut the door, that is, withdraw your will from all created things and pray to your Father in secret. Thus hidden with your Bridegroom you will feel [85] His presence in secret, enjoy and caress Him in secret and rejoice with Him in being secret, i.e., beyond everything the senses can reach and tongue can express. Now then, lovely soul, now you know that the lover you seek is hidden in your soul; be diligent to remain in secret with Him and you will feel Him and embrace Him with the most tender love. It arouses no surprise that St. John, where he speaks of the bounties of God – He dispenses thousands, he says – should lay particular stress on the Incarnation of God. That is the ground, there shines the ideal of our mystic union with God. And our example, nay our Mother, in this is Mary.

All other things, says St. John, God did in passing, as it were. In His Son, however, He saw all things and bestowed on them His beauty and His love. Through the Incarnation He gave these a supernatural existence and lifted them up, together with man, to the glory of God. Through the glory of the Incarnation of His Son and His resurrection according to the flesh the Father has not only ennobled all creatures, but clothed them also with beauty and dignity. Contemplating this secret, the soul is wounded by love.

Spiritual Marriage

Here St. John clearly expresses that the Bridegroom, resting in His bride, there celebrates the mystery of His Incarnation. Is it possible without mentioning her name to refer to Our Lady more clearly as the most favored one of all mystically blessed ones, the example of all who seek union with God? He applies to the bride what we so eagerly apply to Our Lady: She is the enclosed garden, reserved for the Bridegroom only. Hortus conclusus, soror mea sponsa. There she will embrace only Him; she will be united intimately with Him, with His [86] nature without any meditation. This takes place only in the spiritual marriage, which is an embrace between God and the soul.

In this union, the saint proceeds, that which is communicated is God Himself, Who gives Himself to the soul, at the same time restoring her to a peerless loveliness. Both have grown into one, just as – here note the return of the metaphor – just as the pane of glass and sunbeam passing through it are one.

Great Happiness of Our Knowledge of the Incarnation

Let us not forget it. Ever and again St. John returns to the inexhaustible mystery of the Incarnation. “This knowledge,” he says, “is not the least part of the heavenly bliss.” And he quotes God’s own words: “This is the life eternal, to know Thee, the only true God, together with Thy Son, Whom Thou hast sent, Jesus Christ.” It would be tempting to relate the manner in which St. John further describes the re-creating of the soul in God; she in God and God in her, taking His efficiency from hers.

If anyone still has doubts as to whether the connection which we have traced between all these quotations is correct; whether St. John really saw Our Lady in his mystical ideas as the image of our souls in her most intimate union with God, let him open the book of his poetry in which the Mystic Doctor sings of the mystery of the Incarnation. There Mary rises before us as the mediatrix, for whom and in whom the Son of God Himself as the Bridegroom contracts the marriage with His bride, man, whom He permits to partake of His nature. Not only He alone, but the Holy Trinity as a whole, comes to dwell with the Son in the heart of man that opens itself for God and is opened for him. [87] A more complete and beautiful confirmation of the Marian character of the mysticism of St. John of the Cross we cannot desire. Let us, especially us Carmelites, not underrate this. Mary, our Mother, our glory, is our example, our prototype, when God selects us also for His divine favors. Her resplendent majesty is drawn by St. John of the Cross in an inimitable way even when he hardly ever names her. Illumined by him she shines for us as the mystical rose, whose sweet odors waft through the garden of the Church, so that we can repeat what we so often chant in our Office – that we draw near her by the odor of her sweetness. Like bees we fly towards this mystical flower to behold in it the fairness of mystical life in its highest bloom, namely God, become man in her, so that He can also be born in us who belong to her.

Let us not always look at the dark night to which St. John introduces us. Light gleams afar and is already breaking through the blackness. With him we chant the words of the Bride: Flores apparuerunt, “The flowers are already coming up.” We cannot always, nay we may even seldom, stay in the contemplation of the unimaginable, the imageless; so God Who wishes to purify us and free us from everything that might separate us from Him, purifies and uproots us, even in a painful manner. The cross stands on the clouds as a sign of victory. The Bridegroom opens His arms to fold us to His breast and give Himself completely to us. At His side stands Mary our Mother with the cry of exultation on her lips, “Behold, He Who is mighty, has done great things in me. What He did in me and bestowed on me, He will likewise bestow on you and do for you, if you follow my lead, if you will be my children.”

Perhaps it will be a struggle, it may cost dearly. St. John says that that is exactly the reason why he [88] and his brethren must follow Jesus with His cross, stripped of everything and of themselves because they are called to be the Brothers of Our Lady of Carmel, that is, called to be among those who are named in a special way after her, and are especially numbered among her children.

When St. John reminds us that especially at the beginning one cannot constantly be in contemplation, he says that the soul should then ever in all its thoughts, acts, good deeds and undertakings have recourse to holy thoughts and meditations, from which it will draw more fervent piety and greater advantage. But above all, should it resort to the life, the sufferings and the death of Jesus Christ, to teach itself to imitate Jesus’ life; to yield in everything, in all its acts and deeds, in life and death. Who can be better company than Mary, who kept all Jesus’ words in her heart and stood, when He died, under the rood-tree? St. John points this out himself when he says that the soul that strives after nothing but the perfect fulfillment of the law of God and the carrying of Christ’s cross will be a true Tabernacle, which will contain the veritable Manna, Christ Himself. Can we not alter these words thus: He will be another Mary, called daily and aptly the Ark of the New Covenant?

In other places in his works as well, St. John of the Cross reminds us that we cannot always soar into the highest regions of the mystical life, but it is again Our Lady who is the image of our union in those regions. She also stands at our side, telling us what we ought to do when we sink lower. “When the contemplation ceases,” says the sainted teacher (and he adds that this will necessarily happen often, for not one single saint was granted permanent contemplation and prayer) “it will not harm us to have recourse to Christ once more. On the contrary, [89] it will be advantageous to learn to imitate Christ’s virtues and to drink in His spirit. In that lies the aim of prayer.” He warns us against wishing to be so devoid of all imagery as to overlook the Incarnation as well.

The union with God brings forth fruit and demands certain dispositions. I think it extraordinarily remarkable that St. John of the Cross who evidently always saw Our Lady on the loftiest heights, never reveals her on her way to Mystical union, but only in the glory of her love; in the effect, so to say, of her union with God, in her likeness to Him.

The Example of Mary’s Life: Four Incidents

She gives us God, or God’s image, or the fruit of His Redemption. Four incidents in Our Lady’s life are pointed out by St. John in this connection. First he remarks on the visit of Our Lady to her cousin Elisabeth, the first act of love after the conception of God’s Son, the first radiation of her union with Him, the first practice of her active life.

Another time he represents Our Lady at the marriage feast of Cana where, urged by love, she merely makes known to Jesus what is lacking and leaves the rest to Him. Here likewise, is again a revelation of love, a radiation of her union with Him. Let her also make the wine to be poured out for us, the wine that makes us brides.

Again St. John sets Our Lady before us as the Mother of Sorrows, taking part in the sufferings of Our Lord. He thinks this will need justification, because in his whole plan he imagines Our Lady to be made by the re-creating love equal to the Angels who, he says, know sorrowful things perfectly, but do not feel sorrow on that account. But he adds [90] that God sometimes makes an exception in this and allows souls truly to suffer, in order to increase their merits, or fire their love, or for some other reason. Thus He acted with Our Lady, the Virgin Mother, as He desired Mary to share in His copious work of Redemption for our benefit and for our example.

At length he conducts us – how could it be otherwise? – to the Supper-room, where the Apostles and Mary were together and where the result of their prayer with her is that the Holy Ghost descended upon them in the form of tongues of fire. He refers to the Apostles in the Supper-room, moreover, as praying and persisting in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Let us also pray with Mary for that Spirit. May she not only protect and guide us on our way through life, as she did St. John; may she not only live in our minds as she did in St. John’s, but may she make us understand what St. John has told us regarding her: that she is for us, even in the most close union with God, an example and a Mediatrix who can procure for us the grace of having God become man in our souls also, one with us, the eternal Son of the Father, through the wonderful indwelling of the Holy Trinity, a source of vision and love.

Living Lanterns in a Murky Night

St. John of the Cross has tried to conduct us to the heights of the mystical life through the dark night, the night of absence of imagery of all created things, and stripping of all created things to let shine in us only the light of which the indwelling of God makes us full.

He had made darkness around us and at the same time kindled the clearest light in us. We are under his guidance, his pupils. To borrow a metaphor [91] from Ruusbroec, we have become living lanterns in a murky night. God’s light fills us and illumines us, and at the same time makes us shine. We are ‘bearers of Christ’. Would that we saw all lights of the world as darkness, to recognize the eternal true light and make it shine through us.


  1. This lecture is published in: Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches, Chicago 1936, 78-91 (Lecture VII). 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. In the publication: ‘He’.
  3. In the publication: ‘him’.


© Nederlandse Provincie Karmelieten

Published: Titus Brandsma Instituut 2020