Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches. VIII


Lecture (English)


New Blooming of the Old Stock


John of St. Samson, a New Mystic of the Old Observance

After the division of the Order into two branches at the end of the 16th century some differences naturally sprang up between the two branches and each life developed along separate lines. But as early as the 17th century we find this divergence already reduced to the smallest compass through an internal reformation in the Calced Carmelites which quickened the old spirit in a splendid way and proved that even with some mitigations of the Rule the spirit of Carmel can live and flourish. It is a remarkable dispensation of Providence that shortly after the splitting up of the Order, a man was raised up in the branch of the Old Observance who became the soul of a new reform and who was elevated by God so high in the mystical life of Carmel that he ranks with the great St. Teresa and the Doctor Mysticus, St. John of the Cross, as a mystical writer. His first biographer, Father Donatianus, writes: “God has predestined him in matters of the inner life to be one of the brightest flames of our small observance.”

A Carmelite of the Old Observance, Hieronymus a Matre Dei, who recently edited a selection from the mystic’s works, calls him a témoin autorisé, a weighty exponent of the mysticism of Carmel. Besides, Henry Bremond who dedicates to him some [93] splendid pages of his extensive work, Le Sentiment religieux en France, calls him “un de nos mystiques les plus sublimes”, “one of our most exalted mystics”.

Within certain bounds we may say that he was in this respect the St. John of the Cross of the Old Observance. Perhaps one of the finest works produced by the school of Mount Carmel is one of his numerous writings, a treatise concerning the true spirit of Carmel.

It was indeed a remarkable triumvirate that God had brought together at the beginning of the 17th century in the convent of Rennes in order to infuse a new life into the old Order. It was really Prior Peter Behourth who initiated the reformation, 1604. Later under the name of strictior observantia it spread rapidly. Father Philip ThibauIt, first subprior and afterwards Behourt’s successor as prior of Rennes, gave him his whole-hearted support. But the soul of the movement was actually the blind brother, John of St. Samson, who entered the convent of Rennes in 1612, and died there in 1636.

John of St. Samson or rather Jean du Moulin had been blinded in infancy by an illness. He had grown up in poverty and at length found an asylum in the Carmel of Paris. In return, he often played the organ and grew so skilled that people loved to hear him. He was intensely pious but it never occurred to anyone to admit him into the Order. He was already 35 years old before he confessed his desire to receive the habit of the Order to Father Matthew Pinault, a young father who had finished his studies in Paris and was about to return to the monastery of Dol in Bretagne. He was received at Dol in 1606 and from there arrived in 1612 at Rennes.

Prior Philip Thibault had heard a great deal about the virtuous life and exalted prayer of this [94] lay brother and therefore desired him to be in the center of the new reformation that the love of God and the Order might be increased. Yet Brother Samson was not quite at ease. It was so very unusual that a lay brother should take the lead in spiritual matters. Besides, he was only imperfectly formed and his blindness made it difficult for him to draw information from books. Something had been read to him now and then; but much guidance had not been his, unless God Himself had guided him. To test the spirit that led him, the prior ordered him to describe his manner of prayer. The answer was as sublime as St. Teresa’s to a similar question, written in the book of her life. The very title tells us how exalted was his idea of prayer, “On the loss of the subject in the object” (“Of Absorption”).

Stricter Observance Spread Over Many Provinces

He had a special gift of firing the young novices and fathers with enthusiasm for the splendid ideals of the Order and of teaching them to pray and meditate. The circle of interested hearers grew and grew. Superiors of other religious houses, eminent clergymen, as well as prominent laymen, took pleasure in conversing about spiritual matters with the pious brother; they even came to visit the house for no other purpose. His presence in the house, above all his intense occupation with God, had a wonderful influence and in a short time the convent of Rennes was a model of strict observance. The influence and reputation of this house spread the reformation to other houses, first in France, then in the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Ireland and Poland, so that almost the whole Order was set on the way of reformation. But the reason why we mention him is less to speak about his life than to hear what he regards as the spirit of the Order and what, accord- [95] ing to his teaching, should be looked upon as its ideal.

All Called to Mystical Life

It strikes us immediately that the blind brother, with all possible stress, maintains that we are called to the mystical life, all of us; that the mystical life, the familiar intercourse with God, the experiencing God, the enjoyment of God, is something God will grant man on earth, nay grants it to many if only they make themselves susceptible to it and place no limit or hindrance to His love. Those who have entered the Order of Mount Carmel should keep in mind that God calls them to the enjoyment of His presence even in this life; that He wills us to contemplate Him, to lose ourselves in Him; that we should regard this as the first and highest obligation and never allow either study, work or pastoral duties to push it into the background.

He is very emphatic in this. On the other hand, he acknowledges the necessity of study, of preaching and of other pastoral duties. But these should be grounded on a more elevated contemplation. That was the reason why he wished the younger members of the Order to be set on the road of contemplation so that, grown up and confirmed in this, they could never really lose that habit of contemplation. Thus all their work would be supported by the most intimate intercourse with God.

As emphatically as possible he rejects the idea that the mystical life – which does not consist essentially in sights and visions, stigmata and levitations, but simply in seeing God before us and with us and in us, being consumed through love for Him, knowing the divine fire within us and only wishing with God that it burn and consume us – that this mystical life is not for us, for every one of us. Naturally, [96] he leaves the disposition of this grace and its degrees to the good pleasure of God. He does not want us to look upon mystical life as something we can rouse in ourselves. It is and ever remains a gift of God, but God has made our nature susceptible to it. He does not want us to disregard this susceptibility, to neglect developing it and freeing it from such hindrances as lessen its working in us. To this negatively directed preparation he adds the more positive one of the steady practice of virtue. Here it is clearly evident how nearly he is related, on the one hand to St. Teresa and on the other to Ruusbroec; evidently both have influenced him. The Devotio Moderna taken by Geert Groote in its pristine and noblest conception from Ruusbroec has in this respect been also adopted by St. Teresa. This is especially true of the idea that man should not remain inactive and leave everything to God but that a steady activity in practicing virtue and holiness is the first and indispensable preparation for the higher grades of mystical life.

The Order Is a School, a Family

Our Order resembles a classroom in which we acquire this practice of virtue, or a large family in which the members strive together toward a common goal with greater facility than is possible to individual effort. In the spiritual life, no more than in ordinary life, can we dispense with education, with teachers and with guidance. It is an exception when God does not call in the human aid of a community or of an Order to lift His elect to the heights of sanctity. That is why it is so significant that there are schools of mysticism in the Church each with its own traditions, each following a different road, but all emanating from one central point, which is God Himself and leading to one goal, again not distinct from God. God has willed in Nature a great [97] richness and diversity. In the spiritual life He also wills a variety, adapted to the diversity of talents and the richness of forms under which He communicates His graces. So also in His prescience He called the Order of Mount Carmel into being and overwhelmed it with graces. Its function would be to form a school of mystical life, with a very personal stamp which the leaders of the Order would preserve in order that the Order would answer its peculiar vocation. When God transplants into the garden of Carmel the young seedlings that will open for Him like flowers; when He calls to the Order so many fresh young souls, glowing with zeal, then He desires that the Order care for these souls.

Splendor of God’s Wisdom

Next Brother John acknowledges openly that he fervently wishes to make known the splendor of God’s wisdom which wishes to do immensely more in man than it does, but is hampered by the hindrances offered by man and his frequent unworthiness. However, to him who pays due respect, God’s Wisdom is lovely. It will fill all its elect with its treasures, its loveliness, its gifts. It will overwhelm them and reward them with the full enjoyment of itself. The less they are intent upon it, the more they shall partake of it. Mostly they do not think of it, or they would give their life a thousand times for God. In fact, they almost live beyond themselves already, quite wrapped in God. And their body is subject to their spirit.

Special Form of Prayer, ‘Aspiration’

To attain this the Venerable brother insists moreover on prayer and meditation, on a form of prayer which might be called the continuation and permanent fruit of prayer. Hendrik Herp, the Fran- [98] ciscan pupil of Ruusbroec, first employed the word which John of St. Samson has taken over in his school, not as something new in itself, but never before emphasized from this point of view. John of St. Samson has taken over this form of prayer which is so perfectly in accordance with the traditions of the old monks and also of the hermits of Carmel. In his conference with the Abbot Isaac, Cassian speaks about the use of ejaculations and aspirations. Ven. John of St. Samson further developed this practice in a way that might truly be called masterly. He has taught us the full beauty of this form of prayer and brought it into use. He calls it with Hendrik Herp, toegeesting, uplifting, or ‘aspiration’ and attaches to the latter word a peculiar meaning. It is an exercise on our part and at the same time it is thought to be extremly effective in making us share the infusion of the abundance of divine grace because it so greatly develops our receptiveness for grace and absolutely opens our hearts to God. It is not simply a loving dialogue; that is only the beginning and start. It is a soaring to God, the bursting forth of a flame out of our loving and glowing hearts. It is an attempt, repeated again and again, to unite ourselves as closely as possible to God, or rather, to re-form ourselves in God and conform ourselves to Him. It is an impulse, a desire to lose ourselves in God and God does not repulse us. He takes us to Him and we grow into one spirit, we are filled with His spirit, we live His life. How remarkable! We long for God because we are filled with His spirit, with Himself. And because we are filled with Him, we desire ever more to be filled; we seek Him[2] and so He fills us ever more. This practice transcends all understanding, it transcends all display of affection, it strives immediately to God and aims at nothing else than being one with Him. Since intellect and love are at the [99] bottom of this ‘aspiration’, or ‘uplifting’, it takes its stand there, yet one thinks neither of intellect nor love, but only to gather its fruit, the union. Nevertheless, in its growth it is an exercise and many various steps may be distinguished in it.

Four Steps to Aspiration

The first step is the sacrifice of oneself and all creation to God. In doing this it is best to focus the offering all in one idea: that all is His, without drawing special attention to one particular work of His hands. We are to see God, not the creature; the creature only in so far as is needed to mount up to God. The second step is a request for His gifts, that He Who is able to give them may give them; that He Who is so rich and mighty may diffuse this splendor. The third step is the making of oneself similar to God, by loving Him fervently and by desiring all to accept this love and incite it in themselves. The last step is the union of oneself perfectly to God. This includes all the previous steps, but on a higher plan.

All this is far from easy, therefore the brother quite understands that success does not come at once, but he wishes us to take great pains. Gradually we shall succeed. The exercise can, as it were, be ever more intensified, till at length it grows into something like an immediate seeing or grasping of God and grows so familiar that it becomes second nature. All images disappear; we pass above everything immediately to God. Only we should not push this so far that we should want to exclude Christ’s humanity from our upward flight to God. He is ever to remain our Intercessor, our Mediator.

Knowing by Not-Knowing

Relative to the union with God in the innermost parts of our souls, the Venerable John loves to [100] speak most of an all-surpassing, all-exceeding, all-overreaching contemplation, which according to his expression draws the subject quite into the object, perfectly unites the subject with the loved object and so enthralls the subject with the object that one is absolutely possessed by the other. In this he sees a wonderful interchange. The soul loses itself in God. Its understanding, its total bewilderment is its richest idea. It realizes that it will know the Highest by not understanding what it knows. It often cannot talk about it, nor find words to express what it should want to say if it had to, or were to, communicate anything of the Unspeakable. Thus it is for the soul both light and darkness at the same time. So they, to whom God has given the highest understanding, speak in an incomprehensible language, only to be understood by those who have been uplifted to an equal height. Besides, men of this kind should not like to speak differently with others, unless God would desire it.

The Scintilla Animae

The true pupils of the school of Carmel should be in a high degree wrapped up in themselves, to find and meet God in the innermost recesses of their souls. There God goes to meet them. He grows by the meditations they devote to Him and the love they dedicate to Him. He grows in the innermost depths of their being till they cannot hide Him any longer and He does not want to remain hidden in them any longer. John of St. Samson renews here the old theory of the scintilla animae, the spark of the soul, of the synderesis or summing up of everything in the first and simplest terms, from which everything develops and which is gradually known in its richness, but which should ever be kept in mind as the ground and the first summary. In the innermost, deepest, most essential part of us God [101] is the being of our being, life of our life, the reason of our existence and of everything we do and are able to do. There God is like a spark in our soul. He has kindled fire in us – fire that imparts light and warmth, fire that must flame up.

The Breach Spanned

When we listen to John of St. Samson in the school of Carmel and discover the spirit of the second reformation, we are filled with pleasure. Then we venture to cross the abyss which seems to widen and does widen, according to some, between the two observances. Then we hear that on either side of the chasm the wood has its charms, that birds sing on both sides and their songs speak to us of God. We see trees bend towards each other across the chasm and their branches intermingle. From above there is no abyss, only a terrestrial pedestrian halts a moment before the division. The higher he mounts, the narrower the chasm appears to his sight. And when his wings are grown, then he springs from branch to branch till he is across the chasm and for him it is one and the same lovely wood, in which the birds sing one and the same hymn in honor of God.

With a teacher like John of St. Samson in a reformation of which he was the soul, and still is, we are not branches that have lost the true nature of the old stem, but in us the old stem can put forth new bloom, as it did in him.

The blind singer of Rennes, John of St. Samson, sings as the illuminated singer, St. John of the Cross, sang in the darkness of Toledo.


  1. This lecture is published in: Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Mysticism. Historical Sketches, Chicago 1936, 92-101 (Lecture VIII). 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: ‘him’.


© Nederlandse Provincie Karmelieten

Published: Titus Brandsma Instituut 2020