Mary’s motherhood of God

English translation of ‘Maria’s moederschap van God’ 

by Maurits Sinninghe Damsté


Mary’s motherhood of God, leading idea in the mystical life

By Prof. Dr. Titus Brandsma, Ord. Carm. Nijmegen.[1]

We admire the mystical life as the abundance of God’s love and grace; so rich an abundance that God’s living and working in us clearly speaks in us, the mind no longer is capable of reasoning about it, nor faith capable of making us accept it, but we live conscious of it, experience and contemplate it in us, and are wholly filled with it.

There is in it a wonderful mix of Divine free election and of human preparation.

While the Divine Sun-fire radiates his glow whither He desires, it is the sun-yearning of the soul that draws the rays of the divine love-blaze into the heart of the flower, which continuously turns itself towards the Sun.

However, just as the flower turns itself towards the sun, influenced by the sunrays themselves, the receptivity and preparation to ascend into God’s love-fire, our transformation in Him, is again a work of God’s grace, which does not nullify, but enhances nature.

Already in the Song of Songs, the ascent of the soul to that transformation in God was described for us under the image of the ascent of the bride, who decorates herself for the wedding with the most beautiful jewels, received from the Beloved, to so approach him in her highest beauty for the most intimate union, the spiritual marriage, out of which God is born, united to our human nature.

This is a profound mystery, but St. John of the Cross tells us that God unveiled this mystery for us in his miraculous incarnation[2] in the womb of Mary, who conceived of the H. Spirit, whose power overshadowed her.

In Mary we see the most beautiful image of our union with God. She, the [12] bride of the H. Spirit, teaches us how also we, although not in that fullness of grace, but in a removed sense, must be brides of God the H. Spirit, how his overshadowing power must also make us conceive God, in order that He be born in us, united, also in us, with human nature, our human nature. We must, under the beneficial influence of the H. Spirit, be born to a new life with God, who lives in us, more than we live through ourselves.

Mary is thus our Guide on our way to the mystical union with God.

For the great Teacher of Mysticism, St. John of the Cross, the H. Mother of God is the ideal of the soul that ascends to God and is drawn by God to Himself. His ascent to the tops of the Carmel where the divine Light radiates towards him, is, like in Dante’s ascent to Heaven, accompanied by the “Ave Maria”.

In the first place he glorifies in Mary, that she, whom the Angel called full of grace, was wholly filled of the H. Spirit, always let herself be led by the H. Spirit, an ideal that we must strive at in our ascent to God. St. John admits that it is not easy to never evade this guidance. It is true, so he says, that one can barely find one soul that, in everything and at all times, acts under God’s guidance and remains so constantly united with Him that its faculties, without one or other image acting as a medium, are immediately led by God. Nevertheless, there are those for whom that guidance of God is the usual condition. They do not act of their own urge, but to them the word of St. Paul applies that the children of God, who are united with Him and reborn in Him, are led by the Spirit of God to divine works.[3] No wonder that their works are called divine, because divine is the union of their souls with God. As example of a soul that always followed the guidance of the H. Spirit, he then cites Mary: the “most glorious – la gloriosa – Mother of God. From her earliest beginning she was raised to this estate. Never in her was imprinted the image of a creature that could draw her away from God, and consequently she was never led or driven by something like it. Her motivation was always the H. Spirit.” (Conf. Werken, Pt. 1, Bestijging van den Karmel, Bk. III, Ch. I, p. 299, 301).[4]

However, the full glory of Mary has not yet been portrayed here. Her being full of the H. Spirit was still only the first phase in her election that would be crowned by her Divine Motherhood, by the incarnation of God himself in her womb. Mary is more than full of grace, filled by the H. Spirit, she is the Bride of the H. Spirit and through this the Mother of God’s Son. However, her purity and holiness made her especially receptive for that high unfathomable act of grace.

A favourite image, under which St. John of the Cross with so many other mystical writers illuminates the necessity of our receptivity and purity in order to receive God within us, is the image of the window that must let through the light of the sun. On the paintings of our Flemish masters, in the presentation of the Message of the Angel to Mary, this image is not rare. We see the H. Spirit as a sunray that casts its light through the window. The window is the image of Mary. No creature took up more purely that divine Light that came into this world; no one gave it on more purely and became more one with Him than Mary. Mary is the clearest pane of glass, who let through the Light of the world pristinely for us and who was wholly filled with it. It applies first and foremost to her what St. John says about the mystical union, that the soul and all that is peculiar to God are then one through a transformation[5] that causes the soul to seem more God than itself, is God through its sharing in the Divine nature, although its essence in nature remains in spite of its rebirth, just as distinct from God’s essence as before, just as the pane of glass, however much illuminated by the sunray, all the same retains its own nature, totally different from that of the sunrays. “If, however, the pane of glass is clean”, thus he then says, “clean and clear, then the sunray will in such a way il – [13] luminate and, as it were, transform[6] it that it seems to be the sunray itself and gives the same light” (ibid., p. 98 f, 152 f).[7]

In his Explanation of the “The Living Flame of Love”, St. John of the Cross draws the Holy Mother of God as clearly as possible into the circle of his metaphor clarifying the mystical life. Speaking of the shining of the Lamps of God in us and our intake of the divine Light, which means as much as participating in Gods characteristics and works, he says that this bears still another name, i.e. “to overshadow”. And in connection to this he reminds (us) that also the Archangel Gabriel called the exquisite privilege of Mary to conceive God’s Son, an overshadowing of the H. Spirit.[8] If one wants to understand, the Saint thus follows, what is meant by that spreading of God’s shadow or that overshadowing or that shining, for all these expressions have an equal meaning, then one should remember that every creature evokes a shadow according to its own nature and capacity. A dark opaque object gives an obscure shadow: a bright translucent object a clear and transparent shadow. Thus, the shadow of something dark will call forth a different darkness, darker to the extent that its cause is also darker, while the shadow of something bright will be light according to the nature of the original light. Therefore, the shadow brought forth by the lamp of God’s beauty will be a different beauty, the shadow by the lamp of strength a different strength etc. or better said, all these shadows will be the beauty itself, the strength itself of God, but in shadow, because the soul here on earth cannot perfectly understand or take God into itself. Over Mary, the H. Spirit came in all his fullness, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her in the most perfect way. (Werken, Pt. II, p. 247 f).[9]

While Mary is thus our example in this aspect, St. John paints for us the glory of the divine Motherhood as image of the mystical life even further.

It is as if the H. Spirit in the highest phases of the mystical life bears his Bride towards the Bridegroom, so that they embrace and entwine. In this entwinement He slumbers in her womb. He abides there “secretly”. However, the soul feels that intimate embrace, although not always as profoundly as when He awakens. At this awakening it seems to it that He at first lay in its womb as if fallen into slumber. It did indeed feel Him, it enjoyed Him from beforehand, but it was still as if He, its beloved, was asleep in its womb. As long as one of the beloveds still slumbers, there is not yet between them a mutual exchange of thoughts and feelings of love. This happens only then, when they have both awakened. How happy is the soul that feels God living in it and feels resting in its womb. How appropriate it seems to it to keep itself far from everything, to flee all interactions and to live in the deepest inward reflection in order not [14] to disturb or dismay, by the smallest movement or the least clamour, the lap[10] on which the Beloved rests. Usually He lies there as if slumbering in the embrace of his Bride, in the independence of the soul. It experiences Him and usually with sweet pleasure. If He, by the way, were always Awake and radiated it constantly with his light and love, this would be for it as already abiding in God’s glory. If a gentle awakening, in which He only opens the eyes slightly, already moves the soul thus, what would happen to it if He, in and for it, were usually completely awake (Werken, Pt. II p. 310).[11]

We have here actually a double image: the image of the Incarnation of God’s Son in us and that of his divine slumber in our womb. Both images, however, run over into each other. The image of the overshadowing placed beside it leaves no cause to doubt whether the exterior image of falling into slumber is nothing else than a new image of the still more intimate indwelling. This becomes even clearer when, in the Commentary on “The Spiritual Canticle”, we see placed opposite each other the hiding of the Bridegroom in the womb of his Father and his discovery by the Bride while He slumbers in her own womb, through the power of the overshadowing that befell her. “Beloved”, thus calls the Bride to her Most Beloved, “Beloved, where are you keeping yourself concealed away?” “Oh, glorious soul”, he thus follows, “now you know that your Lover, so sought for, lives concealed in your womb, do your best to remain concealed with Him. You will enjoy Him in your womb, and hold (him) entwined with the most tender love (ibid., p. 334 f.).”[12]

He also applies to the Bride what the Church so willingly applies to Mary: “She is the enclosed Garden, only permitted to the Bridegroom.” There she will, alone with Him, be allowed to embrace Him, to unite herself with Him wholly alone, with his nature alone without other mediation. This occurs in the spiritual Marriage, which is an embracing of God by the soul (ibid., p. 470 f.).[13]

“In this union”, so he continues, “that which is communicated is God himself, who gives Himself to the soul, while simultaneously transforming[14] it into unparalleled glory. Both have then become one, just like, so to say” – and pay attention here to the return of the image given earlier – “just like a pane of glass and the sunray falling upon it” (ibid., p. 501).[15]

Again, and again, St. John of the Cross returns to the inexhaustible Mystery of the Incarnation. “That knowing”, he says is not the smallest part of our blissfulness and he reminds (us) of God’s own words: “In this exists eternal life, knowing You, the only true God and Your Son, whom You have sent Jesus Christ”[16] (ibid., p. 568).[17]

Whosoever, in the end, should still doubt whether the Doctor Mysticus saw Mary as the image of our soul in its most intimate union with God, he should then open up his Poems. Also there he sings of the Mystery of the Incarnation. There Mary stands before us as the Mediatrix, for whom and in whom God’s Son himself as Bridegroom marries his Bride, humankind, whom He makes a participant in his nature, and not only He, but the whole H. Trinity, who, with the Son, makes its abode in the human heart that opens itself to it and is opened for it (ibid., Pt. III p. 158 ff.).[18]

A more beautiful confirmation of the Marian character of the Mysticism of St. John of the Cross, the highest and most beautiful Carmel-mysticism, we cannot desire.

It is, however, indeed remarkable that that which the great Reformer of the old Carmelite Order gives here as the central idea of the mystical life, already forms the leading idea of a mystical treatise from the first period in which the Order sprouted in Europe. A summary of it has even been kept for us in an old Ms. in Oxford. It concerns a “Sermo” or sermon, attributed to the English Carmelite Henry de Hanna[19], the faithful partner of St. Simon Stock in the expansion of the Order throughout England, France, Germany and the Low Countries. He died in Stanford in England in 1299. It is most probably also to him, besides to St. Simon Stock, that the Netherlands [15] thanks the foundation of the first Carmelite monastery in these territories in Haarlem in 1249. He is portrayed to us in the old history of the Order as a lover of the contemplative life, but at the same time as a fiery zealot for the salvation of souls. He not only expanded the Order through the foundation of very many monasteries, he is above that honoured as a fighter for the old traditions of the Order. That, by exactly this founder of the Order in these regions, a treatise has been kept that so wholly reflects the leading idea of its Reformer, is too remarkable not to mention in passing.

In a sermon on Sunday “Gaudete”, the third Sunday of Advent, he discusses, guided by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, to whom St. John also likes to appeal a lot, six ways along which the soul can climb up to the summit of its perfection. One of those ways is that the Father and the Son and the H. Spirit work in the soul with the glorious consequence that God is born in the soul and (that) He reveals Himself in it in a new manner in a divine Light. That birth of God is then further portrayed as the fruit of the H. Spirit, while it is also called a Light. He returns to this image later on. God has given us in his Son his Light. This light leads and drives us and in this Light we walk from clarity to clarity. That Light recreates us and makes us radiate in divine Light. The air, in which the sunray shines, no longer appears (as) air, but only (as) a ray of the sun. Thus, also the soul then sees itself only in the divine Light that radiates in it. And that Light shines through it, and all see revealed in it the divine Light. Conf. “Paradisus animae intelligentis (Paradis der fornuftigen Sele)“, published by Ph. Strauch. (Deutsche Texte des Mittelalters, Bd. XXX) S. IX ff. 12 ff.[20]

It is a happy thought, at the Centenary of the proclamation of Mary’s Motherhood of God in Ephesus in 431 that we are celebrating, that we may see in that divine Motherhood also an image of the mystical act of grace, for which every child of Mary, and indeed especially the Sisters and Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel[21], in accordance with their special vocation to the mystical life, must make themselves receptive, as far as this lies within their faculties.


  1. Published in: Carmelrozen Vol. XX, May 1931, p. 11-15.
  2. Regarding ‘incarnation’: Titus Brandsma here uses the Dutch word ‘menschwording’, commonly employed in Dutch when speaking of the incarnation of God the Son in Jesus of Nazareth. This Dutch word literally means ‘becoming’ (= ‘wording’) ‘human’ (= ‘mensch’). It therefore has a slightly different meaning to ‘incarnation’, which means ‘becoming flesh’.
  3. Rom 8:14.
  4. Titus Brandsma cites: Geestelijke Werken van den H. Joannes à Cruce, Vol I. (translated from Spanish by Henricus a S. Familia), Gent 1916-1917. The numbering is different from other editions. See: The Ascent of Mount Carmel 3,2,10.
  5. In line with the translation of Henricus a S. Familia, Titus Brandsma uses the Dutch word ‘omschepping’, literally meaning ‘trans-creation’ for the Spanish ‘transformar’.
  6. See footnote 5.
  7. The Ascent of Mount Carmel 2,5,6 and 2,14,9.
  8. Luke 1:35.
  9. Titus Brandsma cites: Geestelijke Werken van den H. Joannes à Cruce, Vol II. (translated from Spanish by Henricus a S. Familia), Gent 1916-1917. See: The Living Flame of Love 3,2,12.
  10. In the transition of images Titus Brandsma plays with the double meaning of the Dutch word ‘schoot’: ’in de schoot’ (in the womb) and ’op schoot’ (on the lap).
  11. The Living Flame of Love 4,15.
  12. The Spiritual Canticle 1,10.
  13. The Spiritual Canticle 21,18.
  14. See footnote 5.
  15. The Spiritual Canticle 26,4.
  16. John 17:3.
  17. The Spiritual Canticle 37,1.
  18. In principio erat Verbum, Stanza 7.
  19. Henry de Hanna is also known as Henry Hane.
  20. Ph. Strauch (editor), Paradisus anime intelligentis (Paradis der fornuftigen sele). Aus der Oxforder Handschrift Cod. Laud. Misc. 479 nach E. Sievers’ Abschrift, (Deutsche Texte des Mittelalters, Vol 30), Berlin 1919.
  21. Titus Brandsma here uses the Dutch Marian title ‘Lieve Vrouw van Carmel’, literally meaning ‘Gentle/Sweet/Lovely Lady of Carmel’.


Translation: Maurits Sinninghe Damsté

Published: Titus Brandsma Instituut 2020