by PAUL MARIE DE LA CROIX of the Order of Discalced Carmelites
The Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel counts among its members many
mystics and many saints, its roots are plunged deep in the Old Testament,
its mission is specifically spiritual and yet at no time in the past does
it seem to have made any special effort to define its spirituality. Does
this not mean that this present work is temerarious?
It is true that the members of the "Carmelite family" feel closely united
to one another by "a characteristic and permanent way of seeing, feeling,
willing". It is also true that Carmel possesses texts that are
specially representative of its traditions and spirit but these texts are
rather like reminders or manifestations than sources.
To characterize the spirituality of Carmel is all the more difficult
because unlike other religious families Carmel has, in the strict sense of
the word, no founder who trained it or gave it a rule. As a matter of fact
no rule was written until the hermits of Mount Carmel requested one. And
this was but the codification of the form of life that these men had
Where are the sources of Carmel's spirit to be found and how can that
spirit be acquired?
To answer these questions, two things are necessary. First, we must
understand the nature of this spirit which came down from heaven upon the
sons of the prophets dwelling century after century on the slopes of the
holy mountain; because without this spirit Carmel would never have started
and would never have lasted. We must also grasp the extraordinary signs of
this spirit that are evident in those who possess it and give it full
It will be seen that Carmelite spirituality is based only in part on
documents. It is above all spirit and life. So it follows that by
examining its origins, searching the Rule, the lives and writings of the
Order's great saints that the soul of Carmel is revealed and, at the same
time, Carmelite spirituality is made manifest.
I. THE SOURCES
Elias the prophet.
While it is certain that "schools of prophets " were established on Mount
Carmel in the footsteps of Elias and Eliseus, it is impossible to discover
how and when these schools became permanent institutions. Despite the
mystery of these beginnings Carmel has always claimed Elias as its own and
has seen in him one who inaugurated the eremitic and prophetic life which
is its characteristic.
This is not to say that Elias introduced within the Old Testament frame of
reference a special spirit, a new doctrine, a personal way. On the
contrary, Elias is typical of the just men and the prophets who lived
under the Old Covenant. But his disciples remembered this distinguishing
note about him: He is the man whom the Spirit of Yahweh led into deep
solitude and who, drawing waters from the "torrent of Carith ", drank from
the rivers of living water and tasted, in contemplation, pleasures that
are divine. Therefore, if it is in documents that we wish to find the
spirit of Carmel it is to the chapters in the books of Kings dealing with
this prophet that we must go.
Here in fact rings out that fundamental note which will reecho down the
centuries, not only in the rocky solitudes of Mount Carmel but throughout
the whole history of the order. In Elias, Carmel sees itself as in a
mirror. His eremitic and prophetic life expresses its own most intimate
ideal. In studying the life of Elias, Carmel is aware of a growing thirst
for contemplation. It perceives its deep kinship with this man who "stood
in the presence of the living God". If it shares his weaknesses and his
anguish, it also knows his faith in God and his zeal for the "Yahweh of
armies" and it has tasted the same delights of a life hidden in God which
the prophet also experienced. When it discovers in the light of the
inspired word that Elias, "in the strength he drew from the divine food,
walked forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God", it is
not in the least surprised. How could the prophet not have been drawn to
this spot where that tremendous event of the religious history of mankind
had taken place several centuries earlier: God's revelation to Moses.
There, in the bleak wastes of Sinai, we read in the book of Exodus that
Moses, silent and alone, perceived Yahweh's mysterious presence in the
light of fiery flames that burned the bush without consuming it (Ex. 3:
2). There, were revealed to him the incommunicable Name, the divine
transcendence and benevolence. There, Moses understood that he must make
known to those entrusted to him what he had been allowed to contemplate.
"Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS, hath sent me to
you". (Ex. 3: 14).
How could the father of contemplative life not have been drawn to this
mountain where God spoke to Moses "as a man is wont to speak to his
friend" (Ex. 33: 11), where man dared address this prayer to God: "show me
Thy glory" (Ex. 3 3: 1 8)? How could he have failed to see that all the
elements essential to contemplation were already contained in the scene on
Horeb? So we may say that having found its model in Elias, the Carmelite
advances with him toward the very origin of true contemplative life. Or,
it might be more exact to say that having found the contemplative
experience in its origin, carried by Elias to the highest degree of
purity, detachment and fulfillment, the Carmelite, wishing to renew this
experience, feels obliged to recreate in his soul the climate in which
this life grew: the desert with its spiritual solitude and silence; and
he, in his turn feels constrained to undertake this persevering march
toward the mountain of God where fire burns but does not consume.
Carmelite spirituality in every century needs to breathe the air of these
high places if it is to live; and it needs a form of life sufficiently
recollected to permit the soul to perceive the divine presence "in the
sound of a gentle breeze" (Cf. 3 Kgs. 19: 12). In this perpetual return to
solitude and recollection, this nostalgic call to detachment: "I will
allure her, and will lead her into the wilderness; and I will speak to her
heart" (OS. 2: 14), the Carmelite finds the very soul of his vocation.
So he takes as guides those who have advanced along the paths of divine
union and have tasted the sweetness of heavenly things; and he prays with
Eliseus to his father Elias to grant him a double part of his spirit (4
Kgs. 2: 9).
Can we describe this spirit?
In spite of the mystery of its beginnings, on this point no hesitation is
possible. This spirit consists essentially in a longing for union with
It will be objected that all spiritual men know this longing. This is
true. Nevertheless at Carmel this aspiration has a quality of immediacy,
an insistence on prompt realization that distinguishes the Order's
religious attitude. Carmel makes contemplation its proper end and to
attain this end it practices absolute detachment in relation to all
demands, or at least to all temporal contingencies. Eminently theocentric,
Carmel refers itself wholly to the living God: "As the Lord liveth the God
of Israel, in whose sight I stand" (3 Kgs. 17: 1).
From the earliest ages union with God has been its "raison d'etre" and its
soul. No doubt it was "the anticipated dawn of the Savior's redemptive
grace" that made this possible. No doubt, too, that it has benefited by
the progress and development of revelation down the centuries.
Nevertheless at Carmel from the beginning, union with God has been and
continues to be central.
Characterized by an awareness of the presence within man's heart of the
very being of God, the spirit of Carmel also includes a sense of the
sacred and a thirst for things divine. Progress in the experience of God
only serves to deepen and develop this basic and truly essential element.
Without it neither the wise nor the simple could enter into and intensify
their relations with God,
No matter how individual is this spirit and with what difficulty it is
analyzed, this spirit is to be identified with the most authentic
mysticism. At Carmel nothing imitative or esoteric is to be found and
Carmelite tradition is singularly sober as to the content of spiritual
experiences though their presence is frequently attested. Always
objective, it merely affirms the possibility and the reality of direct
contact with God and points out the necessity, if this is to be attained,
of recourse to a particular kind of life--the eremitic life.
It assigns no date to its first manifestations but instead states
forcefully that, granted certain conditions, it is possible for man truly
to live the divine life. For this it suffices for him to realize in
himself the climate of the original desert, and after withdrawing into
this interior solitude, "to hold himself in the presence of the living
God". Than the light of truth will come to purify, enlighten and enkindle
Foundations are thus laid for a personal experience of God and the
intimate relations that a creature may have with Him. Going back through
the ages Carmel will never hesitate to recognize itself in the first
hermit whom the Bible describes for us and to model its life on that of
men vowed to the contemplation of divine things in silence and solitude.
II. THE NOTES OF CARMEL
Primacy of the contemplative spirit.
A direct and intimate experience with God is the basis of Carmel
spirituality. Therefore, before any Rule, and in order that the Rule may
be lived when it is formulated, a contemplative spirit and a deep sense of
God are required of those who wish to lead the life of Carmel.
Of one who understands how to stay before God, no special activity, no
special practical disposition is required. While, on the contrary, this
sense of God, this thirst to remain in His presence does not belong to
that category of realities that a Rule or a technique can call into being.
Nor can they be developed in any way ascertainable by the sense. They must
exist prior to the realization of a contemplative religious life. God
Himself has placed them in the soul's very center and ceaselessly
maintains them by means of His grace and His Holy Spirit.
This enables us to understand how, although it is not an institution in
the western meaning of the term but only a place for the election of a
spiritual reality, Carmel has long been able to exist in a free,
spontaneous, elementary way and to subsist through the sheer power of its
This primacy of "spirit", necessary in every religious institute seems
even more necessary in Carmel.
No exterior activity, whatever be its form, not even fidelity to the Rule,
jealously guarded though this must be, can ever take the place of what
ought to be the soul of Carmel, we mean the divine current that reaches
the depths of man's being and impels the Carmelite to return constantly to
This search for God, so essential and so secret, leads of itself to
simplicity and spiritual poverty. Instinctively the soul seeking God longs
to be disencumbered, to be delivered from all things spiritual and
material, in order to think of God alone, to be freed from things of the
flesh in order to attain to life in the spirit, and to become altogether
An idea like this necessarily leads to a spiritual conception of religious
life. In fact, nowhere as much as in Carmel must life and observances be
vivified by the spirit.
That is why a religious as familiar with the origins of Carmel as John of
Saint-Samson could write in "De la perfection et decadence de la vie
"I say that in the days of these first patriarchs and founders, religious
life (at Carmel) was a body strongly and excellently animated by spirit,
or rather it was all spirit, and all fervent spirit."
In fact the ideal of Carmel was always, according to the expression of
this same author in "Le vrai esprit du Carmel," "to live in a state of
great purity... and to enter into God with all one's strength".
It is obvious that John of Saint-Samson here refers to the "Institution
des premiers moines," a text highly representative of the spirit of Carmel
and of its oldest and purest mystical traditions. In it we read these
lines in which the author seeks to describe the life of the first hermits
"This life has a double end. The first is ours as the result of our
virtuous work and effort, divine grace aiding us. It consists in offering
God a holy heart, freed from all stain of actual sin. We attain this end
when we are perfect and in Carith (which means ' hidden in charity ')...
The second end of this life is communicated to us as God's pure gift. I
mean that not only after death but here in this mortal life we can in some
way in our hearts taste and experience in spirit the power of the divine
presence and the sweetness of heavenly glory. This is called drinking from
the torrent of divine pleasure."
At Carmel, purity of heart is never disassociated from delight in things
divine. The illusion most to be dreaded has always been to aspire to the
highest gifts while disdaining or underestimating the necessary
publications. There is another and equally dangerous snare: to try to live
a life of high perfection for its own sake and not to aspire to receive
the communication of divine life. Carmelite spirituality consists of a
supernatural balance which is only possible where there is habitual
recourse to the spirit with humility of heart. Although Carmel can see the
weakness of its children without astonishment or pessimism, and because it
counts on the abundance of divine mercy to remain undisturbed, it has no
pity for the slightest shadow that soils the soul. A man who voluntarily
harbors some vain attachment in his heart is not a spiritual man. But of
what price is purity without spiritual fruitfulness? A detachment in which
there is no love?
In fact theological primacy makes it impossible for the Carmelite soul to
deviate in his pursuit of his double goal. If he aspires to love with the
love of God Himself, it is because he is strong in his hope, resolute in
his faith, docile in all things to the invitations of the Spirit; it is
because he depends on God alone.
Presence to God and zeal for souls.
No one will be surprised that in such a climate a connatural form of
activity will spontaneously come into being, we mean prayer understood not
so much as an exercise but as being present to God. This is altogether
objective and interior, silent and sustained, detached and spiritual.
To prayer, as it is understood at Carmel, there are no limits; just as
there are no limits to the quality of interior silence that it realizes
and the links it fashions between man and his God. According to the
measure of the soul's generosity and divine grace, the living God
possesses and vivifies this solitude.
The exercise of prayer at Carmel is accompanied by a minimum of material
conditions. Prayer involves no rigorously prescribed methods. For its
development it requires the liberty and fidelity of a soul constantly
visited and vivified by the spirit.
The Rule faithfully preserves this conception of life with God. The
central obligation there laid down is "to meditate night and day on the
Law of the Lord".
But the example of Elias, as well as an inner exigency, urges the hermits
to realize within themselves and without, a spirit of silence and solitude
eminently favorable to prayer and of which the desert is the most perfect
The desert calls out to the spirit and the spirit calls out to the desert.
Between the spirit of Carmel and the desert there is a living relation.
Carmel's prayer is the desert in which the spirit dwells.
But the desert also induces thirst, and prayer slakes the soul's thirst
only to create new capacities for the infinite. "They that drink me shall
yet thirst" (Eccl. 24: 29).
If it is not without meaning that the word of God was heard in a desert,
it is equally significant that the possession of the Promised Land was
conditioned by an exodus through that same desert. The soul, too, arrives
at a meeting with God, in prayer, only at the price of an exodus painful
to sense and spirit. But the soul then knows the infinite value of things
divine and enjoys that liberty of the children of God which is
characteristic of Carmelite spirituality.
This search for God in silence and solitude, this absence of imposed forms
of prayer, a colloquy that is free and truly heart-to-heart in "the place
of the espousals"--this is what the desert means, this is what has
characterized Carmel from the beginning.
Life of God and desert: these timeless realities are never separated in
the Old Testament or in the New. The desert of the soul is the very place
of God's communication.
"The land that was desolate and impassable shall be glad, and the
wilderness shall rejoice, and shall flourish like the lily" (Is. 35: 1).
The depth in which the intuitions of the Carmelite soul are rooted may
make them seem obscure. They are, nevertheless, astonishingly living and
active. Consciously or not, the soul unceasingly returns there, to strive
to live them fully and directly.
If no one is more convinced than the Carmelite of the riches and benefits
of tradition, it is also true that no one is more faithfully and lovingly
attached to it, yet no one else is more fully persuaded that it is
necessary to live personally and to experience in direct contact the
mystery of God. Tradition may indeed explain and give a love for the
divine realities tasted in prayer: it cannot confer that supreme and
incommunicable knowledge which is a fruit of divine wisdom. This comes
only to him who suffers God in his soul and in his life.
To remain living and active, the revelation of the divine transcendence
and mercy ought to be renewed in each one of us.
But as soon as the divine revelation crosses the threshold of our inner
dwelling, there is a dawn and centuries vanish. The soul brought back to
an absolute beginning watches the flowering of an eternal spring in his
own soul. Is not "the verdant one" the meaning of Elias' name?
God Himself is there and speaks to the soul. And the soul making her own
the words of the prophet, murmurs: "He liveth. He before whom I am".--"As
the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth. . . " (Cf. 3 Kgs. 1 7: 1, 4 Kgs.
The spirit of Carmel is none other than this power and life which spring
from the divine word and seek to enter the soul; none other than this
divine presence which is waiting to be received and communicated in a
reciprocal gift. Today, no more than in the first days, can this word wait
for tomorrows in which it will be accomplished.
If the impossible were to take place and the past were suddenly
obliterated and tradition no longer existed, and the call of the living
God were to sound for the first time in a soul, this call would carry with
it the spirit of Carmel in all its freshness, its newness, its eternal
Because it is of God and is pure reference to God, this spirit is
distinguished by a clarity, a simplicity and a limpidity that are
absolute. It has nothing to do with techniques. It fears more than all
else material and spiritual encumbrances, multiplicity of means, devotions
and spiritual exercises. It is God just as He is that it seeks and
desires: God, for the mind all mystery, but for the soul light and
The spirit of Carmel is a spirit of childhood, of original life, of
newness, of immediate proximity to the divine outpouring. It drinks "of
the torrent" without a shell; it does not kneel down but stands erect. It
is born of God in all its profundity and passes into man renewing and in
truth creating him. That is why this spirit is so immediate, so lacking
any kind of transition, so without compromise; so bare, with the bare life
of the Old Testament; that is why it is so essential. Strengthened by a
power that transcends human means and traverses, without ignoring, what is
relative, it discovers its goal and goes straight towards it with a
totalitarian exigency of unitive transformation. In short, it advances
with a thirst for the absolute, which, once having been felt, can never
more be slaked.
Without the least shadow of pessimism, the least disdain for the world,
the Carmelite is deeply conscious of the infinite distance separating the
created from the uncreated, God from His creature. Prayer gives him an
understanding, better still, permits him to acquire a kind of experience
of the absolute. It is also through prayer that the Carmelite, we read in
the second chapter of the "Institution des premiers moines," "tastes in
his heart and experiences in his soul the strength of the divine Presence
and the sweetness of the glory from above".
This does not make the spirit of Carmel aloof toward what is created and
toward those who live and grow in the earthy and the relative; this
experience of God, on the contrary, is the origin of the most active zeal
for souls which is characteristic of the action and person of the prophet
Carmel has never, in fact, separated the apostolic from the contemplative
life in its father Elias "who was afire with zeal for the Yahweh of
armies" (3 Kgs. 19: 10; 18) with fierce energy preserved in the people of
Israel belief in the true God, and who has never ceased to serve as a
model to the Order that claims him as founder. In 1275 Nicholas the
Frenchman, the seventh prior general, recalled this in these words in his
"Conscious of their own imperfection, the hermits of Mount Carmel remained
long in solitude. But because they desired to be in some way useful to
their neighbor, and lest on this point they incur guilt, at times, yet
very rarely, they left their hermitage. And as it was with the scythe of
contemplation that they harvested in the desert so now in preaching they
will scatter the grain on the threshing floor and with open hands they
will sow the seed."
So it came about that from the beginning Carmelite prayer has had an
apostolic side and overflows with missionary fervor.
Although these spiritual realities are part of the distant epochs of its
pre-history, they have come down through the ages and will always be
characteristic of Carmel. This inalienable treasure transmitted to us from
century to century by the hermits seems to us in its brilliance and
marvelous freshness like an ancient jewel discovered in all its beauty in
the desert sands.
III. THE RULE AND ITS SPIRIT
Many centuries have to pass before we possess documents giving evidence of
the presence of hermits on Mount Carmel. The first definite text goes back
to 1177; it comes to us from the Greek monk John Phocas. Consequently
exact information about the kind of life the solitaries led on the
mountain of Elias cannot be obtained before this date.
But in 1209 the "Ermitains dou Carme" had been established near El Chader
(which means "the school of the prophets"), beside Wadi-Ain-Es-Siah (which
means "the fountain of Elias"). There it seems they had settled about 1150
and had followed a number of prescriptions belonging to the great monastic
tradition. Now they asked Albert Avogadro, patriarch of Jerusalem, for a
Rule which would permit them "to lead the form of religious life they had
chosen so that they might live dependent upon Jesus Christ and serve Him
faithfully with a pure heart and a good conscience".
In this way is established a spiritual continuity, between the "Ermitains
dou Carme" and the "sons of the Prophets." It also offers proof of the
fact that the Rule (which was soon to be that of the Blessed Virgin Mary
of Mount Carmel) repudiated nothing of the past. By means of this Rule the
monks living on Carmel were able to live the life of Elias, their father,
in a Christian climate.
The New Testament fulfills the Old. In its turn the Rule of Carmel
fulfills the School of the Prophets. The spirituality of Carmel has no
difficulty in developing the basic elements drawn from its biblical
origins within an evangelic life of perfection. Henceforth it is in the
light of Jesus Christ and in dependence on Him, characteristics of the
Rule from its very first lines, that its spirituality must be considered.
In fact it is to Christ that the Carmelite turns, offering Him prayer and
love. And it is following Him that the Carmelite intends to walk "with a
pure heart and a good conscience".
Elias and those who followed him, had been in search of all that would
lead them to God and favor their meeting with Him: silence, solitude,
desert, sense of the divine absolute, thirst for a direct and ardent
contact with God in the heart of prayer. All these are for the Carmelite a
path leading to Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.
The Spirituality of the Rule.
Codifying a form of life spontaneously adopted by the hermits and
informing us at the same time of the spiritual principles which guided
them, a knowledge of this Rule is particularly precious. It enables us not
only to discover the spirit of Carmel; it also gives new insights about
those whom it binds. John of Saint-Samson was later to say: "Our primitive
Rule is extremely basic and concise; it is more inwardly in regard to the
spirit than outwardly in regard to expression".
It is always important to know the spirit in which the special ends of an
order are to be sought, as well as the external works for which it was
founded. Now the spirit is usually only one of the constituent elements of
the order, one characteristic among many others. But, when an order has
only a spiritual work, and no other end than to promote and sustain
spiritual life, then the spirit is everything. The Rule of Carmel makes
this clear in its preamble:
"It possesses the austere quality of great spiritual texts, the delicacy
of things from above. It seems freed from all accidental detail of space
as well as time. Rising above contingencies of matter it does not even
stop to discuss questions about the organization of life. It is concerned
with what is within. It seeks to waken divine powers slumbering in the
contemplative soul. It is an invitation to live rather than a formula of
Is it possible to discover the spirit of an interior Rule if one does not
possess an interior spirit? From the first, Carmel has insisted on this
thirst for solitude and silence, this attraction for the desert as the
best place for the divine meeting and for contemplation. The Rule takes
this setting on the spiritual plane and makes it interior. The cell
becomes the desert where the soul meets its God. Prayer becomes its
conversation, its occupation "from morning to night", its "interior life".
"Let each remain in his cell, or near it, meditating day and night on the
Law of the Lord and watching in prayer."
Can the climate of this interior life, of this prayer, be discovered in
the Rule? And can the Rule help us to describe the spirituality of Carmel?
So sober is the text and so brief that the answer would at first seem to
be, no. But considered from within, the text becomes much more revealing.
First of all, this sobriety itself appears eminently characteristic of the
spirit which imposed it. It is an immediate introduction to a spirituality
freed from the letter and utterly detached. The soul realizes that it must
sell all to acquire the hidden treasure; that the kingdom of God alone
matters: all else will be given to it over and above.
The sobriety is accompanied by a liberation from every spirit of
individualism. Just as "the brother hermits who live on Mount Carmel" had
recourse to the Church in the person of the patriarch of Jerusalem to
obtain a Rule (and it will be remembered that when the greater reformer
was on her death bed she gloried only in the fact that she was "a daughter
of the Church"), so we see even now that the Rule requires that the Divine
Office be recited according to the freely embraced " regulations laid down
by the Sovereign Pontiffs and the customs approved by the Church".
What would men, fiercely devoted to spiritual liberty and accustomed to
the breeze that comes from the desert or the sea, have to do with special
forms and complicated methods? Instinctively they cling to what is most
simple and ordinary because that is what makes it possible for them to
give themselves in peace to "the one thing necessary".
Or course the principle of authority is affirmed, obedience is exacted, as
well as silence, work, and the renunciation of all property. But this is
to be done in the spirit to which the Gospel has accustomed us. All these
are simple means to a single and uniquely necessary end: union with God.
Therefore the Rule is extremely simple and supple, not only because
everything in it is ordered and directed to a single end but also because
it does not hesitate to make use of all means, according to the gentle and
flexible way of the spirit. We read in the Rule: "You may... inasmuch as
the Prior shall deem it fitting... when that can be done conveniently...
unless he be lawfully occupied in some other way... taking into
consideration the age and the needs of each one... when that may be done
without trouble... unless obliged by sickness or the weakness of the body
or by some other just cause to break the fast, because necessity knows no
Nothing cut and dried, nothing narrowly literal but a simple and truly
spiritual means of enabling souls spontaneously to advance in the path of
the absolute. This is the spirit of the Gospel: "If thou wilt...".
The Rule is not unaware that a life of union with God rests on the
foundation and generous practice of renunciation. But it asks for a
renunciation which "without stifling the soul will enable it to be aware
of its poverty so that at every instant it will turn toward God". of
course, no progress is possible without effort and so there is a virile
note in every part of the Rule. With Job it repeats: "Man's life on earth
is a temptation" and "Those who live piously on earth will suffer
persecution". "Therefore, set about with all zeal to clothe yourself with
the armor of God". How could we fail to be reminded, when we see that the
Rule lists all the armor recommended by Saint Paul, that it was made for
"Crusaders", eager to place themselves at the service of their "Lord"
Jesus Christ, Crusaders who were faithful to their ancestors: those great
solitaries whose heroic struggles with the flesh and the devil tradition
But the ascetic side of the Rule is tempered. Effort, renunciation, work,
silence appear above all as means of stripping the soul of self, of
freeing it so that unhampered it may advance more surely along the paths
of divine union.
All that the Rule offers along this line comes straight from the Gospel,
whose fragrance it retains. And all this is perfectly integrated with what
it has received from its origins. This completes the Rule and adds depth,
laying down a path through the desert where the soul can advance without
getting lost. "If anyone wishes to be My disciple, let him renounce
himself and follow Me".
At all times Carmel longed for God. The Rule points out the way. The way
does not consist in a series of didactic lessons, or formulas, or
techniques but the study of the living way which is Christ Jesus.
Dependence on Jesus Christ.
From Christ, the Carmelite, henceforth, is not to look away; in dependence
on Him the Carmelite intends to live. Carmel was searching for God and
union with God. Then came the Son of God, God Himself. Turning towards
Him, the Carmelite did no more than continue along the path that had
always been his. In virtue of an essential and profound continuity Carmel,
which is biblical and remains biblical, becomes evangelical.
In fact, born under the Old Testament, formed by the divine Word, Carmel
awaits its fulfillment. With Elias and the prophets it watches for "Him
who is to come"; it can look at nothing else. It finds that, like the
prophets, its natural study is to desire the coming of the Savior, to
hasten His arrival.
Filled with the preparation which abounds in the Sacred Books, Carmel
turns toward Christ with the certitude of finding in Him all it seeks.
It seeks God as an object of knowledge and love; where then could it
better find and embrace Him than in His Son who was made flesh and given
to us? Carmel awaits the fulfillment of the divine Word. Now Saint John of
the Cross tells us that "God has spoken but one Word and that is His Son".
Carmel has received as a legacy the awareness of the greatness of God, of
the nothingness of the creature, and of its divine vocation. How then
could it not place all its hope in a Mediator and Savior, all its hope in
Christ suffering and dying for us through love?
Nevertheless, considered relatively, Christ's role in the Rule is lightly
stressed. Here we are in the presence of one of Carmel's mysteries. It is
not easy to grasp: a hidden, half-formulated spiritual reality which is at
the same time truly central and profoundly operative.
Beyond any doubt there are other schools of spirituality in which Christ's
role is more prominent. He is the model, the exemplar, and His life must
be imitated. The spirituality of a contemplative order could never be like
that. If it is a question of always looking at Christ, it is also and even
more a question of uniting one's self to Him and living by Him. Christ who
is the way toward the Father, the author and finisher of our faith,
becomes by this fact, the milieu in which contemplation develops, the path
it uses. So it would seem the Carmel's Rule is on Christ and that
Carmelite prayer develops in the depths of the life Christ communicates to
No doubt Carmel is not unmindful of the need of some kind of a method but
it seems that those who had asked for the Rule had already made some
progress in spiritual life. This is because they had been leading for a
long time a solitary, interior and mortified life, and they possessed "a
pure heart and a good conscience". Therefore the Rule is more interested
in highlighting what must be characteristic of contemplative life:
perpetual prayer to which the hermits must dedicate themselves, "these
interminable vigils of prayer must make (religious) the Lord's intimate
friends, and love becomes a state of soul".
The Rule does not define the nature of the contemplation toward which it
is oriented but it is easy to discover it in "L'institution des premiers
moines." This document was long held in the same reverence as the
primitive Rule and allows us to understand that this perpetual prayer must
make it possible for the Carmelite "in some way to taste in his heart and
to experience in his soul the strength of the divine presence and the
sweetness of heavenly glory: in other words to drink from the torrent of
Clearly this is a reference to a mystical experience of God. This is, in
fact, the end toward which the Order is oriented. Of course not all reach
the goal. But Christ is for all, at least, the path that leads to the
goal. And all ought to live "in dependence on Jesus Christ", all ought "to
remain in their cells... meditating day and night the Law of the Lord and
watching in prayer".
Brothers of our Lady:
Directed to Christ and oriented to Him, Carmel is also directed to Mary
and oriented to her. "Completely Marian", "Totus marianus est," Carmelite
authors like to repeat throughout the centuries, and of all their titles
none is dearer to the sons of Elias than that of Brothers of our Lady.
It is historically certain that the first hermits who retired to Mount
Carmel in 1150 made their center a chapel consecrated to our Lady and from
the time of Saint Brocard, the first Prior General, the Carmelites were
called Brothers of our Lady of Mount Carmel. So devotion to our Lady is
seen to be one of their distinctive signs. "Despite its historical
inexactitudes "L'Institution des premiers moines" shows that the Order is
dominated by the two great figures which represent, on different levels,
its ideal: Elias and our Lady"
No need to follow the example of medieval Carmelite authors, in particular
Bostius, and multiply the subtle and often forced resemblances between
Elias and our Lady. The origin of these resemblances is to be found in a
mystical interpretation of the scene in the book of Kings where on the
heights of Carmel, at the prophet's prayer, a little cloud, about as big
as the palm of a man's hand, rises out of the sea, melts into rain and
fructifies the parched land: this is the image of the Virgin who was to
give the Savior to mankind (3 Kgs. 1 8: 44).
Nor is it necessary to do what Baconthorp did about 1330 and seek to
establish close parallels between the life led by the Carmelite and the
life of our Lady. "We have chosen a Rule", he said, "in which many points
are similar to the life led by the Blessed Virgin Mary".
If this be so, why does this Rule never once mention our Lady's name? Nor
is the name of Elias found in its pages (in fact no reference is made to
the fountain of Elias in the primitive texts). Nevertheless it is certain,
as the Order's many authors and documents repeat, Carmel belongs to Elias
and to our Lady. "Marianus et Elianus Ordo Carmeli", is the way it is
expressed in the Mirror of the Carmelites, or the History of the Order of
Elias of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.
At Carmel what is true of our Lady is also true of our Lord. Contemplative
life advances by assimilation and union, much more than by images,
examples and models. Preserving all due proportion, what we have said of
Christ we repeat about Mary. If the Carmelite does not strive to imitate
Mary's life, he does find himself quite naturally in deep harmony with her
soul, and it is in this sense that he may be said to lead a "Mary-form"
Our Lady is for him not only the Mother of Christ and his own mother. She
also represents and expresses the soul's essential attitude before God.
Mary not only sums up the whole Old Testament, she represents all mankind.
She is its soul athirst for God, longing for Him, hoping for Him. All her
strength and all her faculties are turned toward Him so that she may
receive Him and fully live by Him. Our Lady is also the place of the
divine response, of the divine coming. In her, mankind becomes conscious
of God's desire and His fully efficacious will to communicate Himself to
man. Mary is the place of this meeting; better still, she is the temple in
which is consummated God's espousals with man, the hidden sanctuary in
which the Spouse is united with the bride, the desert which flowers at the
breath of God.
Our Lady is pure reference to God and to the life of God in the sense in
which Eliseus said to Elias: "As the Lord liveth and as thy soul liveth".
From the moment of her immaculate conception Mary's soul had no other life
than God, no other end than to know Him and to love Him purely and without
any admixture and to allow Him to accomplish in her His designs of love.
Carmel finds in Mary the fullness of the spirit which is its own: her
beauty is without spot, her purity is absolute. As Isaias says: "The
beauty of Carmel will be given you" (3 5: 2). Reciprocally, Mary's soul is
connected with Carmel. She is a daughter of David according to the flesh,
the daughter of the prophets and the daughter of Elias according to the
In biblical times souls sought to make the perfect response that Mary was
to give to the Word of God which "she pondered in her heart" (Luke 2: 19)
and on which she "meditated day and night". They longed for the ardent
zeal with which she was aflame under the action of the Spirit of God. But
her virginal maternity made this predestined daughter of Carmel a queen
and raised her to a place of sovereignty among her brethren. For this
reason, Carmel will live Mary and will breathe Mary with a movement as
natural and as spontaneous as it is willed and conscious.
To advance along this path the Carmelite has but to intensify his marian
attitude of virginal simplicity and pure reference to God. At Carmel, God
is the object but the soul will become more and more Mary.
So the reason why the Rule does not mention our Lady is clear. Carmel
seeks to gaze upon God and love Him with mind and heart. What Mary
represents is the soul itself As the soul is united to Christ, so Carmel
is hidden in Mary. Mary is, beyond any doubt, for Carmel the infinitely
admirable and lovable Mother, the all-merciful Mother, but deeper than
this, she is the one who was chosen and formed by God to be the Mother of
the Savior; she is the purest, highest and most perfect expression of the
soul that is open to the divine action and lives in Mary's light and in
Mary's love. She is, par excellence, the contemplative soul.
This mystic and filial intuition is to be confirmed in the centuries that
were to come. In a critical hour, our Lady herself answered the trusting,
insistent prayer of Saint Simon Stock. She appeared to him, holding in her
hand the scapular of the Order, and said: "This is the privilege that I
give you and all Carmel's children. Whoever dies clothed with this habit
will be saved". In this way she extended, in visible fashion, her
special protection over the Order which has always called itself her own.
Mary was to intervene in the lives of Carmel's saints. Saint Albert of
Sicily, Saint Andrew Corsini, Saint Peter Thomas, Saint Teresa, Saint John
of the Cross, and in our own days Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus were
favored with our Lady's visible protection. It seems as if at Carmel there
can be no great servant of God who has not been sustained and guided by
Similarly, Carmel's authors multiply works which tighten the already close
bonds between Carmel and our Lady. The Order was founded for the
veneration of the Blessed Virgin. The Rule was formulated in connection
with her life and virtues. In one sense, the objectivity and value of
these connections matter little. It is certain that between the time of
the Rule and the Reform, "the idea of our Lady taken as model greatly
gained in precision... and it becomes clear that Carmel was established
for her honor". Was it not normal and at the same time the manifestation
of an altogether filial spirit for Carmel to give the Blessed Virgin Mary
honor that expressed something of her own intimate fervor.
"The first hermits of Carmel considered Carmelite life as existence
equally dedicated to the service of the Lord God and of His Mother, the
Virgin Mary. Better than all the legends, this expression permits us to
understand the flowering of marian piety at Carmel and the true meaning of
later official texts which affirmed that the Order of Carmel is dedicated
from its beginning to the honor of our Lady."
The Rule that keeps Carmel spirituality along interior and contemplative
lines and gives it its evangelical and marian character equally confirms
the apostolic orientation that it received from the patriarch Elias
himself. If he pronounced the sentence on which the contemplative spirit
is based: "He lives before whom I am"; he also proclaimed: "I am consumed
with zeal for the Lord of hosts".
Within limits suitable to the Order, the Rule faithfully maintains this
apostolic note in the spirituality of Carmel. The only reason for which
the Carmelite is allowed to interrupt "his meditation of the Law of the
Lord", and leave for a time the silence and recollected solitude of his
cell, is the salvation of souls. This orientation is clearly marked in the
Rule and explains why Carmel can be classified among the mendicant orders
which by principle are devoted to the care of souls. It is also classified
among the orders that are called mixed because they are directed to both
contemplation and action.
Therefore whatever be the dangers of activism and the attractions of the
apostolate, the spirituality of the apostolate will never be that of an
exclusively contemplative Order. When Sovereign Pontiffs ask Carmelites to
give missions, to preach, to undertake good works, the invitation will
never be refused on the grounds that the Carmelite's vocation is purely
On the other hand, how many are the appeals made to the Order by its great
spiritual leaders, how many are the efforts made its superiors to prevent
Carmel from becoming gradually transformed into an active Order.
Contemplation is the heart of Carmel, its reason, its distinguishing mark,
its protection. If there must be some interruption "even though it be
necessary and for a short space of time", as soon as his work is done the
Carmelite must quickly return to the primary and direct object of his
In the "Arrow of Fire," "Ignea sagitta," Nicholas the Frenchman recalls
with vigor and sorrow the Order's contemplative traditions which he
believed to be endangered. Adding example to words, he withdrew to a
hermitage. In his turn, Raoul the German who succeeded him, did exactly
the same thing. The general chapter of Montpellier (1287) took various
measures to maintain in the Order "the citadel of contemplation". Retreat
and solitude were recommended in every constitution. That is why deserts
will later appear, for without them Carmel lacks one of its essential
elements. The neighbor's needs may well draw the Carmelite to the
apostolate; something still stronger must constantly draw him back to his
solitude; because in the last analysis it is there, in his heart to heart
union with God that he will produce the true fruits of the apostolate,
because the fruitfulness of his life is measured by the purity of his love
This better part, which in Carmel is contemplation, was to be constantly
threatened until Saint Teresa's reform. The Order was introduced into the
west in the thirteenth century. It became more and more involved in the
intellectual and social life of its age and like most religious orders it
was subjected to influences which brought about its decline. In the case
of Carmel, this decline came from the gradual abandonment of contemplative
life, the giving up of what John South calls "continual, uninterrupted
persevering prayer", or "that union with God which is not only habitual
but actual" which Father Rubeo of Ravenna recommended on the eve of the
Had Carmel remained truly faithful to this central precept of prayer,
recollection and a life of union with God and at the same time did not
give up its apostolate, no Teresian reform might have been necessary.
Perhaps there is no better way than this of showing how essential to
Carmelite spirituality is this priority of contemplation over action which
alone makes possible the preservation intact of its true ideal. For its
restoration Saint Teresa "will live alone with the Alone " and will
establish her daughters in strict cloister; and Saint John of the Cross,
the great doctor of life hidden with God, will sacrifice his life. Nothing
less than the genius, the efforts, the sufferings of these two great
saints were needed so that the pure spirit of its origins could flourish
once again in the Order of the blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.
IV. MASTERS AND MODELS
Enriched by its long past and bearing its precious heritage, Carmel
reached the period of its reform. To consider this reform apart from the
whole tradition and to fail to link the reformers, Saint Teresa and Saint
John of the Cross, to their own spiritual family, would be to give an
incomplete idea of Carmelite spirituality and an inaccurate picture of the
The power of their genius, made fruitful by their holiness, cannot be
denied, and the light and penetration they have given Carmel are obvious.
Raised up by God at a moment which was both critical and propitious, they
brought Carmel back to life but they did not give life to Carmel. Before
their reform Carmel existed and one of its two chief branches owes nothing
to these two very pure lights and has continued to flourish.
Because of their nearness to us, Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross
seem alone to represent Carmel and we cannot imagine Carmel without them.
Certainly it is not for a Carmelite to underestimate their role and their
glory; to do so, would be to strike his father and mother, but how could
we lessen their glory by situating them in this long and glorious line of
spiritual men and women who throughout the centuries have formed Carmel.
Was this not what Saint Teresa herself felt and wanted when she wrote in
chapter thirteen of The Way of Perfection:
"The manner of life which we ambition is not merely that of religious
women; it is more like that of hermits. Let us remind ourselves of our
holy fathers, those hermits of by-gone days whose life we long to
Saints are like that! Their way of remaining faithful to tradition or of
returning to it is so richly alive, so full of the spirit of God that they
create something new: "nova et vetera." Without changing any of the
features they give the loved face a new youthfulness: "Send forth your
spirit and they shall be created and you shall renew the face of the
The influence of Saint Teresa on Carmel's spirituality differs greatly
from that of Saint John of the Cross because of differences in the
personality and temperament of the two reformers and because of the
different roles they were called upon to play. Yet they complement one
That Saint Teresa was first and foremost a contemplative cannot be denied.
It is in fact in the domain of prayer and mystical life that she deepened
and enriched Carmelite spirituality.
But her personality and her role went further than this because it was
with her whole being that she gave herself to a life of union with God.
Stripping herself of all things without repudiating any of these things,
it is the totality of her aspirations, her heart, her strength and her
life that she willed to make subject to God.
So it is not only the understanding of religious life but also of
spiritual life that was enriched and renewed first in Saint Teresa herself
and then in Carmel of which she was the mother and the reformer.
Saint Teresa's realism is so deep and so authentic that even unconsciously
she strove to make an organic whole and a living unity of the different
parts of her existence. Prayer is the source of the life and movement of
this organic whole; it is the principle of unitive transformation. But it
attains its end only when it is able to orient all the different parts of
religious life toward the same end and to give the same directive idea to
every aspect of daily life and even to the most humble forms of activity.
Saint Teresa's contributions to Carmelite spirituality are not to be found
merely in her writings (revealing though these may be), for they were
never anything more than occasional compositions in which were mirrored
God's action in her soul or in her life. Her contributions are to be
discovered and examined first in her work as a reformer because, in a
certain sense, she modeled Carmel after her own image. Not that she
pointed her ideal in a new direction but that she strongly impressed it
with her genius. So it is in the Constitutions and in the form of
religious life which she asked her daughters to follow, no less than in
her writings, that we must look for the elements that henceforth were to
characterize Carmel's spirituality.
In this, Saint Teresa's influence is sharply distinguished from that of
Saint John of the Cross. There can be no doubt, as we shall see, that he
was, from the first instant, won to the cause of reform. Moreover, he
remained at Carmel only on condition that the reform be carried out. But
even though he worked heroically for its success, he is preeminent because
it was in this setting that he achieved perfect spiritual liberty, and
complete mystical development.
While Saint Teresa first reconstructed the Carmelite dwelling, then
reestablished its foundations and created therein a climate eminently
favorable for true spiritual life; Saint John of the Cross having come to
the end of the most amazing of journeys to the realm of mystical union,
then laid down its principles, traced its routes and described all its
Like the commandment bequeathed to us by our Lord, Carmel is wholly
concentrated on a double and single movement of love. Double, because it
is directed to God and to our brothers. Single, because the one
theological virtue of charity informs the two movements, the two tempos of
Carmelite spirituality which give it its vital rhythm and are, as it were,
its heart beat and its breath.
Even before she thought of this rhythm, Teresa had lived it intensely.
Therefore this double movement marks her reform because her life was lived
according to the spirit of Carmel, that is to say she gave the
preponderant place, the "better part" to contemplation.
She was a realist, so she understood that the whole life of Carmel had to
be reconsidered as a function of contemplative life. Strict enclosure,
silence, work in solitude must be restored so that union with God could
develop in most favorable surroundings. Under an original, albeit
basically traditional form, Carmel was to live again, the life and spirit
of its origins, thanks to Saint Teresa. The best proof of this is given us
by the response the Carmelites themselves made to the reform. If Saint
John of the Cross and the first Discalced were won over to the reform, it
is because they discovered in it what we have attempted to analyze: this
primitive spirit, this original soil, without which nothing would flower,
without which Carmel would cease to be.
Only the analysis of the ensemble of the works of Saint Teresa, of her
spiritual counsels, of her mystical experiences--all of which help to
restore true contemplative life, true life of union with God, can reveal
her true role.
It cannot be denied that the Saint has her own way of looking at
contemplative life. Her experience of this life, on the mystical plane, is
unique. But this way and this experience, however original they may be,
are situated well within the boundaries of Carmelite spirituality. And the
form of life that she restored appears, in the light of experience, to be
the best adapted to the exigencies and aspirations of contemplative souls.
A woman's way of thinking about union with God cannot be exactly the same
as that of religious men. Although the ideal is the same for all, it must
be approached differently and attained by different paths. Saint Teresa
understood this perfectly. Beginning with a conviction and a deep
contemplative and mystical experience she considered each detail of
religious life not only as a function of the sought-for goal but also in
terms of concrete feminine nature.
A highly developed sense of moderation, coupled with a penetrating
psychology, in short, a profound wisdom mark the Constitutions to which
she gave a realistic foundation. Because of her unflagging efforts, the
idea of contemplative life ceased to be abstract and vague. It found its
way into and became an integral part of the tiniest acts of life. An
intimate bond united prayer and life, morality and mysticism, exterior
conduct and union with God. Between a life of highest mysticism and the
gift of self, between the soul's need to love and the most lowly forms of
fraternal charity, Teresa created links, established relations, forged
In contemplative and religious life as she understood and organized it, an
organic unity was realized, not by outer pressure but by an inner
principle which was both gentle and strong: this principle was love. The
soul that contemplates must long to give itself to Him whom it loves. It
must long to be one with Him and to serve Him.
This organic unity was realized according to the norms of a higher wisdom.
As one of her recent historians has correctly observed:
"Teresa was able to resolve with classic good sense, let us say catholic
good sense, two delicate problems: that of the requirements of union with
God and the requirements of human nature; that of the relations between
the framework in which is inserted common religious life and the personal
development of mystical life. If the asceticism which she practiced, and
on whose necessity she insisted, was always intransigent, it was also
always reasonable. The humble realities of life here below are the
foundation on which one must build in order that the spirit may ascend to
God. Progress is conditioned by these foundations, just as the life of the
tree is determined by its roots; to neglect the first, to destroy or to
paralyze the second would be fatal."
To Saint Teresa, Carmel owes its "elan" and its psychology. Carmelite
psychology was always realistic. Under the reformer's influence it became
more so. In fact her prudence and supernatural wisdom made her require
that contemplative life--and mystical experience when this is added--be
made more and more dependent on dogmatic formulae, the sacraments,
submission to the Church and to superiors, the practice of virtues,
fidelity to the Rule. Only in this way can sentimentalism, illuminism and
quietism in any form whatsoever be avoided.
Better than anyone else did she understand and highlight what is basic in
spiritual life: the need of making everything rest on the renunciation of
self-will, generosity carried to the point of perfection in the carrying
out of the duties of one's state of life, fraternal charity, bearing with
one's neighbor. It is virtues like these that, in their realism, support
the whole spiritual edifice and assure its unity. There can be no division
in being, no dichotomy between life that is purely human and
A mystical life that insists on purest realism ensures the supreme unity
of its being. This organic unity with all the intercommunication of all
its inner elements whose life is derived from a higher principle--this is
one of the most precious legacies that Carmelite spirituality owes to
It is essentially by means of prayer that Saint Teresa believes this
higher principle will reign in the soul and will provide this organic
unity. Everyone knows that Saint Teresa was the great mistress of prayer.
On this capital point her contribution is as traditional as it is
It is traditional because, like all the spiritual men and women who
preceded her, Saint Teresa wanted to orient contemplatives towards the
summits of union with God. This result and this grace she thought they
would find in prayer because God and the soul, although working on
separate planes, in prayer unite their efforts.
She was also traditional in teaching (on this point she resembled her
predecessors) that the contemplative ideal of transforming union is not
extraordinary. She believed that it was the integral fullness of spiritual
life. So to it she aspired, though it be with humility, because infused
contemplation always remains an absolutely gratuitous divine gift.
At the same time, Saint Teresa showed her originality in not being
satisfied with assigning this goal to the contemplative life; she pointed
out the paths that lead to this goal. Her teaching was marked by a wealth
of experience and a psychological depth that have not yet been equaled, as
well as by a singularly noble and profound conception of a life of union
with God. "To pray is not to think much but to love much". And for Teresa:
"To love is to surrender one's self without reserve. This means to
surrender one's will in such a way to the divine will, however crucifying
it may be, that one finds joy in suffering when this is pleasing to the
Beloved; and this intense love is a call for His presence. The soul
enraptured by God tends spontaneously to possess Him. The ideal of perfect
donation corresponds quite naturally in her doctrine, with the desire of
mystical union. God must be generous to the generous soul... The soul's
total gift calls for the total gift of God."
In prayer, as Teresa experienced it and as she taught it to her daughters,
Christ's position is dominant. This is one of the original points of her
spirituality. Admittedly before her time Christ's presence was implicit
and active in every part of Carmel's spiritual life but His role was not
sharply defined. Saint Teresa brought Him to the fore, as never before.
"The method of prayer by which all must begin, continue and end, consists
in keeping one's self in our Savior's company". No statement could be
Because Teresa gave so important a place to Christ in prayer, it is highly
important to understand what He meant to her. No less important is it to
trace her spiritual evolution on this point.
Christ was everything to Teresa. This is undeniable. "Act with Him as with
a father, a brother, a master, a spouse". She cherished Him with the
tenderness of a mother, the respect of a daughter, the love of a spouse.
But in this love there "is nothing that is not spiritual". In fact
"the spiritual delights that the Lord grants are a thousand leagues apart
from the satisfactions enjoyed by two spouses. Here love is united with
If Christ is able to raise Teresa above every sensible affection, while
"keeping alive her powers of loving, it is because she realizes that He is
the eternal, the transcendent; it is because He is the absolute, the
infinite; it is because He is God". There can be no doubt that even in
God, Teresa cannot get along without a heart that loves. But Teresa never
forgets that the Heart that Christ gives her to love in His humanity is a
divine Heart. If some souls find that the humanity of Christ is for them
an obstacle, it is because they do not think of Him as they should.
"The humanity of Christ could not fail to help the Blessed Virgin, she was
too firmly fixed in faith, she knew that Jesus was both God and man. The
name of Jesus is constantly on Saint Paul's lips. I have studied the ways
of several great contemplative saints: Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint
Anthony of Padua, Saint Bernard, Saint Catherine of Siena, and I find that
they traveled along no other road."
So Teresa's decision was made. On this road there are so many advantages
of love and faith, that she offered her daughters the Humanity of Jesus as
the path par excellence and the ordinary way for all.
Yet the evolution of Christ's role in the Saint's prayer is no less
revealing than the position He holds. At the beginning Teresa kept Christ
before her eyes, but gradually she began to meditate on the mystery of His
Person. Soon she saw in Him most of all a guide and a companion; then
Jesus Christ became for her the way, the path to the Father, the light in
which we see Him. Teresa united herself to God by the Word Incarnate.
Finally, with Christ's help, Teresa was led to the Blessed Trinity whose
importance never ceased to increase in her interior life.
"From this we must not conclude that Jesus Christ was relegated to a
secondary place but that He no longer was seen in the same perspective. He
continues to be Man who, being God, reveals God to all who will listen to
Him and contemplate Him... but He is above all the Incarnate Word with
whom the soul must be united in order to make some return through Him to
the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit."
This was the way Christ led Teresa to the Triune God. He taught her to be
aware of God as her last end, absolute Omnipotence, the answer to the call
of her whole soul. He led her to the heart of the mystery which is the
origin and goal of all mystical life. It is true that Christ's role,
indispensable though He be, since "no one comes to the Father" except
through Him (John 14 6), is apparently less visible in certain mystics who
seem lost in the divine darkness; but in Saint Teresa's teaching He shines
with a brilliant light from which carmelite spirituality will always
"The Saint's first intention was merely to found a monastery where she and
those who wished to follow her could, with the help of a more strict
enclosure and a more austere life, keep the promises they had made to the
Lord according to the vocation of their Order. Later, realizing the vast
needs of the Church, and desiring in her great charity to assist those who
were fighting for her, she went still further, as far as this was
In strengthening the bonds which united her with Jesus Christ and His
Church, Teresa acted according to the most orthodox mysticism. This was
also according to Carmelite spirituality. On this, as well as on the two
preceding questions, no one can fail to see the richness and the
originality of her contribution.
It is, in fact, with Jesus Christ that Saint Teresa begins her deep
understanding of the reality of the Church. Of course her submission to
the Church had always been completely loyal and even fervently joyous--and
this it was to remain until the end. Yet there is more than this in her
dying cry: "I am a daughter of the Church". She was referring not only to
the visible Church, the traditional Church which was rooted deep in her
Spanish soul, this Church from whom, without ignoring its human aspects
and its weaknesses, she never ceased to ask for a rule of faith, a rule of
life and light for the guidance of her soul. To her, the Church was above
all else Christ.
This enlightened and universal view of the Church and the absolute
confidence she pledged to it are possible only because of her mystical
union with Christ. To Teresa, the Church is not only an intensely vital
reality, it is also an institution established on dogmatic foundations
that are very sure and very rich. It is the Church that asks of us in
Christ's name not a contemplative and unitive love but an active love. To
Teresa the Church means Christ and souls, that is to say now and always
she considered the mystery of Christ from the apostolic point of view. The
second commandment is like the first and flows from it.
It follows that divine love, in Teresa's eyes, never ceases to grow but
radiates in ever widening concentric circles, just as waves move outward
from a center. Fraternal and supernatural charity is directed first to all
those who live in the monastery, then with constantly renewed fervor and
strength it is transformed into a love for souls, for all souls, that is
to say for the whole Church. "A soul who aspires to become the spouse of
God Himself... cannot allow itself a sluggard's rest. The redemptive God
gives His life and self-giving love to the soul who gives herself to Him".
Less than a century later a voice from "beyond the Pyrenees" answered like
an echo: "This is no time to sleep".
Christ is always "the center of this apostolate", and Teresa never forgets
that this must be contemplative above all else. So she sees that this is
first the practice of virtue, fidelity to the Rule, renunciation and the
cross. Then (and this is its real meaning) she sees that the apostolate is
a form of prayer, that is to say, it is love in act. "The more advanced
souls are in contemplative prayer, the more they are concerned with the
needs of others, especially with the needs of other souls".
Just like her daughter Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus, the first Teresa
burned with the desire to be a doctor, a missionary, an apostle; she
longed to make God's name known and His kingdom come in every part of the
world. A zeal much like that of her father Elias entered her prayer and
made it a prayer of fire. Her writings are in their own way another form
of this zeal, and they show us that she was constantly "filled with the
ardent desire of being useful to souls". "Her heart was broken at the
sight of so many souls who are being lost". "She was ready to give a
thousand lives to save a single soul". She spent her time "in praying for
those who defend the Church, for those who preach and for theologians".
She wrote: "With the passage of time my desire grows to contribute to the
good of souls... and to the exaltation of the Church".
But this active and apostolic woman never failed to give to her action and
her apostolic work the seal of Carmelite spirituality which is primarily
contemplative. This soul at first, that is at the beginning of the
contemplative life, she said: "must first be concerned about itself, as if
it and God were alone on this earth". Otherwise the soul would "lose"
itself in the world. When it is a little more advanced--its faculties
being now at rest--God will ripen the fruits of its garden so that it can
draw strength from them. This is what God wants. However, He does not want
the soul to distribute the fruits of its garden before it has first been
strengthened by them. Otherwise the soul will only learn to taste them...
and will eventually die of hunger".
It is only when the soul has attained to union, and God has taken
possession of the very depths of the soul that good works are required:
"Once the soul has reached this point, it no longer offers God simple
desires; His majesty gives it the strength to carry them out".
Therefore to become an apostle, the soul must love, love without any
reserve and give itself totally to God. Once again, Teresa has
rediscovered and completely renewed the spirit of her Order which has two
purposes, one subordinate to the other: contemplation which unites the
soul with God and reveals the infinite value of souls, then overflows in
These are the contributions that Saint Teresa made to Carmelite
spirituality: she re-thought and reformed the whole contemplative life in
terms of the true and pure Carmelite ideal; she renewed and deepened the
life of prayer founded in Christ, experiencing and describing all its
stages as far as the highest states of pure mysticism; she held broad and
safe views of the Church and of Carmel's apostolate. She poured out these
riches in a climate marked by freedom, fervor and balance, in an
atmosphere of expansive and undisturbed joy.
So we see why she continues to be the most radiant figure of Carmel and
how, like the spouse of the Canticle, she continues to attract souls to
Christ: "Draw me: we will run after thee". (Cant. 1: 3).
SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS
Carmelite spirituality owes just as much to Saint John of the Cross as it
does to Saint Teresa. At first sight the audience and the influence of the
Mystical doctor seem destined to remain very restricted. Did he not
address himself to:
"certain persons of our holy religion of the primitives of Mount Carmel,
men and women, who by the grace of God are on the pathway of this mount
(of Carmel)... They indeed are already detached from the things of this
life and will the better understand this doctrine of detachment of
Nevertheless experience proves that the saint's influence was not limited
and that it increased and went far beyond the walls of Carmel. No doubt
this is to be explained by the fact that Saint John of the Cross pursued a
single objective with a clarity of vision which was equaled only by the
rigor of his teaching and the heroic fixity of a will focused on the
absolute. What did he actually ask? Nothing else than to go on as far as
divine union in transforming love. And what does he teach? The spiritual
attitude necessary for one who would arrive promptly at the summit of the
Mount of Perfection. Now "whatever may be the mountain" in our life, and
whatever form it may take, there is a straight path leading to the summit
and it is this way that he wishes to point out to souls".
Therefore a soul, who is resolved to advance towards sanctity and feels
inwardly attracted to Saint John's abrupt and direct method, will find
precious help in this sure and experienced guide. Did he not, like his
Master, begin to do before he began to teach?
The mystical doctor considers mystical life under its essential and
complementary aspects. First, he discusses the work of detachment in a
soul advancing toward God; then he examines God's direct action on a soul
who submits passively to this divine action. He then sings of the joys and
splendors of divine union. In other words, his work embraces the whole
question of the transformation of our being and our way of acting under
the influence of the Spirit of God.
Heroically faithful to the spirit of the primitive Rule that Saint Teresa,
in reforming the Order, made it possible for him to live; focusing on its
essential precept: union with God in uninterrupted prayer, Saint John of
the Cross has given us a work that is unique because of the richness, as
much psychological as mystical, of his experience, as well as by the
holiness of his life. He goes beyond pure speculation because he wants,
lovingly, tenderly and warmly, to persuade souls to journey along the path
of divine union and to show them its treasures. To do this he makes use of
a very rare poetic gift which enables him sweetly to communicate to souls
the lights he has received and the living flame of his love for God.
I. Which path leads to the summit of the Mount of Perfection?
With the whole tradition of Carmel to support him, John of the Cross
unhesitatingly answers: "The path of the Bible and the Gospel, that is to
say the path that is Christ... "At Carmel, the soul always draws strength
from the divine Word. Of course this means the New Testament and also the
Old Testament, for Carmel's roots are fixed deep in Scripture. John of the
Cross kept the Bible and two or three other books of piety in his cell. He
never ceased to read and meditate the Bible. In it he searched not only
for a knowledge of revelation but he believed that he could find in its
pages the laws that always govern the dealings of the Holy Spirit with
Did he think that beyond the literal meaning one ought to look for a deep
mystical and spiritual meaning? Of course it is the Spirit alone who
possesses the secret of this mystical meaning and it has been promised
infallibly only to the Church but the Spirit grants it also to those who
humbly follow the guidance of the Church in their search. John is skilled
in this exegesis and his interpretations are those of a master. He
believes that Scripture is the rule and measure of progress in interior
life and that it enlarges one's own experience, containing as it does
innumerable examples from the past.
But God's word means above all the Gospels. In truth "God, who at sundry
times and in divers manners spoke in times past to the fathers by the
prophets, last of all in these days has spoken to us by His Son" (Heb. 1:
1-2). And the mystical doctor has declared that " God spoke but a single
word and that word is His Son". And on another occasion he said: "God has
told us everything in His Son; look well at Him for in Him you will find
As a matter of fact Saint John's teaching, like his life, was obviously
based on the Gospels. He has placed himself in Christ's Heart and in the
heart of Christ's teaching. It is true that his speculative study of the
spiritual life does not seem to be Christo-centric. Nevertheless in it he
forcefully affirms that no union with God is possible except in
Christ, and this is true both of faith (which is adhesion to God in
Christ) and of life. To reach God we must make Christ our model. Saint
John wants us always to desire to act like Christ. "Of what use is this
life if it does not give us the opportunity of acting like Christ?" Christ
-crucified is the synthesis of his whole doctrine. "Let Christ crucified
alone be enough for you; with Him suffer, with Him rejoice; never suffer
or rejoice without Him"
When he had reached the goal of mystical life he declared that knowledge
of Christ's mysteries is the highest wisdom possible in this life: "The
soul, being henceforth raised up... above all things, may now make use of
nothing to help it or to rise higher except the Word, the Spouse Himself".
"Let the soul long to enter into the darkness of the Cross which is the
way of life". And perfection in the spiritual life will mean nothing else
than an immense love of extreme Poverty and suffering for the sake of the
Beloved: "To love, is not to experience great things; it is to know great
poverty and great suffering for the Loved One", that is to say, "for our
great God crucified and humbled."
The Shepherd with "His two fair arms outstretched and His Heart pierced
through and through with love" dominates the life of Saint John of the
If the mystical doctor carries, as he does, the image of the Crucified in
his heart, it is also on the Crucified that he bases his whole doctrine.
"If any one wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his
cross and follow Me". It is truly the Gospel teaching which is the
foundation of the saint's teaching.
To imitate Christ, "any sense pleasure that is not purely for God's honor
and glory must be renounced and given up for the love of Jesus Christ".
Renouncement and love, is this not a complete description of Christ? It is
also a complete description of Saint John of the Cross.
Therefore it is within this frame of reference that we must consider his
doctrine. Detachment in all things through absolute attachment to Christ.
Renouncement is the obverse of love. "That you may possess all things,
seek to possess nothing". "Desire to be detached from all things, empty
and poor for Christ's sake".
Saint John of the Cross was to speak of this renunciation as no one else
had ever done before. His flaming words have singular strength.
On the path up the mountain, the soul will meet and be tempted by false
goods of many kinds. One by one they must be rejected and nothingness is
to be preferred to them. Faced successively with temporal advantages,
intellectual riches, virtues the soul believes it possesses, graces,
finally self, the soul must give to all the same answer: Nothing, nothing,
nothing, nothing, nothing.
This is a road nature cannot travel. Saint John of the Cross knows this
well so he draws the strength needed for detachment from an impassioned
attachment to Christ. "Do you want to be perfect? Draw near to Christ by
meekness and humility, then follow in His footsteps to Calvary and the
Holy Sepulcher". "If a man resolves to carry this cross for God's
sake, he will find great refreshment and much sweetness and this will
enable him to travel along this road, detached from all things and
To follow Christ does not mean, according to Saint John of the Cross, that
one must in any way withdraw one's self from a system of human values or
deny them by a renunciation of mind or senses. What he asks is that these
values be used according to right order: the senses are to pass judgment
on things of sense, the intellect is to appreciate things intellectual.
It is only when one wishes to attain to God and be united with Him that
these things must be renounced for the sake of faith which henceforth is
the only source of light, the only right path for this divine quest.
In two of his works he described the itinerary of the soul journeying
towards the summits of divine union along the paths of renunciation: The
Ascent of Carmel and The Dark Night; the first stresses the work of the
soul while the second insists on the divine initiative.
Saint John of the Cross describes in terms of night the work that is first
accomplished in the sensible part of man, this is the active and passive
night of the senses; then in the spiritual part, this is the active and
passive night of the spirit. Here night is a symbol of the renunciation of
things, a renunciation that is either voluntarily assumed or passively
endured. The necessary role of the theological virtues is evident in the
purification of the soul's spiritual faculties: intelligence is purified
by faith, memory by hope, will by charity.
The light cast upon the role of the theological virtues, and especially on
faith, is one of the most important aspects of Saint John's doctrine and
because of its universal value goes far beyond the limits of Carmelite
What Saint John is looking for, is the path that leads quickly and surely
to the summit of the mount of perfection and therefore to union with God.
From this point of view the place he gives to faith is better understood.
Its mission is to purify the soul's vision of God. In fact it alone can
remove whatever acts as a screen or an obstacle to the possession of God
and enable us to see things truthfully because faith is: "an interior
light derived from the light of God which enlightens all things according
to His light and makes us see them as He sees them".
There are two reasons why this light derived from God is a light of
shadows: faith must cleanse our intellect of notions that are simply human
and that are in no way worthy of God.
"How, in fact, can the divine Being be grasped by human intelligence? What
man can fed and know about God is infinitely remote from what He is...
There is no communion or essential likeness between God and creatures, but
there is an infinite distance between His nature and theirs."
This affirmation of the absolute divine transcendence, as well as the
consequences that follow, is a keystone of the spirituality of Saint John
and of Carmel.
But if God is infinitely beyond our intelligence, the soul cannot "go to
Him unless she spares no effort to deny and refuse her natural as well as
supernatural knowledge". For the human intelligence must enter into
There is another reason why faith is "a light of shadows": it permits
truth to be grasped only in darkness. Faith is a path "well suited for
union with God" but this union is granted only "in a mirror and darkly".
Yet Saint John will sing its praises because "even though it be night", it
enables us to know God and to embrace Him in the darkness.
"I know well the fountains which rise and flee Though of the night."
This grasp of the mystery of God by means of faith is limited only by our
generosity. A faith absolutely freed from every image, from every
representation will give us God wholly.
The soul strays far from the road leading to divine union when it leans at
all on its own understanding... not knowing how to release and detach
"The soul must empty itself of all that is within its competency... and
remain always detached and in darkness, leaning on obscure faith and
taking it for its light and guide, not trusting to anything it
understands, tastes, feels or imagines."
Saint John asks that this faith be exercised when in speaking of prayer he
insists on the necessity of passing, at the prescribed time, from
discursive meditation to "the obscure, general, loving" contemplation of
the mystery of God. It is plain that the faith for which he asks is
not theoretical or abstract but rich in love; it is a living faith.
Whence comes this faith? How is it strengthened in us?
Here appears the magnificent synthesis that Saint John of the Cross
achieves between the purest mysticism of Denis, negative and obscure, and
the teaching that rightly gives priority of place to Christ in the
At no instant does Saint John of the Cross forget that Christ is "the
author and finisher of our faith" (Heb. 12: 2). Christ gives us faith and
He is the first to benefit from the gift. When the eyes of the soul are
fixed on Christ, the Incarnate Word, faith enables them to discover Him as
He is in the mystery of His divine and human Person. Before addressing the
divine Persons of the Trinity and acquiring a general, obscure and
confused knowledge of God, faith turns first to Christ and through faith
the soul is in a certain sense made like Him: "All the wisdom of God which
is the Son of God is communicated to the soul in faith".
To attain to God it is, therefore, essential to look with eyes illumined
by faith "fe ilustratisima" upon Him who is the way: "If you look at Him
closely, you will find in Him all things... You will find in Him the
wisdom of the marvels of God, as my apostle said: In the Son of God are
all treasures of wisdom and knowledge of God".
Christ considered "in faith" becomes the door that introduces us into the
mystery of divine life and the trinitarian exchanges. To Saint John of the
Cross, as well as to the sacred writer, Christ is at the same time the
author and finisher of our faith.
The path followed by Saint John of the Cross in the purification of the
intelligence by faith resembles that taken by him in the purification of
the memory by hope.
"As to hope, there is no doubt that it renders the memory empty and brings
darkness over it as to things of this life and the next; for hope is ever
concerned about things not yet possessed, if they were already possessed
there would be no place for hope."
And in the purification of the will by charity:
"Charity creates an absolute void in the will inasmuch as it obliges us to
love God above all things. This can only take place when our affection for
things is centered wholly in God. For this reason Christ says in Saint
Luke: 'He who does not renounce all that he possesses cannot be My
For when the soul is detached from all things and has emptied and detached
itself... which is all that the soul can do on its part... then it is
impossible that God will not perform His part which is to communicate
Himself to it, at least in secret and in silence.
It is more impossible than that the sun should fail to shine in a serene
and unclouded sky. For as the sun, when it rises in the early morning and
shines into your house, will enter if you open the shutter, even so will
God, who keeps Israel and slumbers not (Ps. 120: 4), still less sleeps,
enter the soul that is empty and fill it with divine blessings."
2. Union is the transformation of the soul in God by the Spirit of Love.
If there is in the spiritual doctrine of Saint John of the Cross a dark
mountain side and a steep path of renunciation and of faith for the soul
who ascends the mountain of Carmel in the footsteps of Christ, there is
also a summit of light awaiting the generous soul who ascends with Him.
Saint John of the Cross describes and praises this summit in His Spiritual
Canticle and Living Flame of Love.
Nada... Todo... Nothingness... All things... The Doctor of nothingness is
even more admirable when he hymns the union of love with God, its
splendors and its joys. Of the "complete beatitude promised in the
mountain, he is the peerless doctor".
By poverty of spirit, by faith, by hope and also by charity, Saint John
has dug "deep caverns" in the soul, infinite capacities that God longs to
fill with this love "that He has prepared for those who love Him".
Desiring that other souls may benefit by what he himself has experienced,
the Mystical Doctor invites them to embark with him upon this "happy
adventure". He urges them: "All this is yours, all this is for you; do not
set yourself any lower goal".
All this means God; all this means the whole Trinity. Does not the Trinity
dwell in the pure soul? Let the soul be conscious only of this. Let it
seek this divine Spouse who lives in the depths of its being and who
invites it to be united with Him.
"The Word, in company with the Father and the Holy Spirit remains
essentially hidden in the soul's deep center. To find Him, as is possible
in loving union, the soul must go out and hide itself from all things
created... enter into deepest recollection within itself, there to
communicate with God in acts of love and affection."
Recollection contains the seed of the whole mystical life. Saint John of
the Cross explains that this is so because the author of this recollection
is no other than the Holy Spirit who
"enlightens the recollected intellect in proportion to its recollection,
and as there can be no greater recollection of the intellect than in
faith, the Holy Ghost will not enlighten it in any other way more than in
that of faith. For the purer and more perfect the soul is in faith, the
greater is the infusion of charity and the more abundant the gifts of the
In this way from the very beginning the mystical life is seen to be placed
under the motion of the Spirit of Love. Christ does not cease to act in
the soul by His Spirit. This Spirit purifies the soul along the paths
ascending the Mount, detaches the soul during the trials of the nights,
then floods the soul with light and love. Although the soul did not
realize this, it was the influence of the Spirit that directed it and
carried it toward the heights. On reaching the summits the soul perceives
and knows itself to be entirely submissive to divine inspiration.
The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, is the great artisan of the mystical
life. He is the master of the union of the soul with the Word its Spouse.
Although it is not necessary to have attained to mystical union in order
to understand what Saint John of the Cross now has to say to us, still we
must have some little experience of the secret action of the Holy Spirit
in the soul. For one who has known this action, symbols and words
themselves are eloquent. To those who lack this experience, these symbols
and words fail to reveal the deep continuity of the action of the Holy
Spirit and the unity that characterizes a life wholly marked with His
No doubt this unity can be explained, when the same image of divine action
that was proposed by Saint John of the Cross in the Ascent is repeated in
the first stanza of The Living Flame. And it is only when the soul can
look back at the road it has traversed and the transformation accomplished
in it by this Spirit of multiple activities that it becomes clearly aware
of the power and admirable effects of divine Love.
"It must be known that before this fire of love is introduced into the
substance of the soul and is united with it, by means of perfect and
complete purity and purgation, this flame, which is the Holy Spirit,
wounds the soul, destroying and consuming in it the imperfections of its
evil habits. And this is the operation of the Holy Spirit, wherein He
prepares it for divine union and the transformation of its substances in
God through love.
For the same fire of love which afterward is united with the soul and
glorifies it, is that which formerly assailed it in order to purify it.
Even as the fire that penetrates the log of wood is the same fire that
first of all attacked and wounded it with its flame, cleansing and
stripping it of its cold accident until, by means of its heat, it could
enter it and transform it into itself."
In this way the Holy Spirit enabled the soul to detach itself
progressively from all things, buried it deep in faith, enlightened its
darkness, helped it to go out of itself, brought it in the prayer of union
to allow it to die interiorly and in pain cleansed it during the great
passive publications of the nights. Now it is He who touches its inmost
being with luminous and transforming fire. Throughout this whole work the
soul never ceased to descend more deeply into its inner depths and to draw
near this center whence it has its origin in God. Now this flame
"transforms it into itself and gives it sweetness, peace and light".
"O living Flame of Love, With tenderness you wound My soul in its inmost
depths. You now no longer oppress me Perfect me now if You will, Break
the web of this sweet encounter."
To describe the action of the Holy Spirit and the graces given the soul,
Saint John of the Cross has recourse in his poems to the "rich and burning
words" that the liturgy so often uses. In souls whom He is leading to
transforming union, He is "the gentle breeze", "the unction", "the fire",
"the perfume", "the living water". He "breathes" through the garden of the
soul, and each time that He touches the soul, He "communicates to it most
delicately a knowledge full of serene and peaceful love". He gives the
soul the fragrance of divine sweetness as "the amber sends forth its
perfume". But more than all else He is in it this living fire
"which not only consumes and transforms it in sweet love but burns it and
covers it with flames. Each time this flame breaks forth, it bathes it in
glory and refreshes it with everlasting life. Such is the action of the
This divine fire "transforms the soul into itself and becomes a burn of
ardent fire". "Yet this vehement and consuming fire does not destroy the
soul... It divinizes it, on the contrary, according to the measure of its
love, fills it with delights, enkindling it with its fire and the sweetest
"O sweet burn", cries the Mystical Doctor, "O tender wound! O delicate
touch!... O lamps of fire!... In Your sweet breathing, so full of glory
and good things, how tenderly You fill me with Your love...".
The action of the Holy Spirit is wholly concerned with the union of the
soul with the Word, its Spouse. The Spiritual Canticle first describes the
close of this painful night that prepares for the espousals and gives hint
of "the waking of dawn" (stanzas 1-12); then the espousals themselves are
described (stanzas 1 3-27); and lastly the spiritual marriage (stanzas
28-29). It is this marriage that gives the soul a very deep understanding
of the inexhaustible mysteries of Christ and, by enabling the soul to live
with the life of God Himself, draws it into the bosom of the Trinity.
"There it breathes to God the same breath of love that the Father breathes
to the Son and the Son to the Father and this is the Holy Spirit Himself
whom they breathe into it".
The Living Flame also sings of "the most perfect and the richest love"
that of the soul united to God by love; and it tries to describe the
flaming of this love in the soul and it gives an analysis of the state of
a soul that has reached this fullness of love. But when the Mystical
Doctor begins to comment on the last stanza of his poem in which he sings
of the mysterious awakening of God in the soul, overwhelmed then by "all
the fragrance and pleasing perfumes of all the flowers in the world", he
pauses: "I would not want to speak of this aspiration, nor am I able to
say how full it is of the goodness and the glory of God's most tender love
for the soul. Because I see clearly that I cannot describe it and if I
were to speak, men would believe that such a description would be
In the soul united to Christ by the Spirit, in whom it has just been
reborn, now open the great deeps of Trinitarian life. But where Saint
Teresa seems to see a goal which she contemplates, Saint John of the Cross
finds a life with which he intends to nourish himself and which he intends
to live in truth.
Saint Teresa writes in the Interior Castle (seventh mansion):
"The soul introduced into this mansion of spiritual marriage sees the
Persons of the Blessed Trinity reveal themselves to it... all three
communicate themselves to the soul and speak to it. They discover to it
the meaning of the Gospel passage in which Our Lord announces that He will
come with the Father and the Holy Spirit to make His dwelling in the soul
who loves Him and keeps His commandments."
Going still further, Saint John declares, in all truth, but with
"The soul can... love God as much as God loves it because it loves Him
with the same love with which He loves it and this is the Holy Spirit.
Granted that God in His goodness raises the soul to become deiform and
unites it to the most blessed Trinity, making it divine by participation,
how would it be hard to believe that it made its acts of intelligence,
knowledge, and love in the Trinity, with the Trinity, like the Trinity,
but by participation."
It is evident that the riches poured by Saint John of the Cross into
Carmel's treasury are great. Contemplative souls never cease to draw from
When the Church made him a universal "doctor" by giving him the title
Mystical Doctor, contemplatives were assured that they would find no guide
more experienced, more daring, more sure in every way, one who could lead
them along the paths of Nothingness to the possession of the All and the
splendors of divine union.
Under the impulsion and "elan" given by Saint Teresa and Saint John of the
Cross, Carmel entered upon an era of prosperity and could number souls of
great value, skilled both in theory and practice.
The close of the sixteenth century and the seventeenth century are truly
the golden age of the Reformed Carmel. They witnessed the rapid
multiplication of Carmelite houses for men and women. In Spain the very
name of "Salamanticenses" suffices to testify to the intense intellectual
and theological activity of the order.
While John of Jesus-Mary, Thomas of Jesus, Joseph of Jesus-Mary (Quiroga),
Philip of the Trinity and, a little later, Joseph of the Holy Ghost,
studied the whole question of the mystical life, especially the difficult
problem of acquired and infused contemplation, the "Reform of Touraine,"
with the Venerable John of Saint-Samson strove to restore the primitive
spirit of silence and solitude in all its purity. The humble blind man of
Rennes became the master and director of a whole line of spiritual men.
Towards the end of the seventeenth century, a simple converse brother, the
cook of the convent of Rue de la Vaugirard-- Lawrence of the Resurrection,
brought back contemplative life to "the practice of the presence of God",
returning in this way to the primitive spirit of Elias: "Yahweh lives in
whose presence I am". He said:
"In the sight of God thoughts count for little, love means everything. It
is not necessary to have great things to do: I can turn my little omelette
in the pan for the love of God; when that is done and if I have nothing
more to do I can prostrate myself on the ground and adore God who has
given me the grace to do what I have done, then I rise happier than a
king. When I can do nothing else, I can always pick up a straw from the
ground for the love of God. . .
Men seek methods for learning how to love God. They want to reach their
goal by, I do not know how many different practices. They go to a lot of
trouble to stay in His presence in a great number of ways; is it not much
shorter and far more direct to do all things for His love, to make use of
all the duties of one's state to express our love for Him, and to maintain
His presence in us by our heart's commerce with Him? We need not go about
this in any subtle way, all we must do is simply to do what we do."
But it is faith, and faith alone that makes it possible for the soul to
remain in this presence of God. Lawrence of the Resurrection extols the
good results of this practice in these words:
"O faith! O faith! O admirable virtue which enlightens man's mind and
leads him to a knowledge of His Creator. It is faith that reveals to me
the infinite perfections of God, that gives me a perfect idea of His
greatness, that enables me to know Him as He is. Faith teaches me in a
short time more than I could ever learn in a long time in the
Nevertheless this faith has value in Lawrence's eyes only insofar as it is
transformed into fire and kindles his love. "All things are possible to
one who believes, still more to one who hopes, still more and more to one
Many of Saint Teresa's daughters, in their turn, attained to a high degree
of prayer and spiritual life, and profoundly influenced the most
enlightened and the most saintly souls of their age.
For example, Blessed Marie of the Incarnation who was venerated by all the
mystics of Paris at the time of Berulle and Saint Francis of Sales. The
same is true of Anne of Jesus and Anne of Saint Bartholomew who came from
Spain to establish foundations in France and then went to Belgium. At
Beaune lived the humble Marguerite of the Blessed Sacrament.
The attraction of Carmel was also felt by the repentant soul of Louise de
la Valliere who became Louise of Mercy, and by the pure soul of Louise of
France, the daughter of Louis XV who thirsted for reparation.
Carmel flourished not only in France. In other lands as well the influence
of Carmelites was very beautiful; this is especially true in Florence
where Saint Mary Magdalene of Pazzi lived, and a century later Saint
Teresa Margaret Redi.
Yet beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century there was a
sudden change that lasted for more than one hundred years. It would seem
as if the mystics were silent or that they had no new message to live.
Must the riches of the past henceforth suffice? Was Carmel asked to live
on these treasures without adding anything more? To believe this would be
to misunderstand completely the perpetual renewal which is the nature of
Does not the name of Elias mean "the Verdant One"? A Saint Theresa of the
Child Jesus was to show the world that Carmel's vine continues to flower
and bear fruit.
ST. THERESA OF THE CHILD JESUS
Those who concentrate on the life and doctrine of this child of Carmel who
died at the age of twenty-four are seized with wonder and admiration. They
discover, in fact, that her contribution to spirituality is as original as
it is profoundly traditional. They also discover that under the
Gospel-like simplicity of her message of "the little way of childhood" is
hidden a spiritual structure both strong and perfectly balanced from the
theological point of view.
No doubt this structure embodies the most authentic elements of the Order
to which Theresa belongs; but Theresa has divided and arranged them
according to her own genius. Better still, a very sure instinct, given by
the Holy Spirit, enabled her to discern and sometimes to rediscover, not
without merit, Carmel's purest spirit.
Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus truly made this interior and radiant
spirit incarnate. Her life of love of the absolute and of absolute love is
of rare depth and fullness. It was a combination of certain inter-related
spiritual principles and constitutes a true doctrine: this is "the little
way of childhood" that we must now try to describe.
This doctrine is derived from a re-discovery of the central teaching of
the Gospel which may be expressed in this sentence: We are, in Christ,
God's children and we ought to love our Father in heaven with a filial
love full of confidence and abandonment.
Christ taught us that God is our Father. Saint Theresa adheres to this
teaching with all her strength and gives to it its whole meaning.
She had a deep understanding of the truth that such a teaching has two
complementary aspects: a keen realization of God's fatherhood toward us;
and the need of developing in us a filial attitude of absolute confidence
toward God our Father.
If the confidence of Saint Theresa in the goodness of her Father in heaven
is absolute, this is because God is a father and this father is God. She
comes to this basic affirmation: "We can never have enough confidence in
God who is so good, so powerful, so merciful".
From this we can understand how on her lips the words "Papa the good God"
are not childish. On the contrary they testify to the simplicity of her
intimate relations with Him and to a confidence so absolute that she can
dare to say: "I know what it means to count on His mercy".
One might be tempted to believe that such confidence was based on the
assurance that had been given her that she "had never committed any mortal
sins". But she hastens to correct this idea: "Make it clear, Mother, that
if I had committed all possible crimes, I would still have the same
confidence. I would feel that this multitude of offenses would be like a
drop of water cast into a blazing fire" "How could there be any limits
to my confidence?"
Saint Theresa could not have reached this point, it is certain, had she
not had a deep experience of God's love. Even though she always claimed
that she had not known extraordinary graces, and she never stressed the
graces she did receive, it cannot be doubted that she had attained to a
very high mystical life during a most painful night of faith.
But what might be illusory is that this mystical life was lived under the
voluntarily obscure and detached sign of the little way of spiritual
childhood. Was not Saint Theresa eager not to do anything that "little
souls" could not imitate? What does this mean?
Saint Theresa had very great desires, yet she would never admit that she
was a great soul or that she had the strength necessary to do great
things, like the saints who had been proposed to her as models. So she had
to find a way in keeping with this littleness of which she was so deeply
More than this: she sought a way that depended on this very weakness. Had
not the Apostle said: "When I am weak then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12: 10).
So that in searching the Gospels she found the words of the Master: "Let
the little children be, and do not hinder them from coming to me, for of
such is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19: 14).
Such a statement corresponded too well to her knowledge, both of her
weakness and also of God's fatherly heart, for it not to have been a true
light. It served, too, as a link between her spirit of childhood and her
confidence in the divine fatherhood.
"I leave to great souls and lofty minds the beautiful books I cannot
understand, much less put into practice and I rejoice that I am little
because children alone and those who resemble them will be admitted to the
heavenly banquet. I am glad that there are many mansions in the Kingdom of
God, because if there were only those whose description and whose road
seem to me incomprehensible, I could never enter there."
This, therefore, was her way. God Himself had pointed it out and declared
its efficacy. On it Theresa was to advance unfalteringly and to draw all
the necessary conclusions with courage.
No one will deny that weakness is the characteristic of little children.
But this weakness is the surest of guarantees to those who care for them
and love them. Teresa remembered a text of Isaias that she copied in a
little notebook she used:
"You shall be carried at the breasts, And upon the knees they shall caress
you. As one whom the mother caresseth, So will I comfort you" (Is. 66:
Moreover, having learned from experience about this "motherly" goodness of
God, and knowing that the smaller the child, the more it can count on
merciful help and attentive care, Theresa intended to remain little, that
is to say, she would no more be concerned about her powerlessness, on the
contrary she would rejoice in it. "How happy I am to realize that I am
little and weak, how happy I am to see myself so imperfect". She does not
count on her works, or on her merits, she "keeps nothing in reserve" and
she is not to be discouraged even about her faults.
"It is needful to remain little before God and to remain little is to
recognize one's nothingness, expect all things from the good God just as a
little child expects all things from its father; it is not to be troubled
by anything, not to try to make a fortune. Even among poor people, a child
is given all it needs, as long as it is very little, but as soon as it has
grown up, the father does not want to support it any longer and says:
"Work, now you are able to take care of yourself". Because I never want to
hear these words I do not want to grow up, feeling that I can never earn
my living, that is, eternal life in heaven. So I have stayed little, and
have no other occupation than of gathering flowers of love and sacrifice
and of offering them to the good God to please Him.
To be little also means not to attribute to one's self the virtues that
one practices, believing that one can do something, but to acknowledge
that the good God has placed these treasures in the hands of His little
child so that the child can make use of them as needed, but always as the
treasures of the good God.
Finally, it means not be to discouraged by one's faults because children
often fall but they are too little to hurt themselves badly."
This is a pleasant intuition and one that affords many fruitful
applications for the spiritual life.
Most especially it drew Theresa along the path of a confidence that was
not only a virtue but the life in us of the true theological virtue of
hope. Advancing with great boldness to the end of this hope and wishing to
place no limits to God's mercy for those who love Him with filial love,
she wrote to a sister:
"You are not sufficiently trusting, you fear God too much. I assure you
that this grieves Him. Do not be afraid of going to purgatory because of
its pain, but rather long not to go there because this pleases God who
imposes this expiation so regretfully. From the moment that you try to
please Him in all things, if you have the unshakable confidence that He
will purify you at every instant in His love and will leave in you no
trace of sin, be very sure that you will not go to purgatory."
"O, how you hurt me, how greatly you injure the good God when you believe
you are going to purgatory. For one who loves there can be no
It seems to me that there will be no judgment for victims of love, or
rather, the good God will hasten to reward, with eternal delights, His own
love which He will see burning in their hearts."
Saint Theresa's confidence in God's infinite mercy leads her to this other
certitude, as theologically sound as the preceding, that if God divides
His graces unequally, He does so because of the same love.
"For a long time I had been asking myself why souls did not all receive
the same amount of grace. Jesus deigned to instruct me about this mystery.
Before my eyes He placed the book of nature and I understood that all the
flowers created by Him are beautiful... that, if all the little flowers
wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime garb. The same is
true of the world of souls, the Lord's living garden.
God's love is revealed just as much in the most simple soul who does not
resist His graces as in the most sublime."
Lastly this confidence in God leads Saint Theresa, by paths of poverty of
spirit and self-forgetfulness, to a wonderful simplification of spiritual
life. In fact, how could she have failed to notice that the kingdom of
heaven is offered not only to little children but also to the poor in
spirit, and almost in the same words: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for
theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5: 3). "Unless you turn and become
like little children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven"
(Matt. 1 8: 3). "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder
them, for of such is the kingdom of God" (Mark 10: 14).
As Theresa made spiritual childhood her own, so she made her own poverty
of spirit. She aspires to be nothing more than "a poor little child" who
looks to her Father for everything and who obtains everything from Him
because of this same poverty. She cultivates this poverty and wants to
keep nothing for herself, not even her merits and her good works.
"There is only one way to force the good God not to judge at all, and that
is to present one's self to Him with empty hands.
When I think of this word: 'I will soon come and I carry My reward with Me
to give to each one according to his works ', I say to myself, He will be
very embarrassed for me because I have no works. Well, He will have to
give me according to His own works."
She is forgetful of herself and counts on nothing, she is truly poor: "It
is necessary to consent to remain poor and weak; this is hard ". "I have
always longed to be unknown, I am resigned to being forgotten". "It is
necessary to count on nothing".
Theresa arrived at perfect detachment but in her own humble, hidden
"I know well that it is not my great desires that please God in my little
soul, what He likes to see is the way I love my littleness and my poverty;
it is my blind hope in His mercy, this is my only treasure.... The weaker
one is, without desires or virtues the more ready one is for the
operations of this consuming and transforming love.... God rejoices more
in what He can do in a soul humbly resigned to its poverty than in the
creation of millions of suns and the vast stretch of the heavens."
She buries herself with delight deep in this radical poverty. "I tell you
that it is enough to recognize one's nothingness and to abandon one's self
like a child in the arms of God.
Theresa is marvelously free from herself and marvelously free for God. Her
soul is wide open to the invasions of divine love. We, in fact, prevent
God from coming to us and "flooding our souls with waves of His
tenderness", because we do not open to Him the place He wants to occupy.
Only when poverty is united with confidence, is He able to realize in us
the desires of His love. It is difficult for us to understand much less to
describe how great was Saint Theresa's desire to love. Nevertheless she
who wished "to love and to make Love loved", perhaps wished even more "to
be loved" by this infinite Love. The deep reason for this will be evident
when we remember that she wrote:
"Merit is not to be found in doing much or in giving much, but rather in
receiving and in loving much. It is said that it is far sweeter to give
than to receive, and this is true. But when Jesus wants for Himself the
sweetness of giving, it would not be gracious to refuse. Let Him take and
give whatever He wants."
To take and to give, in these two cases, Theresa will remain poor, in
order that she can receive the love that God thirsts to pour out on her.
"I beg You to allow the waves of infinite tenderness hidden in You to
overflow into my soul so that I may become a martyr of Your love."
Because she will not keep this love for herself but will pour it out on
others, she adds:
"As for me, if I live until I am eighty I shall always be just as poor, I
do not know how to economize. All that I have, I spend immediately to buy
Saint Theresa was really flooded with divine love and that is why her life
bore such fruit. This charity transfigured two qualities that in her were
always to remain united: love of God and love of neighbor. And when we
consider her fraternal charity which was so practical, so delicate, so
heroic and which flowed from a charity for God that was so faithful that
"from the age of three she had never refused" Him anything and was willing
to suffer all things in silence for His love and for the love of souls,
then no one can any longer oppose contemplation and action, prayer and the
apostolate, the service of God and the service of the Church.
She who had carried so far confidence and abandonment never ceased to
multiply her own most concrete and generous efforts.
It is because of this confidence and fidelity that God could communicate
the plenitude of His own life that transformed her soul and opened it to
the dimensions of infinite Love.
From the beginning of her religious life, Theresa, like a true daughter of
Elias, is devoured with apostolic ardor. Was it not love for souls,
especially for the souls of priests, that she came to Carmel? To save
souls she would have liked to have fulfilled all vocations. She would have
liked to have been preacher, apostle, missionary, martyr.
Yet it was only after she had offered herself to the divine outpouring and
surrendered herself to merciful Love that she discovered the vocation God
destined for her.
"I understand that love includes all vocations. I realize that all my
desires are fulfilled. I have found my vocation. In the heart of the
Church, my mother, I will be love."
It was only then, too, that her vocation reached its full apostolic
dimension and revealed its limitless fruitfulness. In fact, henceforth,
Theresa was to think and to speak only in universal terms: "I shall spend
my heaven in doing good upon earth". "Yes, until the number of the elect
shall be complete, I shall take no rest".
Just as blood flows from the heart and moves with life-giving power into
every part of the whole body, so this apostolic spirit springs from the
love that possesses her and extends to the whole Church.
"From her little cell, as from a broadcasting station, wonderful waves
escape night and day. The souls whom they reach are unaware of their
origin. They merely murmur: 'Someone has prayed for me.'"
Theresa has given us the secret of this outpouring of love and its
apostolic fruitfulness: her love is crucified. In offering herself to
merciful Love, she gave herself up without any reserve to trial and
suffering which from this moment mark her life as with a seal. From the
day that "love penetrated and possessed her" suffering seized her as if
she were its prey. The victim offered in holocaust had been accepted. Love
was to consume her body, by a most painful illness, and her soul, by a
terrible trial: "A wall rose up to heaven and hid God from me". "O Mother,
I did not believe that it was possible to suffer so much... I can only
explain it by my very great desire to save souls".
But knowing that God had never before shown her so much love and that such
trials also made it possible to prove her love for Him, Theresa accepted
them with heroic generosity and even with joy. "I would not want to suffer
less. "She offered her sufferings for souls until the last ounce of her
strength: "I walk... for a missionary".
Before departure she gave us not only the assurance of a wonderfully
efficacious help: "Because I never did my will on earth, the good God will
do all that I want in heaven", but she told us how she was able to realize
her contemplative and missionary vocation in all its fullness: "I do not
regret having surrendered myself to Love".
When we look at the life of Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus we are struck
by its simplicity and wonderful transparency. We are amazed to discover
through her, not only the purest Gospel teaching but Christ Himself. We
also notice that the unity of her spiritual life is unique and profound.
In fact all her words, acts, sufferings, life and death are of a piece,
yield the same tone and are proof of an equal plenitude. Like her Master,
Theresa is true, and also like Him, her person and her message are one.
It must also be noticed that the Christian instinct was not deceived. In
search of a spirituality that is adapted to life and is livable men turned
to Saint Theresa. Not the least original thing about this cloistered
religious who died at the age of twenty-four was that she has given to our
times the most "incarnate" and at the same time the most supernatural
doctrine that there is. Transcendence and immanence. Her life prolongs the
message of the Gospel in our midst. This, no doubt, is the reason that
devotion to her, surprisingly enough, was not limited by the boundaries of
France but became worldwide, truly universal, because her spirit is truly
Saint Theresa brought a maximum of depth and supernatural efficacy to
spiritual life. She is as apostolic as she is contemplative, and that with
a minimum of means. "Purely and simply", she succeeded in being both.
It is not only our utilitarian age (and this is true even in spiritual
matters) that is conscious of her success, it is Christian life in general
which has been enriched by a new way leading to sanctity, a way as quick
and sure as it is evangelical.
If Saint Theresa received from Carmelite spirituality a great part of the
wealth she used--and they are forgetful who fail to connect her with her
"family" or who minimize what she owes it--she knew how to increase her
heritage. She offers us a style of spiritual life that is so detached, so
simply reduced to the essential, so supple in its absolute surrender to
love, so generous in the gift to the Church and to her brothers. She made
her life a reality that is so near to us and so lived in God, that to
breathe the fragrance of this flower of Carmel is to breathe the fragrance
of eternal life.
V. CARMELITE PRAYER AND CONTEMPLATION
The life and experience of Carmel's great saints enable us, better than
all the theories, to understand the spirituality of the Order. So here we
could stop. Yet, if we did, all that determines that spirituality --
prayer and contemplation -- might not be sufficiently clear.
Now a long experience of prayer has led Carmel to form, on this point, not
a method, but a doctrine. The ways of prayer, the nature of contemplation
and of the mystical life, the problems they raise--all these were
developed little by little thanks largely to the writings of Saint Teresa
and Saint John of the Cross. The benefit to spirituality has been great.
So it is fitting that we take a quick look at all this before we
summarize, by way of conclusion, the characteristics of Carmelite
The passages in Sacred Scripture that concern the prophet Elias have
always symbolized contemplative and mystical life. "The Lord liveth in
whose sight I stand". "Hide thyself by the torrent of Carith". "When Elias
heard the whisper of a gentle breeze he covered his face with his mantle
and went out to stand at the cave's door". To this the Institution, as we
have seen, testifies. Besides the search for perfection, Carmel's first
end, it indicates that there is a second one and one that is no less
essential: contemplation. "This end is communicated to us by God's pure
gift ". To drink of the torrent of divine pleasure is
"to taste even during this mortal life, in some way in one's heart, and to
experience in spirit the strength of the divine presence and the sweetness
of the glory on high. This is what is known as 'drinking from the torrent
of divine pleasure'".
Therefore contemplation is also one of Carmel's ends. Besides it is only
too evident that the central precept of the Rule: "Day and night to
meditate on the Law of the Lord" cannot have the meaning that we attach
today to meditation as opposed to contemplation. What the Rule prescribes
is a contemplative life in which meditation and contemplation each has its
own place. They must make it possible for the Carmelite to live constantly
in God's presence.
Carmel has not only brought to the doctrine of prayer the riches of a long
and wide experience. It offers in the writings of its spiritual masters,
Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross, a true summa of the ways of
Carmel knows what meditation is and for it has a place. Saint John of the
Cross speaks of meditation in the Ascent when he describes it as "a
discursive act in which use is made of images and figures produced by the
senses", as for example, "to imagine Christ crucified or at the pillar...
or at some other moment" (2: 12). Exercises like this are necessary for
Saint Teresa also speaks of meditation but praises it in only moderate
terms. She says that this is a good way to begin. She fears that
meditation will detain souls in intellectual activity. What she praises
much more is the prayer of active recollection. "If it is good to make use
of reasoning for several moments, then let us keep still and stay near the
Savior". This is a prayer "of recollection" because she asks the soul
"to recollect all its powers and enter within itself with its God".
"The senses withdraw from exterior objects and so despise them that the
eyes of the body close of their own accord so as no longer to consider
creatures" and to enable the soul to awaken and see.
This is "active" prayer because "it depends on our will and we can achieve
it with God's help. I am not speaking here of the silence of these powers,
but of a retreat of these powers within the soul". Then the soul
"--can meditate on the Passion, can represent God the Son, can offer Him
to His heavenly Father without fatiguing the mind by going to look for Him
on the mountain of Calvary, in the garden, or at the pillar."
This retreat of the powers makes possible intimacy with the Master and an
affectionate colloquy which are the heart of the prayer of recollection.
"Deal with Him as with a father, a brother, a master, a spouse".
For Saint John of the Cross and for Saint Teresa, meditation is directed
toward simplification and interior silence. The soul has to train herself
to listen to what God says to her. She must recollect herself. In this way
she enters upon the path of contemplation.
Saint John of the Cross understands contemplation to be "a general and
loving attention to God", intelligence and will have their share in this
act, but it rests above all on a true connaturality with God. It is both
the highest activity of the soul and a passivity inspired by the Holy
"The soul must learn to abide attentively and wait lovingly upon God in
this quietude, without heeding the imagination or its activity because
here the faculties are at rest and are at work, not actively, but
passively, by receiving what God works in them; and if at times they work,
it is not with effort or with carefully developed meditation, but with
sweetness of love, moved more by God than by the ability of the soul."
Therefore contemplation is a general and loving looking at God. Now it
springs from the whole work of the Mystical Doctor that this looking and
this knowing are the result in the soul of the light of Faith. Freed from
sensible knowledge and from reasoning, the soul begins to contemplate God
in Faith and to unite itself to Him.
The Passage from Meditation to Contemplation.
To advance from meditation to contemplation God must act gently...
beginning on the lowest step, and with the senses so as to lead the soul
in His way to the highest level of spiritual wisdom which does not fall
under the senses. The passage, strictly speaking, will take place when
"a simplified activity which is the fruit of meditation" meets "an
infusion of divine light". The simplification of activity is, for the
most part, the fruit of habit:
"The end of meditation and of discourse on the things of God is to draw
some knowledge and some love of God and each time that the soul does this
in meditation, it is an act, and several acts beget a habit.
Then the soul beginning to pray.. drinks easily and sweetly. There is no
need to draw water from the aqueducts of past considerations, forms and
God, on His side, infuses light into the soul but this means that the
lights of imagination and the sweetness of the senses must cease.
God darkens all this brightness, doses the door, and stops at its source
this sweet spiritual water which they used to enjoy as often and for as
long a time as they wished. He leaves them in darkness."
It is then that
"God transfers to the spirit the strength of the senses... and when it is
the spirit that receives the pleasures, the flesh is left without savor
and is too weak to act. But the spirit, which now is being fed, grows
stronger and more alert and more solicitous than before in its anxiety not
to fail God; and it is not at once conscious of spiritual sweetness and
delight but only of aridity and lack of sweetness because of the
strangeness of the change."
When can and should the passage from meditation to contemplation be
prudently made? With great objectivity Saint John of the Cross lays down
three signs which ought to be present simultaneously in the soul.
Inability to meditate. No inclination for anything particular, that is to
say for anything other than God.
The third and the most certain (sign) is that the soul takes pleasure in
being alone with God and lovingly attentive to Him, without any special
consideration, in inner peace, quiet and repose, without any act or
exercise of the powers.
Like all deep transformations, this passage is not instantaneous. Not only
does the soul spend some time "in this vague realm where there is both
activity and passivity, what is acquired and what is infused", but the
soul must be humbly willing to return to meditation as often as is
necessary. Nevertheless a moment will come when
"--what the soul used to gain gradually through its effort of meditation
upon particular facts, now has through practice, become converted and
changed into a habit and substance of loving knowledge, general in nature,
and not distinct or particular as before... So that when the soul comes
before God, it makes an act of knowledge confused, loving, passive and
tranquil, in which the soul drinks of wisdom, love and delight."
So we see the psychology and delicacy with which the Mystical Doctor
describes this prayer in which what is acquired is united with what is
infused. The Teresian school always defended this prayer, using a term
that caused much confusion--acquired contemplation. In fact there is a
whole set of dispositions that the soul ought to possess, if she is to
profit from the beginning of contemplation and these dispositions should
This is what Saint John of the Cross did and what authors following Saint
Teresa's teaching have done. Their doctrine is that of active or acquired
contemplation. It would seem clearer to have used the terminology of the
Mystical Doctor and to have taught that there is contemplation on the
borderline of mystical experience and that it is frequently granted to
souls. In it the infusion of divine life meets simplified activity. But
the light received is not sufficiently strong to steady and absorb the
soul. So the soul must necessarily cooperate actively, lest it fall into
quietism. This is active-passive contemplation and depends on both God and
the soul, while infused contemplation strictly so-called depends on God
Infused contemplation and mystical union.
When Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa speak of "contemplation", it
is always of "infused contemplation" to which they refer. They know no
For Saint Teresa, contemplation is a state that "we cannot bring about by
ourselves. In it the soul feels passive". For Saint John of the Cross,
contemplation is "a knowledge lovingly infused by God in which He both
enlightens the soul and fills her with love in order to raise her step by
step to her Creator". The distinction between acquired and infused
contemplation was not to be developed until later.
Aware, above all, of the passivity that accompanies supernatural
recollection and mystical experience, Saint Teresa describes this
supernatural recollection as a gradual taking possession of the faculties
by God. A movement starting from the center of the soul where God dwells,
takes possession of the will (the prayer of quiet) then of the
intelligence and imagination (this is the sleep of the faculties), so as
to produce, by an ever greater deepness, complete passivity (prayer of
union). Then the soul comes to the sixth mansion and reaches, with
ecstasy, spiritual espousals.
In the seventh mansion she enjoys the fruits of union in spiritual
marriage. During the espousals, divine life is only substituted from time
to time for the soul's natural life (first five mansions), this happens
more frequently (in the sixth mansion), and finally (in the seventh
mansion) the union becomes permanent. Sometimes this union is experienced
only in the depth of the soul, sometimes so powerfully in the whole soul
that it is lost in the contemplation of the divine Spouse. The passivity
of the soul in these last mansions allows it now to say only "yes" to God.
Insofar as the soul dies to itself it is born to a life infinitely higher
and altogether divine. If it is willing to die totally, it will rise in
God. "It is because our gift is not whole that we do not receive the
treasure of divine love all at once".
Saint Teresa knew that this death and this life take place essentially by
means of union of wills and that ecstatic union is only its privileged
However numerous and remarkable are the extraordinary mystical facts which
are described by the Saint, they never make her lose sight of the fact
that they are only means of hastening the work of purification and of
detaching the soul from itself so as to plunge it in God.
"When you will be united to God by renouncing your will to be attached to
His, then you will have obtained the grace of union. Do not then trouble
yourself about this other delicious union.
This submission of our will to God's will... this is the union I have
longed for all my life; for this I never cease to beg our Lord."
Saint Teresa's teaching should be completed and made more precise by Saint
John of the Cross. The Mystical Doctor brightly illumined contemplative
life and gave it new depth especially by his description of the two
nights: the night of the senses, that separates meditation from
contemplation; and the night of the spirit, that is much more painful and
precedes the prayer of union. The soul's powerlessness and emptiness, the
knowledge it has acquired of its weaknesses, the feeling of being rejected
by God forever, hasten and intensify this work of detachment and
purification which condition the renewal of the soul's being and the
infusion of graces and divine gifts.
It is less the succession of contemplative states (which largely coincide
with those proposed by Saint Teresa) than the explanation of the
principles of the soul's transformation that interests Saint John of the
Cross. To him progress in contemplation requires an intense life of the
theological virtues. With the help of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the
soul passes from the human way of doing things to the divine; faith, hope,
charity are seen to be the true principles of the soul's transformation
and of its passage to the mystical life. This mystical life consists
essentially of a divinization of soul. This means the divinization of the
whole being through grace and the infused virtues, the divinization of all
activity through the constantly deepening actualization of the gifts of
the Holy Spirit.
The divine motion that acts only on the powers and their operations allows
at least some measure of spontaneity in the soul; but the motion that
takes the form of a substantial touch reaches the very depths of the soul
and reduces its powers to complete passivity. This experience of love is
produced by a particularly deep divine movement and leads the soul to
mystical marriage and perfect contemplation.
Perfect contemplation is made up of infused love and infused light; but
these two elements are not given with equal intensity. Their complete
communication is called the unitive touch. The Mystical Doctor
considers the theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit to be
the fundamental principles of contemplation and the life of mystical
union. But the substantial touch is the characteristic of perfect
contemplation. "This touch is substantial, that is to say, is a touch of
the Substance of God in the substance of the soul, and... it savors of
We have spoken of the sureness and splendor with which Saint John of the
Cross describes the unitive life, of the synthetic spirit with which he
correlates all the elements of the mystical life with theological
principles. In his writings light is never stressed at the expense of
love. He is truly the Mystical Doctor par excellence and the inspired
singer of divine love.
Contemplation and perfection.
Carmel is equally concerned about discovering what are the exact relations
that unite mystical life and holiness, or contemplation and perfection.
This concern is quite normal and is to be found in "L'Institution des
premiers moines," as we have already observed.
"In this life we distinguish a double goal: one that we reach with the
help of divine grace, through our efforts and the practice of virtue; as a
result we can offer God a holy heart, freed from every deliberate soiling
mark of sin; and we reach this goal when we are perfect and are in Carith,
that is to say, when we are hidden in charity... The second goal proposed
to us is God's pure gift: it consists in savoring in some way in one's
heart and in experiencing in one's spirit the power of the divine presence
and the sweetness of the glory that comes from above, not only after death
but here in this mortal life... It is to attain this double goal that the
monk lives the eremitical life."
Therefore, if at Carmel, as in every religious life and even in every
Christian life, the perfection of charity is to be sought before all else,
then it would seem that infused contemplation must likewise be sought.
Obviously it is impossible to secure this contemplation by one's self but
it is possible to prepare one's self for it. One may desire it, not
explicitly but generally. Better still, one should tend toward it but not
claim it as one's due. At Carmel, by the way of perfection the generous
soul goes ahead, as it were, of the divine generosity, even, if it so
please the divine Majesty, in the matter of contemplation.
So it is necessary that such souls be guided by wise directors who have
had experience with contemplatives. Saint John of the Cross insists much,
both on this necessity and on the serious responsibility of those who,
instead of leading souls along these steep paths, mislead them or prevent
them from advancing. "Such people do not know what the spirit is". He
deplores this kind of blindness, saying that:
"It is not of slight consequence nor without serious fault because it
deprives souls of inestimable good... In matters as lofty as is the state
of these souls, for the one who succeeds there is in store an almost
infinite good, while, on the contrary, for one who fails, there is an
almost infinite loss."
Better than long arguments, these words of Saint John of the Cross show in
what esteem divine union is held at Carmel. It is truly the precious
pearl, for whose possession all the rest is well sacrificed. It is
precious, not only for the soul itself, but still more for all souls who,
because of the communion of saints, greatly benefit from this growth in
love. "The least degree of pure love is more useful to the Church than all
good works without this love".
Characteristics of Carmelite Spirituality.
"They were permitted, as they wished, to live in the perpetual service of
the divine Master and His virgin Mother". Thus William of Sanvic expressed
himself in his "Chronique" which dates from the end of the thirteenth
century. These words, in fact, describe Carmel's character and its object.
But we must also ask whether this double object: the service of God in
prayer and the honor paid our Lady is not itself understood in a way that
is both general and yet specific.
Contemplation is a reality belonging to a well defined order. It supposes,
as Carmel has always understood, certain conditions of silence, solitude,
recollection. It supposes, too, deep interior detachment. While Saint
Teresa recalls that "he who has God has all things, God alone suffices",
Saint John of the Cross leads us to the summit of the mountain through a
succession of nothings... "and on the mountain nothing". He exacts an
integral, spiritual poverty, necessary to one who wishes to enter into the
possession of the All.
John of Saint Samson insists that one who wishes to live according to "the
true spirit of Carmel", must live in a state of great purity. Madame
Acarie used often to repeat: "Too avaricious is the soul for whom God does
not suffice". Near to our own time, Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity
"My mission in heaven will be to draw souls to interior recollection,
helping them to go out from themselves to adhere to God by a movement that
is altogether simple and altogether sweet, to keep them in this great
silence within that enables God to imprint Himself in them and transform
them into Himself."
Nakedness, detachment, poverty, nothingness, purity, simplicity... In
these words, traced so spontaneously by the pens of Carmelite authors and
Saints, an attempt is being made to express a profound reality. This is a
reality whose exigency the Carmelite soul feels deep within itself,
longing as it does for total transparency, believing or knowing from
experience that in no other way can God take possession of it.
"The soul is like a window on which divine light is shining... The soul
allowing God to work in it (having rid itself of every mist and stain of
creatures, which consists in having its will perfectly united with the
will of God, because to love is to labor to detach and strip one's self
for God's sake of all that is not God) is at once illumined and
transformed in God."
In Carmel it is understood that purifications of soul and spiritual
poverty are the necessary conditions for the possession of so great a
good; they are, therefore, ardently sought. Of them may be said what the
sacred writer says of wisdom: "All good things came to me together with
her" (Wis. 7:11).
It is indeed very remarkable that in Carmel, everything, including
apostolic spirit, comes as a consequence of the divine possession of the
Free, disencumbered, made simple, delivered from movements of return on
self and polarized by "the one thing necessary", the soul is now open to
love. "Henceforth, its sole occupation is to love". Everything else
flows from this.
Surrendered to God, it places all its confidence in Him, it abandons
itself to Him completely. Apostolic zeal and love of souls is the proof
par excellence that the divine presence has kindled the heart.
Charity springs from the eremitical life, just as pure water rises in the
oasis set in the midst of the desert. "I am on fire with zeal for the Lord
Carmelite spirituality is not contemplative and apostolic. It is apostolic
because it is contemplative.
This is true because the soul is wholly subject to the action of the Holy
Spirit. At every level of spiritual life, the Holy Spirit is at work.
Purifying, enlightening, unifying, transforming. He is in the soul like an
interior fountain, the source of its union with God. Is He not the Spirit
Guided by the Holy Spirit, the soul acquires great simplicity in its
abandonment to the divine action, an awareness of a living, spiritual
continuity, as well as a constantly renewed ""elan"."
The Holy Spirit is the source of contemplative life as well as of the life
of the apostolate. It is He who draws the being into Himself for prayer
and sends it out to conquer the world. The Spirit of the Cenacle is also
the Spirit of Pentecost:
"You shall send forth Your Spirit, and they shall be created And You shall
renew the face of the earth."
It is in this perspective of simplicity, detachment and unity that Carmel
envisages our Lady. Carmel sees in her the "soul" in the presence of God.
Her purity and simplicity are ravishing. She is the soul whom God has
completely and absolutely unified. In her is admirably made manifest: the
omnipotence of the Spirit, the origin of contemplation, the origin of the
Through Mary Carmel perceives the ideal toward which it is drawn and which
attracts it. This is a life of unity in God, of union with Christ, of
efficacious and salvific charity toward men.
Or course, for Carmel as for every Christian soul, Mary is above all, the
Mother. "She is more mother than queen", affirms Saint Theresa of the
Child Jesus. But she is also something more. She is "the beauty of
Carmel". What does that mean? Under this mysterious title, Carmel tries to
express something of what she means to the Order: a brightness of eternal
light, she in whom God allows Himself to be contemplated and cherished,
she in whom "the divine light knows no shadow".
Now we understand why, at Carmel, at least for certain souls, Mary is
intimately associated in the very practice of contemplation. In her the
Lord has done great things. The purity and transparency of her soul
enables us to see God at work in her and to contemplate in her a
reflection of the divine Beauty.
This soul, so transparent, is, we know, that of our mother. Her mission is
to form us to live a life of union with God such as she enjoyed. How could
our path not lead us to her? So we see that at Carmel there has always
been a contemplative way on which union with Mary, far from being an
obstacle, or even a detour, is envisaged as an essential condition of
advance to the highest mystical life.
"The soul discovers that marian contemplation does not lead her away from
adhesion to or immediate union with the Sovereign Good and the simple
essence of God considered in itself. On the contrary the soul finds
herself attracted to God with greater facility and is held by Him with
greater stability.... All this is effected in the soul by one and the same
Spirit, the author of this marian life which leads finally to a perfectly
This, then, is Carmelite spirituality: an attraction for open spaces and
solitude, interior liberty, simplicity and unity under the impulse of the
Spirit of Love.
Such a spirituality requires a fundamental grasp of the absolute which
lifts the soul out of itself and leads it to the heights. The absolute of
divine transcendence is the basis of the soul's adoration and introduces
Carmel to purest theocentrism: "I shall keep my strength for You
alone". The absolute of love requires that all things be sacrificed
for love and that all things be changed into love. "Love where there is no
love and you will find love".
Vowed to the service of Love, the soul is not satisfied with loving but
seeks to experience love, to suffer love, and at last to be transformed
Although Carmelite spirituality gives the soul the liberty and simplicity
of the children of God and leads it to the heights, it also requires that
all this be constantly examined in the light of principles of wisdom, of
most judicious psychology and of "discretion". Finally, it weighs
mysticism itself in the Gospel scales of wholesome and supernatural
realism. "He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves
me". "If anyone love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love
him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him . (John 14: 21.
Carmelite spirituality is immanent and transcendent. To an "elan" toward
the summits it brings a deep psychological insight and a keen realism.
That is why during all these centuries it has been able to guide souls to
the top of the holy mountain. In spite of their wide diversity, Carmel
makes it possible for all souls to realize their highest and most
necessary vocation: "Vivere Deo".--"To live for God".
1. JEROME DE LA MERE DE DIEU, O.C.D. quoting Costa Rosetti, S.J. in "La
doctrine du venerable frere Jean de S. Samson", "La vie Spirituelle,"
1925, p. 32, n. 1.
2. Saint John of the Cross gives a startling confirmation of this fact
when he recalls it in the very title of "The Ascent of Carmel." He write:
"The Ascent of Mount Carmel shows how: soul can prepare to arrive promptly
at divine union..."
3. Cf. JOURNET, "Petit catechisme des origines du monde."
4. "Rule of Mount Carmel."
5. "Rule of Mount Carmel."
6. True spirit of Carmel, 1658.
7. FRANCOIS DE SAINTE-MARIE, "La Regle du Carmel et son esprit," Edition
du Seuil, 1949, p. 33.
8. "Rule of Mount Carmel."
9. FRANCOIS DE SAINTE-MARIE, ibid., p. 88.
10. "Premieres Constitutions d'Italie."
11. FRANCOIS DE SAINTE-MARIE, ibid., p. 112.
12. Viridarium in "Speculum Carm.," 599.
13. JOHN BACONTHORP.
14. ELISEE DE LA NATIVITE, O.C.D.: "La vie mariale au Carmel," "Maria,"
II, p. 839, Beaucheane.
15. M. LEPEE, "Sainte Therese d'Avila. Le realisme mystique." Desclee de
16. GABRIEL DE SANTE-MARIE-MADELEINE, "Carmes", "Dictionnaire de
Spiritualite," col. 197.
17. "Life," Chapter 12.
18. "The Way of Perfection," 30.
19. "The Heavenly Mansions," fifth dwelling, chapter 4.
21. LEPEE, ibid., p. 154.
22. "Life," 22.
23. "The Heavenly Mansions," sixth dwelling, chapter 7.
24. M. LEPEE, op. cit., p. 172.
25. RIBERA, "Vie de Sainte Therese," II, ch. I.
27. "Foundations," I.
28. Prologue to "The Ascent of Mount Carmel," I, 6.
29. LUCIEN MARIE DE SAINT-JOSEPH, O.C.D., "Les ouvres spirituelles de S.
Jean de la Croix," Introduction, 31, Desclee de Brouwer.
30. J. WEHRLE, "Saint Jean de la Croix, docteur."
31. "Ascent of Mount Carmel," Book 2: chapters 7 and 22.
33. "Maxim," 209.
34. "Maxim," 235.
35. "The Ascent," Book I, chapter 13.
36. "Spiritual Sentences," 176.
37. "The Ascent," Book 2, chapter 7.
38. P. CONGAR, O.P., "Esquisse du mystere de l'Eglise."
39. "The Ascent," Book 2, chapter 8.
40. "The Ascent," Book 3, chapter 2.
41. "Mystical Poems."
42. "The Ascent," Book 2, chapter 4.
44. "The Ascent," Book 2, chapter 13.
45. "The Ascent," Book 2, chapter 9.
46. "The Ascent," Book I, chapter 22.
47. "The Ascent," Book 2, chapter 6.
48. Cf. "The Living Flame," Book 3, chapter 40.
49. DOM CHEVALIER, "Le Cantique Spirituel de Saint Jean de la Croix," p.
50. "Maxim of the Saint."
51. "Canticle" I.
52. "The Ascent," Book 2, chapter 29.
53. "The Living Flame," stanza I, 16.
54. "The Living Flame," first stanza.
55. FRANCOIS DE SAINTE-MARIE, "Initiation a Saint Jean de la Croix," p.
56. "Spiritual Canticle," Stanza 26; "The Living Flame," stanza 3.
57. "Spiritual Canticle," Stanza 31.
58. "The Living Flame," Stanza 1.
59. "The Living Flame," Stanza 4.
60. "The Spiritual Canticle," 39.
61. "The Living Flame."
62. "Spiritual Canticle," stanza 37.
63. "Spiritual Canticle," stanza 38.
64. LAWRENCE OF THE RESURRECTION, "Maximes spirituelles."
68. "Novissima Verba," p. 60.
69. Letter of September 14, 1896.
70. Letter of May 15, 1897 to Father Roulland.
71. "Novissima verba, p. 125 etc.
72. Extract of a circular letter from Lisieux signed by R. M. Agnes,
February 17, 1924.
73. Extract from a letter of Sister Marie de l'Eucharistie to M. Guerin,
August 7, 1897.
74. "Story of a Soul," Chapter 1.
75. Ibid., p. 5.
76. Letter of May 9, 1897.
77. "Story of a Soul" Counsels and Souvenirs.
78. ABBE THELLIER DE PONCHEVILLE.
79. "Way of Perfection," Chapter 21.
80. "Life," chapter 13.
81. "Way of Perfection," Chapter 30.
82. "Way of Perfection," Chapter 30.
85. "The Ascent," Book 2, chapter 12.
86. "The Ascent," Book 2, chapter 17.
87. FATHER GABRIEL DE SAINTE-MARIE-MADELEINE, "Carmes", "Dictionnaire de
Spiritualite," co. 182.
88. "The Ascent," Book 2, chapter 14.
89. Ibid., 1:14.
90. "The Dark Night," 1:8.
91. Ibid. 1:9.
92. "The Ascent," Book 2, chapter 13.
93. "The Ascent," Book 2, chapter 14.
94. "Dark Night," 2:18.
95. "Life," II.
96. "Heavenly Castle," V. Mansion, chapter 3.
97. "The Dark Night," 2:12.
98. "The Living Flame," 2:14.
99. "Institution des premiers moines," chapter 2.
100. "The Living Flame," 2:3.
101. "The Living Flame," 3:3.
102. SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS, Maxims.
103. "The Ascent," Book 2, chapter 5.
104. "Spiritual Canticle."
105. MICHEL DE SAINT-AUGUSTIN: "La vie Marieforme." P. Michel de
Saint-Augustin was, as we know, the director of the Carmelite mystic,
Marie de Sainte-Therese (d. 1677). His works were strongly influenced by
the experiences of this Flemish recluse.
106. Ps. 58:10. On three occasions Saint John of the Cross quotes this