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Introducing the Carmelite Mystics - Part 2

Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm.

The Carmelite Mystics

In a discussion at the Carmelite general chapter in 1989, someone asked if the Church would have been much the poorer if the Carmelite Order never existed. My immediate instinct was to feel that of course the Carmelite Order, small as it is,

is important for the Church; but the question niggled, did we really make any big difference? I pondered the question for weeks and months, and it gradually became clear in my mind something of the nature of the Carmelite contribution to the Church.

The great Carmelite insight, one common to all our mystics, is the supreme value of the spiritual journey, the journey into our heart where we discover God. This journey is a pearl beyond price; it is something worth losing all else to acquire. But it is not an easy journey: the ascent of Mount Carmel to use the expression of St. John of the Cross, later taken over in the liturgy, is a stern task that demands unrelenting dedication over a life-time. Yet the Carmelite mystics know like the Egyptian Jewish mystic, Philo of Alexandria in the first century, that just to embark on this journey is already a great joy.

This we see in a letter of Bl Elizabeth of the Trinity just before she died at the age of twenty-six to her slightly worldly friend, Françoise de Sourdon. Elizabeth was so weak she could only write in pencil. But her mind was crystal clear. From her own deep experience she told her nineteen year old friend:

I truly believe that God wants your life to be spent in a realm where the air breathed is divine. Oh! You see, I have a profound compassion for souls that live only for this world and its trivialities; I consider them as slaves, and wish I could tell them. Shake off the yoke that weighs you down; what are you doing with these bonds that chain you to yourself and to things less than yourself (Complete Works. Washington, 1984 ff. 1:126 / Oeuvres complètes. Paris, 1991: 136)

Four years earlier when she was twenty-two and Françoise would have been only fifteen she had written:

I understand that you need an ideal, something that will draw you out of yourself and raise you to greater heights. But you see, there is only One; it is He, the Only Truth! Ah, if you only knew hint a little as your Sabeth does! He fascinates, He sweeps you away, under His gaze the horizon becomes so beautiful, so vast, so luminous... My dear one, do you want to turn with me towards this sublime ideal? It is no fiction but a reality (Ibid. 122 / 414).

Similar sentiments could be echoed throughout the Carmelite tradition. An obvious example from the male Carmel would be the ecstatic poetry of St. John of the Cross.

But the Carmelite mystics do not only share this conviction of the pearl beyond price with other saints, which they come from a particular perspective, which we shall see if we look briefly at the history of the Order and its Marian tradition.

Carmelite Historical Background

The Carmelites always have a problem about their origins. Other institutes had great men and women as founders: the Franciscan family has St. Francis and St. Clare; the Vincentians have St. Vincent De Paul (Depaul) and St. Louise de Marillac. The Carmelites were originally hermits living on Mount Carmel in the second part of the 12th century. They got a Rule from St. Albert of Jerusalem about 1208. They came to Europe as a result of Saracen persecution. They had great trouble being accepted in Europe: they were of unknown Eastern origin; they wanted to live as hermits and found they could not do so on fresh air; they had a habit which was like the back of a wobbling zebra; the diocesan clergy did not want more competition; the other religious institutes did not welcome rivals either.

For the first hundred years or so, Carmelite writing was almost exclusively defensive: the Carmelites had to justify their right to exist and to minister as friars which they had become. By the middle of the 14th century they were more or less accepted, and soon a major classic in spirituality was written. This work by a Catalan Carmelite, Philip Ribot, after 1370, called The Institution of the First Monks, though largely derivative, gives in essence the mystical call of the Carmelite Order. A passage in the second chapter of the first book is rightly famous:

In regard to that life we may distinguish two aims, the one of which we attain to, with the help of God’s grace, by our own efforts and by virtuous living. This is to offer God a heart holy and pure from all actual stain of sin. This aim we achieve when we become perfect and hidden in charity... The other aim of this life that can be bestowed upon us only by God’s bounty: namely to taste in our hearts and experience in our minds, not only after death but even during this mortal life, something of the power of the divine presence and the bliss of heavenly glory.

Here we find clearly expressed the ordinary ways of the spiritual life, namely what we can do by our own grace-assisted efforts, and the mystical (“supernatural” in St. Teresa of Avila) which is by God’s special gift. The significance of this passage lies partly in the fact that this special grace is one that we should desire and have as an aim of the spiritual journey.

In the middle of the next century Bl. John Soreth founded the Carmelite sisters and the Order henceforth would have a feminine branch. There had been various groups of women associated with the Order before Soreth’s foundation in 1452. The first significant woman mystic who wrote, or had her thoughts recorded, was St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzi (d. 1607).

Meanwhile in the century leading to the Reformation, the Carmelite Order, like other orders, was in some decline. There were various reforms, even before the Reformation. But the most significant one was initiated by St. Teresa of Avila in Spain. From being a bit

worldly, but by no means a great sinner, she received the grace of a major conversion in 1555. Seven years later she began the reform of houses of nuns, and later of priests in the Order in Spain. She was later helped by St. John of the Cross, twenty-seven years her junior. After their death, the reformed houses broke away from the parent Carmelite Order to form the Discalced Carmelites, now in some places, even by themselves, called Teresians.

There was a major reform in the parent Order at the beginning of the next century, centred in Touraine in France. Its leading light was a blind lay-brother, the Venerable John of St. Samson, one of the most outstanding mystics in the history of spirituality. His works are only now being published in French. English translations do not yet exist. In the period of 1600-1850 there was a huge amount of mystical writing in both parts of the Carmelite family; this body of material is only in recent decades being studied, and very little is published in modern editions.

With the nineteenth century we have one of the best-known of the Carmelite saints, Thérèse of Lisieux who died in 1897 at the age of twenty-four. Less known is Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity who died at the age of twenty six in Dijon in 1906. Both were enclosed Discalced nuns. Another remarkable mystic is the recently beatified Edith Stein, a Jewish philosopher and convert to Catholicism, who was martyred by the Nazis in 1942. Also a martyr to German National Socialism was Bl. Titus Brandsma, an authority himself on Carmelite and Low Countries mysticism.

Mystics for the Whole Church

Thus we see that the Carmelite mystics are both men and women, but all were members of the Carmelite Order, either as friars or nuns. The question arises whether these can be said to belong to the whole Church or have a more parochial interest for one religious family. At this stage one can say that the mystics received personal graces to raise them to high holiness. This gracing, however, was ecclesial; it was not only for themselves, but also for the Church. Through their mystical experiences they became teachers in the Church, and some have become authenticated teachers with the title “Doctor of the Church.”

Characteristics of Carmelite Mysticism

In the brief outline of Carmelite history, we saw the origins of the Carmelite Order to have been on Mount Carmel, a hermitical life. The change to Europe was traumatic. One Prior General, Nicolas the Frenchman, wrote The Fiery Arrow about 1270, a bitter diatribe against those who betrayed the ideals of the Order by leaving the contemplative life to become involved in pastoral ministry. In succeeding centuries there was always a nostalgia for the hermit life of Mount Carmel and a conviction that the Order is essentially contemplative as well as pastoral. At times this nostalgia would appear almost as a schizophrenia between the ideal of Mount Carmel, which was to be no more, and the actual reality of the ministry of friars.

This nostalgia for the hermit life on Mount Carmel gave rise to a characteristic symbol of the desert. We know that the desert is a symbol of purification. It was in the desert that the Israel was purified and made into a people; the prophet Hosea speaks of the desert as a time of special conversion to, and allurement by, the Lord (2:14). The desert, even when not explicit, is never far from Carmelite writers. They sense its solitude, its being a privileged place of divine encounter, its offer of conversion, purification and transforming love.

But the place of the desert is within. I must go into my heart to find the desert, the place where I meet God. Elizabeth of the Trinity in her final years cites the text of Hos 2:14-16 about the desert where God speaks to the heart (Oeuvres complètes 100, 174, 463).

This desert of the heart has all the connotations of the Exodus experience in which the Israelites were purified of their idolatry. It is in the desert too the Carmelite mystics learned to let go of the many idols that block the way to God. There are many names for this desert: it is the nights of John of the Cross, it is the surrender of Thérèse and Elizabeth of the Trinity, it is the journey inwards of Teresa of Avila, it is the cell of the heart corresponding to his prison cell for Bl. Titus Brandsma. Above all the desert is where we learn to leave all and travel light to meet the One who satisfies all our desires.


As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."