The Carmelite Marian Tradition: The Seventeenth Century
Another great Carmelite Marian writer of the seventeenth century was Father Stephen of St. Francis Xavier, famed especially for his interest in Carmel’s Third Order. In his Exhortations Monastiques, a series of conferences touching on all things Carmelite, Father Stephen has left us a clear description of the relationship which must exist between Our Lady and the Carmelite.
In doing this, he restricts himself to a discussion of the title of our Rule. First task is to discover its full meaning. Our title is “Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, 'o That is to say, we are her religious; and the very presence of Mary’s name in this title is the chief clue to the essence of our life. In the days when we acquired this title, to lend one’s name to an institute, whether civil or religious, signified that that institute stood for everything that one stood for, and in just the way one did. For example, the Order of St. Francis was founded that it might perpetuate the spirit of poverty manifested in the life of Francis himself; the Order of St. Dominic, to perpetuate that saint’s spirit of learning and preaching. Carmel, the “Brothers “of Our Blessed Lady, was founded to perpetuate and spread abroad the spirit of Mary; its religious were to be truly religious of Mary; everything they did was to reflect her; they were to re-present her to the world by the example of their life.
It is clear, then, that Our Lady is more than the Patroness of our Order. She is, to judge from her position in Carmelite life, our Mother, even our Foundress.
Father Stephen cites pontiffs of Rome who have sanctioned this attitude of Carmel towards our Blessed Lady. Drawing from Sixtus IV and Gregory XIII, for example, he shows that Mary brought forth, produced, brought into the world the Order of Carmel, that she gave it her own name to make it manifest to all that Carmelites have been chosen to represent her in a special way.
The Prophet Elias, relates Stephen, is of course the Father of religious life on Mount Carmel. But the men who follow in his footsteps must do so under the banner of the Virgin Mother of the Messias, having the same faith in her that Elias had in the little cloud which appeared over Mount Carmel in answer to his prayer. Christian theologians have seen in that cloud a figure of Mary’s coming, and the traditions of our Order point out that Elias himself recognized its prophetical aspect. Elias therefore dedicated himself to cultivate the virtues which were to characterize this future virgin Mother, and all his spiritual progeny were to do the same. Thus, the Order of Carmel, as the one institution of Christian times which could look to the mount of Carmel as its official birthplace, was always destined to belong to Our Lady.
But Father Stephen is particularly interested in the evidence given by Our Lady herself that she has accepted this dedication of the Order to her. She has adopted us, he says, as specially loved children. She has given us her Scapular to prove that adoption, and to mark it as something altogether special. And if Stephen becomes over-enthusiastic even to the point of tacitly excluding others from the privilege of being in a strict sense Mary’s children, it is because of the overwhelming evidence of Our Lady’s tender love for his own Order.
Stephen first describes the nature' of our adoption, a She did not adopt us in a weak and sterile manner, “he says. “She wanted her adoption to correspond to her dignity, and her dignity surpasses that of men. When a man in civil life adopts someone... nothing real happens in the person adopted other than the imposition of a new name. But the holy Virgin changes us in adopting us. Her adoption penetrates the essence of the soul. She brings there light, warmth, and strength; that is, interior graces which she has obtained from Jesus Christ. “
This adoption—Mary’s spiritual motherhood in our regard—is for Stephen the central point of our Carmelite life. It shows Our Lady in her office of Mediatrix of all graces, the great Queen and Mother who obtains for her children the life of their souls. And as the greatest possible sign of her motherhood, she has chosen the Brown Scapular.
Presenting it to St. Simon Stocky she called him her son: “Receive, my beloved son, the scapular of thy Order. “And continuing, she revealed the power it was to have, both in regard to our life on earth, and our life after death: both here and hereafter we are to belong to her. “This shall be a sign to thee and to all Carmelites: whosoever dies wearing this shall not suffer eternal fire. “
Stephen compares the Scapular to the Cross of Our Lord, and says that it would seem that Our Lady would imitate her Son. Our Lord attached to the Cross of Calvary all the grace of heaven won by His sufferings and death. Mary has attached to the Scapular of Carmel all the graces won by herself by her cooperation in her Divine Son’s sacrifice. And this great sign, a sign of the full power of Mary’s intercession in heaven, indeed a sign of salvation, she has reserved for her children of Carmel.
But just as faith in the Cross is dead without good works, so too the Scapular is worthless without our cooperation with the graces which come to us because of it. To emphasize this fact, Stephen tells us we have two Scapulars: one exterior and material, the other interior and spiritual. If we wear the exterior Scapular without conforming ourselves internally to the obligations of a child of Mary, we will not only profane the trust Our Lady has put in us, but will merit the most severe punishment.
As Camelites, we take the Scapular upon our shoulders on our profession day as a sign of that profession, a sign of formally giving ourselves to Mary as one of her family. Now profession in religion is as it were a second baptism. By it we leave our past life behind us and begin anew to live for God. In fact, in the eyes of God our past no longer exists. And just as the waters of Baptism were an instrument of salvation, so too our Scapular should be for us a further instrument of salvation. To abuse it by wearing it unworthily is to make of it an instrument of our condemnation.
Mary, then, is our Mother. Stephen tells us that she conceived us by giving us the light of our vocation. She bore us in her womb during our novitiate. And she gave us birth on the day of our profession. “And if all this has not been so sensible and so clear to us [as it has been to the saints of our Order], it has nonetheless been received by us in an extremely powerful and efficacious manner. “
But how are we to make return to Mary for this new birth? “It is as high above natural birth as grace, or rather as the perfection of grace, is above nature. “You have been bought with a great price, says St. Paul, and Stephen reminds us that this is also the case with our vocation in Carmel. “We belong no more to ourselves, “he tells us. “We belong to Our Lady, who has acquired us by her adoption. “Can a greater honor be imagined than to be the child of the Mother of God? We are not children of the slave, but of the free woman (cf. Gal. 4, 31); nay, we are children of the Queen. To be accepted into the service of a queen is an honor which all covet. But we are called, and are, the children of the queen—and children of her choice! a Our Lady, “says Stephen, “speaks to us with the same words which her Divine Son used in addressing His Apostles: You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you. “
With every privilege, however, there are obligations, and the privilege of being chosen into Mary’s special family- is no exception. St. Paul warned the Ephesians: Walk in the vocation to which you are called, with humility and, meekness. Mary says to us: a I have called you into my service, honored you. You are to have a mind and heart only for heavenly things. “If we are opposed to the designs of Mary in our regard, we do not keep our part of the alliance she has contracted with us. We are her children; it is for a Mother to determine the path her children are to follow on their way to maturity: our maturity comes to us in heaven.
We wear her Scapular. “But is this enough? Speak sincerely! When do we think of our adoption? And when we do think of it, what power does it have over us? Must we not say that it does not form our rule of conduct? Behold one of the causes of evil: we lower ourselves to a thousand things unworthy of us, without thinking who or what we are. Antigone said to her son: ' You are the son of the king,’ and he turned from his evil ways. You are the children of the Queen of heaven! “
We have been chosen from among thousands. It is for us to prove ourselves worthy of that choice. Nothing less can be demanded of us than a total dedication to Our Lady’s works, her cause, her honor. Zeal in our undertakings for her is the only worthy return we can make for her tender love of us. And not to show her the greatest confidence, no matter what the problems of our life may be, would be to slight the power of a Mother’s fidelity. Mary can never betray the love she has shown us. A mother never forgets her child, God told Isaias. And if she should, I however will not forget thee. Mary, God’s Mother, is no less faithful to her children. Zeal and utter confidence in her are true signs of dedication, a dedication which is so entire that it earns the name “consecration “, a “growing holy with “Mary.
But the only true manifestation of consecration is imitation. Our Lady began her adoption through her love for us. We must bring it to perfection by returning that love, and this we do most sincerely by imprinting her image on ourselves. That is, we must develop in ourselves the characteristics of our Mother, as all true children do. In order to obtain this grace of resemblance to Our Lady, we ourselves, says Stephen, must become Mothers of Jesus Christ.
Father Stephen here stresses a point of Christian spirituality which Carmelite Marian writers before him have been content to pass over or merely to mention. That we all be Mothers of Jesus Christ is the aspect of the Marian life which most appealed to Father Titus Brandsma, a Carmelite of our own century who died in the prison camp of Dachau. To him, this was the apex of a life totally consecrated to Our Lady, and Father Stephen echoes his conviction.
How do we attain to this sublime dignity? Mary attained to the dignity of Motherhood by the cooperation of her soul and body; we, by the cooperation of our soul. Hugh of St. Victor, a great theologian, wrote: <( Conceive, bear, give birth to Christ, possess Him. Conceive Him through faith; bear Him through your will; give birth to Him through good works; possess Him in glory. “This, says Stephen, is truly a Carmelite way of life.
Turning to the practical aspect of this form of imitation, Stephen continues: “Mary was profoundly humble in this operation. Can I consider myself a child of her Order if I am proud? And how great was her purity! She would have preferred to sacrifice her Divine Motherhood rather than lose her virginity. Can we call ourselves hers, if we do not try to equal this? “And what total obedience she manifested in her fiat! Her retirement, her silence, her application to God are peerless in the history of sainthood.
We belong to her Order, but we are not yet her children, for we are not yet like her. “To call ourselves her children without being like her is for our evil, not for our good. We lose thereby the favor of her protection. “Mothers love all their children, but they love especially those who resemble them, who bear the mark of their character. “Be like her, then, in order to be her well-beloved. She will make return to you by pouring precious graces into your soul. “
It is true that we are happy to have entered Our Lady’s Order, to have been adopted by her. But this mere “belonging “to Mary cannot in itself give us the plenitude of happiness promised to her children.
“The font of all our happiness, “ Stephen insists, “lies in entering into
her ways and imitating her virtues. She tells us this herself: Now therefore, ye children, hear me: Blessed are they that keep my ways (Prov. 8, 32). It is as if she said: ' I am happy, but not so much for
having conceived the Son of God in my womb as for having conceived
Him in my heart by fidelity to His word. You too are happy to have entered into my alliance, but you will be especially so if you bear the image of my virtues.’ “
And Father Stephen concludes: “Do this, then, that you might say without fear of reproach: Show thyself a Mother. “
Father Stephen of St. Francis Xavier is not the greatest of our seventeenth century authors, but he reflects the true spirit of this golden age of Carmel. He was, above all, unstinting in his labors for Our Lady. That he was “totally Marian “is immediately evident from the prologue to the Exortations Monastiques, where he dedicates his book, as he had dedicated his life, to Our Lady:
“Holy Virgin, august Queen of heaven and earth, Mother and Patroness of Carmel: I present this book to you as a mark of zeal to honor you, and as a public testimony of the total consecration of my heart and my life to you, made as soon as I knew you. My father and mother, who gave me being, vowed me to the service of your Majesty before my birth. Upon reaching the age of reason, I ratified their vow by entering your holy Order, and since then have regarded you as my sovereign Princess. I firmly believed that I was wholly yours, that I was bound as one of your most faithful and most devoted servants to work day and night for your glory, and that I was not allowed to do anything without turning to you for particular guidance.
“I have acquitted myself of this duty very badly. But if I have been often unfaithful, I have not failed on this present occasion to offer you the fruit of my studies. Receive it, then, incomparable Virgin, with some approbation, since I present it to you with a heart perfectly submissive to your crown and inseparably united to the service of your Majesty. Take it under your protection so that, the darkness which I have poured out being dispersed by your light, I may shine on those who read it and conduct them happily on the paths of religious perfection “
Matthew Sprouffske, O. Carm.
Obedience is the sun of the religious life, because it does for the religious life what the sun does for the earth. The sun gives light, motion and growth to the world; obedience gives light, motion and growth to religion. Where the sun is, there it is day-time; all see its light — it is the author of the day. Obedience, in precisely the same way, is the author of the light-filled day of the religious. With the aid of the sun, one does not mistake his way; and under the guidance of obedience the religious walks always in security.
Andrew Mastelloni, O. Carm.