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Introducing the Carmelite Mystics - Part 3

Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm.

Mary and the Carmelite Mystics

In the extensive writing about the Carmelite mystics there is, I think one major lacuna. Not nearly enough attention has been given to the place of Mary in the mystical journey. On its coming to Europe in the mid-13th century, the Carmelite Order developed over a period of about 300 years several images of the Virgin. Firstly, she was Patron. The hermits chose her on Mount Carmel as their Patron by the medieval symbolism of dedicating their first church to her. Henceforth they would serve her as a feudal Lady, and she would protect them as her vassals. The second image developed was Mother. The Lady of the Order was also its Mother. Thirdly, the idea of Sister developed. The Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, to use the ancient title of the Order, realized that their Patron and Mother was also Sister. Finally, the Carmelites focused on Mary as Virgin, but not so much in terms of chastity or physical integrity, but as the Virgin of the Most Pure Heart. Mary was the ideal fulfilment of the programmatic aim of The Institute of the First Monks, “to offer to God a heart holy and pure from all actual stain of sin.”

But behind all these four images of Mary – Patron, Mother, Sister and Virgin of the Most Pure Heart – there is a deeper reality: Mary is the gentle, loving presence for Carmelites. But she is more: she is the Teacher and Guide of the mystics. This is an area seldom averted to by authors on the Carmelite mystics, be they from the Order or not.

Marian Mysticism

A significant element of the Order’s tradition is that of Marian mysticism, a term which is not univocally used by all scholars. Its main exemplar is the Flemish Carmelite tertiary Mary Petyt (Petijt – Mary of St. Teresa, 1623-1677). After some years of searching out her vocation she met the Carmelite, Michael of St. Augustine, who became her director and summarized some of her experiences in a little volume on the Mariform Life (Latin text edited G. Wessels Rome, 1926; others in R.M. Valabek, Mary: Mother of Carmel. Rome, 1987, vol. 1:269-289).

Two questions arise about Marian mysticism: the first is the role of Mary that is ordinarily to be found in the contemplative – mystical life of Carmel; the second is the more difficult area of examining the reality and validity of a specifically Marian mystical experience.

In general we can answer that in the Carmelite Order contemplative life and mystical experience are very frequently seen to have Marian characteristics. Mary accompanies Carmelite contemplatives on their journey to divine union. Furthermore, very many Carmelite mystics have had experiences in which Mary had a part. These are too commonplace to need much elaboration; one can take one example from St. Teresa of Avila. It was on the feast of the Assumption 1561:

I was reflecting on the many sins I had in past confessed in that house and many things about my wretched life. A rapture came upon me so great that it almost took me out of myself It seemed to me while in this state that I saw myself vested in a white robe of shining brightness, but at first I didn’t see who was clothing me in it. Afterward I saw our Lady on my right side and my father St. Joseph at the left, for they were putting that robe on me. I was given to understand that I was now cleansed of my sins...

The beauty I saw in our Lady was extraordinary, although I didn’t make out any particular details except for the form of her face in general and that her garment was of the most brilliant white, not dazzling but soft... (T)hen it seemed to me I saw them ascend to heaven with a great multitude of angels. I was left in deep loneliness, although so consoled and elevated ah4 recollected in prayer and moved to love that I remained some time without being able to stir or speak, but almost outside myself I was left with a great impulse to be dissolved for God and with similar affects. And everything happened in such a way that I could never doubt, no matter how much I tried, that the vision was from God (Life 33:14-15).

Here though Mary is central in the experience, it is a vision that is from God and leading to deeper union with God. Again, St. Teresa of Avila in a mystical vision on 8 September, 1575, renewed her vows in the hands of Our Lady. She notes: “This vision remained with me for some days, as though she were next to me at my left” (Spiritual Testimonies 43).

The healing of St. Thérèse of Lisieux through the smile of our Lady on Pentecost Sunday 1883 is another example of a Marian vision, but one which is seen as a divine mercy, the beginning of a process of healing which five years later would allow her enter Carmel (The Story of a Soul, ch. 3).

Such mystical experiences are extremely frequent in the history of spirituality, and need not be taken as distinctively Carmelite, even though also found in, and arising from, the life of Carmel.

The second kind of experience is more specifically Carmelite, and as yet not sufficiently studied by spiritual theologians. It is, however, occasionally detected apart from the Carmelite Order, for example in the Jesuit Pierre-Joseph de la Clorivière (d. 1820) and in the life-long collaborator of Cardinal Suenens, Veronica O’Brien (b. 1905). It is most elaborated by Michael of St. Augustine and Mary Petyt, and texts in modern languages are not widely accessible; significant material remains unpublished. There are a few initial observations to be made. Mysticism is about a journey to God, divine union with the Trinity. Hence there will inevitably be a need of contextualization of the writings of both these authors, since sentences taken apart may seem to indicate a distorted focus on Mary in place of God. Further difficulties arise from the highly symbolic mystical language used by them.

The basis of the Mariform life is the spiritual motherhood of Mary and her mediation, both of which can be seen as deeply embodied within the Carmelite tradition. The Mariform life consists in “having one’s eyes open on God and his most blessed Mother, so that one promptly and joyfully does what one knows is pleasing to them, and avoids what one recognises as displeasing to them” (Michael of St. Augustine, De vita Mariam-formi et mariana, ch. 1 – ed. Wessels p. 363). Thus one lives a life which is at once divine and Marian; the reign of Jesus and the reign of Mary coincide so that “Jesus and Mary unanimously reign in it (the soul)” (Ibid. 364-365).

Thus it is clear that the central intuitions of this mysticism are fully orthodox. The expressions which it takes are explicitations of this insight of the identity of the will of Mary

and Jesus. Where the teaching becomes specific and original is in the way that Mary is seen to accompany and instruct the person on the whole journey to profound divine union and mystical marriage. Still more distinctive is the notion of union with Mary as the way in which one comes into union with her Son and the Triune God. Thus Michael of St. Augustine uses several images.

Firstly, there is life in Mary:

As by the diligent exercise of faith and stable love one acquires the habit or practice of having the presence of God always and everywhere in mind, and there is such a sincere affection flowing with such facility towards God, it therefore appears impossible to forget God: in a similar way the one who loves Mary by constant exercise acquires the habit or practice of having her as loving Mother present in mind, so that all one’s thoughts and affections terminate both in her and in God, and the person can forget neither the loving Mother nor God (Ibid. ch. 2, pp. 366-367).

This, he says, is not something infantile or innocent, but a very mature, rational and valiant (yin/ion) movement. It is a work of the Spirit to lead the person to an awareness now of Mary, now of God, without any conflict or division of hear (Ibid. ch. 3, pp. 368-3 69).

Secondly, the person lives for Mary. Here the author is again careful to show that service of Mary in no way detracts from God.

Just as in Mary everything is for the divine pleasure, and in eternity she lives for God for his pleasure, love and glory, so too every life and death for Mary must serve and be directed for God, and hence we do not live or die for Mary as our ultimate end, or with any reflection that would ac/here to anything outside God for our own convenience; rather by life and death in Mary and for Mary we more perfectly live and die in God and for God in the cause of his pleasure and love, and the perfect reign of Mary in us also at the same time consists in the perfect reign of Jesus in our souls. Nothing of the reign of Mary contradicts the reign of Jesus, but is totally ordered to it (Ibid. ch. 5, p. 371 with ch. 4, p. 369).

The remaining chapters of the work are a bold exposition of a genuine Marian mysticism. On the unquestionably orthodox basis just indicated, Michael of St. Augustine, drawing largely on the experiences of his directee, Mary Petyt shows a way to union with God which is by ‘way of union with Mary. There is growth in this mystical journey, and initial experiences of God and Mary may need to be purified. The Marian mysticism of these two spiritual authors is described as “contemplative life of God in Mary, and of Mary in God.” (Ibid. ch. 7, p. 374) But they do not allow confusion between Mary and God; the analogy used is that of the Incarnation in which the two natures are united but not fused (Ibid. ch. 7, p. 376). Union with Mary is a love union with God:

In this way we can understand the fruition of Mary in the soul, the melting (liquefactio) of the soul in Mary, the union of the soul with Mary and its transformation into Mary; this is because love tends to what resembles it and so inclines the soul, for the nature of love is to tend to union with the loved one (Ibid. ch. 11, p. 383).

The heights of mystical union with Mary are described in language which is indeed somewhat obscure, but has a haunting drawing power:

Consequently the memory, the intellect amid the will are then so quietly, simply, and intimately occupied in Mary and simultaneously in God, that the soul can scarcely detect how these operations are transformed. In a confused way it knows well and feels the memory to be occupied with some most simple remembrance of God and Mary, the intellect has a naked, clear and pure awareness of God present and of Mary present in God, the will has a very tranquil, intimate, sweet, tender and spiritual love of God and of Mary in God and a loving adherence to God and to Mary in God. I say “spiritual love” because love is then seen to shine and operate in the highest part of the soul with abstraction from the lower and sensitive powers, so that it is more proportioned to intimate melting, absorption in God and in Mary and union with God and at the same time with Mary. For when the powers of the soul are virtuously (nobiliter) and perfectly occupied in the memory, awareness and firm adhesion of the whole soul with God and Mary, so that by a loving melting or influx of love seem to make one with God and Mary, as if these three God, Mary and the soul are melted together. This seems to be the extremity and supreme realization that a soul can reach in this Mariform life, and it is the principal activity of this exercise and spirit of love towards Mary (Ibid. ch. 12, p. 384).

As we have already noted, the mystics have their experiences not only as special and personal gifts from God, but also in order that they might teach the Church. The Mariform mysticism of Mary Petyt is not something eccentric in the history of spirituality, but teaches the whole Church something important about the journey to God. What may not be explicit in other mystics is very clear in Michael of St. Augustine and in Mary Petyt, namely that divine union comes about through a person becoming more closely clothed with the virtues of Mary, and through her continuing presence and accompaniment. Theirs is the most dramatic and the most sublime expression of the truth continually expressed in all Carmelite Marian writings, namely the motherly presence of Mary accompanies the Carmelite always, and growth in holiness is found through opening oneself to this presence and motherly care.

Though from a different culture, the Flemish mysticism of these two Carmelites is another expression of the theological truth proposed by Hans Urs von Balthasar adopt the need for the Church to be truly Marian if it is to be authentically Christian. It also predates, and is a much more profound exposition of the truths expounded in the better-known book on the slavery of Mary, The Treatise on the True Devotion by St. Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort (d. 1716). For many people the “True Devotion” is a form of piety, an approach which they choose to Mary. Marian mysticism, on the other hand, is the result of the way God intervenes in a person’s life.


The Carmelite mystics are sufficiently homogeneous to be a distinct family in the Church; yet they are diversified enough to find in them models and teachers that will be suitable to different people on the spiritual journey on which the Spirit leads them.

But we must remember that the Lord has a special plan for each one of us. Some people are indeed drawn to the Carmelite way. But it is only one, amongst many. There is an abundance of spiritualities in the Church. If we as Carmelites are right in thinking that the Carmelite mystics have something important to say today to all in the Church, especially perhaps to women, we are no less convinced that there are many other ways. We could not think otherwise, for our very first document, our 13th century Rule, begins with the opening words of the Letter to the Hebrews: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways.


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."