Carmel in the World
2017. Volume LVI, Number 2

  • Mary’s Motherhood of God, leading idea of the mystical life
  • Titus Brandsma: Challenged by his times
  • The influence of Titus Brandsma in the Philippines
  • Poem – The Study-House of Silence
  • Titus Brandsma reading the newspaper
  • Carmelite Spirituality as exemplified by Blessed Titus Brandsma
  • Being Carmelite in Africa – One Rule, Multiple Expressions (Part I)
  • St Joseph in the piety of St Thérèse of Lisieux
  • Venerable John of St Samson 1571-1636 (below)
  • Walking in the presence of God and Aspirative Prayer
  • Stuck in the past
  • Pondering day and night on the word of the Lord
  • Carmel around the World

Venerable John of St Samson 1571-1636

Falco Thuis, O.Carm., is a member of the Dutch Province and a former Prior General of the Order (1971-83).

Once in a discourse, the well-known French philosopher, Jacques Maritain, called the blind Carmelite brother, John of St Samson, the Saint John of the Cross of France. And although it was initially not known how to handle his many mystical writings (dictated by Bro. John and written down by others), his spiritual depth was gradually discovered. Brother John du Moulin became in fact the soul of the Reform of Touraine, the great reform movement of the Order of Carmel in France, that started in Rennes in 1582.[1]

His youth 1571-1606
John du Moulin is the third son of Pierre and Marie du Moulin. He was born in 1571 in Sens (central France). Times were bad and there was much poverty and misery. As far as cleanliness and hygiene were concerned, this time was seen as the ‘dirtiest’ in history. In many places in France and elsewhere, the Plague took many victims. At the very young age of three years, John became sick and because of a wrong treatment, he lost the sight in both eyes and became blind. And so he grew up. Luckily, the parish priest was drawn to the fate of this blind boy and taught him languages, including Latin. When John was ten years old he lost both his parents. He could stay with his uncle on his mother’s side, Zachery d’Aiz, in a ‘lively and joyful’ home. Because John appeared to be very musical, his uncle taught him to play the organ and the spinet, but also string instruments such as the mandolin, lute and harp. At the age of twelve he skilfully played the organ of the church of St Dominic in Sens. During his adolescence, he became so skilled in playing and handling music that he was invited to give concerts and to play whenever there were feasts in churches in the neighbourhood. The sixteen years which John spent in Zachery’s house were good years of healing and growth wherein the great sorrow in his early years was ‘concealed’ and perhaps softened and compensated for by an insatiable love for music. When he was almost twenty-six years old, John went to Paris, where he lived comfortably with the family of his brother, Jean Baptiste. He gave much attention to his spiritual life. Every day he spent many hours praying in the church. One of his relatives discovered instruments of penance in his room, and it was discovered that he was wearing a hair shirt. During this time his devotion to Mary increased and he became a member of the Scapular Fraternity. John possessed a very good memory, and what he heard he not only remembered, but he was able to repeat it literally, which was very important to him in musical terms. Someone read to him the ‘Imitation of Christ’ by Thomas à Kempis and also other mystical writers from the Low Countries. What appealed to John was that these writers paid much attention to simplicity, openness and receptivity. Those were the conditions for a life of goodwill and truth. In 1601, his brother died suddenly and, a few months later, his sister-in-law, Anne. John lost his fixed abode. Sometimes he stayed temporarily in the house of a canon, near Notre Dame, when the canon was at home, but often he was away for a long time. Then John experienced what it meant to live on the streets together with other homeless, cold and malnourished. In this unaccustomed misery, he felt all the more the pain of loss of his brother who was very close to him, and the loss of a warm and protective home base. Every morning at 6.00 he was guided by a boy to the place Maubert, to the Studium Generale of the Carmelites in Paris. The boy brought him to the main altar, where he attended Mass and after which he remained on his knees in adoration for six to seven hours. Blind and poor as he was, he wanted to kneel there and pray. Bystanders saw him kneeling there, blind and modest, radiating something of loving surrender. But for him it was above all a time of great darkness and solitude. In these long periods of solitude and prayer he also tried to have a conversation with the faithful and competent people who could help him. In particular, he wanted a confessor. He found him in the Carmelite, Jacques Jacquet. He wanted to be self-supporting as an organist. The young Carmelite, Mathieu Pinault, who had seen him a few times in the church, had offered him some food. John asked him permission to play the organ, and so, in 1604, John found a soulmate in Pinault. Both had a passion for music, but also for the spiritual life. In this encounter began a relationship between John and the community of the Carmelites at Place Maubert. In exchange for playing the organ and giving music lessons, John was given a room in the monastery. In this monastery, at Place Maubert, John’s spiritual life deepened by reading and discussing texts of various spiritual writers. A casual group of especially Carmelites formed around him. The reading aloud of texts in groups was not unusual in those times. Faith experiences were exchanged. After two years of prayer, reflection and study, but also of lots of music, he gave Mathieu Pinault something of a shock with the announcement: ‘God has clearly called me to enter in your monastery in Dole’. John’s request to go to Dole was astonishing. It would only cause problems. The province of Touraine, to which Dole belonged, had not accepted lay brothers for forty years. Moreover, John could not pay for his first habit, which was then the custom in the Order. Nevertheless, he persuaded Mathieu to write a letter to the provincial. He answered positively. At the age of 35 John was accepted as a novice in the Carmel of Dole in Brittany.

In the Carmel of Dole 1606-1612
In 1605, John du Moulin left Paris and started his life in Carmel, far from easy and glorious. Dole became his hardest test. Like most Carmels, Dole was not yet reformed, and community life and religious observance hardly existed. The building itself was damp and dilapidated, in a swampy area, where there was Plague too. He lived in an unheated room with seldom more than a piece of bread and apple wine as daily food. Wars in those regions had caused much poverty and a lack of food. In determined religious fervour, John du Moulin asked permission to take a religious name, at the time a new custom in the Order. The name he took, John of the Holy Samson, was a combination of his baptismal name and the first bishop of Dole, and the name of the beautiful cathedral of Dole. The name that he chose had nothing to do with his blindness, but was remarkably the more applicable. The Holy Samson (+565) had lived part of his youth in solitude in Wales before he starting his monastic life. When he received a vision with the message that God called him to Dole, he crossed the English Channel to Brittany with other monks. The monastery that they founded became the important diocesan see of Dole. St Samson became known for his miraculous healings. Shortly after John’s arrival in Dole, the Plague brought suffering and death to the village and monastery. When a confrère had died, and a young confrère who was his co-novice became contaminated, the whole community sought safety elsewhere, and left John behind to take care of his co-novice alone. When John too became sick, he was brought to a sanatorium where he continued to take care of the other patients as far as his own health permitted. Later in his life he would stress the necessary connection between contemplation, that is love, and the love that forces us to care for the sick and forgotten people. This loving care comes out of the same inexhaustible source. When he returned to the monastery of Dole in 1607, he did not allow himself to be guided by negative feelings because of the fact that he had been left behind alone in the contaminated monastery. On June 26 of that year, he professed his vows and gave shape, in his own way, to the regular life in Carmel. With great dedication and care he offered, just as his great patron St Samson, help and relief to the many people in the village who were in terrible need. He used to say ‘a prayer of healing’ over people who were severely sick with high fever and who were brought to him. As a reaction to the activities of this ‘healer of Dole’ the bishop visited him to support him and to encourage him in this loving work of love. In this way he again came into contact with the Plague. Thus, the unhealthy climate and the scarce food, had their effect on his health. From time to time, a friendly parish priest from a nearby parish to the east of Dole invited him to his house to recover a bit. Also, Mathieu Pinault, his young friendly confrère from the first days, came to visit him periodically. This Mathieu Pinault, still in his twenties, became an important force in the beginning of the reform of Touraine, which had formally started in the Carmel of Rennes on April 21, 1608. The prior of Rennes, Philippe Thibault, became enthusiastic at the prospect that John would join the new reform. In November of that year Philippe requested the provincial to transfer John to the reformed Carmel of Rennes. But the prior and the community of Dole made strong objections to the transfer of John. They did not want to lose the man, who was seen by everyone as the most exemplary confrère. When the prior of Dole had died (in John’s arms) he was transferred to Rennes by the end of 1612.

In the reformed Carmel of Rennes 1612-1636
Like everybody else who became part of this reform, John had to repeat the novitiate. From now on he started growing in the spiritual landscape of Carmel. Until his death, he would, for twenty-four years and without any official title, do his part in the spiritual formation of the novices and the young professed. Mathieu Pinault was the novice master and sent the young confrères, when he thought they were far enough on their spiritual way, to John for spiritual guidance. Strict observance of the daily schedule was his hallmark. He would immediately answer any call of the community bell, and if a confrère who was to ring the bell forgot to do so, John would remind him. They were used to John’s enormous compassion, always concerned for people in need or for those he thought were so. If it was very cold or if everything was covered with snow, he would always crumble bread on the windowsill of his cell. By his formation work for the young confrères and by his writings in service of this, John of St Samson became known as the true spiritual soul of the reform of Touraine. Except for a very short work written in 1612 at the request of his superiors, John started in 1615, when he was forty-four years old, to dictate his spiritual teachings. He would do this, always under the guidance of superiors who viewed his work as an explanation of the principles that guided the Reform. It is said that his words tumbled so fast from his mouth, that the writers (two at the same time) could hardly keep up with him. The convent of Rennes, the beginning point of the Reform movement, became the vital centre for the founding of other reformed Carmels. Philippe Thibault had also connected the nunneries with the Carmelite Province of Touraine. One of them was the nunnery of the Holy Sepulchre in Rennes to which John of St Samson gave spiritual guidance. John left the monastery of Rennes only once and just for a year. He went back to Dole in 1616, when this Carmel finally joined the reform. For the remainder of the time he was always in Rennes. He played the organ in the monastery chapel, was faithfully present in all community exercises and gave guidance to novices and others, taking that his spiritual insights were put on paper. Sometimes he was out for short visits to sick people and to people who asked for his solace and encouragement, and, as mentioned, for spiritual guidance of the sisters of the nearby convent of the Holy Sepulchre. From 1630 on, John was quite sick, but he would not relent in refusing special treatment. Nevertheless, he sang in his room the songs he composed ‘to sing praise to God’. If he thought that he had disturbed his neighbours with this, he would knock on their doors to apologize. He spent a great deal of his energy in writing letters. These letters, especially those he wrote to his beloved disciples, are simple, familiar and intimate. He asked about their health, how they are doing in their studies, what they felt responsible for and what they cared for, and what they might need when they had gotten on in years. Often he would send a souvenir, a medal or a rosary. Dominic of St Albert was a very gifted and promising novice in Rennes. He was a brilliant student. He would grow into a real mystic and a pride of the Reform of Touraine. In 1614 he made his profession at the age of eighteen. He became a beloved disciple of John, who taught him the ways of the mystical life. John dealt with him quite familiarly. In letters to him, John wrote that he carried him within his heart in union with God, and how Dominic made manifest to him the hidden love of God. Robert Stefanotti, from whom I extract much about the life of John of St Samson, remarks that in France in those years there lay a strong taboo on physical expressions of affection in man to man relations, the literary style of letter writing wherein the father-son relationship is expressed, had developed. In this light we must see the exchange of letters of John of St Samson and his friendly disciples. Even when they lived in the same house, they wrote letters, because of the mentioned taboo.[2] In the last years of John’s life, the storms and crisis in the church of France did not pass him by. The medieval world of witches and demons was still alive, and so was possession by the devil. In his wisdom, John wrote about the distinction between true and false spirits, about true and false light, and about the temptations the souls have to endure to distinguish good from evil. He knew too the oncoming Jansenism as a dark cloud hovering over French piety. John remained balanced and realistic in what he wrote. In the end, John’s health deteriorated badly. Fr Joseph of Jesus was assigned to take care of him and John’s hearing became so bad that he could no longer distinguish voices. His legs were covered in ulcers that made walking almost impossible. The sickness that would result in his death, started on September 3, 1636. He recited continuously the Hebrew names of God: Yahweh, Adonai, Elohim. John, knowing that he was dying, renewed his religious vows. He kissed the cross which he held in his hands while saying: Christo confixus sum cruci (Through the cross I am crucified with Christ). He died on September 14, 1636, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. His spiritual heritage would survive him in the charism of the Order of Carmel and elsewhere to the present day through his writings, meditations, letters and counsels. Fr Kilian Healy. O.Carm., wrote his dissertation in 1956 on the Reform of Touraine, in particular on the Methods of Prayer in the Reform. He wrote:

The blind brother was a holy man, master of the masters in the spiritual life, destined to become the soul of the Reform of Touraine. In Rennes he would teach everyone, even Thibault, the father of the Reform, the true spirit of Carmel.[3]

What nourished him in his profession in Carmel, in his dedication to the spirit of Carmel, and in what he handed on to all his ‘disciples’, was not found in outward appearance, but in humility and simplicity and in the way of lovingly relating to God.

His spiritual legacy
In the seventeenth century there was a ‘mystical invasion’ in France. The works of Ruysbroeck, Tauler, Harpius, Blosius, Suso, Dionysius the Carthusian, and others, were translated into French. Slowly these writings started gaining a very great influence on the spiritual life of the French clergy and religious, but also of pious ‘lay people’. For instance, Francis de Sales, an important spiritual guide in those days, recommended these foreign authors for spiritual reading. It is not surprising that it was also these authors who influenced the spiritual life of John of St Samson. Key words and frequent images in John’s texts were also used by other mystics, such as struggle, light/darkness, suffering/joy, fire, God, senses, water, animals, music/sound.
John of St Samson described the world around him as he experienced it: a world that loved him. He always emphasized that God requires from us that we live totally in love, as ‘in a play full of pleasure and playfulness’.[4] The process of transformation through love is called by John ‘aspiring’. Blommestijn shows the content of a number of texts that specify this aspiring, this growing into loving union with God:

Thus holiness does not consist in feeling or not feeling God in his emanations or radiations or the soul being touched with his divine emanations, but in true and essential love that is practical and makes everything being done in God.

It happens that these persons are in themselves and are not at all carried outside themselves through powerful and extraordinary attraction of God. Their usual activity is then being carried in God, full of love, ardent and essential, as much as is possible for them. It is for them as easy as breathing in and out. They do it almost as often because of their habituation to this.[5] The mentioned persons have already been received in the whole magnitude of God. They have no other life than His life, nor another spirit than His spirit.

This being absorbed by the burning love is thus the way and the activity of these people, along which and by which God meets them, as they meet Him very soon. There the intimate and unspeakable embraces of the lover and the beloved take place in the unspeakable love and sweetness of God in its totality. This happens very often and repeatedly in a certain period. It is therefore amazing how these people can stay alive in these so sweet and so loving actions …. sometimes even often …. very fast and passionate.
Lovingly I occupy myself with you, in an essential, unnoticed, naked and simple manner, by loving looks, conversations, in a simple and ardent manner, which carry me totally along in my beloved.
Aspiring is not merely a loving conversation, which is a good exercise in itself, from which aspiring is born and proceeds.
John gives a definition:
Aspiring is therefore a fierce and ardent loving impulse of the whole heart and of the spirit. Through this the soul swiftly transcends itself and every created thing, uniting itself intimately with God in the liveliness of its expression of love. Being expressed thus in its essence it transcends all sensitive, rational and understandable love. So it reaches the unity with God through the tempestuousness of the Spirit of God and of its own effort, not in an arbitrary manner, but through a sudden transformation of the spirit in God.
Well then, it is fitting that aspiring as continuous exercise …. follows meditation and affective and plain prayer to show that the intellect should not be filled here with curiosity. On the contrary, while this (intellect) imagines divine works and what it desires to know, and after it has sufficiently been looked into, viewed and known, it must give this to the will to be inflamed by it and nourished as if it were its own prey.
Also for John of St Samson, speaking about aspiring, it deals with ‘the way of love to (in) love’. This goes via exercises and activities to contemplation, loving unity with the Divine Love. Not so much the intellect, but the will takes over what has been reflected and known (the prey) in meditation and lets itself be moved by it and inflamed in the ‘ordering and the love of God’, which the intellect cannot obtain either.
Love is a means for love, and the least excellent love is a means for the more excellent, and the most excellent is a means for the highest and for the last and highest effects of the active love. All these means and steps have a theory and a practice; and all, especially the last, come about as a light, subtle, high, deep, wide, singular, simple and surpassing complication in the object of this same love, from which one … always undergoes a mighty effect and (by which) one is forcefully dragged away.
Hit by the manifold touch of God in its deepest self, the soul understands that God wants to say: ‘Look I am in you, don’t be afraid to lose me’.

Ode to the Holy Sepulchre
Fr Joseph, mentioned above, was appointed after the death of John of St Samson to catalogue the enormous amount of writings, letters and poems of the blind brother. Many poems were shaped like (biblical) odes and canticles. As already said, all his work, particularly his poems, are about love, God’s love for us and our love in return for God. The language of the poems is bridal, love language. ‘The Ode to the Holy Sepulchre’ (four poems) is one of John’s most famous mystical works. It is composed as a late-medieval drama, wherein the visit of Mary Magdalen to the Holy Sepulchre is the most important element. In the Middle Ages, the ‘Visit to the Holy Sepulchre’ was a favourite Passion play, which was even inserted in the Easter liturgy. Mary Magdalen always played a central role in this. Also in his Ode to the Holy Sepulchre, John of St Samson has Mary Magdalen (alone) visit the holy grave. Until Vatican II, the Carmelite Order had its own rite, the Rite of the Holy Sepulchre and which was officially abolished in 1980, but now it is used again here and there with permission of the Holy See. The Resurrection liturgy had a special role there, with repeated Alleluias. Until the sixteenth century (at the renewal of the Roman Calendar), according to Kallenberg, an opinion from the sixth century was held that Mary Magdalen was the sister of Martha and Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42) as well as the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with precious oil (John 11:18) and the woman to whom the risen Jesus appeared first. John of St Samson knew this association, whereby Mary Magdalen counted as a striking example for all Christians. The Gospel texts show great affectivity: all Marys, except Mary the mother of Jesus, are similar to Mary Magdalen, who was associated with the empty tomb and the risen Lord. So, Mary Magdalen is the clearest example of a sinner, who has been freed from evil and has been on the road to holiness. In the Ode to the Holy Sepulchre, the Sepulchre is a person who speaks and starts a dialogue with Mary Magdalen and gives an astounding answer to her question, ‘Whom are you looking for?’ Because the Holy Sepulchre suffers pain, at first it doesn’t know what has happened. The Sepulchre that is empty only knows that the Lord himself has graced me (who talks with the empty Sepulchre) with the greatest luck. The Holy Sepulchre teaches that you will not become holy by visiting the Holy Land, that you should not look in the holy tomb for Jesus, your beloved, but in your own soul. The ‘Alleluia, the Lord is risen’ points to the participation of the soul with the Resurrection. A second form of participation with the Resurrection invites you to enter the holy tomb, to wall yourself in it in order to be called from the darkness of the night to the light of the day and to participate in the divine design of the resurrection that constantly unfolds itself. The Ode to the Holy Sepulchre is therefore a testimony of a mystical encounter, an experience of God, who guards and forms everything out of the reality. The reply of the soul (the last strophe of the Ode) is a constant Te Deum Laudamus, a constant thanksgiving for the ultimate happiness that is found in the loving mystical relation with the Lord.
My soul, you must in this tomb

collect strength to hide yourself

for the eyes of the people and for yourself:

you must bury yourself alive and well

to possess the highest happiness

from here, no other way than dying, live.[6]

The piety of John of St Samson and thus of the Reform of Touraine is not characterized by ‘holistic’ thinking that forms an important aspect of the Christian and monastic spirituality after Vatican II, but rather by the ‘fuga mundi’, the flight from the (bad) world, which has dominated Christian piety and ascetics for centuries. The mystical meaning of John and the Reform – liberation of the imprisoned ego by Love, the Spirit of God – has not been lessened by it.

The Carmel of Boxmeer was founded from the Flemish Carmel. This Carmel had completely accepted the reform from France. This Flemish reformed Carmel had great theologians and spiritual writers such as Daniel of the Virgin Mary and Michael of St Augustine. These two well-known Carmelites were involved in the foundation of the Carmel of Boxmeer in 1652. Daniel was provincial of the Flemish Province. Almost twenty years earlier in 1636, John of St Samson had died and in 1638, the great father of the reform, Philippe Thibault, died. Thus, the spirit of the Reform was still alive. Maybe we can consider Titus Brandsma, Jewel of the Dutch Carmelite Province, with his great, unremitting scheme of the lived Carmelite spirituality, and of its study, as an exponent of that same Spiritual Movement that animated the Reform of Touraine.

[2]     Robert Stefanotti: The Phoenix of Rennes, The Life and Poetry of John of St Samson 1571-1636. New York: Peter Lang Inc, 1994.
[3]     K. Healy: Methods of Prayer in the Directory of the Carmelite Reform of Touraine, Rome 2005, p. 7.
[5]     Aspirative prayer will become an important characteristic in the Reform of Touraine.
[6]     For the full text see: Robert Stefanotti: The Phoenix of Rennes, The Life and Poetry of John of St Samson 1571-1636. New York: Peter Lang Inc, 1994.

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