Capuchin Mental Prayer

Table of Contents


A statement of the theological principle I am working from can be summed up succinctly in two quotes from von Balthasar:

Thus the Mass contains a substantial amount of contemplation, and the sermon, which must have no other aim than to elucidate the content and nature of the word of God which has been heard and to make it present to the listeners, transforms the gathered community into a Church, listening to the word of God, i.e., a contemplative Church.[1]

The sinner’s glimpse of heaven, as he comes to acknowledge his most grievous fault, is an element of the Church’s liturgy, in the Mass as in penance. But it is also an element of contemplation which (as we shall see) encounters the word of God, a word which both pronounces sentence and justifies.[2]

The friars normally preached within the liturgical context of Lenten and Advent cycles and at the Mass of the particular city or town where their pastoral work led them. One important aspect of the preaching was to lead the people to conversion, especially through the celebration of the sacrament of confession. The 40-hour devotion the friars promoted throughout Italy also fed into leading the people to regularly attend the local Mass in a spirit of prayer and devotion. The friars were sustained by their personal and communal practice of mental prayer and they endeavoured to teach the people also to pray.

Working in tandem with preaching were social transformation and spiritual renewal. Let us refresh ourselves with what was written above in the section on the kerygmatic element of the Capuchin reform, especially in regard to these tripodal elements of the early Capuchin tradition, as recorded by Bernardino da Colpetrazzo:

817. It was a wonderful thing, that all Christianity woke up at their preaching. Where at first people went to Communion hardly once a year, now they began to go more often. Many associations arose, whose members gave excellent example in frequenting the most holy sacraments and dedicating themselves to works of mercy. For in that time the Christian way of life was quite run down. However, because of the preaching of the Capuchins, many lords, gentlemen and distinguished persons began to lead a spiritual life. Among the people many made restitution for past wrongs, and many were converted to the spiritual life. [IV, 193][3]

The evangelical preaching of the friars was bearing fruit in works of mercy and spiritual renewal, primarily by renewal of eucharistic practice, confession and introducing the people to the practice of mental prayer. It is this spiritual renewal leg of the tripod we now want to explore, without losing sight of its essential connection to the other two elements.

Preaching, Mass, Penance, Eucharistic Adoration were forming and drawing the people of God into the practice of mental prayer. The sonnets and Plaint of Vittoria Colonna and drawings and sonnets of Michelangelo have demonstrated the fruits of this meditation in the kerygmatic element section of this course.

Preaching, Mass, Penance and Forty Hours Eucharistic devotion

A renewed emphasis on Eucharistic devotion becomes a pastoral approach among some of the Catholic reformers and was part of the program of renewal of the first Capuchin preachers. They were in continuity with the tradition of the great preachers of the Observants and the rich ritual of religiosity of the 16th century. This is understandable in that so many were from the Observant camp. This program was carried on alongside the work of the Dominicans, such as Battista da Crema, and reforming bishops, such as Giberti, who in 1540 made it obligatory that every parish in the diocese of Verona have a confraternity known as the Societas corporis Christi and promote devotion to the Eucharist.[4]

A major innovation of the early Capuchins was that of promoting the institution and practice of the Forty Hours. This devotion was inspired by the ancient liturgical-devotional practices of the first Christian communities. The communitarian adoration of the consecrated Host for the space of 40 hours recalls the interval of time, according to Augustine, the body of Christ remained in the sepulchre before the resurrection. It is a devotion that fits hand in glove with the kerygmatic preaching of the Capuchins.[5]

Giberti welcomed the preaching of Giovanni da Fano in his cathedral in 1535. Giberti writes enthusiastically to Vittoria Colonna in that same year, of the “innocent life” of “these good Capuchin fathers in which shines forth the truth, simply and without any false religion.” The following year Giberti gives permission for the friars to establish a presence in Verona. This is the first place the Capuchins establish a friary in northern Italy. After this Giovanni da Fano moves on to preaching in Bergamo, with the same result – the establishment of an enduring Capuchin presence in the city. Moving on from there, he preaches in Como and Milan, with the result of a permanent presence of friars in Vercellina (Milan). Associated with this preaching and presence of the friars were also the work of social transformation. For example, in Bergamo, the year after the preaching, Giovanni da Fano was back in Bergamo assisting the founder of the Somaschians to set up a work called the “Misericordia”, dedicated to abandoned babies.[6]

During this same period, accompanying the preaching, the Capuchins begin to develop and institute the practice of the Quarantore – 40 hours. It is not a Capuchin initiative. The first testimonies of this modern type of Eucharistic devotion can be found in Milan in 1527. The devotion passes through several developmental stages, such as in 1534 when permission is given for the first time to expose the Host unveiled upon the altar, surrounded by candles, with uninterrupted devotion by the faithful, night and day, for 40 hours, with processions to various churches. Cargnoni notes that, in reality, on the first occasion, on 11th June 1534 there was only a solemn procession of Corpus Domini from the Duomo to the basilica of St Ambrose and back again, with the participation of all the secular and regular priests, confraternities and the people, accompanied by many candles.[7]

From 1537 both the Barnabites and the Capuchins, at times working together, take up the promotion and development of the 40 hours as an effective pastoral tool, accompanying the preaching. The principle promotor amongst the Capuchins was Giuseppe Piantanida da Ferno. This was carried out effectively during the Lent of 1537 in Milan, with the 40 hours being held in various churches sequentially, with a solemn procession of the Host from church to church. It was so well received that upon getting a report of the success of the new style of Eucharistic devotion, Pope Paul III, on 28th August 1537, sent a brief of approval and, so as to encourage the devotion, the granting of a plenary indulgence.[8] The devotion was rapidly spread throughout Italy by the Capuchins. Also being welcomed as an effective devotional practice by the Jesuits and reforming bishops, such as by Charles Borromeo.[9]

For the 40 Hours Eucharistic devotion to be the enduring success it proved to be, there needed to be more than just bells and whistles operating. It was a matter of teaching the people coming to the devotion to pray. An important aspect of meditation, leading on to contemplation, was the use of the imagination and affections. A person needed to put themselves within the gospel drama. The evangelical preaching method of the early Capuchins assisted the people in this. One example can be found in in Bernardino da Colpetrazzo’s account of the Lenten preaching cycle of Giovanni da Fano in Milan in 1535. After the first sermon, Fra Giovani announces that the topic for the next day will be on death. So many arrive that they have to install a raised pulpit outside of the cathedral in the piazza:

805. His preaching bore the greatest fruit in that city. One morning in particular he invited the people for the following day, saying he wanted to preach about death. The throng of gentlemen and ladies who came into the square on coaches, together with the multitude of the people was very great. The square was so tightly packed that if you threw a grain of millet into the crowd it would not have reached the ground.

When the holy old man found himself in the pulpit and saw the great enthusiasm of the crowd, he was so fired up that it seemed a flame would flare out of his mouth. His face was so ruddy that it looked like bright scarlet. His voice was so resonant and clear it was as if it came from the mouth of a bull. Thus it was that he began to preach with great eloquence about death and about despising the world. He linked three things together throughout: the dread of death, the vanity of our life, and despising the world. He did this in such a way that he frightened the entire multitude. They listened to him in such complete silence it was as if there was no one else there except the preacher. Finally, he produced a skull, and proceeded in turn first to address the people then to address the skull.

The use of the skull, and the witnessing of a conversation between Fra Giovanni and Death, aided the people greatly in entering into the drama of the gospel. The chronicle continues:

His sermon was so effective and penetrated the hearts of the gentlemen and ladies so deeply that the whole city was reformed from the vanities indulged in by the women and the young men. Through this effort, helped by the work of the holy Pastor, this reform lasted for many years. [III, 94]

This method of preaching and assisting the people to enter into meditation on and contemplation of the crucified Christ continued to develop and change according to the period. For example, in 1613, within the baroque period, on the evening of Palm Sunday, also in Milan, Fr Giacinto Casale was preaching the 40 hours. After the singing of the Miserere by some of the friars, Fr Giacinto entered with a crown of thorns on his head, a rope and a big iron chain around his neck, a huge cross in his hand, knelt at the right side of the Holy Sacrament, did an act of profound adoration, turned toward the people and delivered a long sermon by which to convert and transform the hearts of those present.[10]

Even in the 21st century Capuchin friars can be found using similar dramatic methods to assist the people in meditating upon the passion of our Lord:

Fr Felix De Candia OFM Cap
Fr Felix De Candia OFM Cap
leading the Palm Sunday procession at St Francis Church, Newton, South Australia

Introducing the people to mental prayer presupposed the more basic work of the Capuchins of catechising both the adults and children. The actual preaching and teaching of the way of mental prayer was the specialisation of some friars, such as Giovanni da Fano, Bernadino da Balvano and Mattia da Salò. They accompanied their preaching with the publication of practical manuals on prayer, respectively, The Art of Union (1536), The Mirror of Perfection (1553) and The Practice of Mental Prayer (1573).

Here we will limit ourselves to exploring a little the work of Giovanni da Fano. However, first we will present an overview of the mystical and spiritual writings of the early Capuchins, as prepared by Fr Costanzo Cargnoni in his classic work on the early Capuchins sources, I Frati Cappuccini:

General Features and Characteristics

The following twenty or twenty-one spiritual authors which bring together about fifty different works give a bird’s eye view of certain emerging and interesting features of spiritual direction. They were composed entirely as the product of a fervent interior and apostolic life, and as a personal spiritual response to the needs that arose from practical religious experiences. In the first place these works are the product of the personal spiritual experiences of the various authors who have passed them on in works that were hurriedly written, with little attention given to literary style, scholarship or education.

The popular style of print in which they were produced is significant. All of them were set out in pocket editions in simple colloquial language, with no embellishment, but in sober expressions that were at times old-fashioned, but always forceful yet never pretentious. Thus, they always exhibit quite clearly the difference between erudite literature and popular literature. Usually the former type of literature continued to use Latin, while the latter was deliberately beginning to use the vernacular. What is more, vernacular works showed a preference for pocket editions, which were convenient and short, whereas the scholarly works were larger and of more imposing appearance. In this respect the works that were edited by Capuchins were conveniently usable, for the most part small booklets “which could be passed from hand to hand.”

They were works concerning things which should be put into practice or acted upon rather than about topics which were to be read about. They are manuals, vademecum, which should be consulted repeatedly in order to make certain that a way of life corresponded to what had been written down. They are works which are read so that what they contain can be used and they would only be used by those intending to put what they contained into practice.

Another important feature of these texts is that what they contained had been already preached to the people or to religious communities. Thus, they came about through talks concerning life, real preaching and thus their aim was to communicate with the general public in the easiest and most direct manner.

The basic objective of all this literature is to transmit an experience of prayer, when attempting to access “secret mental prayer”, an experience of meditation, contemplation, of spiritual exercises and of devotional practices. In essence we are confronted with “masters and teachers of piety”, to use an expression coined by Giuseppe De Lucca,[11] who emphasised the immense importance of “books on piety” when reconstructing the history of the past. “Books on piety deserve a separate history. Every age contributes something original, because in every era in addition to piety in the community there has also been vigorous private piety. With respect to Christianity, there has been along with Liturgical piety, the piety of various Churches, various groups and various individuals.”[12]

The literary works of the early friars is closely tied to their art of preaching. It will not therefor be surprising to find the content of the written works resonating with the major themes of the Capuchin preaching, as is noted by Cargnoni:

With respect to content the topic that receives the greatest attention is the Passion of Jesus Christ alongside that of the Virgin Mary. These are always treated from the aspect of their ultimate objective which is the doctrine, and practice of a life of love and union with God, a theme that runs through all the spiritual and devotional works of the Order. Christ’s Passion is presented in a hundred different ways, but always from the perspective of a life of love that produces union. The Trinitarian dimension is usually presented against a Christological background as associated with the Crucifixion and this inspired many Capuchin devotional practices. A practical and affective approach is the only approach that is proposed in these writings. There is no consideration of what is theoretical or speculative. A few pages appear to speculate about the doctrine of the spiritual life, but they immediately slip back into what is practical and concrete and to be followed as what is suggested or developed for various meditative or affective undertakings, allowing freedom of choice to the one who is at prayer, who may follow the suggestion, the proposed method, the prayer formula, the example of an aspiration and the timing or put it aside.

For this section of the course we will only look at Giovanni da Fano’s The Art of Union. I would recommend to you at least readingFr Costanzo Cargnoni’s introductions into Bernadino da Balvano’s The Mirror of Perfection and Mattia da Salò’s The Practice of Mental Prayer. This would give a fuller overview of this literature spanning the pre-Tridentine, inter-Tridentine and post-Tridentine periods.

Giovanni da Fano: The Art of Union

Giovanni’s The Art of Union was primarily directed towards the friars; however, it was also written for the faith and prayer development of the people. His socially transformative work for abandoned children was also accompanied with a concern for their education in faith. Seeing the need for the friars to be able to educate both adults and children in faith, he also attached a Small Catechism to his book.[13]

Fr Cuthbert comments on the work:

Giovanni’s treatise is eminently practical; it is not a book to read unless you yourself are seeking actual guidance in the way of prayer. The style, as Fra Dionisio remarks, is not attractive. Giovanni draws much from masters who had preceded him, but he takes what he considers of direct practical utility for the beginner; his is a book such as one might expect from a practical director of souls; only it is evident that in his solitary’s cell Giovanni was mapping out anew the path he himself would follow with a reborn fervour. Two years later, when he was on a preaching tour in Northern Italy, he put the treatise into the hands of a publisher, deeming that it might be helpful “not only to religious but even to spiritual and devout seculars.” And that was the beginning of the Capuchin apostolate of teaching the world to pray. Other and greater masters in the art of contemplation, more persuasive teachers, were to come later; but none perhaps more clearly and simply marked out the common way. For the next century and a half the Capuchins were amongst the foremost teachers of the art of contemplative prayer; the greater number of their published books were either treatises on the art itself, or devotional works dealing with the mysteries of our Lord’s life and passion, or with the articles of the Catholic Faith in meditative form. Most of these books, as we have elsewhere remarked, were written by the preachers, and embodied the instructions or meditations given as part of the regular mission course.

Fr Cargnoni’s comment on the work:

It represents the first systematic attempt to address the desire of the early Capuchins for the life of a contemplative hermit through a reliable outline of the spiritual life, which was designed for contemplative prayer, which, according to Giovanni da Fano, consists in union with God in love. Everything should be subservient to love, so that contemplation always develops in a manner that is affective, reflective and productive of union with God. As an exercise of love, it requires absolute fidelity and regular continuity.

The image that dominates is that of nuptials in line with the traditional theme of “mystical nuptials with the heavenly spouse Jesus Christ”. The sign of love is the kiss. The Purgative Way, or that for beginners, corresponds to kissing the feet, to a penitential attitude, to a tearful approach, following the Biblical and ascetical tradition of the image of Mary Magdalene. The Illuminative Way or that of the proficient corresponds to kissing the hand, an expression of devout recognition of benefits received from God’s hand. Finally, the Unitive Way, or that of the perfect, corresponds to a kiss on the lips, the supreme spousal display of love that unifies the soul to God in a pure and chaste embrace of love.

The whole journey of love is brought together and synthesized in the image of the “interior palace”, which is made up of a series of rooms, which correspond to the exercises of the Purgative and Illuminative Ways, through which the soul must pass in succession to enter the throne room of God and of the Lamb where she will live in “the most excellent state of union”. This emphasis upon spiritual exercises as the method of the art of prayer precedes the Latin Edition of the Exercises by Ignatius Loyola by twelve years and the Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila by about thirty years.

The structure of The Art of Union follows the classic tryptic division of Bonaventure into the purgative, illuminative and unitive way. This corresponds to the three levels of the ascetical-mystical itinerary of the marriage of the soul with Christ.[14]

Let us now read through just one short section of the Art of Union so as to get a taste of the writing of Giovanni da Fano on prayer. One interesting thing to note at the beginning of this section is the resonance with stanza five of the poem of St John of the Cross in his Dark Night of the Soul:

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
The lover with his beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her lover.[15]

John of the Cross is writing between 1578 and 1591. The Art of Union is written in 1536.

Giovanni da Fano: Art of Union, III. The Unitive Way. 7. The Unitive Love of our Spirit:

According to Dionysius and Hugh, one of the properties of love is that it unites the lover with the beloved, and indeed transforms one into the other. However, Augustine says that anima verius est ubi amat quam ubi animat, that is, the souls discovers itself better in the beloved than in the body in which it dwells. It is certain that the soul which loves someone ardently, while remaining in control of its primary operations, such as activities which pertain to its essence, and retaining control of its secondary operations, that is, the faculties of the intellect and will, stretches it beyond itself to produce activity which pertains neither to its inner self, nor to the body, but to the beloved. Thus, when the intellect knows, when the will loves, when the memory remembers, they produce little or no activity, even with respect to external familiar objects, which pertains to their own soul or body, rather they produce activity which pertains to the loved one. I claim that the same applies to all the senses.

Anyone who transforms himself into a creature is really miserable and pitiable since the Lord will reduce him to nothing in the city of peace, as the Prophet says. However, he who transforms into God and our Lord Jesus Christ is happy, rich and blessed.

We have some examples of this transformation.

The first example is the branch that is grafted onto a tree, which through the strength of the sap of the tree becomes the one with it. Thus, the soul, which is transformed into God, through the nourishment of grace and love, becomes one spirit with God (1Cor. 6:17: Qui adhaeret Deo unus spiritus est cum eo. In John 15:5 ff, the Lord submits the examples of the vine and the branches and Galatians 2:20, It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.

The second example is that of a drop of water thrown into a large container filled with wine, which immediately loses its own nature, and assumes the nature of wine and is completely changed with respect to taste, odour and colour. Thus, the loving soul that plunges into the divine immensity and is transformed into it, preserving only its own nature, is absorbed, like a small drop of water, by the lake of the immense goodness of God, in such a way that all of the faculties of the soul surrender and the divinity acts in that soul and uses that soul as its instrument. Ps. 81:6: Ego dixi: Dii estis etc. Where Augustine says: Qualis est hominis dilectio, talis est homo. Si terram diligis, terra es; si coelum diligis, coelum es. Si autem Deum diligis, non audeo dicere quod Deus sis, sed audi Scripturam dicentem: Ego dixi: Dii estis etc. [For if love of the world is there, love of God will not be there. Hold fast, rather, to the love of God, that, as God is eternal, so also you may abide in eternity; for each person is such as his love is. Do you love the earth? You will be earth. Do you love God? What shall I say? Will you be a god? I dare not say this on my own. Let us hear Scripture: “I have said, ‘You are gods and sons of the Most High, all of you.’”[16]

This union is of such nobility, excellence and happiness that, were a mortal to experience it perfectly and his attention were fixed upon it, he could not contain his spirit from being wrapped in an excess of mind, as we read about Giles, St Francis’ companion, that after his spirit was united to God by a transformation of love, he was so disposed and ready for rapture that when anyone said in his presence: Heaven! Heaven! He was immediately taken into rapture and ecstasy because of being reminded of union with God.

The third example is iron in the fire, which while it remains iron as far as its substance goes, takes on the properties of fire, losing its own properties etc. And although we are led by these examples to know the hidden aspects of these truths, still what we know differs from the reality as much as a grain of mustard differs from the whole world.

Mental Prayer in the daily life of the friars

The unifying component of the tripodal activity of preaching, social transformation and teaching people how to pray cannot be reduced to any one characteristic. A quick glance through the 15 characteristics of the Capuchin charism we looked at towards the beginning of these conferences should be enough to remind us of this. However, an intense life and spirit of prayer, devotion and contemplation within the life of the friar and friary is an essential part of the “araldite” that bonds the fraternity together. The ceasing to breathe is usually the symptom that the living body has degenerated into a corpse.

Early chronicles, such as that of Bernardino of Colpetrazzo, gives us some insight into the daily life inside a typical Capuchin friary. La Bella and Santa Riforma read slowly and meditatively can continue to be profitable as inspiring spiritual reading, to take just one small example:

A regular life

223. The poor friars, now assigned to their fraternities, began to breathe more easily. They were able to settle into their skimpy rooms, to come together in choir to praise God and celebrate and attend Holy Mass, all in an orderly way. They prayed the usual prayers together, and in general led a regular life.

For many days their hearts raced with excitement, especially when the bell rang for Divine Office. To them, that bell was like a trumpet call summoning them to paradise.

They sang the Divine Office slowly and devoutly, using a simple chant. They said, rather than sang, their Mass, slowly and devoutly, and seemed like angels come down from heaven. The laity got so much spiritual consolation from these Masses that they came from five or six miles away to hear them. [VII, 73]

To finish this section on Mental Prayer, we will take a very simple historical approach, seeking to rapidly trace a few main lines of prayer as this essential dimension of the Capuchin Reform as seen from the filter of the first of the 15 Characteristics of the Capuchin Charism listed by Paul Hanbridge: Continuous return to Saint Francis. I will mainly follow an article by Antonio PICCIALLO, L’Orazione Mentale nella Vita dei Cappuccini del XVI Secolo in Italia Francescana 90 (2015), 161-179.

Continuous return to Saint Francis

The Rule of St Francis, V: The manner of Working:

1Those brothers to whom the Lord has given the grace of working may work faithfully and devotedly 2so that, while avoiding idleness, the enemy of the soul, they do not extinguish the Spirit of holy prayer and devotion to which all temporal things must contribute.

Saint Francis writes to Saint Anthony:

Brother Francis sends greetings to Brother Anthony, my Bishop.

2I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers providing that, as is contained in the Rule, you “do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion” during study of this kind.

For the early Capuchins prayer was fundamental, it serves everything, and all other things need to serve it. It is the fundamental element to the consecrated life: prayer is the vital relationship with Christ.[17]

Statutes of Albacina 1529:

3. Moreover, we decree: No other Office shall be added in choir, except the Office of the Blessed Virgin. However, if any of the friars out of special devotion desires to recite the Seven Penitential Psalms, the Office of the Dead or any other vocal prayers, he may do so alone or with a companion outside of choir, so long as the Office is not being said in choir; but not in choir or in the church, lest their voices should disturb those who are occupied in mental prayer. This is decreed first, in order that the friars gathering together, with greater devotion, shall duly recite the Canonical Hours, prescribed by the Rule and the Church; then also that they may find more leisure to give to private and mental prayers, which are often more useful and excellent than mere vocal prayers.

The friars give great importance and space to mental prayer. It could indicate giving more importance to this than the community prayer of the Church. The personal relationship of the individual friar with God comes before all else and needs to be safeguarded.

8. We also decree that the established hours and times of mental prayer shall be observed every day. The times set aside for prayer are: a full hour before Tierce in the morning and another after Vespers, which may never be omitted for any reason whatsoever, except by those who are sick for whom one hour suffices, or those who on account of some grave necessity are excused by the superior, whom they must obey by all means. Let them remember, however, that these hours are set aside for right order and the common good of the Order, especially for those friars who are of a colder and more negligent spirit: that by the positive prescription of these hours, they may be compelled to pray, which is so necessary for religious men. For the fervent and devout friars will not be satisfied with these two hours at all, but they will spend in prayer and meditation all the time that is left to them after their works of obedience, and like real men of prayer, they shall pray everywhere and adore the Father in spirit and in truth. To this earnestness for prayer we urgently exhort all the friars, especially because this is the end and aim of all: that we should adhere to God in perfect charity.

The first part reaffirms the importance of (secret) personal prayer, to which a friar must devote at least a minimum of an hour per day. The second part exhortatively reinforces the necessity to actual do this hour of prayer.

The exhortation is based on John 4:24, adoring the Father in spirit and truth. The purpose of the Capuchin life is to pray, to meditate and to contemplate the Father in spirit and truth, as is said in the Rule of Saint Francis and the Gospel.

9. We decree, moreover, that silence shall be observed inviolably by all from the first signal for Compline until the Conventual Mass has been celebrated, which law we wish to be perpetual. And besides, from Easter until the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the signal for silence shall be given every day after the morning reflection and the washing of the cooking utensils, and silence shall be observed by all until the hour of Vespers. But if any friar shall violate the time of silence, he shall accuse himself of it publicly and shall take the discipline for a penance.

44. In all our monasteries where it can be done conveniently one or two little cells shall be built in some solitary place, a little distance from the dwelling of the friars, so that if any of the friars, inflamed by the Spirit of God to more perfect things, wishes by divine inspiration to lead an eremitical life in silence, and if that seems good to the superior, he may withdraw to it with the blessing of God and his superior and live a solitary life. Wherefore, we exhort all the superiors that if they find any friars suited for this life, they shall never deny them this solitude. But those who have withdrawn into solitude shall observe silence. Without the permission of their superior they shall speak with no one except their superiors and their spiritual father. Nor shall any friar approach them for the sake of conversation. Every day the friars shall bring them the food necessary for their sustenance from the monastery in silence and without any noise, so that they may peacefully give themselves to God and to prayer, by which they will be more perfectly united to God.

The emphasis on silence allows the friar to fulfil the purpose of the Eremitical life of being always united in love to Christ, spouse of his soul.

In the Statutes of Albacina all is directed towards mental prayer: poverty and austerity keep distractions away; the office in common being recited without singing and in ‘low voice’ and not adding other offices help give priority to mental prayer.[18]

1536 Constitutions (S. Eufemia)

These constitutions are more a codification of the spirituality than prescriptive. They are the identity card of the Reform. They almost remain unchanged until 1968, even through the revisions of 1552, 1575, 1608, 1643, 1909, 1925.[19]

The spirituality is Christocentric and ‘seraphic’, full of love for God. This fits within the bonaventurian schema of seeking union with Christ crucified. As noted above by Cargnoni, Giovanni da Fano in his Art of Union, follows the bonaventurian tryptic division into the purgative, illuminative and unitive way, corresponding to the three levels of the ascetical-mystical itinerary of the marriage of the soul with Christ. The kiss of love and peace is important at each stage. Giovanni da Fano is one of the main protagonists, along with Bernardino d’Asti and Bernardino Ochino, of the composition of the 1536 Constitutions. The spirituality of Bonaventure can also be discerned within chapter III of the Constitutions on prayer.

Paul Hanbridge notes that “since the first version in 1536, until 1968, chapter three on Prayer in the Capuchin Constitutions included the substance of this passage:

As prayer is the spiritual teacher of the friars, and so that the spirit of devotion not grow cold in the friars but burn continuously and ever more intensely on the altar of their heart, and indeed just as the Seraphic Father desired that the true spiritual friar to pray always – we no less direct that two special times be assigned for prayer for the sake of the tepid.

Regarding the sentence: “that the spirit of devotion not grow cold in the friars but burn continuously and ever more intensely on the altar of their heart” a recent commentary on the 1536 Constitutions identified here the influence of Saint Bonaventure and his accommodation of Leviticus 6:12-16 in his authenticated minor spiritual works De perfection vitae ad sorores and De sex aliis seraphim.

We see here an example of Bonaventure’s influence on the composition of the first Capuchin Constitutions.”

Giovanni da Fano in the Art of Union writes in the first section on the Purgative Way:

There are many different ways to pray. The Lord prayed with his face on the ground, and on the Cross with outstretched arms. Moses did the same thing. This method is very efficacious and pleasing to God as he sees the likeness of his Son with outstretched arms. Solomon prayed with his hands joined. Magdalene prostrated herself at the feet of the Lord. The Publican and the Prodigal Son did not dare raise their eyes to heaven. All of these methods are good according to the different kinds of prayers and petitions.

While the kiss is not mentioned explicitly, Luke 7:38 has Magdalene wetting the feet of Jesus with her tears, drying them with her hair and the kissing and anointing them.

Giovanni da Fano concludes his section on the Purgative Way by introducing how progress can now be made to kissing the hand in the Illuminative Way:

15. Concerning the Things which Spiritual Exercises Stimulate

In conclusion let us note what has been said in the first book, that once a person has undertaken the above teachings with diligence and fervour, he will see how with the help of God his soul will prevail over vice and sin, vanquish inordinate desires with ease, and perform good deeds, especially those which are spiritual and divine, promptly and joyfully. He will be able to cleanse himself with great faith and hope, and to be able to progress to kissing the hand, that is to the illuminative way, through recalling the divine gifts.

1. Concerning the Illuminative Way

Signatum est super nos lumen vultus tui Domine. With the soul cleansed of all passions and all impediments removed which would not allow divine union, and, as a consequence, having thus arrived at kissing the feet of the just Judge and Lord, one may proceed to kiss the hand of the kind Father in the illuminative way by readily considering his gifts.

In the Unitive Way, Giovanni da Fano uses the image of the kiss twice:

6. Concerning the Exercise of Aspiration

Anyone wishing to proceed along this way, which Dionysus calls mystical and divine, leaving the intellect aside, needs to exercise himself in affections alone. However, one needs to have some little prayers, which Augustine calls ejaculations, because they are like arrows which wound the heart of the beloved, as the Canticle says: Vulnerasti cor meum soror mea sponsa, and light the fire more easily. Sometimes they are uttered by the heart, at other time by the lips and speak to the Lord as if he were present, as he really is indeed. One can do this in the heart or with the lips not only at the time set down for prayer, but at any time and in any place, walking, resting, working, eating etc. by saying: “O Lord, when shall I love you perfectly? When shall I embrace you with the kisses of my heart in pure love? O my most sweet Jesus, when shall I despise myself and every other creature for love of you? When shall my spirit be united to your spirit with all the strength of my soul? Lord, when shall my soul be totally melted and deserve to be absorbed in you? My Lord, I wish to give myself completely to you and lose myself, so that I may possess you inseparably, and rest in you forever.”

8. The Ascent from the Lower Faculties of the Soul

The third stage consists in a certain arousal of heart towards which the soul is directed in order to obtain a higher and purer embrace by divine love, and which sweetens and delights the heart of the lover more than all worldly delights. The more intense the soul’s knowledge at this stage, the sweeter will be its love, its purpose and thanksgiving and the like. This activity is a kind of presence of eternal light which by illuminating the intellect and by inflaming the emotions with all the gifts of eternal sweetness and consolation makes the soul, stripped and ready, immerse its whole self in kisses of divine charity, having cast all human delights over its shoulders. Really God so draws the soul to himself and into himself at this stage that it regards all those things which are below God as most vile, or nothing. Paul indicates this grace when he says: Omnia arbitratus sum ut stercora ut Christum lucrifaciam. So the human heart expands and opens with such ineffable joy and sweetness in this divine touch that it cannot be shut by any human strength, so the soul despoils itself of the ornaments of its faculties, so that it may at last happily repose on the couch of love and peace in oneness of spirit with its beloved.

In the additional section on Spiritual Exercises, included by Dionysius of Montefalco in his edition of Giovanni da Fano’s work published in 1622,[20] there are also a number of references to the “kiss”.

Having completed all this, imagine that the Lord God and most loving Father, seeing your contrition and good will and having been asked by the most sweet Jesus and his most merciful Mother and all the saints, says to you with a kindly face: Remittuntur tibi peccata tua and he will show you his feet so that you may kiss them. Knowing that you have been received into grace and allowed to kiss the feet, you may say with great joy and very devoutly from the heart: Agimus tibi gratias omnipotens Deus pro universis beneficiis tuis, qui vivis et regnas in saecula saeculorum: Amen. Then singing the “Te Deum” go to sleep.

Following Matins, return to your spiritual exercise carefully in ordered to be allowed the kiss on the hands and on the lips by means of the Illuminative and Unitive Ways.

…. The Lord will offer you his glorious hands and you may kiss them with the highest devotion and the sweetest movements of the depths of the heart mindful of the infinite and immortal grace of such gifts. If you know how to conduct yourself according to the rules set out above for the Unitive Way, you will come to kiss the lips with ease and embrace the Spouse and enjoy the sublime condition and most excellent state of Union.

Within this work of Bonaventure, On the Perfection of Life to Sisters, we find the evocative image of the “kiss” being used in two places:

I/5. Listen, oh blessed mother; hear, oh handmaid of Jesus Christ, and incline your ear to the words of my mouth. Do not let yourself be beguiled or deceived. Do not let the great fruit of your prayer come to nothing. Do not lose the sweetness nor be robbed of the delight that you should draw from prayer. Prayer is the vessel with which to draw up the grace of the Holy Spirit from the spring of the overflowing sweetness of the most blessed Trinity. The most devout Prophet David, who was experienced in this, said, I opened my mouth and sighed. I opened my mouth, the Gloss says, “by praying, seeking, knocking”; and I sighed, says the Gloss, “That is, I drew in the Spirit”. Haven’t I already said to you what prayer is? “Prayer is the conversion of the mind to God.” Do you want to know how to convert your mind to God? Ponder carefully. When you are at prayer recollect yourself completely and enter the chamber of your heart with your Beloved. By yourself, linger with him alone. Forget all external things and rise above yourself with your whole heart, your whole mind, all your affection, all your desire, all you devotion. Do not relax from the spirit of prayer, but rise ever higher through the ardour of devotion until you enter that wonderful abode, as far as the house of God. And having seen your beloved some how with the eye of your heart and have tasted how pleasant is the Lord, and the surpassing greatness of his sweetness, you hasten there to his embrace. Having kissed him with the mouth of your inmost devotion you are completely outside yourself and rapt entirely in heaven and totally transformed into Christ. And you are not strong enough to constrain your spirit, but cry out with the prophet David, and say, My soul refused to be consoled. I was mindful of God and rejoiced.

VI/11. Alas therefore for those who are ungrateful for the benefits of such kindness, in whose heart the death of Christ has no effect! Bernard says, “See the head of Christ bowed down to kiss, his arms open to embrace, his pierced hands to bestow, his open side to love, the stretching of his whole body so as to spend his whole self.” On the contrary woe to those who by their sins crucify Christ in themselves and add pain to the pain of his wounds! A third woe to those whose hearts cannot be softened by beating their breast, who are unable to rouse goodwill, and for whom such an outpouring of so much blood, such an enormous cost, is not enough to incite them to the virtue of doing good! Truly as enemies of the cross of Christ today they further blaspheme Christ, the Son of God, who sits at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. Complaining about them and the like, the Lord speaks through blessed Bernard, saying, “See, man, what I suffer for you. See if there is pain like that in which I am crucified. To you I cry, I who die for you. See the sufferings with which I am afflicted. See the nails by which I am pierced. Since there is such external pain, the interior blow is more severe since I know you are so ungrateful.”

This last image of Christ upon the cross, with his arms open to embrace and bowing his head down to kiss both humanity and the individual soul resonates with the above section of the Art of Union, where in prayer, this kiss of the crucified Christ “unites the lover with the beloved, and indeed transforms one into the other.” It resonates with the final stanza of Michelangelo’s sonnet meditation on his own impending death we looked at in the kerygmatic element section: “Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest/My soul that turns to His great love on high,/Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.”[21] For this spiritual union to be able to happen the friars know that it is imperative that within the mundane life of the friar and the friary time to be set aside and be spent in this spirit of prayer and devotion, after the example of Saint Francis. The 1536 Constitutions seek to ensure this happens:

41. As prayer is the spiritual teacher of the friars, and so that the spirit of devotion not grow cold in the friars but burn continuously and ever more intensely on the altar of their heart, and indeed just as the Seraphic Father desired that the true spiritual friar to pray always – we no less direct that two special times be assigned for prayer for the sake of the tepid. One is to be after compline throughout the year. From Easter until the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the other time is assigned immediately after None except on fast days, or after Matins between the Exaltation of the Holy Cross until Easter.

The Statutes of Albacina have one period of prayer as minimum, the 1536 Constitutions have two periods, with two hours as specified for the tepid friars, while the true friar prays always. This underlines the great importance of prayer as the foundation for the consecrate life.

42. Let the Friars remember that prayer is nothing other than to speak to God with the heart. Therefore the one who speaks to God only with his mouth is not praying. Hence each should strive to do mental prayer and according to the teaching of Christ, the best teacher, adore the Father in spirit and in truth. Each friar should take diligent care to enlighten his mind and inflame his affection more than to form words. Prior to the prayer after None or Matins – or on fast days, after Sext – the litanies should be said, invoking all the saints to pray to God with us and for us. No other office may be added in choir except that of Our Lady so that the friars have more time to spend at private mental prayers, which are far more fruitful than vocal prayers.

The text once again states the importance of mental prayer as in intimate conversation with God. It is this type of prayer that determines the entire life of the friars, making it superior to individual and communal prayer.

As with the Statutes of Albacina, also with the 1536 Constitutions, silence is the custodian of the spirit of prayer and intimate dialogue with God:

44. Silence is the guardian of the acquired spirit. According to Saint James, the religion of one who does not check his tongue is futile. Therefore we order that evangelical silence be observed, in as much as our human frailty may bear it, aware that Jesus Christ the infallible truth said that we will have to account for every idle word. Such is the outpouring of divine things that it is no small error for a friar dedicated to divine worship to speak about the things of the world with (his) consecrated mouth.

45. As for regular silence, let it be continuous in the church, in the cloister and in the dormitory. In the refectory, however, from the first sign at the table until the thanksgiving, and everywhere else once Compline has been said until the bell for Prime. And from Easter until the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, let the signal be given for silence after Sext until the prayer is finished after None. Let anyone who breaks the silence say five Our Fathers and five Hails Marys in the refectory with his arms extended in the form of the cross. The friars should always and everywhere strive to speak of God with a subdued and humble voice, with modesty and charity.

The 1536 Constitutions are in continuity with statutes of Albacina in that there is the provision for the possibility to spend some periods in extreme silence and solitude, a period of ‘angelic’ life totally donated to God:

79. In each place where this can be done opportunely, in the woods or the site granted the friars, we also order that there be one or two solitary cells remote from the common dwelling of the friars. Then if any friar (judged suitable for this by his superior) may wish to lead the anchoritic life, he can give himself quietly to God with an angelic life in solitude, following the impulse of the holy spirit. During that time, so that he may enjoy God in quiet, we instruct that no one speak with him except his spiritual father, who will be like a mother in providing for him, according to the pious intention of our Seraphic Father, as is found in the Conformities.

Giovanni da Fano’s Damascus experience[22] was written into the Constitutions of 1536 in the most practical way. It was no longer enough to observe the Rule according to the Pontifical declarations and exemptions and without the obligation of living in the spirit of the Testament of Saint Francis. The Rule was to be observed ad litteram and spiritually, searching always to conform oneself and be transformed, after the example of Saint Francis, into the Crucified. It was the same ascetical-mystical tensions of the constitutions of 1536 that brought the Capuchins to a deeper exploration of the ancient doctrine of enlightenment and freedom of the spirit in the seeking of the soul’s union with God, as demonstrated in Giovanni composition of the 1536 Art of Union. This call to practical affective, contemplative prayer arose from the same orthodox, Augustinian-Bonaventurian matrix of the three ways: purgative, illumanitive and unitive. Also mixed in, according to Camaioni, were elements of begherine mysticism and traces of the condemned beguine spirituality of the Mirror of Souls of Margherita Porete.[23] These were domesticated into a solid spirituality that enabled the Capuchins to both pray effectively themselves and teach others the same.

  1. Von Balthasar, H. U. (1986). Prayer. (G. Harrison, Trans.) (pp. 109–110). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
  2. Von Balthasar, H. U. (1986). Prayer. (G. Harrison, Trans.) (p. 124). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
  3. The Capuchin Reform. A Franciscan Renaissance, text chosen and arranged by Fr. Melchior of Poblandura OFM Cap & translated by Paul Hanbridge OFM Cap, 2003, Media House, Delhi, p. 337.
  4. Cf. Michele Camaioni, «DE HOMINI CARNALI FARE SPIRITUALI» Bernardino Ochino e le origini dei cappuccini nella crisi religiosa del Cinquecento, (Dottorato di Ricerca in Storia, Università Roma Tre 2011, page 247, as of 3/1/2019 available at
  5. Ibid., p. 247.
  6. Cf. Michele Camaioni, «DE HOMINI…, pages 135-136 and footnote 119.
  7. Cf. Costanzo Cargnoni, I Frati Cappuccini, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, 1988, III/2, pages 2904-2905.; cf. also Michele Camaioni, «DE HOMINI CARNALI FARE SPIRITUALI» pages 247-248.
  8. Cf. Cargnoni, I Frati Cappuccini, III/2, pages 2907-2909.
  9. Cf. Camaioni, De Homini…, p. 248.
  10. Cargnoni, I Frati…, III/2, p. 2932.
  11. Cf. Giuseppe De Luca, Introduzione alla storia della pieta, Roma, 1962, p. 30.
  12. Ibid., p. 76.
  13. Cargnoni, I Frati…, III/2, p. 3222.
  14. Cf. Camaioni, De Homini…, p. 466.
  15. John of the Cross. (1987). John of the Cross: Selected Writings. (K. Kavanaugh & J. Farina, Eds.) (p. 55). New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
  16. Augustine of Hippo. (1995). Tractates on the Gospel of John, 112–24; Tractates on the First Epistle of John. (T. P. Halton, Ed., J. W. Rettig, Trans.) (Vol. 92, p. 158). Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press.
  17. Antonio PICCIALLO, L’Orazione Mentale nella Vita dei Cappuccini del XVI Secolo in Italia Francescana 90 (2015), 162.
  18. Ibid., 163-165.
  19. Ibid., p. 166.
  20. Cf. Camaioni, De Homini…, p. 184.
  21. Symonds, John Addington: The Sonnets of Michael Angelo Buonarroti, London, Smith, Elder & Co (second edition) 1904, p. 73.
  22. Cf. Camaioni, De Homini …., p. 183.
  23. Cf., Camaioni, De Homini…, p. 184.