The Fire of Love

By Tommaso da Olera

Introduction by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

This translation is based on the introduction, text and footnotes which were published by P. Costanzo Cargnoni O.F.M. Cap. In I Frati Cappuccini: Documenti e testimonianze dell primo secolo, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, vol III/1, pp.1452-1457. The only additions to the notes made by the translator are references to Francis of Assisi: The Early Documents, edited by Regis Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., J. A. Wayne Hellmann, O.F.M. and William J. Short O.F.M. Conv., New York City Press, New York, London, Manila, (1999) for an English version of quotations from the Writings or Biographies of St Francis.

Table of Contents

Introduction by Costanzo Cargnoni

When the Council of Trent was coming to an end Tommaso Acerbis was born in the small village of Olera which is situated in Val Seriana (Bergamo). He entered the Capuchins in 1580 and undertook the simple work of a lay brother questing in Verona, Vicenza, Roverto, and Padua until he was transferred to Innsbruck where he died in 1631. His daily activities involved close personal contact with people which enabled him to share the many charismatic gifts that God had given him and which stimulated the spirit of renewal fostered by the Council of Trent. He became the favourite prophet at the Court of the Emperor.

What he was doing explains the development and success of his way of thought and his spiritual writing. Although he considered all ranks of society to have been called to love God, he had special regard for those in the consecrated life. He was the apostle of the kind of pure love that should exist in religious life and consequently whenever he spoke or committed something to writing he never tired using strong words concerning eternal and internal renunciation, the struggle of ardent and continual prayer, the effort to promote contemplation or the demands of love.

Although he was hardly able to read or write his superiors obliged Brother Tommasso under obedience to write down his spiritual meditations. Those who knew him said “that he came to know what he put into writing through the prayers that he said in his cell where he wrote down what God told him to write without the use of a book […]. They told me that he frequently went on writing mechanically and when he stopped to think he found that he had written exactly what was on his mind.” (Positio, 63, 75). In fact, the simplicity, the honesty, the conviction, the expert knowledge of the most profound mysteries of faith and of mysticism show that he must have been writing with the help of God.

His manuscripts appear to have been written at different times by his close friends. Despite the enthusiasm of the people, of the theologians and the archdukes to have copies of what the holy Brother said, a printed edition seems to have been held up for about fifty years. In 1626 the Minister General Giammaria da Noto, said, “these things should not be printed”, nor should they be published “to promote the reputation of the Order.” It was only in 1680 that Bernardo da Porto Maurrizio, who was Minister General at the time, gave his approval for the Minister Provincial, Father Giovenale Raffini to have them printed.

A volume containing 700 pages of double columns was finally published at Augsburg in 1682 with the same title that Br Tommasso had given it: Fuoco d’amore mandato di Cristo in terra per esser acceso [The fire of love that Christ sent to earth to be kindled]. It contained writings that were truly inflaming. It is a jungle of thoughts about contemplating the life, passion, and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. It contains 19 chapter; with another treatise in Italian composed of 193 chapters in Italian: Scala di perfezzione [Steps of perfection]. Six manuscripts were dedicated to the true, pure, filial, unitive transforming Love. This volume also contains many letters, affirmations against heretics and arguments in defence of the Catholic faith.

The extracts which we have chosen provide an adequate example of the technique and the doctrinal teaching employed by Tammasso. One might also compare the way thoughts were expressed in his own original writings (cf. text n. 7) with the literary style used by his original editor who inserted punctuation and dispensed with expressions in dialect.

These texts permit us to grasp the way the holy Brother understood and experienced the meaning of meditation and contemplation (n. 1) and to know what he taught concerning the love of God (n. 2). Pure love comes about through contemplating Christ’s passion. To enable us to achieve this he offers two examples of the practice of contemplation. What is important for the history of contemplation is the way Tommasso da Olera was stirred by dwelling on Christ’s cross and sufferings (n. 4). He was also moved by the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Virgin Mary and the Apostles in the Cenacle (n. 5) and the Assumption and Glorification of the Madonna (n. 6). It is here that we see his great devotion to Mary.

Brother Tommasso was one of the few Capuchins who generated theological writings during the first century of the reform. Lorenzo da Fara said that he presented something that was quite rich and personal in the way he described the doctrine of spiritual marriage. His diverse repetition of rich and emotional images and his constant allusions to his personal experience fill his writings with fervour, persuasion, and a feature of authenticity which are the best features of mystical writing throughout he ages.

He expressed his own opinion of his capability as an author by referring to the words of Amos 7:14-15: “Know that I have never undertaken studies, not ready any books, and I am not ashamed to say as much. I am a convert, that is a lay brother in a religious Order, the seraphic Capuchin Order. For 18 years I have done nothing but go questing alms for poor friars, wash dishes, working in the kitchen and he garden. When I lived in the world, I was a shepherd, a poor farmer. My name is Brother Tommasso da Bergamo. When I tell you this it is not I who am speaking but God Himself. I am not educated, and I cannot remember all that I have written.”

The fire of love

1. A few points concerning mental prayer and contemplation

Brother Tommasso wanted to draw the soul away from sin and lead it into the state of grace to experience the joy of mystical union. In what he wrote he symbolised the long journey which is involved in this by comparing it to mounting the steps to the Praetorium (the Governor’s house). We have chosen a few chapters from these writings because they illustrate a method of meditation that leads to ecstatic contemplation by travelling “the road of love.” The soul must purify herself by overcoming servile love an achieving pure childlike love. She must practice virtue and consider things with her heart and slowly ponder on the life, Passion, and death of the Divine Redeemer. The Crucifix provides the enlightenment, the strength and the fervour that inspire the intellect and the will and make it easy to observe custody of the heart in order to bring about gentle self-control, continual willingness to act out of love for God, doing whatever He inspires and “il tocco di Dio” (what God prompts). Tommasso da Olera taught how to perform the inner activities of meditation by linking them to Christ’s Passion in a predominantly emotionally manner. This would lead the soul who acted out of love to forget about his own worries and be at peace by feeling humble. Then it would be able to engage in the highest kind of contemplation that is enjoyed by a loving soul “which is drawn into the abyss of love as she raises herself up to God” on the wings of “loving emotion,” “fervent desires,” prematurely experiencing the life of paradise. These pages prove that Tommasso has had personal experience of living mysticism.

The temptations that come to those who live and inner life and the need to practice mental prayer

5293 If you want to reach perfection (something that is very worthy and dear to God), and live an inner life, you should first take care of your exterior life (since one will influence the other). In order to acquire a deep inner way of life you must foster a strong desire to change as quickly as possible rather than to revert to the way you have been living because this involved many misdeeds and temptations, spiritual aridity, gloom, and lack of confidence in reaching what you desired. You were often preoccupied with thoughts and desires which you would not have put aside if you had not listened to God saying, “Be as perfect as your Father is perfect”[1] and you will never be abandoned.

When a sculptor has selected some material to make into a container, he first beats it with a hammer, while putting it into into a fire and then moulds it into the right shape. This is how God works with you, oh my soul, so that you may become a container that is full of virtue and perfection. The expert sculptor puts you into the fire and strikes you with many blows of the hammer in order to make you perfect. You will be blessed If you allow yourself to be moulded by the heavenly Master. Rejoice when you feel the blows of temptations, anxiety, angst or worries because it means that the heavenly Artist is working on you to make you perfect.

5294 Most of all you should have great confidence in God, and frequently turn to Him in search of His help. Whenever you feel afflicted with anxiety realise that your passions, affections, and self-love are being stripped from you because God is working like a surgeon who is cutting into a wound and causing the patient to feel pain, so that the patient will feel better in a short time. This is what you ought to do. Whenever you experience anxiety or sorrow remember that the heavenly Surgeon is cutting into the wounds made by vice and sins in order to make you well again.

In order to begin to understand this you should think about the nobility and beauty of acting with virtue, and how much this pleases God. God says that the only friend that He wants to know is the person who is clothed with virtue.

The virtuous person can approach God with confidence and ask Him for His favours. The only things that God rejects are vice and sin. Because you know that God is pleased by virtue and offended by sin you should want to practice virtue in order to please Him. You should put aside your own desires and hate vice and sin. You ought to abandon sin in order to please God rather than out of fear of punishment or because of a desire to achieve glory. Act with virtue so that you may please God always in all circumstances.[2]

5295 To achieve such a precious gift as perfection you must overcome all kinds of difficulties, mortify your heart, and desire to achieve perfection. If you long for perfection you will acquire it more quickly.[3] You should become used to frequently meditating and contemplating on the wounds of Christ.

Do not think that you could ever acquire virtue without becoming accustomed to mental prayer, since once you have grown used to mental prayer you will acquire interior virtue and God will grant you joy in prayer and in everything that is pleasing to God. You should frequently ask God to grant you the gift of prayer. Once you have received the gift of prayer you will be able to converse with God, the Blessed Virgin and the saints in heaven and obtain what you need to be able to love God.

So that you may come to know what mental prayer is, I shall give a short explanation of what my poor spirit can put into words even though what goes on within the soul cannot be put into words and what I say will sound like babble. Listen to what I have to say.

(From I Frati Cappuccini, a cura di Costanzo Cargnoni, Roma 1991, III/1 pp. 1478-14853)

A description of the state of the contemplative man

5321 God alone knows the extent of the grandeur of the wonderful abilities that enhance the soul of a contemplative person. The soul experiences a sensation [243] that is very sweet, pleasant, enjoyable, wonderful, honourable, strong, productive, majestic, as well as sublime. The soul feels as if God has assured it of gaining eternal salvation, gifted it with internal and external tranquillity, and treated it with an amount of kindness that He would only give to someone whom He loved. This sensation is so delightful that it inspired the ancient contemplative fathers to leave the comforts of home, good food, city life and empty worldly pleasures and withdraw into the desert and contemplate divine mysteries by day and by night and feel so elated that they were overcome with joy. What a holy way of life, even if it was undertaken by so few people!

This method of divine contemplation is so holy and gratifying that it causes a person to experience such inner peace that he forgets his body and all that is created and simply goes on speaking with the holy Angels and God Himself. Any contemplative man or woman, no matter how vile or abject, is enabled to grasp secrets that are beyond human understanding since God gives this gift to those who are pure and humble of heart and who do everything to please their Creator.

Consider how God grants such wisdom to those who are simple and uneducated. Divine wisdom extends beyond all the wisdom of the world and beyond anything that the wisdom of the world could understand! This wisdom is produced by the beloved sweet wounds of Christ.

5322 Oh sacred wisdom! Step up Christians because your God is calling you. How could anyone resist running along the path that is made of honey and kindness![4] Oh you religious men and women, what has changed since the passing of your ancestors who dedicated themselves to contemplating God day and night and who were so ardent in loving God? How far have you fallen! How few of you live in this happy enlightened state! Let us cry day and night about such a tragedy! Oh, how much evil lies hidden in cloisters because heavenly matters are neglected! How many have become lukewarm, conceited, or ambitious because they do not have this gift!

How many people ponder over earthly things but do not think about the things of heaven? There are many who tumble over a precipice [244] because they are not concerned about what pertains to God! Oh, you unfortunate mortals who can contemplate the divine mysteries here on earth, but act in a way that will deserve the sufferings of those who are damned!

How many reflect on earthly things while putting aside the divine light of contemplating heavenly things. Oh, how careless, blind, and weak are those poor mortals who turn away from God to take up what is revolting!

What greater wisdom can anyone acquire here below than what one learns through contemplating God! This is what the holy prophet acquired by contemplating God for seven hours each day.[5] This is the kind of exalted wisdom that the holy hermits gained when they lived in the desert and gave their lives to continual meditation and contemplation.

5323 Oh how holy is the wisdom that turns human beings into heavenly persons, friends of the Angels, rulers of the earth, gives them independence, makes them active in virtue, enemies of vice, and threats to the devils and much more! Their body is on earth their spirit in heaven. They feed their body but not to profit themselves but to serve God. Just as worldly people love creatures with inordinate love, others who have been cleansed from vice and sin and are united with God love Him with pure love. They not only love God but they contemplate Him, experience His presence, and enjoy it and appreciate His generosity so strongly that they never want to be separated from Him and the sweetness that flows from Him like a clear stream.

Once it has found God, this is how the soul who is in love with Him experiences His presence and finds rest in His company. It not only discovers clear water but the sweetest honey. It feels how sweet the Lord is. Think back on how our Patriarch St Francis savoured the mere mention of the name of Jesus because it seemed to him to taste like honey.[6] The holy Prophet said: How sweet on my lips are your words. David said that they are the source of all that is good: O taste and see that the Lord is good.[7]

Do you want to savour this word? Do you want to live a happy life or endure a sad life? Oh, holy contemplation, why don’t Christians think about you? I think that we ought to be ashamed to say that the ancient philosophers, who did not know the true God, paid so much attention to the heavens, the stars, the planets that we read [245] that they abandoned wealthy cities and all kinds of pleasures in order to contemplate the heavens and the stars, and discovered so much delight in doing so that they forgot everything else.

5324 How is it that we who are Christians and Religious who know that the true God is Cause causarum (Cause of causes), the One who created everything, do not contemplate His power, His generosity, and His majesty? Why don’t we do all that we can to contemplate heavenly things? Why do we not practice the virtues by means of which we could become the friends and the acquaintances of God. The loving God will provide us with the ability not only to know Him but also to known whatever pertains to Him.

Oh, what a privilege contemplation is! What can bring about greater happiness than contemplating God? Oh, my devout soul if you want to enjoy quiet, peace, serenity, and glory, contemplate your God whom you will discover to be the calmest sea and the sweetest of all that is delightful. Oh, my soul we cannot find words to adequately describe contemplation. We can only understand it a little in our heart. Our mortal tongue cannot find words for something that is so high and exalted. We are not able to say very much.

The glorious St Francis said: My God and my all. What did he mean when he said my all. Only you the God of the Angels can understand this. Somewhere else he said: Because of the good things that lie ahead for me, I consider all adversity to be a delight.[8] If anyone were to ask a worldly person what they experienced when they were being persecuted, they would certainly say that they endured anxiety of heart and soul.

5325 It is also true that if someone were to ask a servant of God what he thought, he would say that persecutions were a safe shelter. Anyone who concentrates on contemplation is closely united with God and is listening to what He is saying, and longs to do what is pleasing to God. He accepts that God wants him to be persecuted, misunderstood, beaten and surrender his life out of love. This is how someone who is a friend of God would react when he knows that he is being persecuted, misunderstood, and tormented. He knows that God loves him and will support him and lovingly comfort his soul and that what is bitter will become sweet. He will succeed because God loves him. Though love is sweet it becomes even sweeter as loves increases.

Therefore, it is no wonder that such sweetness (mixed with some bitterness) turns something that is bitter by nature into sweet and gentle love for God.[9] If contemplation is something that is so worthwhile and pleasing to God, why don’t you ask Him to give it to you? Why don’t you ask the Saints in heaven to intercede for you? If you want to have what is good for you, do not forget that only God can give it to you. If you are far from God, why don’t you come closer to Him?

How foolish you are to dawdle around close to creatures! How deeply will you wound your heart if you do not realise that when you love creatures you are just loving a piece of this earth! Want could be worse than loving what amounts to nothing! If you desire to love, love God who created everything that is good. He will consecrate you in heaven and make you happy on earth.

5326 God’s true lover rules over everything and commands and directs them all. He has control of himself and of his passions. Nothing disturbs him because God has shown this person’s soul His wealth and His treasures. His soul has been enriched with grace. God has strengthened his soul with all these gifts.

Therefore, it is no wonder that the soul rejoices when it experiences poverty and dryness and wants to savour and possess these riches. You must become poor and humble of heart in order to rise above what is worldly poverty to receive what is real wealth.

How much effort you should put into trying to achieve heavenly riches! How ready you ought to be to endure opposition and hardship since Good sees His servants who suffer! He who loves God willingly endures suffering. How sweet and good it is to suffer for Christ! There is no kind of worldly pleasure that could compare with the heavenly pleasure or companionship that is experienced by the soul who is in love with the Holy Spirit.

I invite all contemplative souls to pursue the objective of contemplation which is God Himself, who is the joy in which we should immerse ourselves day and night by contemplating here on earth what we shall contemplate in heaven. There together with the Saints and the Angels we shall glorify the Eternal God where He is blessed and adored in heaven. Amen.

  1. Cf. Mt 5: 48.
  2. This reasoning is based on the doctrine of pure love which is a fundamental topic in the writings of Tommasso da Olera.
  3. The desire for perfection is important in the ascetical and mystical journey. From the very beginning it was emphasised in Capuchin writings as we can see in the teachings of Giovanni da Fano. Cf. vol 1, 616s, n. 531.
  4. Because he is a goody Franciscan and follower of Bonaventure this “Servant of God” said that the call to contemplation is extended to everyone.
  5. Cf. Ps 118, 164 (Vulg.)
  6. Cf. 1 Cel. 86; LM, 6.
  7. Cf. Ps 33: 9 (Vulg.)
  8. Cf. Actus, 1, n.21-24, (FAED vol 3, p. 437) see also LFI Chapter 2. (FAED Vol 3, pp 567-569)
  9. This echoes what St Francis said. Test. 3. (FAED vol 1 p. 124).