Mysticism of the Seventeenth Century and the Capuchins

By Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

Translated by Lam Vu OFM Cap

To speak of mysticism of the seventeenth century is like entering into an intricate forest, full of the unexpected and contrasting, which only find their reason d’être whether in the separation of mysticism from asceticism, that is, in the discontinuity between scholastic theological knowledge, a standard method, and secret mystical wisdom, or historically in the polemics of quietism.[1] This last aspect is much more evident in the second half of the seventeenth century, when the Guía spiritual of the Spanish priest Michele Molinos (+ 1696) appeared in Rome in 1675, and was condemned twelve years later, along with the work of his friend, Cardinal Pier Matteo Petrucci (+ 1701), and anti-mysticism became a practice. Meanwhile, in the first half of the seventeenth century mystical literature could still circulate without encountering any great difficulties. However, a struggle had already initiated between the quietists (contemplatives) and the use of mental prayer (meditation), as especially practiced by the Jesuits. For at least twenty years, writings with quietist overtones or interpretable in this sense were traced and destroyed. The medieval mystical tradition was used and transformed; “the balanced Bonaventurian path, that progressed between proper theology, symbolism and mysticism”[2] was disregarded, and the new ‘mystical way’ opened up in the Seventeenth Century as the highway of true spirituality, totally affective, based on aspirational prayer that moves beyond the intellectual path and prepares the spirit for the mysterious and obscure divine passive love that requires annihilation, dispossession, suspension of powers and solitary separation from the world in which the soul is ‘pulled’ out of itself.[3]

A comprehensive study is required to look at how Capuchin mysticism shaped and developed during this period, in relation to the Order’s own evolution and expansion in the Seventeenth Century. Generally, it is more spiritual and devotional literature than real theses on theological mysticism. Capuchin mysticism is founded in the practice and lived experience of the saints in the Order from the end of the Sixteenth Century onwards.[4] To understand the meaning of this evolution, one cannot ignore the initial steps that founded and forged the history of the Order.[5]

In the ferment of reform in the Franciscan Observance after 1517, about a dozen religious asked the Superior General Francisco Quiñones, who was open to renewal, for permission to live in some solitary friaries (houses of recollection) in order to observe the Rule of St. Francis more perfectly. The year was 1526. Quiñones assigned them to the hermitages of Monteluco, S. Maria di Terni, Scarzola, S. Giacomo of Todi, Spineto and the place of Buon Riposo of Castello. Among these fervent friars were Francesco Ripanti of Jesi († 1549), Bernardino Palli d’Asti († 1557), Battista of Norcia († 1549), Bartolomeo Spellucci of Spello († 1562) and the Blessed Bartolomeo Cordoni of Città of Castello († 1535). The latter was a great spiritual master and wrote a highly mystical booklet published posthumously in 1538 and re-edited in the Capuchin circles in Milan and Naples in 1539, and in Venice between 1538-1540 with the title Dialogo dell’unione spirituale di Dio con l’anima.[6]

Experienced in the way of mysticism was also Bernardino d’Asti who left us writings and had his Orazioni devote printed, which we will discuss later. Bernardino Ochino († 1564) had booklets of Prediche and his Dialoghi sette published which reveal the influence of Bartolomeo Cordoni and through him of the Beguine mystic Marguerite Porete. Porete was the author of the forbidden text of The Mirror of Simple Souls and influenced the Waldensians with the exaltation of the merits of Christ, the annihilation of the human will into the divine will and the transformation of the soul into Christ through ecstatic contemplation and imitation of the Crucified in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Dialogo of Cordoni became the common denominator of primitive Capuchin literature, with the characteristic invitation to ‘fall in love’, ‘unite’ and ‘be transformed’ into Christ, up to the state of stillness and perfection.[7]

Another text, more mysterious, which wasn’t published, circulated secretly among the Capuchins and was called Amore evangelico. It was instilled with radical spiritualism, especially in the second book that was recently found in the Vatican Library. As with the Dyalogo della unione of Cordoni and the writings of the early Capuchins, Amore evangelico focused on the exaltation of love as the highest form of virtue and privileged channel of the unifying encounter between the soul and God here in this life. In fact, there is a strong similarity with this primitive Capuchin spirituality and the legislation inspired by it. In the Constitutions of 1536 these positions are expressed in a mystical and evocative prose, but at the same time balanced and organized according to the needs of rationality and clarity, typical of an institutional juridical text; moreover, in Amore evangelico, they find themselves immersed in an uninterrupted flow of very highly ascetic-mystical speculations and mysterious revelations.[8]

Precisely in the context of the primitive mysticism of the Capuchins, by way of the mysterious treatise Amore evangelico that remained in manuscript form, we find an interesting classification of the various spiritual gifts that people receive in the moment of mystical encounter with God, when in the soul “one feels something like a spiritual movement which circles about in all the entrails of the body wanting to get out, but cannot, because it has not yet been released from prison…”.

In particular, the anonymous author distinguishes between ‘languor of love’, ‘gift of ecstasy,’ ‘spiritual alienation of love’, ‘abstractions of the heart’, ‘spiritual joy,’ ‘raptures of the mind,’ ‘revelations,’ ‘supernatural visions,’ ‘blessed manifestations,’ and thus delineates the different states of the soul annihilated and ‘absorbed in God,’ rendered with realistic effort that reaches peaks of extreme spiritualism, opening revealing glimpses into the intimate spiritual life of rigorist Franciscan circles in the early decades of the Sixteenth Century. It is interesting how he explains the ‘understanding of raptures.’ He writes that “the union and conjunction of the body and soul is so inseparable, that seeing the soul being carried by the intellect into the abyss of supernal clarity, not being separated and freed from the body by corporal death, in virtue of the impetus that is produced in the soul by the rapture of the intellect, it seizes and wants to elevate the body from the earth, but so as not to separate itself entirely from it, it reluctantly leaves on the earth, seeing itself carried to heaven. For although it seems to the soul to be departing from the body, it never lets it go, since in parting from the body it is certain that it will die; but because the intellect is absorbed in God in the greatest depth, the soul believes it is entirely separated from the body, and therefore does not help it at that time, but leaves it as if dead”. [9]

Bernardino d’Asti proposes to the friars some exercises of Trinitarian affective prayer such as adoration in spirit and truth to the Father for the Son in the Spirit, in order to exercise the act of love of God, the foundation of the law and purpose of the spiritual life. Love is understood in its Trinitarian, Christological, Marian and Ecclesial dimension and transpires in the ‘devout and humble prayer’ which becomes a program of interior reform and apostolic zeal, as he expressly says:

“Inflame my heart strongly and inextinguishably with the fire of your most ardent love, of that most perfect love, which is never idle, but works great things; which destroys every area of vice and every self love; and let me never again be separated from your love.”[10]

During the most dramatic period of the Order, after the apostasy of Ochino, Francesco Ripanti da Jesi († 1549) became an animator of contemplative life by teaching the friars how to make an act of perfect love with his method, entitled: Circolo del divino amore. It was judged as dangerous and then condemned together with Cordoni’s Dialogue. In it Ripanti writes that in this circle of divine love the whole universe, visible and invisible, is shaken, which is hinged to Christ, the centre of everything, crucified on the Cross and active in the Church. Looking at the mystery of Christ, the contemplative enjoys in its ‘infinite divine perfection’ of the Trinity, reads it in the sign of the Cross and discovers it in the Church and thus annihilated, offers himself, his own freedom to the will of Christ, of the Church and of creatures, wanting only that, to be made with Him ‘one spirit and one will’.[11]

These are secret sources of a spiritual radicalism supported by an almost esoteric spiritual literature, which circulated in manuscript or in rare small-format, pocket-sized editions, always ready for use and for this reason did not easily survive. It was a style of prayer and spiritual exercises which found harmony with the needs of a reform of the Franciscan life, and which focused on the spirit of prayer and devotion and the practice of unitive love which is the work of the Spirit.

Giovanni Pili of Fano († 1539) was first an adversary who the later joined the Capuchins, was attracted to the spiritualism of Cordoni, Amore evangelico, Ripanti and Palli, but added a more traditional teaching, a regulated mysticism, while equally launching the friars into the dynamics of unitive love without quoting many passages from Cordoni. With his well-known book Arte de la unione (Brescia 1536), the first printed Capuchin work of which we have an edition, traced a true itinerary of spiritual life. This booklet was altered and enhanced in 1622 in Rome by Dionisio of Montefalco with the title: L’arte d’unirsi con Dio.[12]

The nucleus of this original mystical tension of the early Capuchin literature and spiritual experience is found in some passages of the early Capuchin Constitutions, which resonate with this glowing ardour:

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.[13]

Given that God is our final end to whom everyone should tend and long to see himself transformed in Him, we exhort all the friars to direct all their thoughts to this aim. With every possible impulse of love let us focus all our intentions and longing to unite ourselves to our supremely good Father with all our heart, mind and soul, with our strength and virtue, with actual, continuous, intense and pure love.[14]

One can clearly see how this text consistently brought together all this literature that nourished not only the spirituality of Capuchin at its origins but continued its influence afterwards.

It was mentioned at the beginning of this article that true Capuchin mysticism is found in the experience of the saints.[15] The first Capuchin saint already offers us elements that open us to the mystical horizon of the Seventeenth Century. Saint Felix of Cantalice in the testimonies of the process given by some illiterate lay friars in 1587 is presented as a man of great contemplative prayer:

Sometimes I would go to church at night, I would find him in the church at prayer … I heard from other friars that Brother Felix was accustomed to say prayers and make aspirations … He was accustomed to say certain prayers, which he called songs, with which he would usually teach to the little children; and one of them was: O Jesus, Jesus, / little child of Mary, / whoever possessed you / how much goodness he would have”; or: “Jesus. Jesus. Take my heart, and don’t give it back to me anymore.” “He told me many times that we must say our prayer to Christ with love, and that our Blessed Lord wanted nothing from us but acts of love. And he told me this with great affection”. “He often used the extraction [of text] in prayer, and disapproved of those who, when reading and finding some beautiful passages, do not close the book and stop to meditate. And then he would begin to say the rosary but would not finish it because of the meditation and extraction [of text].[16]

Hearing illiterate lay brothers speak of ‘aspiration’, of ‘extraction’, with such technical words, means that there was a practical and precise teaching learned in the novitiate, a true school of prayer and living devotion, a Capuchin methodology of holiness, later also illustrated by numerous spiritual booklets and pamphlets dealing with interior prayer and the exercise of love.[17]

Therefore, aspirational prayer was the soul of Capuchin prayer. This early-Christian and monastic heritage was revived with new vitality by Saint Francis. It had reached the Capuchins both through the Franciscan experience of the Bonaventurian devotion, and through the devotio moderna and above all from the mystical doctrine of the Observant Henry van Herp († 1477) known as Harphius. In his Theologia Mystica this Observant Franciscan mystic proposed a spiritual journey of interiority through the path of introspection, that is, the search for God in the most intimate place of the soul. This journey is covered with twelve mortifications aimed at denying the will of any affection that is not purely according to God.[18] In his treatise Herp barely mentioned corporal penance, to insist above all on the interior aspects, sensitivity, self-love and purely human motivations that had to be completely overcome, to become completely available to the action of the Holy Spirit and bring the soul to the inner exercise of love. Thus, the heart and spirit reach unity through a spiritual ascension where the lower powers, that is, the external senses, are purified and the three higher powers – memory, intellect and will – are simplified. The fundamental instrument of this ascension – Henry van Herp taught – is the exercise of aspiration and unitive love. The first is the body of contemplation, the other is its soul, its spirit. Those who decided to walk the divine and mystical path had to exercise themselves above all in the affections, keeping their memory ready for the use of very short prayers, to excite this desire which must fill the heart, but also flourish continuously on the lips, speaking to God as if He were present and as often as possible and everywhere.

The meaning is deduced from the process of breathing: to ‘aspire’ [late Middle English: from French aspirer or Latin aspirare, from ad– ‘to’ + spirare ‘breathe’] means to exhale the breath towards something and it is used figuratively: that is, to be well disposed towards, to rise to, to ascend towards, but always with ardent desire and vigorous effort. In this last meaning the word has three important elements: an upward movement, a desire and the manifestation of this desire. This aspiration and sighing towards God finds its root in the affection both of the will and the senses themselves, that is, of the body which can express this affection of the heart with gestures. This doctrine was highly valued and followed by the Capuchins.[19]

Mattia Bellintani of Salò (†1611) in his famous and recommended and influential Pratica dell’orazione mentale explained with theological depth the affections of the heart in prayer and the operations or acts of love. Here are his words:

The name of love implies first a burning desire to unite ourselves with the thing we love, just like the soul in love with God yearns for this love to unite with Him, as the bride confesses in the Canticles, and then love is an affection. Then, an act of will is important, with which we freely love someone, just like the soul that loves God deeply, that is, it wants and takes pleasure in His infinite ocean of all perfection.

And in loving our neighbour we want to have the good of divine grace and God Himself, or even some temporal good. This love is act. Now affections usually arise from acts. Acts then are born from love, because the first operation of our will is to love… Therefore, love is the root of all the movements of our will and hence all man’s diligence must consist in well regulating love.[20]

Entering deeper into the movement of love, Bellintani says that this love is both act and passion, active and passive, ascending love and descending love that can never be completely separated from each other. These two movements of love are called ‘intratto/inward movement,’ that is, drawing in, and ‘estratto/outward movement,’ that is, drawing out:

The inward movement takes place when the soul is drawn into God by an impulse of love and is fixed, gazing at Him with great delight. It keeps the eyes fixed on those of God by whom it sees itself equally seen and yearned. They address themselves in second person” (that is, they address themselves as you, like Francis in the Praises of God Most High). “Or only in silence they are gazing at each other, and the soul feels its heart pierced by the mortal wound of love that makes it languish, just as she herself with her pure gaze pierces the heart of God, which, the more it is wounded, the more it wounds the soul.

The outward movement, on the other hand, occurs when the soul feels ignited by a great desire to serve and please God and stimulates itself to serve and please Him; and here, if the soul is still imperfect in this art of love, there are born acts of pain, of resolve, of asking to be freed from one’s own evils. It persists in this desire. Therefore, in the inward movement therefore the soul has only God as its object. In the outward movement the soul turns in on itself sharply spurring itself on in its run toward God.

These two acts of love go on doing one then the other alternatively (we would say today that they are like the systole and diastole of the spiritual heart, they are like a respiratio amoris that inhales and exhales, like a piston, like an ebb and flow of the sea of love). The soul, in loving God, is kindled by the desire to serve Him and this desire drives it inside again and inflames it to love.[21]

This is language of the heart, ‘speaking to God with the Heart’. Aspirational prayer is like a bellows that blows on the fire to keep it burning and expresses itself as a music of the heart. To pray here means to love, to do acts of love, as St. Felix of Cantalice said, and love has varied melodies, countless notes, and many resonances.

The variety of affective prayer is well explained by these ancient teachers of prayer: Giovanni of Fano, Bernardino of Balvano, Mattia and Alessio of Salò, etc. and not only do they list these affective styles, but some of them also construct a certain grammar and syntax of this language of the heart, that is, a rhetoric of affections, a certain stylistic-rhetorical handbook. They say that an aspiration or short prayer can be developed either by soliloquy or dialogue, and in rhetorical style; it can be expressed in the indicative, imperative, vocative, interrogative, optative, subjunctive, or confirmative moods. The psalms are the most wonderful collection of the heart’s affections. All the affections of the heart converge in love which is the central and final affection. Mattia Bellintani of Salò’s Pratica dell’orazione mentale had various editions also in the Seventeenth Century, and was recommended by St. Charles Borromeo.[22]

Another Capuchin text often reprinted was the Specchio di orazione by Bernardino Ferraris of Balvano († 1568/69), which teaches people to arrive at the mystical heights of prayer.[23] The page dedicated to ‘contemplation’ is truly extraordinary and at the same time disconcertingly simple:

Contemplation is a sweet feeling, and a very sweet taste of divine riches, when the soul, purged and made warm by inner reading and sacred meditation, elevated on high, away from these transitory thoughts, by frequent and devout prayer, reassured and placed in tranquillity, with an admirable feeling of the divine mysteries tastes the supernal goodness. Just as the sun illuminates, heats and causes the herbs and plants to germinate, in the same way the divine contemplation illuminates the intellect with wonderful feelings, inflames the will with admirable sweetness, and to both one and the other it gives a most perfect operation, more or less according to the disposition of its infallible wisdom and human capacity, it understands profoundly with tranquillity, and loves strongly with gentleness, deeply understands and ardently desires… that it will not suffice to express it in any way, neither with voice, nor with pen, but it will be good to taste it in the interior by heavenly gift, and the ‘will’ will be drawn so pleasantly to the Love of God, and of those mysteries, that most of the time it will not remember itself, and in such a way it will be transformed into God, that it will live more in him than in itself, and taste in part here on earth what the saints in Paradise fully possess.”[24]

Another author in this period is Silvestro Franco of Rossano († 1596) who with his booklet Modo come la persona spirituale che ora, si habbia a disporre nella oratione verso Iddio et li suoi Santi, published in Venice in 1574, suggests a method of affective mental prayer through devotion to the blood of Christ.[25]

In turn, the spiritual writings of Cristoforo Facciardi of Verucchio († 1630), known as the Verucchino, popularized the life of Christian piety.[26] His Essercizi d’anima and especially his Compendio di cento Meditazioni sacre were a resounding success.[27] In fact, they manage to translate into simple and easy language, deep thoughts and affections which opens to mystical contemplation, on which, however, he does not want to insist too much. However, he curiously lists the effects of contemplation as “liveliness of mind, liquefaction of bowels, sweetness of sense, inebriation of spirit, drowsiness, excess, ecstasy, rapture, revelation, vision, almost inexplicable tastes arising from the extraordinary greatness of devotion, admiration and of exultation around the divine mysteries and the most secret sacraments, alienations, elevations, extractions of our senses and powers in God” with an anxiety and thirst for interior prayer to be ready to follow the invitation and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, superior to the leap of a ‘generous horse’ which, having heard the sound of the trumpet, longs for battle. This eagerness and thirst for prayer and union envelops the whole structure of his writings.[28]

Cornelio Castellucci of Urbino († 1603) with his Dardi del divino amore, published in Venice in 1593, makes himself an apostle of the love of God drawn from contemplation of the Passion and death of Christ and the sorrows of the Virgin Mary.[29]

There are also several booklets that teach how to meditate on the Passion of Christ, such as Fascetto di mirra sopra la Passione di nostro Signore (Venice 1613) by Michelangelo of Venezia († 1611), which teaches how to internalize and assimilate the mystery of Christ. The way of the Passion in fact represented a conscious and official choice of the Capuchin Order, and in the seventeenth century it also meant a direct response to the proponents of a more abstract ‘new’ spirituality based on the will of God, exposed to quietist positions. Michelangelo of Venice was also open to this new spirituality and favoured abandonment and conformity to God’s ‘holy approval’, but he always balanced it on the example of the Crucified One: “When you courageously stripe yourself of your own will, then you will be stripped naked with Christ …, aspiring only to heavenly things and to the good approval of God”. He called this renouncing ‘spiritual death’ as the “term in which true spiritual life lies, the purpose of every exercise of contemplation, and thus the practical and devotional aspect remains open to the mystical gift”.[30]

Also significant is the contribution of Valerio Ballardini of Venice († 1618) with his Romitorio sacro di meditazioni et essercizi di contemplazioni et amorise aspirationi in Dio [Sacred Hermitage of meditations and exercises of contemplations and loving aspirations in God].[31] He invites everyone to enter this ‘sacred hermitage’ to obtain the ‘blessed gift of contemplation’ and suggests many devotional practices until, he teaches, to ‘mentally aspire to the Holy Spirit’ where the two technical verbs ‘inspirare [inhale]’ and ‘aspirare [aspirate (as in draw out or exhale)]’ recur like two fundamental moments of the movement of God’s love in the soul and of the soul in God, the culmination of his method of prayer.[32]

Francesco Longo of Corigliano Calabro († 1625) with his Orologio spirituale intorno alla Passione teaches how to spend every hour immersed in the narrative of the Passion, a story that becomes daily, continuous, day and night, at the beat of the clock. Thus the poor Capuchins, symbolically imitating the lay nobles and ecclesiastics who used to wear a clock on their chest or in their pocket, wore this ‘spiritual clock’ with devotion and love in order to always be on time with the passionate and crucified Christ.[33]

Many other authors could be cited.[34] It is a rich spiritual literature that connects the Sixteenth Century with the Seventeenth Century. Italian spiritual literature is looking for the path of brevity in the words. ‘Shortened life’, ‘brief compendium’, ‘easy way’, ‘safe path’ are recurring declarations in the mystical treatises of the mid and late Seventeenth Century, so much so that they become indications of a new spirituality. In fact, the separation of mysticism from asceticism, understood as a gradual ethical-intellectual development, is a process deeply intrinsic to the Seventeenth Century spiritual life. Exemplary in this profile is the work of Alessio Segala of Salò († 1628), a Capuchin spiritual author praised and recommended by St. Francis de Sales, who had a resounding success in editions, reprints and translations.[35] He valued affective meditation in the wake of Mattia of Salò, but always attentive and sensitive to the rules of the Counter-Reformation. Open to the contemplative life, his transparent and serene practices led to the overcoming of meditative ‘points’ to ‘fly high with affection’ and make the transition to contemplation easy, which occurs “when man no longer seeks with meditation incentives of love, but enjoys the love found and desired … and the will is watching and dissolving itself in loving its spouse.”[36]

In the early Seventeenth Century the mystical tension re-emerges and returns with radical thrusts as in the early days. It is like a circle that, opened at the beginning, as we have seen, by the mystical way, continued in the ascetic and meditative-affective way after the Council of Trent, returns and reunites with the mystical way.

Here also we find a text that remained anonymous, attributed to Fr. Gregory of Naples († 1641), in which all the movements of unitive love are touched upon experientially. It is a Instruttione mistica o Dottrina mirabile dealing with Divine Enlightenment and Mystical Practices, a writing that would have been a sure prey for anti-mysticism had it not remained secret and hidden. The insistence on ‘being nothing’ raises risky positions such as those of Achille Gagliardi and Benedict of Canfield to Pier Matteo Petrucci, and also strongly reiterated by the great Capuchin mystics Blessed Maria Magdalena Martinengo († 1737) and St. Veronica Giuliani († 1727). Annihilation is necessary to reach the ‘state of deification’, which is the mode and essence of perfection. One achieves this state of annihilation of the sensual and spiritual will through a continuous exercise of aspirational prayer, that is, an “ardent aspiring and longing for the Bridegroom Jesus …, a continuous, quiet, peaceful, joyful, mystical aspiring and longing for the Bridegroom, until the Bridegroom unites and transforms the person by deifying him completely.”[37]

Reference has already been made to the famous treatise by the English Capuchin Benedict of Canfield († 1610) the Régle de perfection réduite au seul point de la volonté divine, first translated into Italian in 1616. His mysticism of the will of God had an enormous influence in the contemplative spiritual life and could be indicated as one of the ideal models of the Capuchin spiritual literature of the Seventeenth Century. But certain expressions of his could generate abuses in practice. In fact, it would inspire several unbalanced contemplative practices, as happened particularly in Belgium-Holland and France, where, around 1620 the so-called ‘illuminati’ from the Spanish provinces appeared, supported by Fathers Lawrence of Troyes and Rudolf of Paris, later expelled from the Order, but defended by Jansenists Arnauld and Saint-Cyran. Joseph of Tremblay († 1638) and Archangel Ripaut of Paris († 1635) effectively refuted these errors in their writings. The influence of these doctrines was strongest in Belgium because of a false interpretation of the doctrine about the essential divine will. Fr. Constantine of Barbanson († 1631) in his famous book Anatomie de l’ame revealed all the danger and ambiguity of this doctrine.[38] For this reason, Canfield was restricted, but the influence of his spiritual journey based on the essential will of God remained practically unchanged until the end of the Eighteenth Century.[39]

A decree from the Holy Office on 29 Nov. 1689 also condemned some Capuchin writings that appear to lean towards quietism. The names identified are: the aforementioned Benedict of Canfield, then Paolo Manassei of Terni († 1620), Ludovico Francesco of Argentan († 1680) and Antonio Francesco Candelari of Ancona. The work of Ludovico Francesco of Argentan († 1680), Le chrestien intérieur, had a similar fate, with formulas that appeared less exact or rather exaggerated. But his work continued to be read and recommended with various editions appearing in the Eighteenth Century in France. Finally, Fr. Antonio Francesco Candelari who founded a spirituality group in Ancona that was called the ‘Society of the Dark Night’ or ‘Society of the Will of God’, had to undergo various trials. Inquiries and denunciations led to the trial of 1688-90, where his rapprochement with the Sienese spiritual group of the quietist hermit Mattei appears, and the influence of the English Capuchin’s Rule of Perfection is continually manifested.[40]

A great mystic and writer was Blessed Tommaso Acerbis de Viani da Olera († 1631) with his Fuoco d’amore. The main practice that served the acquisition of every other virtue, according to the Capuchin spiritual masters, was to live ‘in continuous and frequent acts of love’, as indicated by Blessed Tommaso of Olera:

“If you yearn and desire to quickly acquire virtues and at the same time perfection, I advise you to turn yourself around, pouring out yourself from what you have inside-out, and what you have outside-in. I mean that you totally dispossess and disinterest yourself by seeking God alone in all your life … being constantly attentive to see within yourself what God will want of you … seeking to purify your intention, forming the purest acts of love that you can.”[41]

Recognized by the great theologians of the Century, this kind of ardent and simple prayer that is aspiration is typical of the Capuchins.[42]

Paolo Manassei of Terni met unexpected fame with his posthumous booklet entitled Paradiso interiore, bold in its emotional expressions and several times translated into German. It was manipulated for the use of pietism and perhaps also for this reason placed on the Index. In it, the mysticism of ‘the Will of God’ reappears according to an itinerary of purification, illumination, and union with God, like a crown of 33 paradoxical and radical spiritual exercises, often carried out in the rhythm of breathing, so much so that Sabrina Stroppa, a well-known scholar of spiritual literature of the Seventeenth Century, would entitle one of her essays on this booklet: “Dello spirare e respirare” (Of breathing out and breathing in).[43] The title brings to mind a booklet by the Reformed Friar Minor Bartolomeo Cambi of Salutio, Paradiso dei contemplativi published in Rome in 1607 that uses the title of the third book of Henry van Herp’s mystical theology Eden seu Paradisus contemplativorum. The nuances and variations of love often take on paradoxical tones and are not always calibrated by theological coherence. As in Gregorio of Napoli, also in Manassei, the principle of annihilation has a vigorous depth with very striking and hyperbolic expressions. The goal is the ‘transformation’ into Christ and the consequent ‘deification’ through unitive love, in the search for a difficult balance between concrete and practical Franciscan voluntarism and spiritualist illumination, and thus arriving at a kind of contemplation made up of exultation and being overcome by God’s presence and His love up to the deificatio per caritatem [deification through charity]where the soul sees itself as nothing and God as everything, annihilates itself in God and becomes God’s will.[44]

An excellent example of Seventeenth Century Capuchin spiritual literature is Mattia Camagni of Parma († b. 1663) and his work published in Parma in 1652 and 1658: Viaggio dell’anima per andare a Dio guidato dalla divina volontà dove s’insegna un modo facile, breve e chiaro per conseguire la perfezione di tutta la vita spirituale e per giungere ad uno stato altissimo d’unione con Dio [Journey of the soul to go to God guided by the divine will where an easy, short and clear way is taught to achieve the perfection of the whole spiritual life and to reach a very high state of union with God] .[45] As Stroppa says with great insight and penetration in her book, that one assimilates “the theory and practice, the summary of the most relevant points of the speculative elaboration of the last fifty years and the most detailed indications for the daily and weekly practice of meditation and mental prayer; and then the principles of abstraction and those of inner visualization, the attention to the ways of mortification and exaltation of active ecstasy: that ‘life in God’ in which one acquires “the perfect renunciation of the soul and true peace of heart because at the appearance of this divine light the internal passions vanish, just as darkness vanishes at the appearance of the sun.” Meditation on the stages of the Passion does not aim to restrain the soul to consideration point by point, since the work, having passed the second path which is the contemplative one, aims directly at the ‘unitive life’, in which the soul is stripped ‘of any figure and image of God.’[46]

An interesting and little-known author is also Francesco Tonarelli of Bagnone († 1692), but his verbose writings of ardent affection appear only in the last two decades of the Seventeenth Century.[47]

Listing all the Capuchin spiritual writers of the Seventeenth Century would be too long and tedious.[48] We have looked at only a few characteristics that form a little of the spiritual narrative from the late Sixteenth Century to the late Seventeenth Century. And of course, we limited ourself to the Italian Capuchin mysticism of the Seventeenth Century, because if we were to widen our gaze to the French Capuchins of the Seventeenth Century, we would find a sort of ‘mystical invasion’, to use an expression of Henri Bremont, such an explosion of spiritual authors of the first magnitude as to astound. Beyond the omnipresent influence of Benedict of Canfield who places the essential will of God at the summit of the spiritual path, there is Lorenzo of Paris († 1631) who insists on pure and divine love, and a series of other writers in their steed such as Joseph Leclerc du Tremblay of Paris († 1638), Leander of Dijon († 1667), the Honoured Servant of God Bochart de Champigny of Paris († 1624), Martial d’Etampes († 1635), Ivo of Paris († 1679 ), Bernardino of Paris († 1685), Paolo of Lagny († 1694), Ludovico Francesco of Argentan († 1680) and many others. It was the Golden Century of French spirituality and the contribution of the Capuchins in this field remains extraordinary. The same goes for the Spanish and German and Belgian-Flemish Seventeenth Century.[49]

It was observed that the new spirituality abandoned the scholastic and Bonaventurian path, but for the Capuchins at that time St. Bonaventure was chosen as the most beloved theologian especially for his spirituality, for his mystical writings, and so he was reabsorbed into their devotional booklets.[50] Because these booklets are mainly devotional or introduction to prayer, they remain quite discreet and hidden and do not claim to have a notoriety of the great mystical works of the ‘Golden Age,’ but are spread widely to enter the small realities of daily life. It is a literature attentive to practice and not inclined to propose great topographies of the soul, but rather texts with a more effective and less speculative content, to transform everything, every gesture, every act, even the smallest, into an actual powerful expression of love.[51]

  1. The bibliography is vast on this argument. Cf. Sabrina Stroppa, Sic arescit. Letteratura mistica del Seicento italiano, Firenze 1998; M. Bergamo, L’anatomia dell’anima. Da François de Sales a Fénelon, Bologna 1991; Id., La scienza dei santi. Studi sul misticismo del Seicento, Firenze 1984; M. Petrocchi, Un Seicento spirituale italiano non formalistico, in Id., Storia della spiritualità italiana, II, Roma 1978, 179-212; Mistici italiani dell’età moderna. A cura di Giacomo Jori. Introduzione di Carlo Ossola, Torino 2007.
  2. Sabrina Stroppa, Sic arescit. Letteratura mistica del Seicento italiano, 16.
  3. Massimo Petrocchi, Il quietismo italiano del Seicento, Roma 1948; Giorgio Caravale, L’orazione proibita. Censura ecclesiastica e letteratura devozionale nella prima età moderna, Firenze 2003; Sabrina Stroppa, Libri e letture del quietismo italiano. Il labirinto testuale della “moderna” spiritualità, in Mistica e poesia. Il cardinale Pier Matteo Petrucci (Jesi 1636 – Montefalco 1701). Atti del convegno nel terzo centenario della morte. Jesi,20-21 ottobre 2001. A cura di Curzio Cavicchioli e Sabrina Stroppa. Introduz. di M. Rosa, Genova-Milano 2006, 43-103; Sabrina Stroppa, Le molte voci del quietismo italiano, in Rivista di Storia e Letteratura religiosa (2006) 131-137; Adelisaq Malena, L’Eresia dei perfetti. Inquisizione romana ed esperienze mistiche nel Seicento italiano, Roma 2003.
  4. Cf. Sulle orme dei santi. Il Santorale cappuccino: Santi, Beati, Venerabili e Servi di Dio, San Giovanni Rotondo-Roma 2002.
  5. Cf. C. Cargnoni, Fonti, tendenze e sviluppi della letteratura spirituale cappuccina primitiva, in Collectanea Franciscana 48 (1978) 311-398.
  6. On this mystical booklet cf. Paolo Simoncelli, “Dialogo dell’unione spirituale di Dio con l’anima”. Tra alumbradismo spagnolo e prequietismo italiani, in Annuario Ist. Stor. Età moderna e contemporanea 29-30 (1977-78) 565-601; Stanislao da Campagnola, Bartolomeo Cordoni da Città di Castello e le due prime edizioni del suo “Dialogo”, in Bollettino della Deputazione di Storia Patria per l’Umbria 80 (1983) 85-152; C. Cargnoni, Fonti, tendenze e sviluppi, 347-379, where the influences of Cordoni’s mysticism and the severe theological censure he made of it are studied p. Girolamo Mautini da Narni († 1632) identifying 14 erroneous propositions he called “Paradossi dell’unione” (testo ibid., 394-398). On Mautini cf. V. Criscuolo, Girolamo Mautini da Narni (1563-1632), predicatore apostolico e vicario generale dei cappuccini. Roma: Istituto Storico dei Cappuccini, 1998; Girolamo Mautini da Narni e l’Ordine dei frati minori cappuccini fra ‘500 e ‘600, a cura di V. Criscuolo, Roma 1998.
  7. On Bernardino Ochino the bibliography is vast. An accurate and up-to-date biographical summary is offered by Miguel Gotor, Ochino (Tommasini), Bernardino, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani 79 (2013) 90-97; see also C. Cargnoni, Ochino (Bernardin; Tommasini da Siena)i, in Dictionnaire de spiritualità Xi (1982) 575-59; Id., Tormento e inquietudine spirituale nella vita di Bernardino Ochino da Siena, in Helvetia Franciscana (2015); S. Biagetti, Bernardino Ochino (1487-1564): nicodemita, eretico, esule, in Identità di confine, a cura di I. Kajon, Roma 2010, 65-89. – Sui Dialogi e le Prediche cf. Bernardino Ochino, i “Dialogi sette” e altri scritti del tempo della fuga. Edizione, introduzione e apparato iconografico a cura di U. Rozzo, Torino 1985; “Dialogi sette” di Bernardino Ochino da Siena, in I frati cappuccini. Documenti e testimonianze del primo secolo III/1, Roma-Perugia 1991, 92-97, 445-530. Per le Prediche edite in Italia prima della sua apostasia cf. Ibid., vol. III/1, Roma-Perugia 1991, 1770-1806, 2115-2306.
  8. Cf. Michele Camaioni, “De homini carnali fare spirituali”. Bernardino Ochino e le origini dei cappuccini nella crisi religiosa del Cinquecento (Diss.), Roma 2011, 436.
  9. Excerpt that reads at f. 157r-158v, On this written cf. F. Accrocca, Il libro secondo “De amore evangelico” nel codice Vaticano Capponiano 207, in Collectanea Franciscana 81 (2011) 559-570; Michele Camaioni, Libero Spirito e genesi cappuccina. Nuove ipotesi e studi sul “Dyalogo della unione spirituale di Dio con l’anima” di Bartolomeo Cordoni e sul misterioso trattato dell’”Amore evangelico”, in Archivio Italiano per la Storia della Pietà 25 (2012) 303-372.
  10. In the “prima orazione” of the “Orazioni devote” of Bernardino d’Asti, in I frati cappuccini. Documenti e testimonianze del primo secolo, a cura di C. Cargnoni, vol. III/1, Roma-Perugia 1991, 241, all the text 239-249.
  11. Cf. Circolo de carità divina di Francesco Ripanti da Jesi: ibid., 265-296, qui 292; C. Cargnoni, Complessità teologiche e ascendenze spirituali del “Circolo de carità divina” di Francesco Ripanti da Jesi, in Mélanges Bérubé. Études de philosophie et théologie médiévales offerts à Camille Bérubé OFMCap. pour son 80e anniversaire, Roma 1991, 395-443 (già in Coll. Franc. 60 [1990] 615-663).
  12. On Giovanni of Frano and his mystical works cf. I frati cappuccini, III/1, 72-90, ed edizione del testo ibid., 297-429.
  13. Cost. 1536, n. 42, in I frati cappuccini. Documenti e testimonianze del primo secolo, a cura di C. Cargnoni, vol. I, Roma-Perugia 1988, 311.
  14. Cost. 1536, n. 63: ibid., 336.
  15. On Capuchin holiness cf. C. Cargnoni, Santi e santità nell’ordine cappuccino, in Sulle orme dei santi. Il santorale cappuccino: Santi, Beati, Venerabili e Servi di Dio, Frascati (Roma) 2012, 9-56.
  16. From various processual depositions: cf. I frati cappuccini, vol. III/2, Roma-Perugia 1991, 4655s, 4674s, 4686, 4719.
  17. On this literature cf. C. Cargnoni, Fonti, tendenze e sviluppi della letteratura spirituale cappuccina primitiva, in Coll. Franc. 48 (1978) 311-398; Id., Letteratura spirituale ascetico-mistica (1535-1628), in I frati cappuccini, vol. III/1, 23-1729; id., I primi lineamenti di una “scuola cappuccina di devozione”, in Italia Franc. 59 (1984) 111-140.
  18. Cf. Le XII mortificazioni di Herp, metodo ascetico dei cappuccini, in I frati cappuccini, vol. I, 1505-1519.
  19. Cf. I frati cappuccini, vol. III/1, 82-88; Janssen Canisius, L’oraison aspirative chez Herp et ses prédécesseurs, in Carmelus 3 (1956) 19-48¸ Cf. Esercizio dell’«aspirazione», in I frati cappuccini, vol. I, 1548-1562. – For other references see I frati cappuccini, vol. V, Roma 1993, 501 (v. Aspirazione, esercizio, metodo di orazione, nell’Indice analitico).
  20. FC III/1, 128s. From Mattia of Salò see a good monograghy of Roberto Cuvato, Mattia Bellintani da Salò (1534-1611). Un cappuccino tra il pulpito e la strada, Roma 1999.
  21. FC III/1, p. 703s.
  22. Cf. C. Cargnoni, Gustare col cuore. L’affettività dei cappuccini per assaporare la vita in intimità con Dio, in Sapienza: l’insegnamento della vita quotidiana. Edited by Dino Dozzi. Bologna [2003], 189-191; Massimo Petrocchi, Il problema dell’ascesi in Mattia da Salò, in Humanitas 8 (1953) 978-983.
  23. Cf. Ottaviano Schmucki, Lo “Specchio di oratione” del P. Bernardino da Balvano O.F.M.Cap., in L’Italia Francescana 65 (1990) 5-32; FC III/1, 103-113. – The work of Ferraris published in Messina in 1553 until 1600 had at least ten editions. It is published ontologically in I frati cappuccini, III/1, 555-636, with an introductory study ibide., 103-115.
  24. Cf. I frati cappuccini, III/1, 583-584.
  25. C. Cargnoni, Metodo e arte della preghiera in Silvestro Di Franco da Rossano, in Studi e Ricerche francescane (Napoli) 28 (1999) 77-116; Id., La devozione al Sangue di Cristo in un opuscolo censurato e finora ignorato di Silvestro da Rossano, in Coll. Franc. 69 (1999) 573-628.
  26. Costanzo Cargnoni, Le tappe e i modi della preghiera contemplativa negli scritti del Verucchino, in Prospero Rivi – Manuela Ricci – Giovanni Rimondini, I cappuccini. Storia di una presenza a Santarcangelo e Verucchio. (Historica, 26). Villa Verucchio (Rimini), Pazzini Stampatore Editore, [2003]. 29-45.
  27. His Essercitii d’anima had at least five editions from 1590 to 1605; whereas the Compendio di cento meditationji sacre from 1592 to 1643 was published at least 25 times. Cf. Donato da S. Giovanni in Persiceto, Biblioteca dei Frati Minori Cappuccini della Provincia di Bologna (1535-1946), Budrio 1949, 132-140.
  28. Cf. I frati cappuccini, III/1, 148-163.
  29. Ibid., 164-172.
  30. Ibid., 173-180.
  31. Ibid., 180-183; Guido Pedrojetta, Valerio da Venezia: Preliminari sull’opera di uno scrittore spirituale del Seicento, in Collectanea Franciscana 58 (1988) 5-44.
  32. Cf. I frati cappuccini, III/1, 180-183.
  33. Ibid., 184s.
  34. See Metodio of Nembro, Quattrocento scrittori spirituali, Milano 1972, 49-93.
  35. Cf. Biblioteca dei Frati minori cappuccini di Lombardia (1535-1900), edited by P. Ilarino da Milano, Firenze 1937, 8-50.
  36. Cf. Teobaldo De Filippo, Alessio Segala da Salò (1559-1628) maestro di perfezione cristiana, Roma 1968; I frati Cappuccini, vol. III/1, 219-234; many pages of his “Opere spirituali” ibid., 1589-1729.
  37. Cf. La “dottrina mirabile” di Gregorio da Napoli, in FC III/1, 186-203 and transcription and complete edition of this work ibid., 895-1085.
  38. P. Théotime de ‘s Hertogenbosch, Le Père Constantin de Barbanson et le préquiétisme, in Coll. Franc. 10 (1940) 338-382.
  39. Cf. Optatus de Veghel, Benoit de Canfield (1562-1610). Sa vie, sa doctrine et son influence, (Bibliotheca Seraphico-Capuccina, 11), Romae 1949 ; Sabina Stroppas, Riletture secentesche di Canfeld e Gagliardi tra “extase des œuvres” e mistica della volontà, in Arch. Italiano per la Storia della Pietà 9 (1996) 177-209.
  40. Cf. Melchior de Pobladura, De abitudine Ordinis ad quietismum, in Historia Generalis OFMCap. Pars secunda (1619-1761), vol. I, Romae 1948, 262-268; Mario Scaduto, Il p. Antonio Francesco (Candelari) da Ancona e il quietismo marchigiano, in Miscellanea Melchor de Pobladura. Studia franciscana historica p. Melchiori a Pobladura dedicata, Romae 1964, 327-345; Stanislao da Campagnola, Ascendenze religiose venete in una denuncia di quietismo a Macerata nel 1696, in Ascetica cristiana e ascetica giansenista e quietista nelle regioni d’influenza avellanita, Fonte Avellana 1990, 189-229.
  41. Cf. FC III/1, 1464; C. Cargnoni, L’esperienza della preghiera mistica di Fra Tommaso Acerbis da Olera, in Due volti del francescanesimo. Miscellanea in onore di Optatus van Asseldonk e Lazzaro Iriarte. A cura di Andrzej Tomkiel. Roma, Ed. Laurentianum, 2002, 219-253; Gianmaria da Spirano, Fra Tommaso da Olera, laico cappuccino (1563-1631), in Miscellanea A. Bernareggi, a cura di I. Cortesi, Bergamo 1958, 631-760; Giovanni Getto , Un contemplativo popolare: Tommaso da Bergamo, in Letteratura religiosa dal Due al Novecento, Fire4nze 1967, 212-220; Rodolfo Saltarin, Tommaso da Olera mistico del cuore di Gesù, Brescia 2013; Alberto Sana, Tommaso da Olera e il “fuoco d’amore” della spiritualità controriformistica cappuccina fra Italia e Austria, in Humanitas 58 (2003) 743-761. – The writings of Blessed Tommaso now benefit from a critical edition edited by Alberto Sana, who has so far published two of the four planned volumes, namely: Tommaso da Olera, Scritti, I: Selva di contemplazione; II: Scala di perfezione, 2. ed., Brescia 2013.
  42. The Cistercian John Bona in his Via compendii ad Deum published in 1657 pointed to Benoit de Canfield and Victo Gelen as the two authorities to whom to send for the treatment of aspiration as a way into contemplation. Cf. Giovanni Bona, Via compendii ad Deum. Via breve a Dio (1657). Con le Aspirazioni tradotte da Ermes Visconti (ca. 1836). Introduction and bilingual text edited by Sabrina Stroppa, Firenze 2006.
  43. Sabrina Stroppa, “Dello spirare e respirare”: il Paradiso interiore di Paolo Manassei da Terni, in I cappuccini nell’Umbria tra Sei e Settecento, edited by G. Ingegneri, Roma 2005, 171-194.
  44. Cf. introductory notes and anthology text from 1637, in I frati Cappuccini, vol. III/1, 203-211, 1356-1403; C. Cargnoni, Paul Manassei, da Terni, in Dict. Spirit. XII, Paris 1983, 570-575; P. Todini, P. Paolo Manassei da Terni nella spiritualità del Seicento (Diss.), Perugia 1972-73.
  45. Felice da Mareto, Mattia Camagni da Parma maestro spirituale del secolo XVII , in L’Italia Francescana 50 (1975)279-287.
  46. Cf. Mattia da Parma, Viaggio dell’anima per andare a Dio, a cura di Rosalba Gentile, Roma 2009.
  47. C. Cargnoni, Francesco da Bagnone semiquietista? Note in margine ad una sua operetta spirituale, in Coll. Franc. 75 (2005) 543-592; for his other writings cf. C. Cargnoni, Spiritualità, santità e devozioni, in I Cappuccini in Emilia-Romagna. Storia di una presenza. Edited by Giovanni Pozzi – Paolo Prodi, Bologna 2002, 138-153.
  48. One could also mention the work of Giovanni Battista of Monteforte (1600-1679), Mistica istruttione fatta alla signora d. Anna Staibana dal p. Gio. Battista cappuccino suo confessore, e guida. Nella quale si scuoprono i diuini attratti, e l’intime operationi della diuina gratia. Napoli 1669; otherwise Serafino Caruso da Milazzo, Viaggio del cielo…, Messina 1648.
  49. Cf. Metodio da Nembro, Quatttrocento scrittori spirituali, Milano 1972, 174-218 (francesi), 261-277 (spagnoli), 316-333 (tedeschi), 397-409 (belga-fiamminghi).
  50. Cf. C. Cargnoni, Cultura bonaventuriana nei cappuccini tra ‘500 e ‘600, in Bartolomeo Barbieri da Castelvetro (1615-1697), un cappuccino alla scuola di san Bonaventura nell’Emilia del ‘600. Edited by A. Maggioli e P. Maranesi. (Bibliotheca Seraphico-Capuccina, 55). Roma, Istituto Storico dei Cappuccini, 1998, 81-122.
  51. CF. C. Bérubé, L’Amour de Dieu selon Jean Duns Scot, Porète, Eckhart, Benoît de Canfield et les capucins, (Bibliotheca Seraphico-Capuccina, 53), Roma 1997; C. Cargnoni, L’apostolato dei cappuccini come “redundantia di amore”, in Italia Franc. 53 (1978) 559-593; and, apart from, in: La vita dei frati cappuccini ripensata nel 450° anniversario della loro riforma. Conferenze tenute al convegno nazionale (Roma, 25-30 sett. 1978). Roma. L’Italia Francescana – CISPCap., 1978, 51-85.