THE INTERIOR PRAYER
IN THE LIFE OF THE FIRST CAPUCHINS
ACCORDING TO THE CONSTITUTIONS OF 1536

1. Dutch Capuchin scholar Optatus

[You are most welcome to correct of to improve our translation. We thank you for every small or great contribution to the improvement of this article in English. Please, mail your comment to the editor of this website]

1
Already in 1965 the Capuchin Brother Optatus, -may he rest in peace,- wrote about the reformation of the Capuchins: Francis And Christ On The Cross

In the first legislation of 1536 the most main concern was not the literal interpretation of the Gospel and the Rule, but their explicit concern was: to fill this literal interpretation with the Spirit of Christ whom we meet in the Gospel.

This new movement of Franciscan friars really was inspired by a spiritual practice and life in Christ: that's what it was all about. The Constitutions of 1536, from the beginning to the end, are full of this life-giving Spirit. In the very introduction of the Constitutions we read that they were written to protect the friars against all enemies of the life-giving Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ. [1]

Wherever the Constitutions mention the intellectual education of the friars, they urge them to search in their studies for the enlightened and burning love of Christ. The intellectual study may never be a reason to neglect the holy study of prayer. In that case they would do the opposite of what intended St. Francis, who never would allow to neglect the prayer because of the intellectual study. No. 123 of the Constitutions affirms: In order to acquire the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, let both Lectors and Students strive more to deepen the spiritual life than to cultivate their intellectual knowledge. Thus they shall derive more profit from their studies; for without the Spirit the true sense never will be obtained, but just the mere letter which blinds and kills.

2. The first Capuchins took strongly the same position as Brother Francis.

In his letter to the first teacher Anthony, he wrote: Brother Francis wishes peace to brother Anthony, my bishop. I approve that you teach the sacred theology to the brothers, under the condition that you do not quench or extinguish the Spirit of prayer and commitment, as formulated in the Rule. [2]
The Rule says indeed: The brothers, to whom the Lord has given the grace to work, should work diligently and truly, in order to expel the idleness, the enemy of the soul. The friars should not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and commitment. Everything in this world should contribute to the Spirit of praying. [3]
The particular characteristic of every Franciscan brother is: to live in the Spirit of holy meditation and commitment.
St. Francis points out the reason and the risk: we can live, study, work and do all kinds of apostolate in such a way that we loose the Spirit of prayer. In the texts above St. Francis alludes to 1 Thessalonians 5:19: Do not quench the Spirit. Spirit is written here with a capital letter, just like St. Francis used to write it. Every franciscan brother should live inspired by the Holy Ghost. The concept of commitment that St. Francis uses, has a meaning that is different from the usual meaning. It is not a commitment to work, to zeal and dedication, but a commitment to God. Commitment to God and prayer are the firm foundation of the life of the franciscan friar. We find this very clearly in the notes of The Writings Of St. Francis. [4]

Prayer and contemplation had first priority in the life of St. Francis and of the first Capuchins, also in the Netherlands. This was the conclusion of the franciscan scholar Brother Optatus in 1948. [5]

3. The importance of contemplative life during the first generations of Capuchins.
3.1.
When the Constitutions of 1536 speak about praying the divine Office, there is a casual but significant remark which indicates clearly how valuable the contemplative prayer is for the brothers. In no. 42 we read: "And no other Offices shall be said in choir except that of the Blessed Virgin, so that the Friars have more time to private and mental prayer which is far more fruitful than vocal prayer." Consistent with the appreciation of and the preference for contemplative prayer is the fact that the Constitutions prescribed two hours of collective contemplative prayer every day. Moreover there is the ironic comment that this rule was only for half-hearted friars, because really spiritual friars pray all the time.
Here is the literal text of the Constitutions: "The holy prayer is the spiritual teacher of the Friars. To be sure that the Spirit of devotion will not decrease in the Friars, but continually burn on the sacred altar of our heart, and be enkindled more and more, as our Seraphic Father wished, we ordain that, -although the true spiritual Friar Minor should always pray,- two special hours shall be appointed for the tepid friars." (no. 41)
3.2.
From the majestic statement of the Capuchin reformation, in the beginning of their Constitutions, it is obvious which topics had a central meaning in the spiritual reading and interior prayer of the brothers.
There we read:

We declare first of all that the evangelical doctrine of the most beloved Son of God came to us from heaven, and has, totally pure, supernatural, supremely perfect and divine, been announced by Him and taught through His life and His word. This teaching has even been confirmed as authentic by God the Father, in the river Jordan and on the mountain of Tabor, when He spoke: This is my beloved Son, my favour rests on Him, listen to Him

This evangelical doctrine only leads us straight to God.
If all people are obliged to follow this route, then we as franciscans even more.
St. Francis says in the beginning and at the end of his Rule, that we have to follow the Gospel. The Rule is nothing else than the marrow of the Gospel, a small mirror, in which the evangelical perfection is reflected.
Moreover, in his Testament, St. Francis says that it was revealed to him, that his life should be an incarnation of the holy Gospel. Therefore the brothers should have always before the eyes of their mind the teaching and the life of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

And we ordain, so that they might carry the holy Gospel in their hearts..., with respect for the most Holy Trinity, that in every house three times a year the four Gospels are read, namely every month one Gospel." (no. 1)

Besides the daily reading of the Gospel and the weekly reading of the Rule, there should be a text-reading which motivates the brothers to follow Jesus Christ (no. 2).

To be sure that the love of God be enkindled in our hearts, the Friars shall always strive to speak of God. (no. 3)

Moreover, the rule was that the brothers should read the Holy Scripture individually with a commentary written by holy and devout teachers and the motivation should be that the flames of divine love should come forward from the light of divine things. (no. 4)
This fire and these inlightenments were within the reach of simple and unsophisticated brothers, because the divine wisdom has come humanly close to us in Christ. It is not the exclusive privilege of educated brothers. The many holy lay-brothers in our order are the confirmation of this way of life.
The Constitutions tell us: And though the infinite and divine Wisdom be incomprehensible and elevated, still it has humbled itself in Christ, our Saviour, to such an extent, that by means of the pure, simple and unaffected eye of faith, even the simple can understand it. (no. 4)
3.3.
In the dedication to the prayer and in the spiritual reading of the first Capuchins, the Gospel and the life of Jesus Christ were the main and central point. It is obvious that the Gospel and the person of Jesus Christ were the main topics of their preaching. Their choice in this matter was deliberate and radical.
The Constitutions say the following:

To imprint in the hearts of the preachers the norms and methods they should follow in order to exercise correctly the preaching Christ Crucified and the kingdom of heaven, and to effectuate effectively the conversion and the spiritual welbeing of the faithful, by implanting Christ in their souls and let Hem be born in them, we advise them and command them to use the Sacred Scriptures, especially the New Testament and in particular the Gospels, so that being evangelical preachers, we may forge an evangelical people.(no. 117)

The Constitutions make it also perfectly clear that for Capuchins preaching is nothing else than letting Christ speak himself, whom they met in their interior prayer, through them:

The preachers shall refrain from difficult and affected phrases as unworthy of Him Who died naked and humble on the Cross. Their language must be clear, pure, simple and humble, completely holy, full of charity and burning with zeal, after the example of St.Paul, the Vessel of Election, who preached, not in loftiness of speech and human eloquence, but in the power of the Holy Ghost. The preachers, therefore, are exhorted to their utmost to imprint the Blessed Jesus on their own hearts and give Him the peaceful dominion of their souls, so that it may be He Who urges them to speak from the fullness of love, not merely by their words but much more by their deeds, after the example of St.Paul, the Doctor of the Gentiles, who did not preach anything to others until Christ had enabled him first to practice it.
So, also, did Jesus, our most perfect Master teach us not only by words, but by deeds. They are great in the Kingdom of Heaven who first do, and then teach and preach to others.(no. 112)

The encounter with the Lord, while praying, must be the instrument and inspiration for their preaching.
So we read:

And while preaching to others and being with many people, should they feel the spirit weakening, let them return to solitude, and there them remain, till once again, full of God, the impulse of the Holy Spirit may move them to go forth to spread divine grace over the world. Thus engaged, now like Martha, now like Mary, they shall follow Christ in His mixed life, Who, after praying on the mountain, went down to the temple to preach, nay, descended from heaven to earth to save souls. (no. 114)

Further on we read: Since he who does not know how to read and imitate Christ, the Book of life, cannot have the learning necessary for preaching, preachers are forbidden to carry with them many books, so that they find all things in Christ. (no. 116)
Where the Constitutions speak about the preaching of the brothers, they emphasize each time the influence of their prayer on their preaching.
So we read again in no. 120:

And in order that, while preaching to others, the preachers themselves may not become castaways, they shall sometimes leave the multitude, and, with our most sweet Savior, ascend the mountain of prayer and contemplation. There let them endeavour to become inflamed as the Seraphim, with divine love, so that, all aflame themselves, they may enkindle others.

4. The important question: how the first Capuchins practiced the interior prayer.
Now we come to the important question of how the first Capuchins did practice the interior prayer.
4.1
A first terse typification of this we find in the specific prayer, that the capuchin students prayed before their classes. In fact, many of us used to say this prayer at the beginning of each lesson:
May I, in this lesson, love you as much as I know you, for I like to know you only in order to love you.
Their interior prayer was consequently focused on loving God, on growing in love for Him.
4.2
The Constitutions describe this internal prayer in a simple but accurate way: "Let the Friars remember that prayer is nothing else than speaking to God with the heart. Consequently, he who speaks to God with the lips, does not pray. Each one, therefore, should endeavour to pray mentally, and according to the teaching of Christ, the supreme Teacher, taking diligent care to enlighten the mind and enkindle the affections far more than to frame words." (no. 42)
Our well-known Swiss fellow-brother and authority of the Spirituality of the Capuchins, Octavian Schmucki, called this endearingly simple description of interior life a fine example of spiritual literature. [6]
4.3
Interior prayer is to speaking to God from the heart. When we read in the Constitutions that an authentic spiritual friar always prays (no. 41), then an spiritual panorama unfolds itself before us: the impressive internal world of the first Capuchins.
We know that the first Capuchins highly appreciated silence (nrs. 44-45), solitude, (nr. 77), poverty, generosity etc. and giving hospitality to strangers and vagants (nrs. 50-55 etc).

We exhort all our Friars, by the charity of Christ, to keep in mind in all their actions the Holy Gospel, the Rule they promised to keep, the holy and praiseworthy customs and examples of the Saints, by directing their thoughts, words and actions to the honour and glory of God and the salvation of their neighbour. Thus the Holy Spirit will enlighten them in all things. (nr. 141)
and:
Remembering that our ultimate goal is God, to whom each one of us ought to tend and aspire, and into whom we should strive to be transformed, we exhort all the Friars to direct every thought to that goal and to turn to it, with every possible gearning of love, all our intentions and desires, so that with all our whole heart, mind and soul, power and strength, with the actual, continuous, intense and pure affections, we may unite ourselves with our supremely good Father. (nr. 63)

4.4
The first generations of Capuchins were men of prayer. This provided warmth to their austere life, and it gave them a human intimacy with God and with each other. It made them strong and enterprising. In the neighbourhood of their friaries, they built one or two small hermitages where some brothers, who were approved fit to this life by their Superior, found the opportunity to live and pray only with God.
We know that they used to pray repeatedly throughout the day short prayers, during all their activities, loud or silently praying in their hearts. In thsi way they maintained in a very concious way their relationship with God.
There exists a loving and affectionate relationship with God, Jesus and all people, an emotional life of love. We must consider how deeply these brothers, in their intense prayer, were focused on the suffering, the death and the cross of Jesus Christ. It revealed to them the unlimited goodness and love of God for them and all people.
4.5
The oldest tract on prayer, written by a Capuchin, has the striking title Arte de la unione, the Art Of Divine Union. The author is Giovanni da Fano. It was published in 1536, in the same year in which the oldest Constitutions were published from which we have taken so lavishly many quotations. In this small edition we find already the method of being connected with God all day long, by saying and repeating short and ardent prayers.
Being proud as a Dutch Capuchin, I mention that Giovanni da Fano was deeply influenced by the Modern Devotion, -come to growth on firm Dutch soil- and by the Dutch spiritual author, the Minor Brother Hendrik Herp. The first Capuchins owe them very much, most of all in their preference of mystic and affective prayer and their loving relationship with God and Jesus Christ.
We find the method of affective prayer, ongoing prayer all day long, also in the Capuchins in The Netherlands. We see it clearly in a many times reprinted manual for novices: >Geestelijcke Oeffeninge voor de novitiën, Spiritual Excercises For Novices. Consideringt the background we just explained, we realize that in this affective prayer there is much more richdom and love than we superficially might think when we hear repeatedly uttered quick prayers.
4.6
This method and attitude of praying always belongs to the core of the real Franciscan friar, according to the Constitutions (no. 41). It has, though, deep christian roots, finding its origin in the Jesus-prayer as practiced by the Desert Fathers. Their intention was to implement Jesus'word: pray always, proclaimed by Luke 10,1.
Until now we searched for the secret fountain and source of the interior life of the first Capuchins. We think now that we have found this source.
The first Capuchins did everything to create a lifestyle in which they developed their relationship with God, with Jesus Christ and with all people. Prayin for them was being with God, Jesus and all people. God speaks to their hearts and their hearts speak to God, and starting from this intimate experience they preached to the people and were close to them. The love of God and their love for God was their life's secret, the loving source of their religious vitality.
Now we can understand that, in the 17-th century, the Capuchin life flourished in The Netherlands, and provided very influential preachers ans original spiritual leaders. Scholars even maintain that they formed their own school of outspoken Capuchin spirituality [7].
5. John Evangelist from 's-Hertogenbosch
One of these spiritual and very original authors I mention with special attention: John Evangelist (Joannes Evangelista) from 's-Hertogenbosch (a Dutch town), (1588-1635). He is the first an most spirititual of all mystic authors among the Dutch Capuchins.
As a director of novices and spiritual director of newly professed Capuchin-brothers, he performed a very important task in the religious formation of the Flemish-Dutch province in the first half of the 17th century. His books consist mainly of the lessons he gave to them to introduce them into the spiritual life. He provided them high-standard spiritual food. He introduced them with great care into the highest experience of the loving unity with God. His main work is The Reign Of God In The Souls
Judging from this title, we realize that John Evangelist considered the living loving unity with God as the goal and fulfillment of human life.
With lucidity and in a systematic way, he explains, step after step, the conditions for the human God-seeker to accomplish this goal. It is the radical path of spiritual death, that means reducing to nill anything that does not belong to God.
This annihilation consists of four parts: firs, turning away radically from all creation. Then, the perfect surrender to God, in pure love and naked faith. Next, John Evangelist accompanies the God-seeking person, in a methodic and systematic way, step after step to the unity with God. Finally, after a vast process of cleansing and enlightenment, this person will eventually reach the direct vision and joy of God's presence.
Then John Evangelist elaborates very accurately, in six chapters, how the God-enjoying person in his daily life, in simple and in intensive work, assuming all his responsabilities, will be able to maintain this living experience of loving unity with God in pure love and naked faith.
In this short article it is impossible to quote John Evangelist extensively. Nevertheless, I like to give you a taste of the competent and well chosen way in which he describes the most profound relationship between God and the human person.
When the God-seeking person finally achieved and experienced the delight of God's presence, the Kingdom of God in his soul, John Evangelist describes this experience in the following way:

The soul knows, tastes and enjoys the truth, the beauty, the goodness and the delight, which are more precious and perfect than all things the soul has ever known, tasted or experienced. Yet the soul is not able to express what is her object and how she is conscious of it. The soul only can be sure that the presence of God is the source of all created wisdom, beauty, goodness and perfection. There lies infinitely more in the Presence than what God has created up to now.
God is not present to the soul through an image or a direct contact, neither through touch, taste or feeling. On the other hand, He is present to the soul through all this and more. For in all her possibilities and dependency, the soul is related to God in the most intimate way. Although the soul cannot clearly perceive God as her object, she still has an inexpressible intrinsic evidence of it, which gives her greater certainty than what she ever can obtain through the senses,(283) books or teachers.
The soul experiences in herself that all prayer and all songs of praise of the Church, belong to this mystic Being, of which she has an inner Presence. She also experiences such a respect towards this mystic Being, as if she were standing in front of the Throne of God. She is not allowed to do anything internally or externally, what she cannot do in the Presence of the Being.
The soul does not produce this respect and reverence and these feelings herself, but they are a spontaneous result of this mystic Being present in her.
All desires of the soul, that takes delight in God's presence, will be satisfied. She does not worry anymore how to please God. She knows that she cannot give or do more than she did already and she knows that God will not ask anything more. For she has dedicated to Him everything she might possess of might be or might do. She knows that she is satisfying God perfectly when she saves always and fully her Nothingness. This is her only concern and exercise. She can desire nothing from God, neither ask Him anything thai is in her own interest. But all her prayers consist in this, that she will never separate from her Nothingness that she received from God. She prays that she may receive this union even in greater depth and stability and that God's will may be done in her and in all people in time and in eternity. And if she were to pray differently, there would emerge images in herself and she would fall out of her Nothingness. This union with God creates in her a deep rest and peace.

It struck me and it keeps striking me, how this life in union with God has been considered by John Evangelist as the true and original disposition and nature of mankind.
Man has an inborn drive towards God, a loving power and inclination, which, like a compass, directs him to God.
The task of man is to let go what obstructs this surrender, in pure love, to God. This is a radical process of purification. It is the realization of the original innocence, the original goal for which God created man.
This union with God takes place at the levcel of pure love and naked faith. It is God himself who excites this pure love and naked faith in every person and brings it to perfection. A totally new divine life-experience opens up for man. John Evangelist describes this subtle and internal process, this complete reversal of human living, in a nuanced, orderly and disenchanting way. He proceeds like a teacher who is intimately familiar with everything he describes and considers. His rather schoolish explanations are interlarded with comparisons and examples, just like the practical didactic methods of the Modern Devotion. John Evangelist treats the whole growing process of spiritual life, up to the highest mystical phase, in a sober, well balanced, typical Dutch way.
With a steady hand and with authority, John Evangelist introduces not only his younger brothers, but also the simple people as well as the academics among the people of his world, to experience his own secret of life: every contemplative person who at the same time is a intensively working person, can be united with God at any time and in any place. He teaches us how we can experience all different aspects of our human life in a deified way, so that is -surprisingly!- approaches directly the eternal life.
6. Some concluding questions.
In Brussels where I used to live, I had plenty time and opportunity to study the life of the first Capuchins. At a conscious and unconscious level as well, I carry in myself negative and even frightening images of this original Capuchin way of life; a fear for this primitive, harsh and almost unreal life. Possibly you recognize this negative image of our original Capuchin life.
Is this life acceptable and still understandable in our secular and pragmatic world, where action is the keyword?
I incline to an affirmative answer to this question. Isn't the image of this former austere and severe life one-sided, superficial and incorrect to a certain extent?
Did I open my mind and my heart sufficiently to really apreciate the original value and greatness of these reformers of the 16-th century?
They gained the attention and confidence of prominent Church reformers like Carolus Borromeus and the Fathers of the Council of Trent and innumerable sincere Christians.
May I ask you a question? Is a similar miracle still possible in our times? Is the reformation of ourselves and the reformation of Church and society possible in our days?
Could those ardently praying and truly evangelical Brothers from the 16-th century put us on the right track?
The answer is ours.

 

Notes
(1) Optat de Veghel, o.f.m.cap.,La réforme des frères mineurs capucins dans l'ordre franciscain et dans l'èglise, in: Collectanea Franciscana, jg.35 (1965), blz. 5-108; vooral blz 19.
(2) De Geschriften van Franciscus van Assisi, Haarlem (1982), blz 172-173.
(3) De Geschriften van Franciscus van Assisi, Haarlem blz 73.
(4) De Geschriften van Franciscus van Assisi, Haarlem blz 73, voetnoot 22.
(5) Optatus, o.f.m.cap., De spiritualiteit van de capucijnen in de Nederlanden gedurende de XVIIe en XVIIIe eeuw, Utrecht -Brussel ( 1948 ), blz. 82.
(6) Ottaviano Schmucki, o.f.m.cap., Preghiera e vita contemplativa nella legislazione e vita dei primi frati minori cappuccini, Roma (1989), blz.20.
(7) K.Porteman, Nederlandse mystici uit de 17e eeuw of de mystici van 'Den Niet', in: Ons Geestelijk Erf, Dl. XLVII (1973), blz. 386-407, vooral blz 385-387.
(8) Meer eigentijdse hertaling van: Het Rijck Godts inder zielen..., Leuven, (1639), hoofdstuk 21, blz. 282-284.
Pro manuscripto Dr. Jan Kampschreur, Capuchin
Brussel, 21 maart 2000