11 September 2020

Earlier this week, we celebrated the Feast of Our Lady’s Birthday. For today's reflection, we have republished this excellent article about Mary: Woman of Most Pure Heart by Dr Johan Bergström-Allen.

Mary: Woman of Most Pure Heart

Mary depicted as Our Lady of Mount Carmel

As well as regarding Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as patron of our Order, we Carmelites revere her under a number of special titles such as 'Beauty of Carmel', 'Sister', and 'Woman of Most Pure Heart'.

Purity of Heart (Puritas Cordis in Latin) is an important concept in Carmelite spirituality, and Mary is seen as its greatest exemplar and embodiment. For this reason medieval Carmelites were among the most fervent promoters of the doctrine of Mary's 'Immaculate Conception', which was not formally proclaimed a dogma of the Catholic Church until 1854.

Carmelites have always sought to imitate Mary in her purity of heart. The medieval Carmelite writer Felip Ribot said that the goal of the Carmelite life is to offer to God a holy heart purified from all stain of sin. The purpose of this is to achieve, by God's grace, union with God. Mary, the Most Pure Virgin, is seen as the perfect model of one who was totally available for union with God.

To explain the significance of purity from a Carmelite perspective, the Irish theologian Chris O'Donnell, O.Carm., uses the image of a milk jug. The purpose of a milk jug is to dispense milk. In order to do so properly, it must be clean; if the milk jug is dirty, then the milk will become infected. However, there is no point in the milk jug being clean simply for the sake of it; if the purpose of a milk jug is to dispense milk, then it can be as clean as you like but if it's empty then it isn't useful. This is an analogy of the human heart. Its purpose is to pour out love for others. If our hearts are impure, then what we 'pour our' to others will be infected. But there is no point is having a pure heart simply to leave it empty; the point of purity is not an end in itself but a means to be useful for others.

This is what Carmelites mean by purity: having a heart undivided for God, free from our own motives and desires so that God's will be done in us. Today's society often associates 'purity' with puerile notions of sex. Carmel teaches us that purity is more a matter of the heart than the rest of the body.

Maria Purissima, Mary Most Pure, is the great example of purity, in that her heart is totally given over to God and pours out love towards those around her.

This manuscript illumination depicts Mary as the Virgin of Most Pure Heart. She stands below the Holy Trinity, with figures kneeling at her side (quite probably the donors who paid for this manuscript to be made for the Carmelite friars in London c.1375).
Mary's heart is depicted as a star emitting light.
London, British Library, Ms. Additional 29704-5, folio 193v (detail).

The Immaculate Conception
Centuries before it was formally adopted as a teaching of the Catholic Church in 1854, the Carmelite Order promoted the idea of Mary's Immaculate Conception. This is the notion that, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed: "The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin."

As with all the great Marian teachings of the Church, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is really about Jesus Christ, and our relationship with him. As the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: "To become the mother of the Saviour, Mary was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role". At the Annunciation the angel Gabriel saluted Mary as "full of grace" (Luke 1:28), and it is God's grace that gave Mary everything that she needed in order to fulfil her vocation as the Mother of God.

Mary was singular in her vocation, and so from the first instant of her conception she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life. Apart from Mary and her son Jesus, all human beings have sinned and fallen short of our calling to love God and one another. However, Mary's Immaculate Conception reminds us that in Jesus Christ we are all saved from sin, and restored to a relationship with God. Though we were not born immaculate like Mary, through baptism and the grace of God we are all able to live as saints, doing the will of Our Father in heaven. We can imitate Mary's desire for union with God by means of prayer and the faithful listening to the Word of the Lord.

Carmel and the Immaculate Conception
The following information is derived from Emanuele Boaga, O.Carm., Lady of the Place: Mary in the History and in the Life of Carmel, (Rome: Edizioni Carmelitane, 2001), p. 62 ff.

Medieval Carmelite authors consider Mary's virginity not so much in the physical sense but as the necessary condition for union with God. Mary's purity refers to a state of interior integrity that excludes all sin and distance from God, and makes the person conform to the divine will. There were two developments from this idea:

  • In relation to the figure of Mary, attention was given to her conception and sanctification in the womb of her mother Saint Anne (Mary's Immaculate Conception).
  • With regard to the Carmelite Order in its relationship with Mary, attention is given to the concept of Virgo Purissima (Virgin Most Pure), and to purity and its connection with the interior life.


This painting of Saints Anne and Joachim dining is a panel from an altarpiece
that stood in the Carmelite friary in Frankfurt, Germany.
Note the inset at the back which shows the birth of Mary.


The facts that bring light to bear on Carmel's devotion to Mary's Immaculate Conception are the following:

  • At the end of the thirteenth century (1296 to be precise) the first signs of a Carmelite interest in Mary's Immaculate Conception are seen in an indulgence that fifteen Italian bishops granted to those who visited the churches of the Order in Germany on the occasion of the various Marian feasts, among which was mentioned the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
  • In 1306 the liturgical feast of the Immaculate Conception was introduced in the Carmelite Order. This was the official or 'patronal' feast of the Order in Avignon during the residence of the popes in that city (1309-77). This feast retained its status within the Order until at least the 15th Century (when the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel developed).
  • In 1342 the Archbishop of Armagh, Richard Fitzralph, was invited to preach at the celebration of the patronal feast of the Carmelite Order in Avignon in front of the pope. During his sermon Fitzralph referred to the Marian devotion of the Carmelites, with special reference to the notion of Mary's Immaculate Conception. His sermon is of great significance because it was remembered and referred to later by many authors and theologians in the Order.
  • When the patronal feast of the Order was changed to the Solemn Commemoration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in July, the liturgical feast of the Immaculate Conception continued to be celebrated. The General Chapter of the Carmelites in 1609 declared that all religious of the Order should celebrate this feast in a very special way.
  • Devotion to Mary's Immaculate Conception was encouraged by the diffusion of Carmelite writings. Several Carmelite authors (Jean Cheminot, John of Hildesheim, Felip Ribot) gave a Marian interpretation to the "little cloud" that Elijah's servant saw rising from the salty sea (1 Kings 18:44). Just as the cloud rose from the salty sea bringing pure water to a land of drought, so Mary arose sinless from the sea of sinful humanity, bringing Jesus to a thirsty world. Other Carmelite writers referred to a legend that the Order's friary in Jerusalem was constructed at the place where the conception of the Virgin was said to have taken place.
  • Carmelite devotion linked Mary and her Immaculate Conception to the nature of the Order, its habit and its title. The white cloak of the Order came to be interpreted (among other things) as a symbol of Mary's purity.
  • In various statues, paintings and other works of art in early Carmelite houses (such as Corleone, Catania, London, Bergamo and Frankfurt), the theme of Mary's Immaculate Conception is depicted. In the iconography there is an evolution of the theme towards the image of the Immaculate Virgin seen in the Woman of the Apocalypse.
  • Not all medieval theologians - most famously St. Thomas Aquinas - supported the idea of Mary's Immaculate Conception. A few Carmelites were against the Immaculate Conception: Gerard of Bologna, Guido Terreni and Paul of Perugia. However, most Carmelite theologians defended the privilege of Our Lady. The most important theologians in this area were:
    • John Baconthorpe: Having previously been against the idea, the English Carmelite theologian John Baconthorpe wrote sermons supporting the Immaculate Conception. He believed that Mary had a unique position in the realm of God's grace because of her predestination to be the Mother of God.
    • Michael Aiguani, an Italian Carmelite friar, wrote a treatise on Mary that was widely circulated in northern Italy, basing his arguments on the writings of ancient Christian authorities such as St. Augustine and St. Anselm.
  • After the Middle Ages up to the 18th century, the cult of the Immaculate Conception and the defence of this Marian privilege were very significant in Carmelite circles.
  • From the 17th century, among the communities of the Congregation of Mantua (a reform movement within the Carmelite Order), there was a federation of fifteen monasteries whose focus was the honour of the Immaculate Conception, with their own frequent spiritual practices.
  • In the Iberian peninsula (Portugal and Spain), Carmelites made a promise to defend Mary's Immaculate Conception in sermons and scholastic debates. This was sometimes part of the friars' profession ceremony, and renewal of vows. Lay Carmelites and members of the Order's various confraternities were also encouraged in their devotion to and defence of the Virgin Mary's Immaculate Conception.

This painting is in the chapel of the University of Salamanca, Spain.
In the 17th/18th Centuries the University required its professors to swear their belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception; a Carmelite friar in his white cloak can be seen at the forefront on the left.

In the 19th and 20th Centuries, Carmelites seem to have used the term 'Most Pure Virgin' less than previously. Perhaps this is because, as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was accepted across the whole Church - bolstered by Mary's revelation as the Immaculate Conception at Lourdes in 1858 - it became less distinctly a specific feature of Carmelite spirituality.

However, devotion to Mary's Immaculate Conception and Purity of Heart never died out in Carmel. In the 19th Century, a new province of the Order, in the United States of America, was dedicated to 'The Most Pure Heart of Mary' (the 'PCM' Province).

As the 20th Century progressed, and especially after the Second Vatican Council encouraged religious orders to reconnect with their roots, a number of scholars (Valerius Hoppenbrouwers, Claudio Catena, Ludovico Saggi) revived Carmelite interest in Mary's Immaculate Conception.

In Lourdes, a place of pilgrimage popular with Carmelites, Our Lady revealed her identity to Saint Bernadette Soubirous by declaring (in the local dialect) "I am the Immaculate Conception".