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John of Saint-Samson


Carmelite lay brother and mystic; b. Sens, France, Dec. 29, 1571; d. Rennes, Sept. 14, 1636. His name in the world was Jean du Moulin. He was born of well-to-do parents, but the mishandling of an eye disease when he was three years old left him blind for life. He received a good education, became acquainted with literature and history, and learned to understand and speak Latin. He also learned to play various musical instruments well. In 1589, his parents having died, he turned to Christ, and he began a wandering existence until 1597, when he took up residence in Paris. Apparently, he quickly became well acquainted with the works of many spiritual writers, especially of the mystics of the Low Countries and the Rhineland. About 1600 he came into contact with the Paris Carmelites of the Place Maubert, where he was able to fire a small circle of young religious with enthusiasm for the spiritual life and mysticism. In 1606 he joined the Carmelites at Dol in Brittany. He lived there for six years in great poverty and underwent various severe trials. Now spiritually mature, he entered the reform of Touraine under the name of John of Saint-Samson.

The leaders of this movement tested him thoroughly and minutely respecting his virtues and his spiritual reading, enlisting the help of doctors of the Sorbonne and of men of outstanding spiritual prestige. He stood the test with conspicuous success. From this time until his death, he assisted in the spiritual formation of numerous generations of novices, and he was the spiritual adviser of many others. Hence in the reform of Touraine, he exercised great influence, especially as a master of the spiritual life.

His writings exhibit a very complex character. They form the residue of conferences, instructions, and counselings, all reflecting his personal experience and prayer. Some he dictated himself, but more often they were committed to writing later, and subjects are not treated systematically and comprehensively. Moreover, John employed the difficult terminology of his favorite authors, Jan van ruysbroeck and henry of herp. His works, comprising some 60 treatises and contemplations, along with a number of letters, were published in 1658 and 1659 by Donatien de Saint-Nicolas. Unfortunately, the editor recast the text and destroyed much of its vividness. A critical edition is needed.

According to John of Saint-Samson, the queen of the spiritual life is love, which is directed to Christ, the "Bien-Aimé." Love brings with it as an inseparable partner, detachment (humility, mortification, suffering, etc.) in all stages of the spiritual life. Love looks to the All of God, detachment to the nothingness of the creature. Love makes the soul steadily more contemplative; detachment causes it to turn steadily further away from the nondivine. Thus the spiritual life looks to nothingness and to the All at the same time. The soul reaches this state fully only in the hereafter, but some foretaste of it is experienced in the highest mystical grace. Then the soul knows itself as one with God, who is the All, and loses all psychological consciousness of created being and of itself.

Love and detachment govern the spiritual life. Love strives toward interior and exterior conformity to the divinity and the humanity of Christ. Moreover, the mind must live by this divine and human life, must lose itself completely in the Person of the God-Man, to the last degree of identification with Christ and in Christ. In this striving, the life of prayer, particularly aspirative prayer, occupies an important place. This frequently repeated, brief lifting of the mind and heart to God reaches its fullest scope only when the soul has progressed to some degree in the spiritual life. Love thereby becomes strengthened and purified, and recollection becomes more profound. As long as recollection is not complete, this kind of prayer retains its worth. In combination with detachment, John emphasizes two traditionally Carmelite values, solitude and silence, both of which are helpful in excluding all contact with the non-divine. Furthermore, John has many beautiful texts dealing with Marian mysticism.

The mystics of the Low Countries were very popular in France about 1600. From them, especially from Ruysbroeck and Herp, John took over, in addition to terminology, certain fundamental theological ideas: their teaching on the Trinity, exemplarism, the structure of the soul, recollection, and Trinitarian mysticism. John is one of the most important writers of the so-called abstract school, which assumes the possibility of a union of the soul with the Divine Nature, a union that is direct, without intermediacy or distinction (at least it is so experienced). Another characteristic of John's doctrine deserving of mention is the emphasis on self-annihilation (anéantissement ) and pure love (amour pur et désinteressé ). Both attain their zenith in the highest mystical grace; yet it appears from the texts that John did not assume or advocate a complete anéantissement or a complete amour pur.

Bibliography: donatien de s. nicolas, Les Oeuvres spirituelles et mystiques du divin contemplatif F. Jean de S. Samson, 2 v. (Rennes 165859). mathurin de s. anne, Vita, theoremata et opuscula insignis mystae venerabilis fratris Ioannis a S. Samsone (Lyons 1654). s. m. bouchereaux, La Réforme des Carmes en France et Jean de St. Samson (Paris 1950). p. w. janssen, Les Origines de la réforme des Carmes en France au XVII e siècle (The Hague 1963). sernin-marie de s. andrÉ, La vie du V. F. Jean de Saint-Samson, religieux carme de la Réforme de Touraine (Paris 1881).

[p. w. janssen]

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