Fall 1984, Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 210-219.

Anne M. Minton:
      The Spirituality of Bérulle: A New Look

Cardinal de Bérulle's experience of personal effort, human impotence, and God's grace can help us face our changing, postconciliar world like his post-Renaissance, post-Trent world.

Dr. Minton is assistant to the dean for academic services at Weston School of Theology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also teaches church history and history of spirituality.

CARDINAL de Bérulle is known, if at all, as the founder of a school of spirituality called the "French School." Since his devotional writings, letters of direction, and meditations on the mysteries of Christ's life have never been translated, his work has been inaccessible to all but the French-speaking. His influence, however, in Roman Catholic piety since the early seventeenth century has been pervasive. Many Berullian ideas were commonly accepted, although often without recognizing them as his.

Pierre de Bérulle (1575-1629) was a priest, a councillor to the Bourbon monarchs, the founder of the Oratory in France, and the man who brought the Discalced Carmelite nuns into France. He was spiritual director to Vincent de Paul, friend of Francis de Sales, adviser to Descartes, and closely associated with the early Jansenists. He was an influential figure in the religious and political world of his own time and the author of many writings on spirituality.(1) But the reader must labor through verbose and often repetitive treatises on Jesus. Given Bérulle's inaccessibility and ponderous style, it is worth asking why he should be studied. In addition, Bérulle's language is jarring to the reader of today because of its negative description of the human condition and its disillusionment with the possibility of human action. He writes of self-emptying and making oneself into nothing. Bérulle sounds dubious about human power to do anything of significance.

Many Catholics, especially priests and religious, were formed in Bérullian spirituality prior to Vatican Council II. Their formation frequently stressed the negative elements in Bérulle's thought. For this reason many today have an immediate distaste for the French School. However, if we read the Bérullian texts freshly, it is possible that they can be seen in a new light. The very criticism levelled at Bérulle's ideas can be viewed positively as contributors to a contemporary spirituality. What is noteworthy from the start is that Bérulle's concerns are similar to ours. He was interested in the reform of the church, personal holiness, and the relationship between the government and the church. From his experience of both the church and the state, he developed a way of speaking about God and his relationship with God. Since we share many of the same issues and questions, it is useful to examine how Bérulle makes sense out of his own faith and life and what his response can teach us.

Bérulle was born in 1575, just twelve years after the Council of Trent. Thus he lived in the aftermath of a great reform council whose effects were just beginning to be felt. Like the generation after Vatican II, he had great hopes for the reform of the church. He also shared with his contemporaries some of the hope in human achievement brought to the fore by the Renaissance. During the first twenty to twenty-five years of his life he believed that people were able to reorder society and to reform the church. In light of these hopes he set about his own task of holiness and church reform.

Bérulle began his spiritual journey with a life of much effort and self-improvement. Educated by the Jesuits and influenced by their spirituality, he took from them the idea of a "Rule of Life." This he formulated when he was about seventeen years old. The purpose of the rule was to design his life in such a way that he would be able to discover the will of God for himself. Bérulle considered the goal of life to be conformity of his action with God's will. Hence he needed to find the will of God. He wrote in his rule: "The source of all my actions, supernatural, spiritual, and bodily will be nothing other than the will of God; and I understand by this not only to do what God wishes, but also to do only what God wishes, and in the manner in which he wishes."(2)

Bérulle identified the chief obstacle to conforming oneself to God to be self-love and the self-delusion connected with it. He continued in his rule:

Because one of the great obstacles to virtue or perfection is to think that one has it, I believe that I am always at an infinite distance from what God wants for me; and I will never be content with any of my actions, no matter how perfect they may be . . . . I will present to myself an opposing opinion and I will appropriate to myself this line from the Apocalypse: "You say that I am rich and lack nothing and you do not know that you are unhappy, miserable, poor, blind and naked."(3)
While the emphasis in this rule is on the denial of self in order to be united with God, the general presupposition of the text is the power of the individual to shape his or her own life. Paradoxically the rule is actually a glorification of the human will.

This rule of life is the first indication available to us of Bérulle's conception of personal holiness. At the same time as he was writing about holiness, he was engaged in conversion attempts among the Calvinists. This was part of his program for the reform of the church. His concern was with persuading the Huguenots to return to Rome. This he did through theological treatises and numerous conferences. He relied upon human reason and effort for their conversion. He worked for the reform of the church through his own skills. He was, however, forced to face his own inadequacy to do what he considered so important for the church -- bringing those in error back to the truth. Fundamentally, what this early period of earnest effort accomplished for Bérulle was the acknowledgment that in the end human effort is not enough. Confronted with his powerlessness to do what he had set out to do, Bérulle turned toward the grace and power of God. This "turn" was a conversion which he likened to the theory of Copernicus:

An excellent mind of this century wishes to hold that the sun is at the center of the world and not the earth; that it is immovable, and that the earth, in proportion to its round shape moves in reference to the sun .... This new opinion, scarcely followed in the science of the stars, is useful and ought to be followed in the science of salvation. Because Jesus is the sun, immovable in his grandeur and moving all things . . . Jesus is the true center of the world and the world ought to be in continual movement toward him.(4)

Bérulle was about thirty when he experienced his "Copernican revolution." It had been prepared for by years of effort and struggle to do God's will. In the midst of his struggle he came to the gradual realization that human effort was not enough. During his twenties Bérulle recognized that we cannot become holy by sheer effort nor can we do good things for God and the church solely by applying ourselves to the task. He had to surrender his dreams of reform and what he wished to do for the church. It was not that he became apathetic and passive as a result of this surrender. He spent his life in the extension of religious life and in the creation of a spirituality and community for secular priests. But he had to let go of two things: his identification of himself with his work for the church, and his identification of his goals for church reform with the will of God.

After this conversion Bérulle's consciousness of himself and his works shifted. He was no longer at the center of his universe. His preoccupation with his own talents, efforts, and good works was converted to a "preoccupation" with God. He thought of himself as the earth revolving around the sun who is Christ. This shift meant that Bérulle was no longer driven by a need to do good things for God and the church. Instead he began to allow God to work in his life. From this time on his references to human weakness and misery are statements about how limited the human person is without God.


Once Bérulle recognized that God was central to his universe and that his human nature was a "pure capacity" for God, he surrendered to this God. This meant abandoning himself to God's grace, acknowledging his own powerlessness, and relying upon God to give direction and meaning to his life. It meant a movement that he described as self-emptying, anéantissement. When Bérulle used this term he meant turning his attention away from himself toward God. He was speaking about making room in his life for God and allowing his poverty and failure to become an invitation to God to take control over his life. People who have used Bérulle's language of self-emptying have often used it as an ascetical program. However, it is diametrically opposed to that. It is instead a response to an experience of God's graciousness and power so overwhelming that Bérulle gives himself to this God unreservedly. The surrender of self to God and the abandonment of control over one's life to God is not rooted in personal irresponsibility. It is a self-donation to a God with whom Bérulle had fallen in love.

This God is a trinity of persons in relationship. From his understanding of God came his conviction that all living things are interrelated. He held that nothing living is living in isolation. This strengthened him as he tried to deal with a new church and a new society. This sense of being part of a whole sustained him in the midst of considerable upheaval. Since he could not find stability in the world around him, he looked for it in God.

How did Bérulle approach God the Father? For him the answer had already been given in the gospel. Access is provided through Christ who is both redeemer and way to the Father. Even though Bérulle recognized the crucial importance of Christ, his spirituality never turned into an idolatry of him. Christ is the path to God, the one who reveals the Father to us. Bérulle's understanding of Christ changed over the years. Initially he looked upon Jesus as an ethical model. But gradually he came to understand him as the one into whom we are incorporated in order to return to the Father. One is a Christian in the fundamental sense of being made one with Christ, which is accomplished solely through grace. This entering into Christ and the mysteries of his life is a consequence of Bérulle's theocentric conversion. No longer are we at the center of our own lives. We have been displaced by God.

Since being made one with Christ is completely dependent upon grace, there is nothing that the individual can do to effect this union. Hence Bérulle, unlike his contemporaries, did not develop a specific method of prayer or system of meditation. He spoke instead of emptiness before God and silent adoration. The absence of a formal method allowed the individual a considerable amount of flexibility and freedom in prayer. What Bérulle recommended to the person was to present himself or herself before God in adoration, to reflect upon some mystery of Christ's life, and then to open oneself to take on through grace the attitude of Christ in that mystery. He wrote: "Seek God by the interior paths which I have proposed to you, and by those which he pleases to open for the first time to your soul .... Remember that he is (1) the source of your being! (2) the perfection of your being! (3) the beatification of your being! . . . Adore him, adhere to him, aspire toward him, . . . render him these three affections and interior dispositions."(5) Now this cannot be achieved through human effort. But Bérulle believed that what was impossible for human beings was possible for God.

Entering into the mysteries of Christ means thinking and feeling like Christ. Bérulle wrote, for example, to priests:

You ought to be an instrument joined to the Son of God on earth; your condition of priest and of pastor obliges you to be in that state. I n order to enter it, it is necessary for you to treat with him often about it by prayer; we should be conformed to him by interior and exterior virtues and do this in such a way that we are a living image of Jesus on earth, as he is a living image of his Father in heaven. It is the essence of the eternal Son to be the image of his Father, and you know by the maxims of holy theology that you have professed that it is one of the things he has appropriated to himself. This also ought to be one of the conditions belonging to priests: that they be an image of the Son of God on earth! For this purpose, I exhort you to think frequently about him and about his interior and external life on earth. Adore, love him, and pray that he will transform you into himself.(6)
Bérulle was not interested in delineating how a person should act or behave. If the individual could take on the attitudes of Christ and become a humble and obedient adorer of the Father, then appropriate actions would follow naturally. Bérulle did not propose in his writings any program for acquiring virtue. This lack of any description of the virtuous life distinguishes Bérulle from other exponents of Counter-Reformation spirituality.

Most of the middle portion of Bérulle's life from the time he was thirty-five years old until he was about forty-five was spent in trying to empty himself before God in order to be filled with grace. He was attempting to "dispose" himself to receive God's grace. What marked these years was a detachment from the ultimate success or failure of his works. It was not that he ceased his activity. On the contrary, these were years of establishing houses of the Oratory and of Carmel and years of participating in affairs of state. But after his conversion Bérulle was convinced that the success of his works, even his works for the church, was not essential. What was essential was the grace of God. Bérulle saw the mystery of Christ's life as the power of God working in human failure and defeat. Bérulle's imagery during these years was of life languishing on the cross, of the suffering and dying of Jesus. He wrote of Christ's poverty, silence, obedience, and submission. Bérulle realized that, like Christ, he must be made aware of his radical dependence upon God and his powerlessness in himself.

It was only after this period that Bérulle came to any mention of the Resurrection of Christ. There are three distinct periods in Bérulle's life, and this third one is the synthesis of the first two. He had begun his life with an understanding of his faith and a clear articulation of it. He thought he knew what an ideal church and state would look like and he thought he understood holiness. But when confronted with his inability to accomplish what he had set out to do, he began to write about being emptied out and dying. In the last decade of his life (he died at the age of fifty-four), he was able to bring together his knowledge of his faith and his experience of God into a spirituality that spoke of surrender and new life.

Unfortunately Bérulle's writings from the last period of his life are less frequently used than are those of his middle period. Hence, when people read excerpts from his work, they find Bérulle to be exclusively concerned with failure and death. The reader does not realize that, once Bérulle passed through this period, his writings were marked by a jubilant praise of God and God's grace.


Having seen some of the concerns of Bérulle's life and his response to them, we can ask what his experience can teach us. He was a man caught in time between the end of the old order and the creation of a new one. He was not a visionary, someone who could dream of, and create new possibilities for, the church and the state. He clearly would have preferred to have things remain as they had been in the past -- a united Christendom with a Catholic monarch committed to protecting the church. Eventually, however, he had no choice but to accept reality. He could not return to the past.

In the three areas mentioned at the outset (the reform of the church, personal holiness, and the interrelationship of the church and the state), there were significant shifts in Bérulle's goals. If we look at his attempt to further the reform of the church, his initial objective was clearly the conversion of all the Calvinists and the restoration of church unity. Looked at in retrospect, even the possibility of achieving reunification at that time seems absurd, but Bérulle was slow to see that the church could never return to the way it was before the Reformation. He did change his focus, however, on church reform. From trying to bring others back, he changed to trying to make Catholics different. He attempted to create a church which was a gathering of contemplatives. His understanding of how the church was to function was hierarchical and clerical. But his idea attempted to be faithful to Jesus the priest, whose mission was to bring all people back to the Father. The kind of church that Bérulle envisioned for the future was more appropriate for the cloister than the world, since Jesus as the personification of the church is never presented as engaged in any active ministry in the world. So, to a large extent, Bérulle's ideas on church reform are not applicable to our own time. But, although it appears on the surface that Bérulle has nothing to teach us, if we look at his attitudes rather than his actions, there is something to be learned.

Even though we might not want the church that Bérulle helped to create, it is instructive to remember that he was convinced that the reform of the church is God's work. He knew that the church was taking shape in ways that he could not understand. Rather than being overwhelmed by the immensity of the work to be done, he urged people to take responsibility for those areas of church life over which they had some control -- their religious community, their parish, their college. In taking responsibility -- they should try to work with Christ's attitudes and remain detached from the ultimate successor failure of what they had done.

In regard to the church and the monarchy, his idealized vision of the state at the service of the church, protecting and extending it, never materialized. He began by allegiance to a Catholic family who claimed succession to the throne. He then changed to support of the Calvinist-turned-Catholic Henry IV. He moved from that to an assertion of the independence of the monarch who received his power directly from God just as the pope did. This allowed him to see the ruler as a special representative of Christ the King on earth. Since Bérulle in his last years continually portrayed Christ as a ruler, any criticism of the king who shared Christ's power was muted. Criticism of the sovereign was seen as a criticism of Christ. This led to the buttressing f the Bourbon monarchy and a justification of divine right monarchy. Hence it would appear that Bérulle's conception of the relationship between the state and the church is not readily useful to us, since it gives religious sanction to an oppressive government. It is important to note, however, that Bérulle always considered it necessary to judge the political order by the gospel; and when there was a conflict between the interests of the state and the dictates of the gospel -- which are not necessarily the interests of the church -- Bérulle chose the gospel.

In regard to personal holiness, Bérulle proposed for himself at first a life of moral improvement lived under a rule of life. To this end he lived under the rule that he had written and set out to join a religious order. Because he was not accepted by any community, including the Jesuits whom he so admired, he was forced to remain a secular priest. Even though he created a community of secular priests and made vows of slavery to Jesus and Mary, he became convinced that his plans for personal holiness were not to be realized as he wished. Thus he had to wait for God to reveal holiness to him. Much of his emphasis upon emptiness, silence, and adoration bespeak a loss of confidence in himself and a lack of clarity about what he was supposed to do. The problem with the spread of Bérulle's spirituality is that people have used it in conjunction with a rule of life or a program of virtue. It was never intended for that. It is a way of being silent and poor before God when we are unaware of, and thus unable to control, what we will become. The actual effects of Bérulle's spirituality can be legitimately criticized. His ideas can lead to a sense of inadequacy in oneself and an exaggerated negativity about one's own talents. That is the result, however, of taking Bérulle's ideas and superimposing them upon people. His spirituality has been presented to individuals as a mind-set for understanding and interpreting themselves and the world. For Bérulle, any of these ideas is consequent upon his experience of inadequacy and need for God. His religious ideas grew out of his own conversion experience. They did not precede it.

Bérulle's contribution to our generation is his acknowledgment of the loss of the past and his willingness to live and work in the state and the church without knowing what shape they will assume in the future. He based his life upon his radical dependence upon God, and he allowed himself to be led in prayer to become the man whom God envisioned. In the presence of many questions, Bérulle urged silence and reflection, a life rising out of prayer and incorporation into Christ's life. In a church where many pious practices and methods of prayer were recommended, he spoke of attitudes and adoration. In a world and a church preoccupied with human achievement, he spoke about God and reliance upon grace. As a Christian he saw every aspect of his life -- personal, ecclesial, and political -- as part of the mystery of Christ. It was a simple response to a complex world, but at the same time a radically demanding and an all-encompassing one.

  1. Very few works are available in English on Bérulle and his spirituality. Two recent articles are helpful, especially that of William M. Thompson, "The Christic Universe of Pierre de Bérulle and the French School," American Benedictine Review 28 (1978): 320-47, and George Tavard, "The Christology of the Mystics," Theological Studies 42 (1981): 561-79. A good summary of Bérulle's spirituality can be found in Michel Dupuy, Bérulle: une spiritualité d'adoration (Tournai: Desclée de Brouwer, 1964).
  2. Pierre de Bérulle, "Bref exercise pour parvenir la vertu," in Michel Houssaye, M. de Bérulle et les carmélites de France (1575-1611) (Paris: Henri Plon, 1972), p. 106.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Pierre de Bérulle, "Discours de l'état et des grandeurs de Jésus," Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Migne, 1856), p. 161.
  5. Letter of Pierre de Bérulle to Marie de la Trinité D'Hannivel (June-October,1618?) in Jean Dagens, ed., Correspondance de Bérulle (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1937), pp. 338-39.
  6. Letter of Pierre de Bérulle to Monsieur le Curé de St. Saturnin (June 11, 1617), ibid, p. 241. Emphasis is Bérulle's.