Our God of Surprises has a way of bringing great beauty and spiritual richness out of the most unlikely sources. In the case of Jean Moulin, we find a blind member of Carmel’s Reform of Touraine who produced such other-worldly writings that some call him the French John of the Cross.
Jean was born at Sens, in north-central France. Although he lost his sight at age 3 and both parents at age 10, he received a loving, religious education from an uncle and several devoted teachers. He showed a remarkable talent for playing musical instruments of all types, as well as a deep love of prayer and reflection. Even as a young man, he loved hearing bible stories, lives of the saints, and writings of countless spiritual authors. Even though Jean had a home and a modest inheritance, he chose to leave those safeguards behind, and embraced a life of voluntary poverty in Paris, just so that he could pray with more focus.
He adapted well to city life, lodging in simple rooms, and earning a living as an organist in a church on the Left Bank, in the University quarter. He developed a prayerful routine which included Mass at the Carmelite church at the Place Maubert house of studies, and hours of silent recollection afterward. At one point in 1604, he asked permission to play the organ there, when it was not in use, and formed a friendship with a young friar Mathieu Pinault. This acquaintance proved to be a turning point in his life, since Mathieu was one of the enthusiasts who helped to re-energize the Touraine province.
Jean and Mathieu began to read and discuss works of spirituality together, including the Flemish mystics Jan van Ruysbroeck (14th century) and Hendrik Herp (15th century). Other young members of the community joined the group, and found themselves greatly enriched by Jean’s insights and observations. In spite of his obvious limitation as a blind man, he asked to join the Carmelites, and was accepted in 1606 at the novitiate house at Dol.
No one expects a novitiate year to be easy or effortless, but Jean’s turned into a nightmare. As a low-lying, swampy area, Dol was just then afflicted by an outbreak of the plague. Jean volunteered to stay behind to care for a fellow novice when the majority of the community fled. Despite good care, his classmate died, and the plague then struck Brother Olivier and Jean himself. Both managed to survive, and Jean retained a lifelong sympathy for the ill and the infirm, even being known for his compassionate prayers over sick people. At the end of the year, he professed his vows, adding the name of the local bishop-saint, and so became John of St. Samson. He remained in Dol afterward and became a celebrated member of the community there.But in 1612, he was transferred to Rennes, the principal house of the reforming movement. The prior, Philippe Thibault, asked him for a sort of spiritual inventory, and John produced a marvelous essay which traced his religious journey to that point. And so this unlikely mystic became the unofficial spiritual director for generations of novices and students. He spent the rest of his life in Rennes, teaching and counseling, sharing his insights into prayer and loving communion with God. His young friend Dominic of St. Albert collaborated with him, and supported his teaching a solid spiritual path, year after year. Since all his classes focused on the same objective, fervent prayer, he was able to refine his ideas and insights on a yearly basis.
Much of his “writing” consists of notes taken during his lectures, and copied in refined form. His insights fill two large folio volumes. Rather than a systematic treatise on the spiritual life, Brother John’s writing reflects the practical helps of his own prayerful odyssey. He teaches prayer firmly grounded in the Trinity, in harmony with the Rheno-Flemish school. He understands all living creatures as being perfectly created for God’s purposes, and all as destined for reunion with God in the end. His continuing sympathy for the poor and the sick helped to detach the last traces of selfishness from his life. He celebrated the humanity of Jesus, which gives strength to the rest of us in our weakness. In his passionate attachment to the cross, he frequently invoked St. Paul’s words to the Galatians “I have been crucified with Christ” in his meditations. These were also his last words when he died in 1636.
In company with Carmel’s greatest saints, Brother John of Saint Samson was a most profound mystic. His writings and teachings helped to form the spirituality of France’s golden century, and provided solid help to countless ordinary people, especially those in humble circumstances. His works are still being rediscovered, edited, and translated for people of our own time. Let’s hope for his enrichment in our own future.