A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 22 September 2013

St John Of The Cross And St Teresa Of Ávila

To reach her desired goal, the soul in love needs to go out at night when all her household members are sleeping. ST JOHN OF THE CROSS

There is a time for penance and a time for partridge. ST TERESA OF ÁVILA

I'm interested in the history of religion, and lately I've been making my way through two classics of Christian mysticism: Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross (1542-1591) and The Interior Castle by St Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582).

John and Teresa were contemporaries in 16th-century Spain. Both were members of the Carmelites, both experienced mystical visions which they described either in poetry or prose, and both were persecuted by the reactionary Catholic authorities of their day: the traditional Carmelites and the Spanish Inquisition. Together they sought to reform the Carmelite order to which they belonged; it had become lax and worldly, divorced from its pure and simple roots. Forming the monastic order of Discalced (or Barefoot) Carmelites, they advocated a return to a simpler and more rigorous regime of poverty, abstinence, seclusion, and solitary prayer and meditation. Monasteries and convents were established in many places in Spain, including Toledo, Palencia, Seville, Salamanca, Burgos, Seville and Granada.  

The Ecstasy of St Teresa by Bernini.
Some interesting facts about John and Teresa. On 2nd December 1577 John was imprisoned in the Carmelite monastery at Toledo. His jail was a cell measuring ten feet by six, and he was subjected to public lashings at least once a week. To eat and drink he was given only bread, water and scraps of salt fish. He managed to escape after nine months' captivity, and was nursed back to health by Teresa's nuns.

Teresa herself was a rounded and complex character with a fascinating psychological makeup. Apparently she was a tough negotiator and hard-headed business woman, who did not suffer fools gladly. She liked a good meal and a good laugh — yet was a mystic too. (In some strange way, her mysticism seems more authentic to me because of these very human qualities, this mixture of worldliness and unworldliness.) Her first visions of divine mystical union emerged during a period of great illness. In one of these visions a seraph repeatedly plunged a long golden spear into her heart and entrails: The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it... It's hard not to give a sexual interpretation to this experience. In the 17th century, Bernini's sculpture, The Ecstasy of St Teresa, was inspired by her vision. I've actually seen this great Baroque masterpiece in reality — it stands in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome — and it's charged with an intense sensuality and eroticism.

I haven't the space, or the theological knowledge, to comment in detail on Dark Night of the Soul (which is John's commentary on his poem Songs of the Soul) and The Interior Castle. Suffice to say, I read the former in the Mirabai Starr translation, which is quite loose and modern, and reads well, though I'm not sure of its accuracy, and it's quite repetitious — though I suppose that's the point. Teresa's book I found more difficult to read, and I must say I skipped a lot of it. Both books are similar in that they describe the pathway to divine union with God in terms of a progressive, linear structure, in John's case via the rungs of a ladder, in Teresa's case through the rooms (or mansions) of a castle, which is her metaphor for the soul. A mystical vision is more or less impossible to describe in words — the very experience is, by definition, ineffable — so the climaxes of both books are inevitable letdowns.

As you can read below, our spiritual lives haven't changed much since John's time...

Oh, what a difficult life this can be! We live in such danger and it is so hard to find the truth! What is clear and true we experience as opaque and doubtful. We flee from what we need the most. We embrace whatever fills us with satisfaction and run after the worst thing for us, falling down with every step. What danger we live in! The light of our natural eyes is supposed to be our guide, but it is the first thing to mislead us on our journey to God. What we have to do is to keep our eyes shut and walk the path in darkness if we want to be sure where we are going and protect ourselves from the enemies of our house, which are the faculties of sense and reason.

ST JOHN OF THE CROSS Dark Night of the Soul   


George said...

An interesting post, Robert. Yes, I think it's undeniable that the human condition described by St. John remains the same. It's a tall order to ask a person to ignore the "faculties of sense and reason" and to trust trust the darkness. As St. John recognizes, however, sense and reason are usually the enemies of a questing heart. I'm reminded here of a couple of quotes, one by Pascal about the heart having reasons than reason cannot understand; the other by Saint-Exupery to the effect that only the heart sees rightly, that what is essential always remains invisible to the eye.

Ruth said...

I have both books and have repeatedly tried to get into them, without success. The background you've explained here increases my interest.

I appreciate John's reminder to go inside, to balance reason, though I don't know that I would go so far as to call sense and reason "the enemies of our house." It all depends on context, I think. We need both mind and heart.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, I also found the books challenging. By 'our house' John means the whole 'house' of the soul, which includes both the sensual and the spiritual, both of which have to be purified.

In the sense and context here, I think he's saying that we can only quell sensory and spiritual (which can be equally arid and egocentric) desires by entering a dark night of total insecurity, incomprehension, denial of intellectual thinking, yes, and seeming irrationality. Trust in the darkness will see us through. It's a bit like we have to go all around the world, with all its trials and hardships and difficulties and darknesses, in order to arrive back at the same place, our place of origin, and appreciate the light of that place for the first time. (Sort of! That's probably a completely off-the-beam pseudo-theological interpretation. We need priest Andy from Pilgrimpace here!)

Ruth said...

I trust your interpretation and find it helpful.

Amanda said...

I've read John of the Cross some years ago. His words are no less relevant today than they were at his time. I've also had the pleasure of visiting Avila and found myself contemplating the life of Teresa in this mystical place. The sexual nature of her words have long been questioned, but I was fascinated to learn in your post more about her life and her personality. That she was someone with great appetites gives a much fuller picture of who she was and perhaps deeper insight into her outlook on life.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your insightful comment, Amanda. I haven't been to Avila, but would love to visit. My wife, Carmen, has been there. As you recognise, sensual and spiritual appetites can work alongside each other. (Catholicism and Buddhism are open to this, I find — but not the Primitive Methodist culture in which I grew up!)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Robert. Will respond properly as soon as I have space in the next day or two


am said...

The only translations of the writings of Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross that I've been able to read are those by Mirabai Starr, and I always find this translation of a poem by St. John of the Cross in to be quite moving in song:


Back in March of 1999, I just happened to hear a radio program devoted to Teresa of Avila on CBC while driving in my car. Today I looked around on the internet to see if I could find it but only found this with broken links:

Teresa of Avila from the CBC, broadcast on Tapestry, March 7, 1999. A portrait of the 16th century nun and mystic.

I ordered that CBC program on tape back in 1999. Might be a good time for me to listen to it again. It was quite good.

The statue on the cover for "Tempest" had a resemblance to that famous statue of Teresa of Avila, and "Roll on John" made me think of John of the Cross as well as John Lennon and St. John of Patmos.

I've been meaning to say that I like the photo of you ascending stairs toward the light.

The Solitary Walker said...

No rush, Andy! Looking forward to reading a few words from you in due course. Thanks.

Thanks, as always, Am, for your lively and connective interest in my posts. This kind of rapport between people with similar intellectual / creative / religious touchstones across the world is one of the best things about blogging. I'm glad you like the photo. Carmen, who took it, was quite pleased with it. It worked out just right, I think — and it was a one-off, taken on the spur of the moment!

Anonymous said...

For me, I think the best translations of John and Teresa are those by Kavanagh and Rodriguez. If you like more archaic language, the ones by Allison Pears. They are scholarly and correct.

There are some very good introductions to their thought and teaching around (particularly helpful in explaining the theological systems they were working within). Iain Matthew 'The Impact of God' on John and Peter Tyler's 'John of the Cross' and 'The Way of Ecstasy' on Teresa - these also touch on the links with modern psychotherapy. I'd also recommend Teresa's autobiographical works. There's a wonderful translation of John's poetry by Marjorie Flower (all these books are available from The Carmelite Book Service if you can't find them elsewhere.

I find the Carmelite Mystics (Therese of Liseuex too), along with Francis and Clare speak to me about the reality of prayer and life like no one else. They are utterly and uncompromisingly real, with that continual challenge of 'What is the most important thing in your life?'. I've got a little bit of study leave at the beginning of next year where I want to continue the job of teasing out why this is so important for me as a parish priest in deprived parts of Birmingham.

Good to have some conversation partners!

Buen Camino


The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks so much for this knowledgeable and useful comment, Andy. I'm sure many of us are going to benefit from them. Nice to be in conversation with you, as always.

Grace Bezanson said...

2 books I plan to read someday . . .

I'm going to look up the versions Andy mentioned right now:)