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