My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It is absurd to think that we can enter Heaven without first entering our own souls
Last week I spend five days walking on the Camino de Santiago. I know, probably that doesn’t sound terribly impressive to anyone who walked all the way from France, but I still had a great time. Every morning we set out before sunrise, when the lush landscape of Galicia was still shrouded in mist and twilight. We walked on and on, guided by the conch shell signs that point the way. We reached our destination just as the heat of the day began to take hold. My back sore, my feet blistered, I dropped my backpack in the hostel and stretched out in my bunkbed. Besides walking, sleeping, and eating, the only thing I did was to read this book: St. Teresa’s book on prayer.
It seemed like an appropriate choice. Both Santiago (St. James) and St. Teresa are patron saints of Spain; and yet they represent two very different periods in Spain’s history. The cult of Santiago dates from the time of the Moors, when Christians needed a figure to rally around during the Reconquista. St. Teresa, on the other hand, lived during the Counter-Reformation. As the Catholic world was coming apart, Catholic officials were understandably skittish at even a hint of heterodoxy. Thus St. Teresa’s mysticism was first viewed with suspicion, and she was even picked up by the Inquisition. But after some investigation, it was decided that St. Teresa posed no threat to orthodoxy; to the contrary, she helped to reinvigorate the faith.
This context is necessary to understand this book, or at least half of it. This is because, although ostensibly guide for prayer, it is also a handbook for avoiding the suspicions of unorthodoxy. It is full of advice for those having mystical experiences on which visions to discount, because they are products of Satan or the imagination, and which visions to accept. Teresa also explains when you should yield to one’s prioress or confessor, and when you should stand your ground. St. Teresa was obviously acutely aware of the paranoid climate, and thus this book is as full of pragmatic counsel as religious guidance. St. Teresa even explains in the beginning that the only reason she wrote the book was because she was commanded to.
As James Michener pointed out, the most striking thing about St. Teresa is this seamless mixture of pragmatism and mysticism. For somebody who reported feeling her soul leave her body, she comes across as remarkably down to earth. Several times, she quotes or references a Biblical passage and then adds parenthetically “Well, at least I think that’s what it says,” as if she couldn’t be bothered to go look it up. She also frequently comments on how inadequate she feels to the task at hand; and a few times she says that she’s unsure whether she is repeating herself, because she wrote the last bit a while ago and she doesn’t have time to reread it. The final effect is really charming, as if she just sat down and dashed off the whole thing between breakfast and lunch.
These interior matters are so obscure to the mind that anyone with as little learning as I will be sure to have to say many superfluous and even irrelevant things in order to say a single one that is to the point. The reader must have patience with me, as I have with myself when writing about things of which I know nothing; for really I sometimes take up my paper, like a perfect fool, with no idea of what to say or of how to begin.
Ironically, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the religious content was what least impressed me. The book is divided into seven mansions within the crystalline castle that represents the soul. Each progressive mansion is one step closer to God. Despite this organization, however, I found the chapters quiet repetitive; the divisions from one stage to another didn’t strike me as very clear. The general tendency is for the mystical experiences to keep growing in intensity, which culminates in the experience of a burning mixture of pleasure and pain that seems to come from nowhere. This is the inspiration for Bernini’s famous, and famously erotic, portrayal of the Saint.
What most bothered me was that the mystical and orthodox strains in Teresa’s thought did not go easily together. Perhaps this is only my taste. One thing I enjoy about mystic writings is their grand conception of the cosmos, the notion that everything apparently opposite and contradictory is one. Thus mystic writers, in my experience, tend not to be especially preoccupied with moral injunctions, since they regard good and evil as a kind of illusion.
But in Teresa, the emphasis on wickedness, on personal shortcomings, on temptation, and in general the whole moral framework of Catholicism made her system as much about avoiding sinfulness and unorthodoxy as achieving a mystical experience. For example, I’ve heard mystics say that each person is a part of God, but Teresa councils that we should contemplate God to realize our own foulness and lowliness. This is just a matter of taste, but I don’t find that appealing.
On the fifth day after we began, at about noon, I found myself standing in front of the two towers of Santiago Cathedral. Later that day, I finished the final pages of this book. I had taken a pilgrimage of the body and soul, and hopefully I’m better for it. In any case, I enjoyed myself and learned something.