Thursday, June 16, 2005

my interior castle

For part of my History of Doctrine comprehensive exam in the fall, I am reading women mystics: Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, and Julian of Norwich. I have never read them before, which is part of why I'm reading them now. The doctrine I am following in this part of the exam (and also in Augustine, in another section of the exam) is Christian anthropology, or as my professor prefers as more accurate, Christian psychology (using psychology in a radical way, referring to the psyche as the soul/mind, rather than the current professional use of the word).

And that's all very interesting. I am very interested in Christian anthropology/psychology, it is academically relevant to the direction I'm headed in with regard to the dissertation, etc., etc. But I have an ulterior motive here, too. I want to know what it's like to be a woman mystic. I want to know what "union with God" really means, not in an academic sense such as "when Teresa of Avila refers to the prayer of union she means x, y, z," & footnoted. I mean, I want to know what union with God is. I think I want a mystical experience.

Unfortunately for me, Teresa says quite clearly that union with God isn't granted for the sheer wanting of it. It's a fleeting and unpredictable favor which God grants to whom God chooses, inexplicably.

So I've been reading along in The Interior Castle, where Teresa compares the soul to a castle of clear crystal, within which are myriad "dwelling places," and within which, in the center, dwells God. Each dwelling place, in her metaphor, represents a certain level of spirituality. Union with God is a process, a journey through each of these dwelling places (although, as she points out, there's nothing ironclad about this process; God can give you a shortcut if God wants to). Not everyone makes this journey. And, it seems pretty clear to me, that Teresa thinks not everyone can, or should feel compelled to; she's not writing a pop-Christian manual for the laity, but to her Carmelite sisters.

There are seven dwelling places that Teresa talks about. I am about to begin reading about the sixth (which has eleven chapters to it--clearly this is something big!). I was going to finish the work before writing anything about it here, but I found something so wonderful in the third chapter of the fifth dwelling place that I had to stop and write about it.

As you might imagine, there's been a lot of stuff about spiritual consolations and spiritual delights of union...stuff that, while I can try to understand what she's getting at, I just don't have a personal experiential grasp of. But after all of this, she says:

"...it will be good to avoid giving the impression that those to whom the Lord doesn't give things that are so supernatural are left without hope. True union can very well be reached, with God's help, if we make the effort to obtain it by keeping our wills fixed only on that which is God's will."

I got very happy at this...and then very disappointed. I have in the past ranted (although not on this blog but I'm sure it will happen sooner or later) about the vagueness and uselessness of the trite phrase "God's will." (I especially hate when people affirm that vacuous sentiment "everything that's happened in my life has brought me to this point" and think that that's some kind of description of God's will. Uh, HELLO! Is it not obvious that everyone's life can be viewed as one long chain of cause/effect from any point? Shall we all pause before we get up off the toilet to reflect, "everything that's happened in my life has brought me to this point! Praise God!" Hmmm...guess that counts as a mini-rant and it seems to have happened sooner rather than later. But hey, "everything that has happened in my life has brought me to this point"...Praise God!)

So, I read on, a little disappointed in the Holy Mother, but thinking, well, obviously she has some idea of what that means even if I don't. But luckily for me, she goes on:

"There is no reason to doubt the possibility...of true union with the will of God. This union with God's will is the union I have desired all my life; it is the union I ask the Lord for always and the one that is clearest and safest. ...The Lord doesn't have to grant us great delights for this union; sufficient is what He has given us in His Son, who would teach us the road. ...Here in our religious life the Lord asks of us only two things: love of His Majesty [note: she often uses this phrase to refer to God] and love of our neighbor. These are what we must work for. By keeping them with perfection, we do His will and so will be united with Him. ...The most certain sign, in my opinion, as to whether or not we are observing these two laws is whether we observe well the love of neighbor. We cannot know whether or not we love God, although there are strong indications for recognizing that we do love Him; but we can know whether we love our neighbor. ...I have said a lot on this subject elsewhere, because I see, Sisters, that if we fail in love of neighbor we are lost. May it please the Lord that this will never be so; for if you do not fail, I tell you that you shall receive from His Majesty the union that was mentioned. When you see yourselves lacking in this love, even though you have devotion and gratifying experiences that make you think you have reached this stage, and you experience some little suspension in the prayer of quiet (for to some it then appears that everything has been accomplished), believe me, you have not reached union. And beg our Lord to give you this perfect love of neighbor."

It is astonishing to me that in what is basically a manual for prayer with the objective of achieving mystical union with God, in the middle of it, love of neighbor becomes the means of union with God. And how perfect is the last bit? Teresa of Avila scolding those who take their visions and emotional gratifications as proof of union without worrying about their neighbor. Can we hear this too much? I don't think so.

So maybe I'll stop worrying God for some kind of mystical experience. Maybe I'll take Teresa's advice and beg our Lord to give me this perfect love of neighbor instead. And we'll see what happens, sisters.

4 comments:

scott said...

Stumbled across your blog here. Obviously I am not a woman mystic (although I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night) this is becoming the great internal debate for me right now. Inward spirituality vs. its' outward manifestation.
Be glad when I get a handle on it.

JTB said...

Hi Scott! You can be one of the inner circle here. (I posted your link to the other blog, the one I do with Rick and Anna.) Glad you stopped by. Can't believe you read this all the way to the end.

MOM said...

What an interesting collection of thoughts...from Teresa, Hildegard, Catherine, Julian, and yes...Jen. I also long for union with God--for perfect harmony with His will. I am both encouraged and discouraged with Teresa's assessment for attainment of this goal. On the one hand, it is definitely doable, with God's help of course. On the other hand, take a person like me who, sometimes in a Lucy-like manner feels the sentiment "I love mankind, it's people I can't stand!" I know that I need help in this area. I know that my personal inclinations to experience this wonderment with God all by myself is not fully understanding what it means to be his instrument here on this earth. It's just that people get under my skin, up my nose, however one wants to express it. I would like to feel all holy by myself. I would like to experience union with just me and God. I would like to not have to bother with folks who tick me off. But...somewhere deep within I know that God wants me to get past this devious inclination of mine. I know that like Teresa I must pray and ask Him to grant me this love of neighbor. No...let me back up...I must ask Him to help me want to ask for this love of neighbor. And when I truly do desire this love that so eludes me, God will graciously let me experience it and in so doing, I will be ever closer to that "mystical experience" which probably won't seem all that mystical after all.

JTB said...

Yeah...that was the thing, the way the mystical and the prosaic seemed to come together: so that visions seemed attainable and ordinary "love thy neighbor" became a mystery. And over all of it, this idea that whether it's rapturous visions or peeling potatoes, God gives it.