Since late September, my son has been single-mindedly preoccupied with one idea: the arrival of Halloween, which to him has seemed imminent. Indeed, in a few weeks, the feast of All Saints and its Eve will be here; and so I do share in my son’s excitement, though it is for a different reason. I consider the entire fall in the church as the season of the Saints, and I love the multitude of observances along the way, from the birth of Mary in early September; to the namesakes for my family members (i.e., Sophia and her daughter Hope, also Luke and Sergius); to those we celebrated in this parish (Michael the archangel, and Francis the lover of animals); to the ones that have been formative in my personal spirituality: St Ignatius of Loyola born in October, and Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, whose feast day was yesterday. So, in honor of the latter three, this morning we are going on a trip to medieval Spain!
San Ignacio de Loyola: the founder of the Jesuits, born in 1491 in the Basque village of Loyola (close to the Atlantic ocean and the border with France). Santa Teresa de Avila and San Juan de la Cruz came from the central area around Madrid, born in Avila and Foniveros; but both of them traveled throughout Spain, particularly in the southern coastal Andalusia, to open new monasteries. They contributed as poets to what is known as The Spanish Golden Age – a period of high artistic activity and achievement (1580-1680) that gave us the paintings of El Greco and Velázquez, as well as Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”. San Ignacio died a bit before that era in 1556; by then, San Juan was 14, and Santa Teresa was 41. San Juan, being the youngest, was influenced by the two older mystics, as he studied in a Jesuit school, but was personally mentored by Santa Teresa.
There is a lot to be said about each of them. They each left written guides for their followers, such as, for example, Ignatian “Spiritual Exercises”, St Teresa’s “Interior Castle”, and St John’s poems and accompanying commentary (e.g., the Dark Night [of the Soul]). These and many other writings have been treasured even by those outside of Catholicism. They were also great ecclesiastical leaders and reformers, who suffered for their initiatives. John was abducted and imprisoned, while Teresa was chronically ill. As they encountered physical struggles, they also earnestly wrestled spiritually. Like Thomas in today’s Gospel, and like many of us, they sought the answer to the same question: “Lord, we have no idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?” This they answered from the perspective of a mystic; for that is what they always have been, and without which they would never become the leaders and writers who shaped the future of catholic monasticism.
As mystics, they sought the fulfillment of their love for God and his love for them, first and foremost, as the fruit of “prayer without ceasing” (cf 1 Thes 5:16-18). This might be a foreign concept to those who see prayer as a list of requests we make to God for ourselves and on behalf of others. Their entire lives were continuous prayer. They were also unashamed to understand and express our place in a relationship with God quite literally through the lens of human love – the analogy that they took quite far, as did the writer of the Song of Songs (our other reading for today), which was, in fact, the source for many of their poems. In this, Teresa and John took to the extreme an earlier principle of Ignatius: that the goal of our life is to discover our “deepest desire” - the phrase he used repeatedly. Desire is, of course, a loaded word, and in the general culture it is often charged with sensuality. A statement to this is easily seen in the famous sculpture of St Teresa by Bernini, which is called “The ecstasy of St Teresa,” made a century after her life to illustrate her vision of being pierced with the spear of God’s love, which many have interpreted in Freudian terms. But the concept of desire should and does encompass much more than that, as there was more to these mystics' love for God.
Today, what is it that you truly desire? As I said earlier, for my son, it’s Halloween candy. He literally daydreams about amassing and counting it; it’s what Ignatius would call an “inordinate attachment” – to which none of us is immune! While we might see in his obsession simply a base result of my poor parenting, we do not need to look far and wide to notice our own issues. Yet, you might remember that last week, I also told you that Ignatius called his followers to find “God in all things,” including life’s simple pleasures. There is no contradiction – only a call to discernment. To Ignatius, the goal of spiritual maturation is to distinguish daily preoccupations from the deepest desires that lead us to become who God wants us to be (e.g. consolation, repentance, hope, conversion, redemption, belonging, etc.). These are really the same as God’s desires for us. In a way, almost any source of joy may represent either an authentic desire or temptation; the difference is whether it brings us closer to God. The very sense of spiritual progress in itself is tremendously tempting, even as it is, of course, what God designed us for. That’s why the Orthodox theologians frown upon the works of the Western mystics, but Teresa and John’s writings reveal that they harbored no illusions about their life with God.
What becomes most evident, especially in their poetry, is that the struggle is real. The struggle to reach that place in which one might truly say “I my beloved’s, and my beloved’s mine,” in the words of the Song of Songs – only to realize that it has always been simply a gift. San Juan’s most famous poems describe the stages of the soul’s flight or escape towards her lover, which is as often filled with delight, as it is with dryness, disappointment, and the perception of God’s absence. John considers these feelings a sign of shedding attachments, including that to the rewards of mysticism. And in Santa Teresa’s poem “Sobre aquellas palabras ‘dilectus meus mihi’” (“Upon those words, “my beloved is mine””), God is not only a lover but also a hunter, whose spear extinguishes the old life of misguided attachments, and at the same time, revives her to new life in him - but it is God who does the chasing and strikes the blow to her heart, first.
In other words, what the lives and writings of the greatest mystics teach us is that the union with God never comes from human work, but it always takes human effort. Our prayer may or may not occasionally produce the gifts of incredible visions, awareness of God’s presence, consolation, and intimacy with God. Our struggles will also always be there, physically and spiritually. Our prayer life should ideally motivate us to great things - if not to writing poetry and leading monastic reforms, then to faith, hope, and love. But most importantly, prayer is much less about getting our requests fulfilled, than it is about loving and feeling loved:
Quedéme y olvidéme, I stayed still and forgot myself,
el rostro recliné sobre el amado, my face I laid on my beloved,
cesó todo, y dejéme, everything stopped, and I abandoned myself,
dejando mi cuidado leaving all my cares
entre las azucenas olvidado. forgotten among the lilies.
-- San Juan de la Cruz, La Noche Oscura [de Alma], 1577-79.
I have written previously on St Teresa here, and on the Song of Songs here. And this is also an interesting blog post on Bernini's sculpure and exaggerating the sensuality of St Teresa’s ecstatic experiences.