Dr. Varghese Cheriyakadavil OCD June 25th, 2018

Introduction

A well known phrase of St. Augustine is that “late have I loved you, beauty so ancient, so new: late have I loved you. And see: you were within, inside me, and I was outside, and out there I sought you”[1]. It is a marvelous and reviving mystery that, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, are dwelling within us, closer to us. It is impossible to analyze how the omnipotent and infinite God can live within us, a creation of God Himself. Therefore the only thing we can do is just to believe that God, the Trinity, lives within us.  We can respond to this mystery only with faith and wonder. An inward journey in search of this mystery of God who resides within and the final encounter with Him in the transforming union is the essence of all mysticism.

Zaehner, in his study of Hindu and Muslim mysticism builds on Das Gupta’s fourfold typology and arrives at three types of Hindu Mysticism: (1) the pantheistic or pan-en-henic, the ‘I am this All’ of the Upanishads; (2) the realization of undifferentiated unity, however philosophically interpreted; and (3) the loving dialogue with God which results in transforming union[2]. While Christian mystical experience varies widely, all Christian mystics describe in some way or another a direct awareness of the presence of God and the mystical union with Him. This union often involves a lengthy preparation, a life path with an “awakening”, followed by a period of purgation and “illumination” and finally experience of union. Mystics perceived themselves as instruments of God, while they led contemplative life. Among the famous mystics it is St. Teresa of Avila who gives a systematic teaching on this progressive union with God. Her autobiographical writings and treatise on the mystical path offer cautious descriptions of the stages of this union.

A journey to meet the King

            The Interior Castle by St. Teresa is a classic in the Christian Mystical tradition. In this work she describes the journey of a “soul” from the outer environs of a castle to its centre where the King lives. She is describing her own prayer experiences which involved a series of transformations culminating in the spiritual union with Christ. The first three Mansions emphasize the efforts we have to make as we begin to enter a serious prayer relationship with God. Teresa calls this as meditation or active prayer. From the fourth dwelling place the experience becomes that of God Himself drawing the soul into an interior state of recollection. This infused or passive prayer is the beginning of contemplation. In the fifth Mansion she likens the soul to an ugly silkworm, which is enabled to build a cocoon where it is to die, but then it comes forth as a beautiful soaring butterfly. By the transforming power of God, it has been purified and set free into a new life with God. When the soul reaches to the final stage crossing the ecstasies of the sixth Mansion, the soul is at peace. It enters into the Spiritual Marriage, the life of union with God. Storms and temptation may rage around it, but peace abides within – the peace that passes all understanding. In Teresa’s own words: “The Lord appears in the centre of the soul… just as He appeared to the Apostles, without entering through the door, when He said to them “Pax vobis”[3]. The individual no longer yearns to die as during the periods of impulse; instead, one wants to live in order to serve God. To describe the permanent union she uses the metaphors of water and light[4]. It is the perfection of contemplation and love. As St. Paul says, “He that is joined unto God becomes one spirit with Him” (1Cor, 6, 17).

Experience based authentic teaching

Teresa teaches about the mystical experiences after reaching to the possible height of the union with God. Nothing she writes out of her own experience[5]. This growth had progressive stages, including stages in which she was ignorant of certain dimensions of God. At the age of 47, after her first foundation at Avila, she writes in her Book of Life, “In the beginning I was ignorant about a certain matter because I didn’t know that God was in all things, and though He seemed so present to me, I thought this omnipresence was impossible… A very learned man from the order of the glorious St. Dominic freed me from this doubt, for he told me that God was present and of how God communicates Himself to us”[6]. This discovering God in all things can be found in all other mystics like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Rose of Lima, St. Francis de Sales etc. St. Teresa remained at heart in closest contact with the simplest earthly things, in the midst of the events of her contemplative life. Nature provided several examples to her to explain the stages of spiritual growth. Every creature is in its own intimate way a manifestation, an ontological witness of God, a “Theophany”. Everything reflects, in some measure, the divine attributes, but participates in the divine Essence and receives its existence from the absolute Existent. Therefore it cannot but point to God not only as its supreme source, but especially as to its ultimate Goal[7].

Another realization in the life of St. Teresa was that God who is hidden in all things is also present in the soul, but in a very special way: “It seemed to me there came the thought of how a sponge absorbs and is saturated with water; so, I thought, was my soul, which was overflowing with that divinity and in a certain way rejoicing within itself and possessing the three Persons”[8]. This was a theological knowledge and experience of the immersion into God, whose loving presence in the soul, “seemed to surround so completely that there was no place to escape”[9]. God was successively revealing to her. “Once while in prayer I was shown quickly without my seeing any form –but it was a totally clear representation– how all things are seen in God and how He holds them all in Himself”[10].

            This revelation raised her to the closer intimacy with God: “When I represented Christ within me in order to place myself in his presence, or even while reading that a feeling of the presence of God would come upon me unexpectedly so that I could in no way doubt He was within me or totally immersed in Him”[11]. This experience was strengthened with the revelations of Christ and helped her to grow into the knowledge of the presence of Holy Trinity. It was a prelude to the Trinitarian experiences that would continue in her life. While explaining each petition of Our Father, quoting St. Augustine, she elaborates this idea:

 “You know that God is everywhere. It’s obvious, then, that where the king is there is his court; in sum, wherever God is, there is heaven…. Consider what St. Augustine says, that he sought Him in many places but found Him ultimately within himself. Do you think it matters little for a soul with a wandering mind to understand this truth and see that there is no need to go to heaven in order to speak with one’s Eternal Father or find delight in Him? Nor is there any need to shout.  However softly we speak, He is near enough to hear us. Neither is there any need for wings to go to find Him. All one need do is go into solitude and look at Him within oneself and not to turn away from so good a Guest but with great humility speak to Him as to a father”[12].

            The mysterious presence of God within the soul was revealed to Teresa each time with surprises: “Once while I was reciting with all the sisters the hours of the Divine Office, my soul suddenly became recollected; and it seemed to me to be like a brightly polished mirror, without any part on the back or sides or top or bottom that wasn’t totally clear. In its centre Christ, our Lord, was shown to me, in the way I usually see Him. It seemed to me I saw Him clearly in every part of my soul, as though in a mirror”[13]. In the Way Perfection she tells her sisters, “Let us imagine that within us is an extremely rich palace, built entirely of God and precious stones… in this palace dwells this mighty king who has been gracious enough to become your Father, and that He is seated upon an extremely valuable throne which is your heart”[14]. Later it was this revelation which gives her inspiration for her work ‘Interior Castle’[15]. The union with God she proposes as a process of interiorization.

Conclusion

Often we consider mysticism as an experience reserved for a chosen few like St. Teresa or any other contemplatives. But it is a fact that all can obtain it. It is the over familiarity that denies us from the awareness of it. G. K. Chesterton asks us to stare at the familiar until it becomes strange[16].  He is advising us to stop and look at anything familiar of our daily life including a sunset with its formation of clouds and colors, until it becomes different, strange like nothing we have ever seen before. Regarding the divine indwelling too we have to begin with this ‘stare’. If so far we don’t have such an experience, we need to begin ‘listening’. When we become conscious of anything, it becomes different for us. According to the growth of this awareness, spending longer time thinking of God, of the Trinity who dwells within, we will also have the mystical experience of God. In this process St. Teresa can be our best guide. Through all her works, especially through ‘The Interior Castle’, without deviating from the route she can lead us to the higher stages of union.

 

 

[1] St. Augustine, Confessions, New York: New City Press, 2008, p. 262.

[2] Steven T. Katz (ed), Mysticism and Sacred Scripture, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 186.

[3] 7M 2, 3.

[4] “It is like rain falling from heaven into a river or stream, becoming one and the same liquid, so that the river and rain water cannot be divided; or it resembles a streamlet flowing into the ocean, which cannot afterwards be disunited from it… also be likened to a room into which a bright light enters through two windows, though divided when it enters, the light becomes one and the same” 7M 2, 5.

[5] “I shall speak of nothing of which I have no experience, either in my own life or in observation of others, or which the Lord has not taught me in prayer” (WP Prologue, 3).

[6] L 18, 15.

[7] Harry Oldmeadow, A Christian Pilgrim in India, The Spiritual Journey of Swami Abhishiktananda, New York: World Wisdom, 2008, p. 101.

[8] St. Teresa of Jesus, Spiritual Testimonies (Sp. T.), June 30, 1571.

[9] L 24, 2. 

[10] L 40, 9.

[11] L 10, 1.

[12] WP 28, 2.

[13] L 40, 5.

[14] WP 28, 9.

[15] 1M 1, 1. The spiritual doctrine of Teresa is presented in the ‘Interior Castle’ through the unifying outline of seven dwelling places among which there is a division into two sections. The first three groups of dwelling places speak of what is achievable through human efforts and the ordinary help of grace. The remaining four groups deal with the passive or mystical, elements of the spiritual life.

[16] Cf. Father T. Ronald Haney, God within you, Indiana: Author House, 2005, p.11.