Teresa of Avila, 1582

Today is the commemoration of St. Teresa of Avila, who died on October 4, 1582. I share one of her poems:

In the Hands of God

I am Yours and born for you,
What do You want of me?

Majestic Sovereign,
Unending wisdom,
Kindness pleasing to my soul;
God sublime, one Being Good,
Behold this one so vile.
Singing of her love to you:
What do You want of me?

Yours, you made me,
Yours, you saved me,
Yours, you endured me,
Yours, you called me,
Yours, you awaited me,
Yours, I did not stray.
What do You want of me?

Good Lord, what do you want of me,
What is this wretch to do?
What work is this,
This sinful slave, to do?
Look at me, Sweet Love,
Sweet Love, look at me,
What do You want of me?

In your hand
I place my heart,
Body, life and soul,
Deep feelings and affections mine,
Spouse—Redeemer sweet,
Myself offered now to you,
What do You want of me?

Give me death, give me life,
Health or sickness,
Honor or shame,
War or swelling peace,
Weakness or full strength,
Yes, to these I say,
What do You want of me?

Give me wealth or want,
Delight or distress,
Happiness or gloominess,
Heaven or hell,
Sweet life, sun unveiled,
To you I give all.
What do You want of me?

Give me, if You will, prayer;
Or let me know dryness,
An abundance of devotion,
Or if not, then barrenness.
In you alone, Sovereign Majesty,
I find my peace.
What do You want of me?

Give me then wisdom.
Or for love, ignorance,
Years of abndance,
Or hunger and famine.
Darkness or sunlight,
Move me here or there:
What do You want of me?

If You want me to rest,
I desire it for love;
If to labor,
I will die working:
Sweet Love say
Where, how and when.
What do You want of me?

Calvary or Tabor give me,
Desert or fruitful land;
As Job in suffering
Or John at Your breast;
Barren or fruited vine,
Whatever be Your will;
What do You want of me?

Be I Joseph chained
Or as Egypt’s governor,
David pained
Or exalted high,
Jonas drowned,
Or Jonas freed:
What do You want of me?

Silent or speaking,
Fruitbearing or barren,
My wounds shown by the Law,
Rejoicing in the tender Gospel;
Sorrowing or exulting,
You alone live in me;
What do You want of me?

Yours I am, for you I was born:
What do You want of me?

(translated by Adrian J. Cooney, OCD, from The Collected Works of Teresa of Avila, Volume Three, 1985)

An Atheist has a mystical experience: On reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God

Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book has been on my reading list since I first heard about it and it’s well worth the read, if somewhat dissatisfying in the end. Ehrenreich is the author of among other things, Nickled and Dimed in America, a feminist, activist, and avowed atheist (unto the fourth generation). It turns out she had what she identifies as a mystical experience as an adolescent. Now, much later in life, she re-engages with her younger self by rereading the journal she kept during her childhood and youth. She attempts to make sense of what happened to her. Here’s how she writes about it:

At some point in my predawn walk–not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time–the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a glorious tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.

Looking back from the distance of decades, Ehrenreich can make sense of what happened scientifically. She notes that she must have had “dissociative disorder” and that the episodes (this wasn’t the only one) often occurred in connection with the bright light of the sun. So, when she left LA for college in Oregon at Reed, these episodes became much less frequent because of the climate in the Pacific Northwest.

Ehrenreich, for all of her atheism and scientific background, is unwilling to explain her experiences solely in terms of physiological processes. Instead, she claims some sort of external referent which she calls “the other” (drawing on Rudolf Otto, of course, but also Philip K. Dick). So, years later, in the Florida Keys, she comes to understand it:

as the Presence, what scientists call an “emergent quality,” something greater than the sum of all the parts–the birds and cloudscapes and glittering Milky Way–that begins to feel like a single living, breathing Other. There was nothing mystical about this Presence, or so I told myself. It was just a matter of being alert enough to put things together, to catch the drift. And when it succeeded in gathering itself together out of all the bits and pieces–from the glasslike calm of the water at dawn to the earsplitting afternoon  thunder–there was a sense of great freedom and uplift, whether on my part or on its.

She notes that this presence, this Other, is not benevolent and rejects (or remains uncertain) whether the Other is single or multiple. In fact, in her interview with Jeff Sharlet, she accepts the term animism for what she experienced.

It’s a fascinating read for two reasons. First, because you get the sense that the clearheaded, incredibly intelligent, passionate woman who’s writing in her seventies is in many ways the person who experienced the world similarly fifty years earlier. At times, it’s somewhat difficult to believe that the acerbic comments about parents or teachers or classmates could have been shared by the teenager, but it’s still amazing to get the older woman’s take on her younger self.

The second fascinating thing is to see how this mystical experience works on the scientific atheist. It doesn’t bring her into conventional religion, by any means, but it does make her less certain about herself and her life. She has opened herself up to the possibility that there are realms of experience and reality that are not yet (and perhaps never will be) susceptible to scientific scrutiny or explanation and she seems at peace with that.

Jeff Sharlet’s conversation with her in May:

Julian of Norwich, May 8

Today we commemorate one of the great mystics and visionaries of the Christian tradition. Julian has become enormously popular in recent decades because her theology is well-suited to twentieth and twenty-first century sensibilities. Some quotations from her Revelations of Divine are widely disseminated, like these:

All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.


What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.

My Good Friday homily this year concluded with these words.

She is beloved for her deep devotion to Jesus Christ, the infusion of the love of God throughout her works, and for using maternal imagery for God.

For all her appeal to contemporary people, she remains elusive to modern scholarship and elusive to all attempts to appropriate her for contemporary spirituality. We know very little about her that doesn’t come from her own writings. While there’s evidence that she was popular in her lifetime (Margery Kempe describes a visit to her, and several wills mention her), we are certain of neither the date of her birth or her death. Her works survived only in several manuscript copies–suggesting that there was relatively little interest in her writing after her death. It was only in the twentieth century that scholars and then the wider public began to take an interest in her writings.

Contemporary readers of her Revelations may be inclined to overlook her vivid descriptions of the sufferings of Christ as well as her own stated desire to suffer. For example, here she describes the moment of death:

“After this Christ showed me part of his Passion, close to his death. I saw his sweet face as it were dry and bloodless with the pallor of dying, and then deadly pale, languishing, and then the pallor turning blue and then the blue turning brown, as death took more hold upon his flesh. For his Passion appeared to me most vividly in his blessed face, and especially in the lips. I saw there what had become of these four colors, which had appeared to me before as fresh and ruddy, vital and beautiful. This was a painful change to watch, this deep dying, and his nose shriveled and dried up as I saw; and the sweet body turned brown and black, completely changed and transformed from his naturally beautiful, fresh and vivid complexion into a shriveled image of death.

Her writings are rich in detail and in theological insight that bear close study and meditation. But ideas, images, or themes that may seem appealing in the twenty-first century should not be extracted from the context that inspired her–a deep devotion to the passion of Christ and a spirituality that began in the attempt to enter into the passion as fully as possible. Her visions of Christ’s suffering helped her to experience his pain, profound grief at his suffering and death, and as she reflected on those experiences, she began to understand the depth and power of Christ’s love.

(all texts from Julian of Norwich: Showings. Classics of Western Spirituality. 1978)


June 15 Evelyn Underhill

Evelyn Underhill was one of the leaders of the movement rekindling interest in mysticism in the English-speaking world, and especially among Anglicans. Her 1911 book, Mysticism, is a spiritual classic. Much more than an academic study of the topic, it invites the reader into the experience of it.

Though mysticism be indeed the living heart of all religion, this does not mean tht religion does, or can, consist of nothing but heart. The Church is a Body with head, hands, feet, flesh, and hard bones: none of them any use, it is true, if the heart does not function, but all needed for the full expression of the Christian spiritual life. This acceptance of our whole life of thought, feeling, and action, as material to be transformed and used in our life towards God, is what Baron von Huegel meant by ‘inclusive mysticism.’ It alone is truly Christian; because its philosophic basis is the doctrine of the Incarnation, with its continuance in the Church and Sacraments. Its opposite, exclusive mysticism, the attempt to ascend to the vision of God by turning away from His creatures by an unmitigated other-worldliness, is not Christian at all. It ends, says that same great theologian, in something which cannot be distinguished from mere Pantheism: or, on more popular levels, in sloppy claims to be in tune with the infinite. —quoted in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, eds. Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams, p. 571


St. Teresa of Avila

I mentioned her in my sermon. Andrew Sullivan posted the following poem today: “Teresa” by Richard Wilbur, who turned 90 this week.

After the sun’s eclipse
The brighter angel and the spear which drew
A bridal outcry from her open lips,
She could not prove it true,
Nor think at first of any means to test
By what she had been wedded or possessed.

Not all cries were the same;
There was an island in mythology
Called by the very vowels of her name
Where vagrants of the sea,
Changed by a word, were made to squeal and cry
As heavy captives in a witch’s sty.

The proof came soon and plain:
Visions were true which quickened her to run
God’s barefoot errands in the rocks of Spain
Beneath its beating sun,
And lock the O of ecstasy within
The tempered consonants of discipline.

via The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan.

Teresa, as I said today, thought deeply and extensively about prayer, and wrote with great insight. She was especially concerned to distinguish between “true” visions and those which seemed to come from Satan or were self-induced. Jessa Crispin, in an essay devoted to the question about the relevance of philosophers’ lives for their thought, uses Teresa as an example of someone who “did not always live out their philosophy.” In fact, Teresa’s life was full of times when she lived far from the ecstatic experiences for which she was famous, when her attempts to come close to God were thwarted, either by herself or by God, and faced constant criticism from churchmen who thought her experiences were faked.

At the same time, she was well aware that such experiences could be faked, or products of self-delusion. In her autobiography, she writes with considerable sophistication about how to distinguish the “real” from the faked and shows herself a perceptive psychologist.

Anglican Diversity

No this isn’t another post about our current troubles. Rather, today we are talking about diversity within the historical tradition of Anglicanism.

An interesting pairing of commemorations on June 15 and June 16. Yesterday was Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), the great English spiritual writer. Today is Joseph Butler (1692-1752), theologian and Bishop of Durham. They express two very different strands in Anglicanism. Butler was one of the most important theologians of his day. An apologist, he sought to explain Christian doctrines in ways that would make sense to contemporary thinkers, especially to skeptics. The eighteenth century was dominated by Deism, which sought to develop a religion consistent with reason and with natural law. Butler saw his task as explicating the ways in which Christianity met that standard.

Evelyn Underhill was a writer and a mystic. Apparently as a child or youth she had profound experiences that she sought to understand. Eventually through the help of Baron Friedrich von Huegel, she began learning about mysticism. In 1911, she wrote Mysticism, which is one of the most important English-language works on the topic. Full of scholarly erudition, it also expresses her reflections on her own spiritual experience. Indeed, she criticizes William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience because James denies any personal leanings toward such experience.

Underhill describes the various mystical stages that culminate in “unitive life.” As she describes it: “The Mystic Way has been a progress, a growth, in love: a deliberate fostering of the inward tendency of the soul towards its source, an eradication of its disorderly tendencies to “temporal goods.” But the only proper end of love is union.”

Quoting Walter Hilton, she explains: “it is a perfect uniting and coupling together of the lover and the loved into one.”

But it is not just about the fusion of I and God: “We find as a matter of fact, when we come to study the history of the mystics, that the permanent Unitive State, or spiritual marriage, does mean for those who attain to it, above all else such an acess of creative vitality. It means man’s small derivative life invaded and enhanced by the Absolute Life: the appearance in human history of personalities and careers which seem superhuman when judged by the surface mind.” (Mysticism, pp. 428-9)

Her work still bears reading, both by the individual seeking a deeper spiritual life and by the scholar attempting to understand mysticism.

Together Butler and Underhill point to two very different approaches in Anglicanism: one the intellectual, the rational, the other the experiential. Though Underhill is probably closer to contemporary Anglican sensibilities with her careful theological and historical analysis of the spiritual life.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that Underhill was powerfully attracted to Catholicism and considered conversion. It may be that her husband prevented her from going over to Rome.