in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Teresa of Avila - Doctor of the Soul

Dear All,

The fruit of another couple of years work is about to emerge... 'Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Soul' will be published by Bloomsbury in the next couple of weeks. I attach the introduction below to give you a flavour. As I was in the last stages I discovered Prof Julia Kristeva's new book on Teresa from which I found much that resonated with my arguments. I am delighted to say that Prof Kristeva will join us at St Marys for our International Teresa conference in June 2015... more anon...



Introduction: Woman Beyond Frontiers...

‘All those books I read in order to understand Teresa of Jesus...’ Baltasar Álvarez (Teresa’s Confessor) to Francisco de Ribera

‘I salute you, Teresa, woman without frontiers, physical, erotic, hysterical, epileptic, who makes the word, who makes flesh, who undoes herself while being beside herself, waves of images without pictures, tumults of words, cascades of explosions... night and light, too much body and without body... quickly searching for the Beloved who is always present without ever being there... Teresa, Yes, my sister, invisible, ecstatic, eccentric, Yes, Teresa, my love, Yes!’ Julia Kristeva, Thérèse mon amour

‘Why write, if this too easy action of pushing a pen across paper is not given a certain bull-fighting risk and we do not approach dangerous, agile and two-horned topics.’ José Ortega y Gasset, On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme.

Five hundred years after her birth in Avila, Spain in 1515, Teresa of Avila continues to court controversy. The life and writings of this remarkable woman erupt into the world’s consciousness in the middle of the troubled 16th century and they have never left us. One of her latest interpreters, the French post-structuralist, feminist and psychoanalytic writer, Julia Kristeva, describes her in her latest ‘love letter’ to Teresa, Thérèse mon amour (Kristeva 2008), in the words quoted above, as an ‘ecstastic, eccentric, hysteric’, a ‘woman without frontiers or boundaries’. How true this is! Stylistically in her works, as in her life, Teresa forever defies categorisation. Scholars of literature, psychoanalysis, mysticism and feminism all try to claim her as their own, yet, as we shall see, she always manages to deftly evade being too easily classified. Some of this arises from the peculiar circumstances within which she grew and developed, circumstances that we shall return to throughout this book. However, a great part of this ‘uncategorisation’, as I will argue in this book, arises from her unique manner of writing. A manner of writing, I will suggest, that owes much to the medieval tradition of ‘mystical theology’ to which she was heir and which would be transformed and re-vivified by her work. Accordingly, this book, the third and final part of a ‘mystical trilogy’ begun in 2009 with my John of the Cross (Continuum 2010) and followed by The Return to the Mystical – Teresa of Avila, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Western Mystical Tradition (Continuum 2011) will have the following aims: First and foremost I want to explore the enigma that is Teresa by concentrating on the style and manner of her mystical writing and how it relates to the great medieval tradition of theologia mystica. In doing this I have aimed to revivify the ancient Christian tradition of mystical writing by exploring the process involved in the writing itself. In The Return to the Mystical I argued that this was a conscious and deliberate method of writing that had flourished in the Medieval period and would be used by Teresa of Avila when she embarked upon her own writing career, as a middle-aged woman in difficult circumstances. I shall expand and deepen the lessons learnt in the earlier book in the present volume as I continue this exploration through ‘listening to the voice’ of Teresa, primarily through her own writings. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of her birth in 2015 I am aware that there will be many coming afresh to Teresa’s writing and context. Consequently, I have tried as far as possible to contextualise her writings in the special and unique circumstances within which they were conceived. In these books I have also wanted to show how the two great Spanish mystics, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, inherited this tradition and used it to their own ends. In the Return to the Mystical I argued that Teresa’s training in mystical theology came from her reading of the early 16th century master of the art, Francisco de Osuna; modified and developed by her contact with other such luminaries as Bernardino de Laredo. In this final book I will continue this process by concentrating on Teresa’s own mystical style and drawing out some implications for our contemporary reading of her work. This shall be enhanced by a study of her reception in the English-speaking world in the five centuries since her death, paying particular attention to her own unique ‘language of the soul’ and how her English interpreters have coped with the demands of her style. However, in addition to the need to elaborate the nature and ambit of the mystical style, I have had another aim before me throughout this writing. According to many commentators, the 20th century saw the death crisis of modernism when the great project of the modern world begun, arguably, in the 16th crucible of the Renaissance and Reformation, hit the buffers of the crises provoked by two World Wars, the rise of Communism and Fascism and the collapse of the ‘great narratives’ that had dominated world thought for so long. The ushering in of the ‘postmodern world’ has led thinkers to regard our period as a new era of ‘re-birth’ when new forms and expressions of the human spirit will thrive. One form this new culture has taken is in the 21st century ‘turn to the spiritual’, or, as it has been called, ‘the return to the religious’ (See Tyler and Woods 2012). For me, this return to the religious is the point where our pre-modern guides, especially Teresa and John, enter into conversation with our ‘postmodern’ world. It is no coincidence, I believe, that writers such as Kristeva can find such depth and resonance in Teresa’s work. Her studied ambiguity and transgressive texts are once again finding a new audience amongst those who are seeking to make sense of the self and its expression in a world where the ‘boundaries of religion’ are once again, as they were in the 16th century, being stretched and morphed into new and unforeseen patterns. In The Return to the Mystical I gave Teresa a striking contemporary conversation partner, the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. For her anniversary year I thought it would be appropriate to end my trilogy by allowing Teresa to take centre stage, to give her her own voice as it were. However I shall broaden the conversations of The Return to the Mystical in this volume by bringing in two other dimensions of contemporary thought not explored in the earlier one. The first of these will be provided by the psychological discourse of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. The second will come from the contemporary dialogue of Christianity and Buddhism, with particular reference to the discourse of ‘mindfulness’ as practised in pastoral and healthcare settings. In bringing Teresa into dialogue with these two discourses towards the end of this book I aim to show her continued relevance to our post-modern, and possibly ‘post-Christian’, world and the contribution her works can continue to make to our religious debates today. My concerns at this point in the book will centre on the rediscover of ‘soul language’ in contemporary psychology as I delineate how Teresa’s own ‘language of the soul’ may once again find expression in contemporary examinations of the nature of the human person. As I returned to early translations of her work in the writing of this book, some of which by translators who would have known friends and colleagues of Teresa, and attempted to decipher her notoriously elusive style, I felt like an art restorer gently dabbing away five hundred years of accumulated grime to allow the original fresh colours of her prose to shine through. When the original colours of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel were revealed a few years ago many art critics denounced the exercise as a travesty. Now, as we have got used to the bright colours revealed by the restorers, it is difficult to return to the faded monochromes of the untreated frescoes. So I believe it is the case with Teresa’s texts. Over-familiarity has bred, if not contempt, at least a certain indifference to the ‘shock and awe’ of the original texts. Time and again whilst working on this volume I have puzzled over difficult passages thinking, ‘Did she really say that?’ However, consultation with other scholars and translators has led me to the conclusion that her prose is as challenging as I originally thought. A conclusion, incidentally, shared by most of her translators. Edgar Allison Peers, for example, one of her greatest exponents in the 20th century, once wrote that ‘in everything she wrote, St Teresa’s “rough style” (grosería, so she herself terms it) is unconventional, disjointed, elliptical, frequently ungrammatical and too often obscure. The general sense of any of her phrases can usually be made out, but about its exact meaning there can often be no kind of certainty, and the guess of any one person conversant with the language, and the Carmelite history, of the sixteenth century will be as good as the guess of any other’ (Allison Peers The Letters of St Teresa of Jesus: 1). This particular Teresian style has lent a certain challenge, and charm, to the work and I shall miss that distinctive voice when this volume leaves my hands. If, having read this book, you feel inspired to return to her texts with new interest and vigour then I will have fulfilled my task. I have divided the book into three sections. The first will explore the context of Teresa’s life and times. As I wrote this I was aware that much of this territory has been covered by other biographers and excellent commentators. However, for a book such as this the general reader will need to have some context within which to place Teresa’s work and, in addition, I felt that recent scholarship has thrown light on certain aspects of Teresa’s life and times and that those outside specialist academic circles may enjoy getting acquainted with them. In particular, I have dealt in this section with recent thought on such matters as the origins of Teresa’s family, the context of 16th century Spanish society and her chosen Religious Order – the Carmelites. Having covered this ground, in the second part of the book, I shall concentrate on Teresa’s writings, looking in particular at her four great texts: The Book of the Life, The Way of Perfection, The Book of the Foundations and The Interior Castle. I shall survey these texts in the light of the linguistic dynamic presented by Teresa and how this can be interpreted from a contemporary psycho-spiritual perspective. Here I shall be particularly concerned with expounding what I call her ‘language of spirit’: her unique linguistic approach to this most elusive of discourses. This perspective will be extended in the third part of the book where I shall concentrate on two specific aspects of interpretation of Teresa – from the perspective of the psychological framework illustrated in the work of Carl Jung and within the dialogue presented by the contemporary discourse on mindfulness which itself draws on perspectives from Buddhist thought. In embarking on this conversation my clear aim has been to illustrate the continuing relevance and importance of Teresa and her writings at the time of her 500th anniversary. Throughout the volume I have tried to give ample justification for my choices of translation, and where I feel my translation may be questionable I have added the translations of other scholars and the original Spanish passage itself so that readers can make up their own minds. In my desire to go back to Teresa’s original voice I have worked with the closest edition to Teresa’s original, that edited by Efrén de la Madre de Dios and Otger Steggink in the Obras Completas de Santa Teresa de Jésus in the series Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos (BAC, Madrid 1997). As the first full English translations of her work by Kavanaugh and Rodriguez and Allison Peers rely heavily on the older critical edition by P. Silverio de Santa Teresa, I have also turned to this edition for certain passages as published in Santa Teresa Obras Completas edited by Tomás Alvarez in the editon of Monte Carmelo (BMC, Burgos, 1998). Unless stated all translations of Teresa’s works are my own. Some of this work has necessitated returning to facsimiles of the original autographs of Teresa’s works and here I have turned to the facsimile editions produced by Tomás Alvarez for BMC and the venerable first photostatic edition of the original manuscript of The Interior Castle produced by Archbishop Cardinal Lluch in 1882. Even though at times I may be critical of some editorial decisions made by commentators and translators alike I became throughout the writing of this work increasingly aware of my dependence upon them. Anything achieved in this work is due entirely to five hundred years of painstaking and loving Teresian scholarship conducted by generations of wise interpreters. Only by standing on the shoulders of such giants can we hope to peer into the future. My hope for this book would be that it will pass on that tradition to a new generation of scholars and readers.

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