in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Monday, 27 October 2014

Fr Joseph Veale SJ, Teresa of Avila and Authentic Spiritual Language

Dear All,

I have spent the last few days working on the Veale Professorial Lecture to be given at Milltown Institute, Dublin on 5th November at 7.30pm. I hope to see many of my Irish friends there! As I have researched the piece over the last few months I have been drawn to the attractive figure of Fr Veale (pictured here). Although I never met him, I find in his writings a compelling picture of the present spiritual malaise of our society and a fresh approach to its solution in a reinvigoration of our language of the spirit. The lecture on Teresa's 'language of the spirit' exemplifies his approach and I look forward to sharing it with the audience next week. In the meantime here is a taster, best wishes


Fr Veale himself wrote shortly before his death in 2002: ‘The institutional Church in Western Europe is by and large written off, even by the devout. Its language is no longer being heard. The Church institution (and religion in general) invites yawns or condescension, indifference or contempt. As soon as you open your mouth about God you have the handicap of being associated with a discredited Church.’ If this was true a decade ago when he wrote these words how much more so is it today. Yet, one of the attractive things about Fr Veale’s approach to spirituality was that he did not despair, but true son of Loyola as he was, he forensically examined the causes and origins of our present malaise and suggested a solution. For him, the cause was simply put: ‘The problem is that the language has gone stale. The only language that has any chance of getting through is first-hand language. The trouble with most attempts at religious communication is that they are couched in a language that is tired, in tired images, in a churchy idiom that is remote from life and has grown repulsive. (Do we not ourselves, honestly, find much religious talk repulsive? I do.) Many of our words about God are second-hand, third-hand, reach-me-down and ready-made.’  And it is in Fr Veale’s desire to re-engage with the ‘first hand’ level of encounter with the Living Lord that our lecture tonight is saturated. For, it will be my argument tonight that rather than stale, second-hand language, a great and perpetually fascinating writer such as Teresa of Avila can once again give us the tools to craft the language of the encounter with the divine in it fresh originality once again. Fr Veale suggested that this first hand language now needed to ‘ come from a level of experience that is sensed to be in touch with God. Never mind how fragile, how filled with doubt or dread, how inadequate. People only hear words that are freshly minted, that come from intimacy and contact.’ It will be my contention in this lecture that exactly such ‘fragile’ words, filled with ‘doubt or dread’ are exactly what we find in the works of Teresa of Avila, despite 500 years of attempts to mask them over with pieties and ‘second hand language’...

Yet as the stirrings of love arise in one’s heart, the intellect, or as she usually refers to it, the pensamiento, will also stir to suggest ways we should be wary of the spiritual path and resist its pull (V: 11.4): ‘so many dangers and difficulties are put before (the seeker) that no little courage, but much, is needed if they are not to turn back, and much favour from God.’ In her last work, The Interior Castle, she brilliantly describes such thoughts:

We shall always be glancing around and saying: ‘Are people looking at me or not?’ ‘If I take a certain path shall I come to any harm?’ ‘Dare I begin such and such a task?’ ‘Is it pride that is impelling me to do this?’ ‘Can anyone as wretched as I engage in so lofty an exercise as       prayer?’ ‘Will people think better of me if I refrain from following the        crowd?’  ‘For extremes are not good’ they say, ‘even in virtue; and I      am such a sinner that if I were to fail I should only have farther to fall;        perhaps I shall make no progress and in that case I shall only be doing   good people harm; anyway, a person like myself has no need to make        herself singular!’ (M: 1.2.10)[1]

This, as we shall see later, is the ‘monkey mind’[2] of the Buddhists – that which contemporary practices of mindfulness, for example, seek to bring into stability by means such as awareness exercises. From the very beginning of her writing career Teresa is aware of this internal conflict between stabilised awareness of ‘the heart’ and the need to work with distracting pensamiento. In this respect I am not persuaded, as some commentators are, that the Life is an inferior work or somehow a preparation for the Interior Castle . The Castle is a brilliant work, but in many ways the Life is even more innovative and radical. At this stage Teresa had not put into place so many ‘self-censoring’ mechanisms which she later discovered were necessary if her work was to survive in the tough spiritual climate of late 16th century Spain.

           Thus, she emphasises at this stage, that the most important thing is not so much to worry about the ‘work’ being done in prayer, but ‘the most important thing is to enjoy it’ / lo más es gozar (V: 11.5) whilst the Lord ‘grants the increase’. The path of the saints, she believes, is impossible for us to follow, with all its trials and difficulties. However if we have what John of the Cross called the ‘otra inflamación major ’ – the greater enkindling flame of God - then we will be able to proceed on the path. This is the love we should feel and enjoy on these first faltering steps. Exactly, I would like to argue here, the sort of love that Fr Veale suggests lies at the heart of all pastoral and psychological interactions .



[1] I have used Allison Peers’ translation here as he brings out perfectly Teresa’s sense of an ‘inner dialogue’ which proceeds in the mind of one starting out on a path of prayer or contemplation.
[2] Or as Teresa calls it poetically in V: 15. 6 ‘the grinding mill of the intellect’ - moledor/entendimiento. In the same passage she also refers to ‘restless bees’ that ‘gad about’(Matthew’s translation).


Monday, 13 October 2014

Inaugural Lecture: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rabindranath Tagore and the Mystical Turn

Dear All

Another busy week ahead with the initiation of the British Carmelite year of celebrations for the 500th anniversary of St Teresa's birth this Wednesday at Kensington. Next Monday is also my inaugural professorial lecture here at St Mary's. If you want to come and have not booked a place please contact myself or Hannah Bowyer at St Mary's. We are filling up fast so don't leave it too long!
For those who cannot attend the event will be filmed and put on In the meantime here is a small section to whet your appetites.

With all good wishes


Wittgenstein and Tagore: Two Sentinels on the Borderlands of Modernity

In a letter to Paul Engelmann written on the 23rd October 1921 Wittgenstein expressed his disapproval of one of the Bengali’s works – the short play The King of the Dark Chamber, he wrote:


It seems to me as if all that wisdom has come out of the ice box; I should not be surprised to learn that he got it all second-hand by reading and listening (exactly as so many among us acquire their knowledge of Christian wisdom) rather than from his own genuine feeling. Perhaps I don’t understand his tone; to me it does not ring like the tone of a man possessed by the truth


He goes on to suggest in the letter that Tagore may have suffered from a weak translation (something he would correct a decade later by attempting with Yorick Smythies his own translation of the play) or indeed that the fault may lie within Wittgenstein  himself. This letter alone  goes some way to furnishing an explanation of why Ludwig was to inflict the Bengali’s writings on the bemused members of the Vienna Circle a few years later – it was as though Wittgenstein himself was trying to come to terms with Tagore’s writings and make sense of how they should be incorporated (or not) into his own inter-war search for ‘the truth’ (which would include, inter alia, his study of Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Count Tolstoy, Oswald Spengler and James Frazer – reflections upon all of whom can be found in the inter-war writings).

     Accordingly, a few months later we find him writing to Ludwig Hänsel to say that he had revised his opinion as ‘there is indeed something grand here’ (See Monk p.408). Within this re-evaluation of Tagore can be seen Wittgenstein’s inter-war (and inter- Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations) search for the meaning of religious truths. So, Having given (as he thought) final shape to his views on logic and propositional structure in the earlier Tractatus it is almost as if he now sought to find similar clarity to these broader religious and aesthetic questions, no doubt spurred, I have suggested in an earlier book, by his encounter in the trenches with, first ‘the nearness of death’(appropriate for this centenary year of the WW1) and secondly the re-working of the Gospels by Leo Tolstoy[1]. From this, what we might broadly term his existential approach to religion, arises one of the observations that occurs in his notebooks at the time, where he writes:

A religious question is either a “life question” or (empty) chatter. This language game, we could say, only deals with “life questions”. (Wittgenstein BEE 183:202) [2]


With this comment in mind it becomes clear which criteria Wittgenstein was applying to Tagore’s play – was it indeed a ‘life question’ or mere ‘empty chatter’ (indeed, we could argue that this became his talisman towards all academic discourse later in life). Initially at first he seemed to think the latter before moving to the former. What was it about Tagore’s work that could have elicited this move? Regardless of the writings of both men of letters, the backgrounds and influences on the two men might immediately suggest a bond, if not, to coin Wittgenstein’s phrase, a ‘family resemblance’.

[1] McGuinness and Monk tell the strange story of how shortly after arriving in Galicia during his war service in 1914 he walked into a bookshop which only contained one book – Tolstoy’s Gospels. At this time he was feeling particularly low and in Monk’s words he was quite literally ‘saved by the word’ (Monk 1990:115
[2] Eine religiöse Frage ist nur entweder Lebensfrage oder sie ist (leeres) Geschwätz. Dieses Sprachspiel – könnte man sagt – wird nur mit Lebensfragen gespielt.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Happy Anniversary Teresa of Avila! Teresa of Avila - Doctor for our Troubled Times. Article in the 'The Tablet'

Dear All

I just heard that the Tablet will be publishing an article I submitted to announce the beginning of the Teresian year. It should be hitting the newsstands tomorrow but in the meantime here is an extract as a sneak preview...

Happy Anniversary Teresa!



Teresa of Avila: Doctor for our Troubled Times


A day of reflection based on the texts of Teresa of Avila organised by Oxford University earlier this year attracted an astonishing array of people of all ages, class and perspective – Christian and non-Christian, atheist and believer. As we opened up the fascinating treasures of her writing to this mixed group one woman confided to me: ‘Teresa’s time has come!’ I think she was right. There is something in Teresa’s language, style and approach that seems peculiarly right for our own times. October 15th marks the beginning of the ‘Teresian year’ in celebration of the Spanish saint’s birth in Avila in March 1515 which will be celebrated across the whole world and especially within the Carmelite family. This anniversary gives us a chance to look back at 500 years of her influence and assess the gifts this remarkable woman has given the church.

Teresa has always been held in special esteem by the British. Some of the first translations of her works were made into English and she very quickly found a place in the heart of British Catholics. After the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in the 19th Century, and the re-translation of her works, she once again found an appreciative audience beyond the Catholic community, most famously when George Eliot referenced her in the Preface to Middlemarch. Since then other writers (especially women), ranging from Vita Sackville-West to Julia Kristeva, have admired and written commentaries on her works. So what is it about this woman who has inspired Christians and non-Christians alike for half a millennium? Well, first there is the woman herself. From her own memorable accounts of her life and reform of the Carmelite order in ‘the Book of the Life’ and ‘the Book of the Foundations’ to the written testimonies of friends, foes and co-workers, the picture that emerges of Teresa is of a witty, engaging, infuriating and indomitable force of nature. Born and bred on the wild windswept Castilian mountains she grew up to take on kings and prelates alike in the pursuit of her one abiding aim – to provide space (her ‘little dovecotes’) within which her sisters could seek God in contemplation whilst the storms and upheavals of the Reformation swept over Europe. Indeed, she is one of those rare religious figures who seem to transcend the categories of their time and space and become semi-mythical, universal figures for all peoples and all times. A recent survey suggested that half the memorable sayings attributed to her (including the one beloved by the British: ‘I have no hands and feet now only yours’) are in fact apocryphal...
...As I said at the beginning, the British have always held Teresa close to their hearts and this quincentenary year will be marked by extensive celebrations of the life, work and influence of the remarkable Castilian. The party begins on 15th October with mass at the Carmelite Church, Kensington, attended by the Spanish Ambassador to the Court of St James and ends a year later on 17th October at the British cradle of Carmel – Aylesford in Kent. In between there will be pilgrimages, colloquia, retreats and academic conferences – details of which can be found on the Teresa 500 Website on Most importantly, though, I hope you will take this time to re-read the wise words of this great Mother of Carmel  – one of the greatest gifts of the Church to the world and an inspiration and hope to us all in a world once again in flames. Such an encounter with Teresa has changed the lives of innumerable souls over the past 500 years and I have no doubt that this year of birthday celebrations will see more people whose lives will be transformed by this ‘crazy, wild woman of Avila’. Happy Birthday Teresa!


Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Saturday October 11th, All Hallows College, Dublin: Teresa of Avila - Doctor of the Soul

Dear All

Just a quick notification... especially to readers in Ireland... that I will be leading a day for the Irish New Monasticism Group at All Hallows, Dublin this Saturday. One of the group's convenor is Dr Bernadette Flanagan, a good friend and great organiser so I am sure the day will be a good launch for the Teresa Quincentenary events that start this week. Below is some information from their website, the link to which I attach below.
Also, many congratulations to my old friends Father Gerry W Hughes SJ and Dr Philip Newell for 2 excellent new books: 'A Cry of Wonder' (Gerry) and 'The Rebirthing of God' (Philip). I am just in the process of reviewing both and will put them up here shortly. Philip's book was launched in London yesterday at a great event at the Scottish Church on Pont St near Kensington. It was good to see Philip again and catch up with his news. I am hoping we can invite him to do some work with us in the near future... watch this space. I visited Gerry in his nursing home in Boscombe over the summer and it was good to see him full of the Spirit as he enters a new phase in his life.

Best wishes


Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Soul 

17._Extaze_sv._Terezie_z_Avilly_-_detail_Capella_Cornaro,_S._Maria_della_Vittoria_Between October 2014 and October 2015 spiritual seekers around the world, will celebrate the 5th centenary of the birth of the uniquely talented spiritual teacher, Teresa of Avila. Dr Peter Tyler psychotherapist and spiritual director will explore readings of Teresa’s contemplative classics which show the relevance of the message of Teresa’s writings today, by relating them to Jung and psychology, Buddhism and mindfulness.

Saturday, October 11: Woodlock Hall, All Hallows Campus, Dublin; Fee; €40; Please bring your own Lunch

Teresa of Avila PT