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).



  1. I am really looking forward to your talk tonight!

    Noel Keating

  2. Thank you Noel, I look forward to seeing you all too. I have just posted a blog on Gerry Hughes who died yesterday, tonight's lecture will be dedicated to his memory.