in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Tagore's Awakening of the Heart

Dear All,

As I prepare to set off for India and the conference on Consecrated Life at DVK in Bangalore please find below some of my talk. I think Tagore's joyful experience of the awakening of the heart is a good one to contemplate at the opening of the New Year.

A Happy 2016 to you all!

All good wishes


The Young Person Steps Out

In late 1882, a young 21 year old Bengali man was trying to find his way in the world and his own voice. Born into a rich and impressive family there were high expectations of what he should achieve and after several false starts he really was not sure what path lay open to him in life. At this time, staying in a rented house in the European quarter of Calcutta at Sudder St with his brother, a remarkable event overtook him one morning. He described it thus thirty years later:


The end of Sudder St, and the trees on the Free School grounds opposite, were visible from our Sudder St house. One morning I happened to be standing on the verandah looking that way. The sun was just rising through the leafy tops of the trees. As I gazed, all of a sudden a lid seemed to fall from my eyes, and I found the world bathed in a wonderful radiance, with waves of beauty and joy swelling on every side. The radiance pierced the folds of sadness and despondency which had accumulated over my heart, and flooded it with universal light.


This account, from Rabindranath Tagore’s autobiographical collection, ‘My Reminiscences’ (‘Jibansmriti’) was written by the 50 year-old poet in 1911. Almost 20 years later, as he approached 70 in 1930 he reflected again on the experience for an audience at Oxford University. By now it was nearly 50 years after the event but it had clearly lost none of its youthful vigour and power:


One day while I stood watching at early dawn the sun sending out its rays from behind the trees, I suddenly felt as if some ancient mist had in a moment lifted from my sight, and the morning light on the face of the world revealed an inner radiance of joy. The invisible screen of the commonplace was removed from all things and all men, and their ultimate significance was intensified in my mind; and this is the definition of beauty


The event, whatever it was, was clearly the point at which the young poet’s life was consecrated. The two accounts, separated by 20 years, still speak of the urgency and power of this encounter. As Tagore himself acknowledged it was the beginning of his adult life as a poet and from it one of his early great poems emerged: The awakening of the Spring (‘Nirjharer Swapnabhanga’):


          How have the sun’s rays in my heart

Entered this morning! How have the songs

Of morning birds into the dark cave broken!

Who knows why, after long, my soul has woken!


The soul awakes, the waters stir:

I cannot stem my heart’s passion, my heart’s desire...

So much of words, so much of song, so much of life have I.

So much delight, so much desire – a heart in ecstasy.

What can it mean? My soul today has woken after long...

What song have the birds sung today, what sunshine do I see.


The poet seems as surprised as anyone by what is happening and this leads me to the first point I want to make in this paper – which is regarding how consecrated life begins. My contention is that All of us, whether we admit it or not, in our late teens/early twenties like Tagore encounter the numinous for the first time. This can be a moment of beauty and ecstasy as it was for Tagore (as evidenced by the long and fruitful artistic life he managed to live) or, as is normally the case today, certainly in the West, it can be a moment of terror and trauma, sometimes even leading to psychosis, breakdown, drug addiction or worse. Why should this be so? In India you have the Vedas, the Upanishads and the great tradition of Eastern wisdom to which I will return shortly. Where I come from – the Celtic fringes of Europe – we have something similar (you didn’t know that did you!) – we call them the Celtic-Christian myths and they arise at that point in the 12th and 13th centuries when Europe as we know it is first emerging from the period of collapse after the end of the Roman Empire sometimes called the Dark Ages. At this time we have the first written examples of old stories that have clearly existed in oral form long before they were written down. One such story is the legend of Perceval – the young lad who runs away from his mother into the dark woods and encounters the Grail Castle. I mention this story for it directly mirrors the encounter with the ‘Awakening Fountain’ that we all must touch if we are to embark upon a consecrated life.

Rudolf Otto writing in the Idea of the Holy (1917) described one of the key attributes of the divine as the fascinans, - that which draws us to it - the others being the tremendum and numen. The young Perceval wandering in the forest encounters  five noble knights who appear to him like beings from another realm. This correctly describes the young person’s encounter with the transcendent. As in the case of Tagore, it can literally blow our minds. The tragedy of human life, however, is only in a very few cases can the young person hold the experience and build on it. I think you in India today are at an advantage to us in Europe. Here respect is still given to the transcendental realities of life – which is one of the reasons why I love to visit so often. In the West today the transcendental is too often masked or perverted by gross consumerism into strange twisted ends. Young people still receive the transcendental encounter in the West today (as they always have and presumably always will) but they have no categories with which to process it. So many times, as a psychologist, I receive cases of young people with drug, relationship and depressive problems which at heart are psycho-spiritual issues rather than psychological or somatic issues alone. Like the young Perceval, they stumble into the Grail Castle – usually by accident - but they don’t know what to do once they are in there.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Happy Christmas!... From Uncle Franz's Christmas Tree

A Merry Christmas to All Our Readers!

I have chosen as a Christmas Present a recording of Franz Lizst's 'Weihnachtsbaum' (Christmas Tree) on YouTube:

Why? First, because it is late Liszt - after all the passions (religious and secular) of his youth he has settled down into old age and seriously pushing forward the boundaries of music (both Wagner and Debussy acknowledged their debt to him). This is seriously interesting music.

Secondly, because it has the right level of Christmas schmaltz and tinsel. The old man is looking back to that wonderful middle-European tradition of preparing a freshly chopped pine tree with beautiful candles, ribbons, bows etc and then letting the children see it at sundown on Christmas Eve, usually to some live musical accompaniment. Listen to the little candles lighting and feel the warm glow and smell of pine resin filling the whole room.

Finally, as befits a Third Order Franciscan, there is just the right level of (perhaps slightly melancholic) religiosity in it all. The familiar carols - O Come All Ye Faithful! and Good Christian Folk Rejoice! - take on beautiful new harmonies.

A little treat to enjoy with a glass of sherry while wrapping up your last presents!

Sunday, 13 December 2015

St John of the Cross and Islam

As the Christmas commercial mayhem continues to gather apace it is good to have the little oasis of St John of the Cross's feast day today - a moment of calm in the collective madness. Recently a number of people have asked me about putative connections between John and Islam (there being possible - though disputed - Islamic roots in his family history and having been brought up at a time when Muslim influence was still apparent in the Spain of his day). Accordingly I quote a little from my 'St John of the Cross - Outstanding Christian Thinker' that may be of interest -
Happy Feast Day - Viva Juan de la Cruz!

John and Islam

The first serious work to link John with the Muslim culture of Al Andalus was that of the Roman Catholic priest and scholar Miguel Asín Palacios (1871 – 1944)[1]. Born in 1871 in Zaragoza, Asín Palacios began his studies at the University of Zaragoza in 1887 where he fell under the influence of the famous arabist Julián Ribera which led to a lifelong interest in Arabic culture and writings, especially from Al Andalus. Ordained priest in 1895 he wrote his doctoral thesis on Al-Ghazzali which led to an enduring interest in tracing the influence of Islam on the literature and life of Spain, especially that of the Golden Age mystics. As such the methodological questions he raised have never gone away and continue to haunt sanjuanist studies. Writing after his death Zaragüeta compared his approach to Arabic sources with that of the English scholar John Henry Newman:

Like Cardinal Newman, author of The Grammar of Assent and other exquisite books on the interior life, (Asín Palacios) possessed a certain mental affinity which manifested itself in basic methodological principles, with which he could judge the results of his investigations into the unexplored territory of Muslim literature. (Zaragüeta y Bengoechea 1952:14)

Whilst Raimundo Lida is quoted as saying that ‘If all the literary production of Spain were to be lost, and only ten books could be saved, I would save one of Asín Palacios’ (quoted in López-Baralt 1991:xi).

In his 1933 article for the first edition of the journal Al-Andalus Asín Palacios argued for what he saw as textual evidence linking what he termed ‘the renunciation of charismata’ in John of the Cross and the Andalusian/North African Sufi school of the Shadilites. He sums up his understanding of the ‘renunciation of charismata’ thus:

The doctrine of renunciation has an underlying metaphysics whose fundamental principle is this: God is inaccessible to the creature; in regard to the absolute transcendency of the infinite Being who is devoid of all analogy with finite being, it is inferred that God is nothing that we can feel, imagine, think or desire. When this principle is applied to the mystical, it becomes axiomatic that everything the soul does to reach God, far from being an adequate and efficient means, will be an impediment, obstacle and veil that will deprive him of attainment of union. (Asín Palacios 1933:12)

‘The soul’ he continues therefore, ‘must empty itself, denude itself and liberate itself from all sensual appetite, from all self-interests, from every inclination toward and leaning on creatures… It must kill every initiative and autonomy of the free will in order to find calm, spiritual quiet, the aloneness with God that consists in self-annhiliation, the negation of self and total abandonment or relinquishment.’

Asín Palacios’s argument is interesting, not least because from the 1930s onwards it is found increasingly in the writings of scholars who want to seek a commonality between Islamic ‘negation mysticism’ and the Christian tradition of the via negativa. The classic exposition of this argument is found in Michael Sells’s The Mystical Language of Unsaying (Sells: 1994). Both Palacios and Sells see the ‘mystical strategies’ of the Christian mystical tradition as arising from a basic aporia: ‘the aporia – the unresolvable dilemma – of transcendence’ (Sells 1994:2), that is to say, the dilemma that arises when we try to give names to that which is beyond names: ‘any statement of ineffability, “X is beyond names”, generates the aporia that the subject of the statement must be named (as X) in order for us to affirm that it is beyond names’. In this respect Sells’s argument reflects that of Asín Palacios’s movement from theological statements about the nature of the inaccessibility of God to implications regarding individual ‘renunciation of charismata’ and as Asín calls it, ‘liberation from every intiative and autonomy of the free will’ found in ‘self-annhiliation, the negation of self and total abandonment and relinquishment’ (Asín Palacios 1933:12).

As we have seen, from the earliest moment when John’s doctrine was first open to serious theological scrutiny during his beatification process questions arose as to how truly Christian John’s teaching was. In more recent theological work on John’s teaching interpretations such as those of Sells and Asín Palacios which stress the similarity between John and Islam have been complimented by a growing body of literature that stresses the similar congruence between John and Buddhist modes of thought. These latter, like Asín Palacios, take the ‘self annihilation, the negation of self and total abandonment and relinquishment’ as the key launching pad for understanding the nature of the relationship between the two sets of writings.

[1] For more on the life and work of Asín Palacios see Valdivia Válor (1992)

Saturday, 5 December 2015

St Teresa of Avila's Seven Pictures of the Soul

Dear All

I just received this link to a short video I did in Dublin earlier this autumn on Teresa's 'Seven Pictures of the Soul' and share it with you:

It is an extended commentary on the first paragraph of 'The Interior Castle':

While I was beseeching our Lord today to speak for/through me (por mí), as I was unable to find a thing to say (no atinaba a cosa que decir), or how to begin to comply with this obedience, what I will say now presented itself (ofreció) to begin with this starting point:  that we consider our soul to be like a castle, totally of diamond or very clear crystal, where there are many abodes (aposentos), as in heaven there are many mansions. Now if we consider it carefully, sisters, the soul of a just person (el alma del justo) is nothing else but a paradise where He says he takes his delights (El tiene sus deleites). Well then, what do you think such an abode would be like where a King so powerful, so wise, so pure, so full of good things, takes his delight? I cannot find anything with which to compare the great beauty and capacity of the soul; and truly our intellects will no more be able to grasp this than they can comprehend God, no matter how keen they are, for He Himself said that He created us in his own image and likeness. (M: 1.1.1)

I say in the video that if you read this you have the whole of Castle summarised! See what you think...

Kind regards


Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Book Review: The Lost Knowledge of Christ: Contemporary Spiritualities, Christian Cosmology and the Arts. Dominic White

Dear All

I have just finished the review for this fascinating book. It really is worth looking at - there is a website for it too:

Best Wishes


The Lost Knowledge of Christ: Contemporary Spiritualities, Christian Cosmology and the Arts

Author: Dominic White

Date: 2015

Publisher: Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota

ISBN: 978-0-8146-8269-2

pp 221  pbk



I’m afraid to say that this book confirms many suspicions I have had for some time. Even if Fr Dominic White OP is not wholly right in all his conjectures but only in good part, then we are going to have seriously review a lot of our perceptions of Western spiritual and liturgical practices. For Fr White’s ambitious project is to review the roots of our liturgical and spiritual practices linking them to esoteric practices and attitudes long since vanished. Let me take one example. For many years I have enjoyed gazing at the Byzantine mosaics to be found in Italy in the dim half-light in situ. Admittedly my eyesight is not what it was, but once accustomed to the gloom I have noticed that the ikons begin to shimmer and glint almost in three-dimensional fashion only to vanish when the next tourist deposits their obligatory one euro coin in the meter so that all is now revealed in garish modern electric light (primarily, as is often the case, for the purposes of taking another worthless photograph on an iPhone or camera). The ghost of Byzantium vanishes. Now Fr White, in this splendid book, has confirmed my suspicions when he lovingly describes the ancient Holy Week liturgies of Mount Athos where the monks would twirl full candelabras of flickering candles before the mosaics exactly to produce the effect I had observed in Rome and Ravenna. In Fr White’s words, such a performance would cause the ikons ‘to seem to dance’. And liturgical dance and its origins are central to the revolution in liturgy that Fr White aims to initiate. Again, I was aware of the elaborate theatre of the old Cluniac rituals, but Fr White’s description of an imagined medieval Easter Vigil is a corker: ‘We’re in a cathedral, and it’s Easter. Everyone gathers round the labyrinth. The bishop follows the altar server to the centre of the labyrinth. The server puts the ball in the bishop’s hands. This is the signal: the organ sounds, the choir sings out, and the bishop throws the ball in the air. The dean catches it, takes a step to the rhythm of the music, then passes it on, till all the clergy are dancing around the labyrinth and passing the ball…’ New Age Quackery or Coming Soon to a Church Near You? Who can say? Fr White brandishes his official imprimatur from Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, no less, and he makes a scholarly and intriguing case for his liturgical revisionism. As I say, if only a small portion of what he says is correct then we will have to revise our whole approach to liturgy, especially in the hallowed sanctuaries of our great medieval places of worship such as Salisbury and Chartres. White’s fascinating book brings to life otherwise dull and incomprehensible parts of our present liturgy and shows through exquisite scholarship an alternative picture of Western spirituality. I recommend it highly.





Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Francis Project - The Spirituality of Laudato Si

Dear Friends

I have just written the first draft of the paper I shall deliver at our conference at St Mary's on Laudato Si. It will be on November 17th and all are welcome (it is being organised by Prof Geoff Hunt) however if you need any further details please email me. I shall put the details up here once they are ready.

It really was a joy to read the encyclical carefully and I hope the following inspires you to turn to it again.

Best Wishes


The Francis Project: The Spirituality of Laudato Si’


Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no-one is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praise be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.

Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy willl,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.



The poetic hymn of St Francis of Assisi from which Pope Francis takes the title of his encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ encompasses, as the pope acknowledges, much of what we could call ‘Franciscan’ – orientated spirituality. By taking the name of the Poverello at his enthronement, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was clearly initiating what Leonardo Boff has termed the ‘Francis Project’ (Boff 36)[2]. My argument in this short paper is that the encyclical as a whole can be understood as a manifesto for an ‘integrated humanity’ as well, as is now clear, a call for an ‘integral ecology’. In making this claim I shall stick closely to the structure of the encyclical whilst suggesting links with Franciscan sources such as the work of St Bonaventure.

          However, before we get too excited with the conceptual, ecclesial and spiritual possibilities of a new ‘Franciscan Revolution’ I think it important to stress the continuities and, dare I say it, traditional aspects of Laudato Si as it fits into the broad stream of papal teaching over the past 50 years. In this respect, as was celebrated at St Mary’s last year, I think the fons et origo for the Franciscan Revolution lies in the work of his predecessor, Blessed Pope Paul VI, and especially his groundbreaking encyclical Ecclesiam Suam. Here, Pope Paul argues that for the Church to be true to itself and its mission it must engage in a dialogue with those beyond the boundaries of the Church (ES: 18). The dialogue initiated by Pope Paul was to be non-coercive, universal, not aimed at conversion, to produce clarity, to be expressed in ordinary language and to be centred on humility. It was to be constructed in an atmosphere of mutual charity and fellowship and adaptable to the needs of each participant (ES 75,76, 79, 81). If we had time we could extrapolate this new spirit of dialogue through the intervening pontificates of John Paul 1, Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Before his resignation, for example, Pope Benedict stressed in 2012 that the church ‘represents the memory of what it is to be human in the face of a civilization of forgetfulness’ and that dialogue ‘does not aim for conversion but at understanding’ and that ‘both parties to the dialogue remain consciously within their respective identities’.

          Pope Francis’ latest encyclical can thus be seen as the latest stage of that engagement the Church has sought with the modern world since the ‘opening of the windows’ of the Second Vatican Council. Francis pointedly addresses the encyclical to ‘all people of good will’ and ends not only with a Christian prayer but a prayer to share ‘with all who believe in a God’ (LS 246). In this respect the encyclical goes further than that of his predecessors by supplementing biblical and patristic quotes, and the sayings of his predecessor popes with scientific and economic references as well as references to poets (Dante Alghieri), non-Catholic writers such as HAH Bartholomew and John Chryssavgis and even a Muslim sufi mystic (Ali al-Khawas, LS 223).

          The encyclical is therefore a dialogue and aims to initiate dialogue, I am sure the Pope would therefore be delighted with our little gathering today! All of which, for Pope Francis, takes place around an extended reflection on the person of St Francis who, for Pope Francis shows us ‘the heart of what it is to be human’ (LS 3) and thumbnail sketches of whom occur throughout the narrative. Such a meditation is what the pope calls an ‘integral ecology’ that ‘calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human’ (LS 11). In this respect the structure of the Encyclical reminds us of one of the great followers and interpreters of St Francis – the Seraphic Doctor, St
Bonaventure. In his ‘Ascent of the Mind to God’ (Like Laudato Si in 6 chapters) the saint envisages six steps on our path from imprints of God in his creation, through reflection on that creation to the vision of God himself. In this Bonaventure (consumed with six-ness) makes explicit reference to St Francis’s own six-ted vision of the wings of the Seraphim during the famous ecstasy at Mount La Verna.

          Thus, the encyclical calls for science and religion to enter urgently into a dialogue fruitful for both whilst both having ‘distinctive approaches to understanding reality’ (LS 17, 62) a conversation that the pontiff hopes will ultimately draw in everyone (LS 17).

          From this perspective, then, the rest of the encyclical derives. Drawing, so the pope says, on ‘the results of the best scientific research available’ (LS 15), we must let ourselves be ‘touched deeply’ to provide a ‘concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows’. Such solid scientific foundations, once juxtaposed with ‘principles drawn from the Judaeo-Christian tradition’ will, so hopes the Pope, lead to ‘broader proposals for dialogue and action’ (LS 15). His Latin American background in the liberationist  schools that exhorted Christians to ‘See-Judge-Act’ seems to surface here as he stresses that ‘change is impossible without motivation and a process of education’. Again, throughout the encyclical there are numerous emotive pictures of suffering humanity in distress to ensure we are moved by the end to the change and action the Pope wants (eg see LS 19). However, where Pope Francis’ work would differ from the work of a Franciscan interpreter such as Bonaventure, is that instead of the Seraphic Doctor’s journey upwards to the ‘vision of the Blessed Trinity in its primary name’. Pope Francis, rather, presents us with a circle (a true encyclical?) whereby we end not with a clash of cymbals and the Choirs Immortal but rather the ordinary everyday action whereby we save the planet through being more careful with what we put in our dustbins and how many times we walk to work. In this respect, I would argue, we see here more the face of Fr Jorge Bergoglio SJ, the simple Jesuit who recalls St Ignatius’ vision to ‘attain love’ at the end of his book of Spiritual Exercises where we are urged not to disappear into the rapt embrace of the choirs invisible but rather to take the difficult road of service of others as we find ‘God in all things’ (a phrase lovingly referenced in LS itself).

[1]The Legend of Perugia, 43, narrates the circumstances of the composition of the first section of the Canticle, in which the saint invites all creation to praise its Creator. The author describes the intense suffering of the Poverello in that period after he had received the stigmata. "For his praise," he said, "I wish to compose a new hymn about the Lord's creatures, of which we make daily use, without which we cannot live, and with which the human race greatly offends its Creator." The second section of the Canticle, consisting of two verses concerning pardon and peace, was composed a short time afterward in an attempt to unite the quarrelling civil and religious authorities of Assisi. The same Legend of Perugia, 44, describes the reconciling power the Canticle had in the resolution of the conflict. The final verses of the work, which constitute the third section, were written at the death of Saint Francis. Once again the Legend of Perugia, 100, provides the details of the scene at the Portiuncula where the Seraphic Father enthusiastically sang the praises of Sister Death and welcomed her embrace.’ The Classics of Western Spirituality - Francis & Clare - Translation and Introduction by: Regis J. Armstrong, OFM, Cap. and Ignatius C. Brady, OFM
[2] ‘Francis is not only a name but a project’

Friday, 30 October 2015

Visit of Ecumenical Patriarch, His All Holiness Bartholomew, to St Mary's University, 4th November 2015

Dear All,

Please find below details of the historic visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch, His All Holiness Bartholomew, to St Mary's next Wednesday. Everyone is most welcome to what sounds like a fascinating talk looking at the Church and Reconciliation with Creation. I look forward to seeing many of you there.

Best wishes



Friday, 23 October 2015

Prof Denys Turner Lecture on Herbert McCabe, St Mary's University, 28th October 2015

Dear All

Please see poster above for information on the Denys Turner lecture at St Mary's next week. If you are unfamiliar with his work can I warmly recommend 'The Darkness of God' which should be on every reading list for every course on mysticism (Christian and non-Christian). Whereas I don't agree with everything he argues for there it is a key book and intellectually rigorous. He shares such rigour with the work of the late British Dominican, Herbert McCabe OP. Again,  non uncontroversial, but a bracing analyst of the nature of faith. Anyone who wants to engage seriously with Gospel living should read 'God Matters' and 'God Still Matters'. The lecture will be free followed by a drinks reception in Prof Turner's honour and starts at 5pm next Wednesday. Can you email Steph Modak if you are interested in coming so that we can fix numbers. Her email is

Another date for your diaires - on 4th November at 12.30 the Ecumenical Patriarch will give the inaugural St Mary's lecture in our chapel. Again all are welcome to this free event. I shall post some more details on that shortly.

All good wishes



Monday, 12 October 2015

The Lord Walks Amongst the Pots and Pans - Closing of Teresa 500th Year - Aylesford, Kent, Saturday October 17th

Dear All

First of all, apologies for not writing anything over the past couple of months. The beginning of term had a double whammy of new responsibilities to take over. However I have just been preparing my talk for the Carmelite final event of the Teresa 500th anniversary year at Aylesford this Saturday (17th October) and thought I would share some of it here. All are very welcome to this event which I think will be fitting end to a most wonderful year.

All good wishes


Teresa was a true original who offered a path for her contemporaries between the Scylla of fundamentalist iconoclasm and the Charybdis of inquisitorial reaction. In the Book of Foundations and the Way of Perfection we hear the voice of a sometimes lonely woman trying to walk that precarious path of liberation on behalf of her sisters and brothers in Christ. For Teresa, central to this reform was the belief that each baptised Christian should be able to have access to the contemplative life which she saw as the natural home of all the faithful.[1] In this respect she was of course simply returning to the original foundational charism of Carmel that we explored in Chapter Three. As she says later in the Interior Castle:

All of us who wear this sacred habit of Carmel are called to prayer and contemplation (a la oración y contemplación) – because that was our     origin, that is, we are descended from those Holy Fathers of ours of          Mount Carmel who in such great solitude and with such contempt of     the world sought this treasure, this precious pearl of which we speak.       (M: 5.1.1)

The aim of her reform, then, was to recreate, or perhaps better, create the conditions where, at first, ‘her daughters’, and later, ‘her sons’, could cultivate that special pearl of great price.

Unlike the Way of Perfection, written rapidly after the Life, the Foundations was (by necessity) longer in its gestation and, in fact, was left uncompleted as la Madre lay dying in October 1582. From the foundation of San José to her death, Teresa’s life had been absorbed with the task of creating a network of Discalced Convents dedicated to promoting and protecting the contemplative life that she had discovered in Avila and now sought to share with the world. This task was completed after her death when her foundations spread across the whole globe.

          Beginning with Medina del Campo in 1567, the foundations Teresa made in her lifetime were as follows: Malagón (1568), Valladolid (1568), Toledo (1569), Pastrana (1569), Salamanca (1570), Alba de Tormes (1571), Segovia (1574), Beas de Segura (1575), Seville (1575), Caravaca (1576), Villanueva de la Jara (1580), Palencia (1580), Soria (1581), Granada (1582, although Teresa did not personally visit this one) and Burgos in 1582, after which she died at Alba de Tormes in October 1582. Considering the state of transport and communication in Spain at the time,[2] the rapidity with which Teresa made these foundations is a quite remarkable testament in itself.

          According to the Prologue to the Foundations (F: Prol. 3) she began the work in Salamanca in August 1573, eleven years after The Life was written. This was after the suggestion of her Jesuit confessor, Jerónimo Ripalda, who had been so edified after reading The Life. However, according to a testimony written by Teresa in Malagón around 1570, the origin of The Book of the Foundations had a divine mandate. Having seen a vision of the wounded Christ after communion, so the Saint relates in her Spiritual Testimonies, and shown concern for his sufferings, Christ turned to her and said:  


That I shouldn’t grieve over those wounds, but over the many that were now being inflicted upon Him. I asked Him what I could do as a remedy for this because I was determined to do everything I could. He told me that now was not the time for rest, but that I should hurry to establish these houses and that He would find rest with the souls that would live there; and that I must take all the houses that might be given to me because there were many souls who could not serve Him because they had no place in which they could do so; that the houses I founded in small towns should be just like this one… and that I should write about the foundation of these houses. Spiritual Testimonies: 5


Teresa, according to the testimony, felt unable to write, but rather than being a hindrance, the Lord felt this ‘place of unknowing’ was exactly what he wanted as a starting point for her narrative:

I thought of how with regard to the house at Medina I never understood anything of how I could write of this foundation. He told me that that was all the more reason to write of it since He wanted it     to be seen that the Medina foundation had been miraculous… and as a result I determined to undertake this work (of writing about the foundations). (CC: 6)


Thus, the Foundations was begun from a specified position of ‘unknowing’. The Lord would reveal the purpose of the text as it appeared.

          Consequently, work on the text would proceed in a stuttering fashion as and when she found time in her busy schedule of founding the new convents. From what we can derive from the internal textual evidence, Chapters 1 – 9 were written whilst at Segovia and Salamanca between 1573 and 1574; Chapters 10 - 19 were begun in Valladolid and written variously up to 1576 (Chapter 13, for instance, was written in 1575). Chapters 20 to 27 were written in Toledo and the final chapters 28 – 33 were left uncompleted at her death in Alba in 1582. Thus, along with The Interior Castle, The Foundations contains some of Teresa’s most mature writing. Yet, as I indicated earlier, her task in this book is, as it were, to extract the narrative part of the Life and present it without the ‘mystical context’ of, say, The Interior Castle. But, Teresa being Teresa, this is not quite possible. She cannot forget the divine mandate of her actions as we shall see shortly. The book itself is her answer to the question, ‘How does God act in the world?’ The answer is simple – Look around you! Look at His workings in bringing these convents into the world! This then is the subtext of the book.

           In contrast to her other later works, The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle, the Book of Foundations  had another inbuilt problem. She tells us in the Prologue that ‘the account will be given in all truthfulness… in conformity with what has taken place’ (F: Prol.3) yet many of the people and incidents, some as difficult and controversial as anything so far in her life, had to be dealt with no little tact and diplomacy, not least because many of the characters involved were still alive at the time of writing. Although la Santa never utters any ‘untruthfulness’ we sometimes have to ‘read between the lines’ to see her true view on situations. We discussed a good example of this in Chapter Two earlier regarding her discussion of the converso lineage of Alonso Alvarez in connection with her Toledo foundation (F: 15.15).

          Despite her best efforts the work was not included in Fray Luis’ first edition and the first printed edition appeared in Brussels in 1610 under the supervision of her two co-workers Ana de Jésus and Jerónimo Gracián. However, as both were now regarded with some suspicion by the Order in Spain they were not given access to the original autograph (by this time deposited at the Escorial) and this edition was not perfect, also containing much editing and omissions. The situation with regard to the text was only clarified in the late nineteenth century when P. Silverio used the autograph to present an authentic text. This text formed the basis of Allison Peers’ English translation and most subsequent English translations.

          Reading The Foundations and The Way of Perfection as our guides it is, then, possible to trace the shape of the reform of the Carmelite Order in Spain as Teresa led it through her final two decades.



[1] WhileTeresa was rather uncomplimentary about what she referred to as ‘the Lutherans’, her daughters, when they moved into Northern Europe, saw their reform as allowing all Christians, including those at this point separated from Rome, to have access to the contemplative life.
For more on this see Wilson (2006).
[2] See F: 18.4 and Kavanaugh and Rodriguez CW: 3.48-52 for good descriptions of this.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Ludwig Wittgenstein - Anti-Philosopher: Reflections on 20 years of Teaching Wittgenstein in the Class-Room

My good friend and colleague, Prof Jose Nandhikkara CMI of Bangalore, has kindly asked me to write an article for his excellent Dharmaram Journal on Wittgenstein and pedagogy. I am just nearing the final proofs but thought I would append some 'edited highlights' (as is usual on this site) for your amusement. It also ended up as a reflection on 20 years of teaching Wittgenstein... quite a thought!

Best wishes as always.

1. Introduction: ‘Showing the fly the way out of the fly-bottle’
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) famously characterised the aim of his philosophy as showing ‘the fly the way out of the fly-bottle’.[1] Much ink has been spilt as to what exactly he meant by this phrase and, indeed, the major thrust of his philosophy tout court (as we shall see shortly). In this article I shall present one interpretation of the phrase. My argument will be that by working on the gossamer-light interface between what can and cannot be said, Wittgenstein’s philosophy gently coaxes each reader from the ensnaring prison of the discursive intellect to a wider, non-discursive, Blick or view on existence. In so doing the philosopher, rather like the therapist, cannot confine herself simply to words but must work on the subtle choreography between saying and showing.
            Recent commentators such as Alain Badiou have gone so far as to suggest that Wittgenstein is better considered as an ‘anti-philosopher’ who attacks the very roots of Western philosophy itself. Beginning, therefore, with a brief review of some of the problems of Wittgensteinian interpretation that have arisen in the half century since his death in 1951, I shall then turn my attention to two ways in which the Austrian encourages his readers to ‘work on themselves’, that is, through the development of the Übersichtliche Blick and a discourse that moves from thinking to seeing to acting. I shall conclude that although some of Wittgenstein’s unorthodox methods may trouble or disturb his readers, his ultimate aim stays deeply wedded to the ancient quest to root philosophy in wonderment. In this respect, I will argue, we can see his philosophy as much as therapy as pedagogy – a true working on the soul.
2. Reading Wittgenstein: Theory and Therapy
Surveying the reactions to Wittgenstein’s work nearly fifty years after his death, Rorty in his essay “Keeping Philosophy Pure” summed up the position thus:
Academic philosophy in our day stands to Wittgenstein as intellectual life in Germany in the first decades of the last century stood to Kant. Kant had changed everything, but no one was sure just what Kant had said – no one was sure what in Kant to take seriously and what to put aside.[2]
In this essay, Rorty suggests that Wittgenstein’s writings throw down a gauntlet to all who read them, especially professional philosophers. The challenge to enter the ‘transcendental standpoint’ of the Tractatus and the further challenge of the ‘twice born’ to resist this temptation and the challenge to both of the ‘pure of heart’ expounded in the Philosophical Investigations that transcends the need to ‘explain, justify and expound’. In tracing this distinction, which Hutto calls the ‘theoretical and the therapeutic’,[3] Rorty emphasises the importance of the Tractatus for those who have expounded Wittgenstein from the former point and the importance of the Investigations for those of the latter disposition. This distinction between the emphases of the work of the ‘earlier’ and ‘later’ Wittgenstein, and this possible distinction between a theoretical and an anti-theoretical approach to his writings, has been a constant since the voluminous Wittgensteinian secondary literature began to swell. As Pears puts it, in these later works “he is moving away from theorizing and towards plain description of the phenomenon of language.”[4]
Consequently, amongst the Wittgensteinian secondary literature we see a split between those commentators who see the work of the later Wittgenstein as continuing the work of the earlier Wittgenstein and those who see a new anti-theoretical shift in the post-Tractatus works. To add to the confusion, a recent book, The Third Wittgenstein: The Post-Investigations Works[5] has argued that the parts of the Nachlass that have appeared charting the latter period of Wittgenstein’s life, in particular On Certainty, suggest a third interpretation of Wittgenstein that transcends even the position developed in the Investigations.
We are thus left with four possible ways of viewing his works in the authors of the secondary literature:
1.      Those who remain with the traditional division between the ‘earlier’ and the ‘later’ Wittgenstein and see the later works, especially the Investigations, as a critique of the earlier works, especially the Tractatus. Representative of this trend would be Peter Hacker whose Wittgenstein: Connections and Controversies makes this point.[6]
2.      The so-called ‘new Wittgensteinians’ who see a theoretical union between the early and later Wittgenstein and reject any notion of a firm break between the two.[7]
3.      Those who regard the ‘third Wittgenstein’ of the ‘post-Investigations works’ (so-called) as presenting a third and more radical departure from the Wittgensteinian corpus.
4.      To these three interpretations, we could possibly add a fourth, a growing body of Wittgenstein scholars who, following Wittgenstein’s own remarks in the latter works of moving from the theoretical to the practical, or from saying to showing want to emphasise the importance of the biographical elements of Wittgenstein’s life and use them to gain a more complete picture of what his thought was trying to achieve. Again, a key collection of essays, Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy[8] has acted as a vessel for presenting this interpretative strand. Included in this group would be those (such as myself) who want to also emphasis the Wittgenstein’s role as a therapist as much as a theoretician or logician.
3.  Wittgenstein as Therapist
One of the first writers to emphasise the ‘therapeutic’ within Wittgenstein’s writing was Stanley Cavell.[9] By the time Alice Crary’s collection The New Wittgenstein came out in 2000 it seemed as though the notion had influenced a whole generation of Wittgensteinian scholars. The authors collected there, Crary suggested, shared an interpretation of Wittgenstein’s work as a) a unified whole and b) broadly ‘therapeutic’ in nature. This emphasises the shift in recent Wittgensteinian scholarship away from the understanding of his work as largely theoretical (or, in Rorty’s words, largely concerned with the reactions and concerns of fellow ‘professional philosophers’) to an understanding which is built around seeing his work as contributing to individual existential development.[10] For Crary this ‘therapeutic aim’ is largely around helping us to see the ‘sources of philosophical confusion’ we hold by replacing a need for a metaphysical view of language to a concern with the observation of the  running of language as a means to solving philosophical confusion. Thus, for Cavell, the aim of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is to bring us back from metaphysical speculation to the everyday discourse of ‘forms of life’ (Lebensformen) where language has its natural home. Whereas Cavell et al are primarily concerned with the purely philosophical consequences of a reading of Wittgenstein’s work other contemporary authors have gone further and ascribed to Wittgenstein a therapeutic agenda that goes beyond the purely philosophical. In this respect there has been a growing movement to connect Wittgenstein’s writings with psychotherapeutic literature, beginning of course with his fellow Viennese theorist, Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939). Wittgenstein saw the value of Freud’s work not as a pseudo-scientist but in the function of Freudian analysis as ‘aspect-changing’:
When a dream is interpreted we might say that it is fitted into a context in which it ceases to be puzzling. In a sense the dreamer re-dreams his dream in surroundings such that its aspect changes
In considering what a dream is, it is important to consider what happens to it, the way its aspect changes when it is brought into relation with other things remembered, for instance. (LC: 45 -46)Lectures and Conversatons on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Ed C. Barrett. Oxford: Blackwell 1989
 4. Teaching Wittgenstein's Anti-Philosophy 
Teaching Wittgenstein is, of course, notoriously difficult. Twenty years ago I was assigned a class of undergraduates and told to teach them Wittgenstein. Needless to say it was a disaster as I taught his texts ‘straight’ like any other classical philosopher such as Kant or Locke – trying to get the class to repeat and memorise his arguments by rote (perhaps I was unconsciously emulated Ludwig as a young man who ended up impatiently cuffing the school-children who couldn’t follow his ice-cold but brilliant thought processes...). Two decades later, following the interpretation I have developed in this article, I take an entirely different approach. Having given a preliminary lecture, not unlike the contents of this paper, I then get the students to read the texts themselves and reflect upon them. From the ‘form of life’ that develops in the group from the interaction of saying and showing the true message, and transformational work, of Wittgenstein begins to happen (much, indeed, as he taught philosophy himself in Cambridge towards the end of his life). By using language, similes and metaphors in unusual and provocative ways I have found that Wittgenstein brings us back to what we knew already but were unable to express in words. In conclusion, then, it may be worth recalling the work of Badiou whom I mentioned earlier, who termed Wittgenstein an ‘anti-philosopher’. The role of the ‘anti-philosopher’, says Badiou, has three key elements:[11]
1.      They present ‘a linguistic, logical, genealogical critique of the statements of philosophy... an unraveling of the pretensions of philosophy to constitute itself a theory’.
2.      They see that philosophy is ‘an act, of which fabulations about ‘truth’ are clothing, the propaganda, the lies.’ (cf. T 4.112 ‘Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity’).
3.      They realise that the philosophical act “must install an active non-thought beyond all meaningful propositions, beyond all thought, which also means beyond all science... The antiphilosophical act consists in letting what there is show itself, insofar as ‘what there is’ is precisely that which no true proposition can say.”[12]
Badiou’s ‘anti-method’ is then, I conclude, the spirit with which we should approach Wittgenstein’s works as a guide to pedagogy – an approach that through the use of Übersichtliche Darstellung and astonishment will stimulate the move from thinking to seeing to acting that will lead to the position described finally at the end of the Tractatus: “There are indeed things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”[13] But rather than ‘anti-philosopher’ I would rather conclude that Wittgenstein is the philosopher of wonderment par excellence.

[1] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, G. E. M. Anscombe and R. Rhees, Oxford: Blackwell, 1958, 309.
[2]R. Rorty, “Keeping Philosophy Pure,” in Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays 1972 – 1980), Brighton: Harvester, 1982, 20.
[3]D. Hutto, Wittgenstein and the End of Philosophy: Neither Theory nor Therapy, London: Macmillan, 2003.
[4]D. F. Pears, The False Prison: A Study of the Development of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy, Volume 1, Oxford: Clarendon, 1988, 218.
[5]D. Moyal-Sharrock, The Third Wittgenstein: The Post-Investigations Works., London: Ashgate, 2004.
[6]P. M. S. Hacker, Wittgenstein: Connections and Controversies, Oxford: Clarendon, 2001.
[7]A. Crary, and R. Read, The New Wittgenstein, London: Routledge, 2000.
[8]J. Klagge, Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy, Cambridge: CUP, 2001.
[9]S. Cavell, S. Must We Mean What We Say? Oxford: OUP, 1976; The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy, Oxford: OUP, 1979.
[10]In this vein see, for example, J. Nandhikkara, Being Human after Wittgenstein: A Philosophical Anthropology, Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications, 2011.
[11]Badiou, Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, 75-76.
[12]Badiou, Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, 80.
[13](T 6.522).