in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Teresa of Avila's 'First Hand' Language of the Soul: International Conference, Avila, August 2015

Dear All

In preparation for next week's international conference at Avila please find below part of the paper I will be giving on Teresa's 'First Hand' language of the soul. During the conference the University of Avila will confer an honorary doctorate on Teresa ( I hope she passes the viva!), I shall post any photographs of this great event if I can get any.

All good wishes.


Teresa of Avila’s ‘First Hand’ Language of the Soul


Shortly before his death in 2002, the Irish Jesuit, Fr Joseph Veale SJ wrote:




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. (Veale 2003:107)




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. (Veale 2003:107)




As we have celebrated this wonderful 500th anniversary of the birth of Santa Teresa, what has most impressed me (from a background in linguistic philosophy) is the ‘first hand’ nature of Teresa’s language and how if we are looking for twenty-first century models of a fresh language to encapsulate the encounter of the human soul with the Living Lord then Teresa’s own ‘language of the spirit’ offers a remarkable paradigm[1]. For, it will be my argument in this paper that rather than stale, second-hand language, a great and perpetually fascinating writer such as Teresa of Avila can give us the tools to craft the language of the encounter with the divine in its 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» (Veale 2003:108). It will be my contention here that exactly such «fragile» words, filled with «doubt or dread» are exactly what we find in the works of Teresa of Avila, despite five hundred years of attempts to mask them over with pieties and second hand language.

Being a psychologist as well as a theologian (and also versed in the dark arts of analytical philosophy) my aim in this paper is to re-present Teresa’s ‘language of the soul’ in an idiom and fashion applicable to the turbulent times we find ourselves living in today, in a fashion I hope that Fr Veale would approve of.


The Book of the Life

The strange babbling of Teresa of Avila’s Book of the Life (hereafter V) will be familiar to anyone who has ever attempted to articulate the action of spirit in their lives. The book, her first major writing, arises from particular social and ecclesiological pressures, not least the need to justify her actions as a reformer and also as someone who was clearly moving into the suspect territories of alumbradismo, recogimiento and dejamiento. As we listen to her voice we must also remind ourselves that this is the voice of a woman of converso origins – with its own particular resonance and timbre.

            She tells us in the preface to the book that it was written in response to requests from her confessors, in particular the Dominican García de Toledo. However, as she gets into her stride we hear the tumbling, half formed sentences of someone trying to articulate what is frankly unsayable. In this respect the closest I can find to her style is the half-opened/half-closed writing of Ludwig Wittgenstein who ‘shows’ in his writing by ‘not saying’ and ‘says’ by ‘not showing’[2].

Similarly, in Teresa’s Book of the Life, we hear a strange choreography of saying and not-saying as she comes close to the boundary of what is and isn’t expressible. At such moments (and there are several in this important work) the whole structure of her grammar and language begins to break down – for here we find ourselves on the very boundaries of language itself[3]. For Kristeva (2008) this will be the unspeakable semiotic breaking into the symbolic web of language (see also Kristeva 2009).

            Therefore, as we approach the Book of the Life, especially in English translation, we must do so knowing that, as much as the later Interior Castle, we are entering a multi-dimensional language-world within which we must be prepared to be challenged and our perceptions re-aligned. Her task in writing the Life , I would suggest, is not so much as an Apología de sua Vida (although this was clearly what motivated its origins) as the desire to change the point of view, or indeed, perspective, of her reader. With the advent of modernism the desire has always been to concretise or ‘pin down’ Teresa’s gossamer-light prose so that it fits into the dominating categories of whichever interpreter she happens to find herself in the hands of – whether they be psychological, sociological or literary. Such brutal concretisation will always, I suggest, end in failure, as her gentle contradictions reflect the spiritual life – forever just beyond categorisation. Teresa’s realm is the realm of ‘spiritual freedom’ – as vital today as it was five hundred years ago.


Teresa’s Map of the Soul

Within the book we can isolate twelve extra chapters she added to the original manuscript once García de Toledo had seen it and asked for more explanation of her experiences of prayer[4]. The resulting chapters eleven to twenty-two inclusive form a distinct ‘treatise within a treatise’ presenting Teresa’s view of the nature of prayer in a surprisingly masterful fashion. The over-arching narrative structure is her justly celebrated analogy of the ‘four waters’. However, Teresa never sticks smoothly to the narrative but employs her distinctive language of gustos, regalos, deleites and gozos to present her ‘savoury picture’ of the growth of the soul in God’s hands. She begins her treatise then in customary fashion:




So then, let us speak now about those who are beginning to be servants of love (for this doesn’t appear to me to be anything other than following the path of the one who loved us so much), when I think of this I am strangely caressed by a great dignity (que me regalo estrañamente), for servile fear vanishes at once if at this first stage we proceed as we have to. (V: 11.1)[5]




From the beginning she introduces us to her ‘way of love’ which is full of caresses, joys and delights:




We are so miserly and slow in giving ourselves entirely to God that    since His Majesty does not desire that we enjoy something as precious    as this without paying a high price, we do not fully prepare ourselves.           (V: 11.1)




Yet as the stirrings of love arise in our hearts, 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». 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)[6]




This, as we shall see later, is the monkey mind[7] 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 sixteenth 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.

            In Teresa’s writings we thus see a pull away from an over-active pensamiento to what she variously describes as the «soul» or «heart» (alma, corazón) in a practice for stablilising the heart which she terms «oración mental». This has usually been translated in English as «mental prayer», which to my ears at least suggests something concentrating on the pensamiento rather than what she actually describes which is movement to the heart or soul. Rather, I would like to suggest that this might better be related to contemporary talk of mindfulness to which I have already alluded.


Teresa on Contemplation and Mindfulness

Teresa’s first account of oración mental in her writings is an extended account in The Life, Chapters Eight to Ten. Here she contrasts the peace she receives from this activity with the «war so troublesome» where she would frequently «fall and rise» (V: 8.2 con estas caídas y con levantarme) as her passions came and left her. Her prayer, she says, «drew her to the harbour of salvation» (V: 8.4 a puerto de salvación). She refers to it here and later as her «trato con Dios: Que no es otra cosa oración mental, a mi parecer, sino tratar de amistad, estando muchas veces tratando a solas con quien sabemos nos ama’» / «For mental prayer/mindfulness is none other, it appears to me, than an association of friendship, frequently practised on an intimate basis, with the one we know loves us»[8]. The pivotal word «trato» that Teresa uses to convey the intimacy and immediacy of mindfulness causes the most variation in translation. Allison Peers, in his usual robust fashion stays with «intercourse», whilst Kavanaugh and Rodriguez opt for the «intimate sharing between friends». Of her older translators Matthew chose «straight commerce with God», Woodhead «conversing in prayer» and Cohen «communion»[9].

            Where Teresa’s method of prayer differs so clearly from Buddhist mindfulness is the role that visualisation and symbolic representation of Christ plays in her meditations (See, for example, V: 9 1-4). Even though the gustos and regalos will be a necessary part of her description the symbolic function plays an even more important role. However where Teresa’s account of mindfulness converges with Buddhist accounts is the importance of drawing attention away from intellectual and mental activity to the location of what she calls «the heart». This, I would like to suggest, is not an anti-intellectual move but rather a consequence of the strategy of the medieval mystical theology to which she is heir. To overcome the whirring discourse of the intellect we will need to concentrate on the mindful «trato» with the beloved. This is why I feel the term ‘mental prayer’ can be misleading and why I preference ‘mindfulness’, or even perhaps ‘heartfulness’ or ‘soulfulness’, as a translation of oración mental[10]. ‘Mental’ seems to have the contemporary association with the mind and intellectual activity whereas, I would suggest, Teresa is advocating something closer to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness outlined above, and certainly closer to the contemporary practice of mindfulness discussed by commentators such as Kabut-Zinn. As she says later in Chapter Thirteen: «Ansí que va mucho a los principios de comenzar oración a no amilanar los pensamientos, y créanme esto, porque lo tengo por espieriencia» / «Therefore it is of great importance, when we begin to practise prayer, not to be intimidated by thoughts, and believe you me, for I have had experience of this» (V: 13.7)[11]. Or as she later puts it in Chapter Seventeen, rather poetically translated by Matthew, the thoughts are like «unquiet little Gnatts, which buzze, and whizze by night, heer and there, for just so, are these Powers wont to goe, from one to another» (V: 17.6)[12].

            I would like to suggest here that as Teresa’s experience as a writer and pray-er progresses, she does not seem to alter the fundamental perceptions of the nature of the life as prayer as outlined in the early Life. What does change, however, is her ability to convey the exact subtle meaning regarding prayer-discourse in her writings. Indeed, as time goes on she seems to entrench the studied imprecision of The Life, enshrining in her writings the principle that the life of prayer/contemplation by its very nature most resist the hard edged analysing of the discursive intellect. In this respect, as I have argued here and elsewhere, her attempt to patrol the boundaries of the ineffable are as precise and subtle as any contemporary linguistic philosopher, or indeed analytical psychologist. 


Epilogue: Whither the Christian Soul?

I would like to conclude by returning to our opening interlocutor, Fr Veale. Towards the end of the article I began with, the Irish Jesuit has this to say about contemporary Christian discourse:




We may feel, rightly or wrongly that the word ‘God’ cannot be used any more, because it has been so cheapened by its pious users. We may feel the same about most of the language of our religious ghetto. That vocabulary may carry with it so black a cloud of attendant woes,

and remind recovering Catholics of so much intolerable guilt or

religious boredom, that we cannot stomach it ourselves. Do we listen,

ever, to contemporary religious talk and recognise how boring it is? (Veale 2003: 107)




It is no coincidence, I would like to conclude by suggesting, that latterly Teresa’s writings have once again made their appeal to feminists and New Age seekers alike: her concerns are our concerns and her studied language of the soul is as defiantly postmodern as anything by Lacan or Derrida. I have argued in this paper that her ‘language of the spirit’ is, in Fr Veale’s terms, ‘first hand’. She enlivens conversation and discourse of the transcendent in a way I aim to have demonstrated here. In particular her path of what we may call heartfulness or soulfulness opens up exciting new paths for pastoral, psychological and ministerial work. In this her quincentennial year, the sage of Avila is perhaps once again ahead of the curve in her critical analysis of the state of the soul and her way of mindfulness and soulfulness.


[1]Lenguaje de espíritu’ (V 12.5). Teresa’s own phrase for her programme to articulate the ineffable. For more on this see Tyler 2013.
[2]  See The Return to the Mystical (Tyler 2011).
[3] Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis; das Unzulängliche, hier wird's Ereignis; das Unbeschreibliche, hier ist es getan; das Ewigweibliche zieht uns hinan/ «Everything passing is only an image; the unattainable is here achieved; the undescribable is here done; the eternal-feminine draws us above». Goethe Faust Part Two, concluding chorus.
[4] The original draft of the Life is lost.
[5] Pues hablando ahora de los que comienzan a ser siervos de el amor (que no me parece otra cosa determinarnos a seguir por este camino de oración al que tanto nos amó) , es una dignidad tan grande, que me regalo estrañamente en pensar en ella; porgue el temor servil luego va fuera, si en este primer estado vamos como hemos de ir.
[6] 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.
[7] 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).
[8] Again, a tricky passage to translate and preserve the sense of intimacy Teresa wants to convey here. Allison Peers retains this sense with his translation: «Mental prayer, in my view, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him Who we know loves us». Kavanaugh and Rodriguez give a more distant: «Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing less than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us». Perhaps the intimacy we would experience with a boyfriend or girlfriend is suggested.
[9] Matthew, for example, translates the passage above with: «For Mentall prayer, is no other thing, in my opinion, than a treatie, about making friendship with Almightie God; and a frequent and private Commerce, hand to hand, with him; by whome, we know, we are beloved».
[10] For more on what I understand by the term ‘soul’ see Tyler, forthcoming, The Pursuit of the Soul: Soul-making, Psychoanalysis and the Christian Tradition (T&T Clarke, 2016).
[11] Matthew: «It is therefore of great importance, for them, who beginn to hold Mentall Prayer, that they doe not subtilize too much, with their thoughts». Kavanaugh: «not to be intimidated by thoughts». Allison Peers: «not to let ourselves be frightened by our own thoughts».
[12] Que no parece sino de estas maripositas de las noches, importunas y desasosegadas: ansí anda de un cabo a otro.