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