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Mysticism as “Priesthood”

Teresa of Avila

By Rowan Williams

Publisher: Morehouse

Pages: 177

Price: $11.95

Review Author: Christopher Nugent

Christopher Nugent is Associate Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of Ken­tucky, and the author of Ecumenism in the Age of the Reformation.

One of the remarkable things about the history of Christian spirituality is the prominence of women. For better or worse, cynics might be tempted to add. In the cases at hand, it is for better, for we have before us some­thing of three wonders of this world, waiting for us to catch up with them.

These three graces form a more or less natural family. Their “firsts” would fill a tro­phy case. St. Teresa (1515-1582) is the first woman to be named “Doctor of the Church.” She is a master of prayer and main­tains an honored place in Spanish prose. And she is the only woman to be included in this Morehouse series of some dozen volumes called “Out­standing Christian Thinkers.”

“Sor Juana,” as Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651-1695) is gen­erally known — if little known to the English-speaking world — and is considered by some au­thorities as Mexico’s greatest writer, an Octavio Paz or Car­los Fuentes notwithstanding. And the subtitle of veteran ecumenical theologian George Tavard’s study hails hers as “the first Mexican theology.”

The Englishwoman Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) is author of possibly the best-known general study of mysticism in English in the 20th century, Mysticism (1911). Among her various accolades, she was the first woman to give a series of lectures in theology at Oxford University.

Though originals, all three women are thoroughly rooted. As such, the works before us can be appreciated in their own right as well as in their relevance to contemporary is­sues, not least women and reli­gion.

Let us start with the “clas­sic” age and work our way to the contemporary. Rowan Wil­liams, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, has giv­en us a theologian’s Teresa. Beginners should first repair to a more readable recent study, such as Deirdre Green’s — and, of course, to Teresa her­self. They might also turn, partially by contrast, to the penultimate chapter, “The Mystic,” of Simone de Beau­voir’s The Second Sex, which greets Teresa as virtually alone in transcending earthly and sexual hierarchies.

Williams characterizes mysticism, in the pithy phrase of Andrew Louth, as “suffering divine things.” And Williams would seem to illuminate two main points in this superb study, the first of which is how Teresa suffered human things — i.e., authority prob­lems, such as her being a woman in a man’s world, Jew­ish (a “new Christian”) in an increasingly anti-Semitic soci­ety, and, as the first Discalced Carmelite, a reformer, if not a rebel, in a complacently hierar­chical religious tradition. She is seen as a “displaced” person, something inseparable from her spiritual experience. Tere­sa’s own Life was put on the shelves of the Inquisition until after her death. Mental prayer was suspect. In a moment of exasperation Teresa could later complain that at least “they” could not outlaw the Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary. But her own posture, being diplo­mat as well as saint, was in what Alison Weber recently termed “the rhetoric of femi­ninity.” That is, she practiced a certain verbal obeisance while straightening out the men!

A second theme of Wil­liams’s is not unrelated to the first. That is, if the early Tere­sa might charm a New Ager, what with her admission of physical levitation and the mighty transverberation, as dramatized by Bernini’s sculp­ture, for the mature Teresa the criterion of sanctity is in one’s capacity for suffering — but without a shade of masochism. And, in an argument of histor­ical theology at its finest, Wil­liams says that Teresa repre­sents a definitive break with any generically Gnostic accent upon “states of consciousness” as a criterion in favor of pro­gressively sanctified states of life. In Teresa, as he puts it, “the specialness of exceptional experience is relativized.” Ac­cordingly, the theologically ingenuous Teresa, he makes bold to say, “helped to invent ‘mys­ticism,’ albeit unwittingly.”

Sor Juana is in spiritual succession to Teresa. But Juana, “the tenth muse,” is more a figure of Baroque literature, even secular literature, though a nun. Not without her touches of Yentl, she consid­ered disguising herself as a man in order to attend univer­sity; she settled, more realisti­cally, on the convent.

Tavard’s study of Juana differs from the more massive one of Octavio Paz (1988) in being more theologically in­formed. And, as might follow, the two studies differ in their response to the, at face, strange crisis that confronted Sor Juana at the height of her literary renown. In 1691, in a mixture of praise and blandishment, the Bishop of Pueblo enjoined Juana to desist from her literary career and return to the anonymity of her ori­sons. Though Juana’s first reaction was a remarkable apo­logia deemed “the first document in our hemisphere to de­fend a woman’s right to teach, to study and to write,” she acceded to the injunction. She burned her books, literally, and died a few years later min­istering to her sisters stricken with the plague.

For Paz, the man of let­ters, this was no conversion but a defeat, with intellectual and artistic integrity submissive to intolerant and patriarchal bureaucracy, and Juana finish­ing as penitent rather than theologian. Not so Tavard. He sees Juana as a theologian and a unique one, in whom God becomes “that than which nothing more beautiful can be seen.” And her theology of beauty is integrated with the monumental work of Hans Urs von Balthasar on the theology of esthetics. Finally, Tavard sees Juana as not just some kind of martyr but a mystic: “She has seen and touched the glory.” Certainly that potential was there. And mysticism is likely to be situated in disconti­nuity — i.e., in burning one’s books as well as one’s bridges. Witness Pascal, if not St. Thomas.

Evelyn Underhill presents us with neither transverbera­tion nor trauma, but a more contemporary spirituality of a very satisfying order. Her spir­itual conversion, interestingly, occurred in 1907 while on a Roman Catholic retreat, though she affiliated with the Church of England, apparently due to misgivings over the handling of the Modernist crisis. The essays here are from the more mature Underhill — more incarnational, sacramental, and institutional than in her Mysti­cism. The difference can be traced to her distinguished spiritual director, the Roman Catholic Friedrich von Hugel.

Underhill was a poet and novelist, but above all, a spir­itual and mystical writer, and she bequeaths to us a rare blend of solid spiritual realism and splendid prose. She could also be acerbic, stunning our complacency, as when she writes of the “essentially irreli­gious character” of questions like, “Does Christianity work?” These essays will enrich anyone interested in the spirit­ual life.

Finally, a few thoughts at large. Even though we can dis­count the claim of a Dorothy Schons that Sor Juana was “the first feminist of America,” two of the three above did suffer because of gender, inviting a reflection on the contemporary world. That these women suf­fered seems inseparable from their having “suffered divine things” — i.e., mysticism. Mysticism seems a form that “priesthood” took among women, a thought suggested in the thoroughly sound schol­arship of Caroline Bynum. The denial of canonical priesthood may be one reason for the prominence, if not preponder­ance, of women in Christian spirituality. Another reason is the ontological magnetism of a uniquely attractive and compel­ling male deity — ontological, not necessarily “sexual.” In other words, a personalist variant of the Taoist yin and yang. And, if this intuition is sound, today’s modish disin­terring of a “mother goddess” represents not just patrilogical deicide, but mystical suicide.

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