Mysticism as “Priesthood”
Teresa of Avila
By Rowan Williams
Review Author: Christopher Nugent
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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