Raye Mathias, MSW
HMT 540. Learning Module V-B
Guidance for Contemporary Seekers:
Writings of St. John of the Cross, 1542-1591 and Teresa of Avila, 1515-1582.
Before I began, I wish to make note of the translator, Mirabai Starr. I’d like to include a quote found on the back jacket cover of the book “Teresa of Avila, The Book of My Life” by a noted current author and seeker, Carolyn Myss.
“Mirabai Starr’s translation is a work for our time. She has given Teresa a presence and voice in a modern era. Saint Teresa no doubt chose Mirabai, for her talent with language and Spanish translation is pure genius. (1)
Mirabai’s translation of St John of the Cross and St.Teresa’s work was very effective in making their work flow ever so lyrically into the center of my being. I am ever so grateful.
St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila were visionaries and mystics living in Spain during the 16th century. I have found both of their written work inspiring and illuminating. Their lives both reflect the dedication and courage needed by all seekers who are looking and actively striving along a spiritual path. St. John was imprisoned for a time and Teresa lived during the times of the Spanish Inquisition. St. John’s main work, “Dark Night of the Soul” was inspired during this incarceration. Teresa’s work was written at the behest of her church superiors and confessors.
St. John’s “Dark Night of the Soul” was completed after he escaped imprisonment from church authorities but started when someone smuggled writing materials to him. His life directly reflects on the arduous process that is sometimes necessary for one seeking God. “Dark Night of the Soul” has become a contemporary expression for the transformational process that is identified as an important step in the purgation of our collective identities and fragmented souls. It becomes a means where by the “dark light of God” illuminates our interior worlds to purify whatever imperfections we have. (2) It usually has been taken to mean that our deepest flaws are exposed and we have no way of escaping the accompanying grief and suffering. It is the way that our Creator helps us grow into spiritual perfection as we learn to shed all that is gross and immaterial in our selves. St. John describes it as a way of shedding our sensuous natures as we begin to ascend into the more heavenly realms through spiritual contemplation. He further examines the process where the beginners learn how to become spiritual adepts. He uses King David, Job, St. Augustine, and others as illustrations of those who write and talk about their own sufferings that God bestowed upon them to help illuminate their souls.
Anecdotally, it becomes where the “dark night” is followed by the clear light of dawn. It becomes a way of finding the hallowed ground of Love and Light that is our spiritual heritage and identity. “Fear not, for the Lord our God is always with us.”
Teresa’s writings are more all encompassing. The writings I’m covering in this discourse are “Teresa of Avila, The Book of My Life” and “The Interior Castle”. “The Book of My Life” was written while she was in her forties under the direction of her superiors in her church. “The Interior Castle” was written later while she was in her sixties, again under the direction of her superior and confessor, Gracion. There is no adequate way I can began to describe her writings. One will need to read them for one to understand the emotional depths and the heights she reaches. She remains ever humble in the face of the Christ, the Church, her converts, and all her opposition. Her religious ecstasies and raptures are well documented. Her life was continually put under the scrutiny of the church and for a long time she was torn between following the orders of her superiors or the Christ.
In “The Book of Life”, Teresa talks about her life, her family, and her struggles with her faith and her health. There were years of aridity where her questions far outweigh any real spiritual progress. She continually expressed her own self worth of being entirely beneath recognition. She was able to finally able to overcome all her inner obstacle and surrender completely to her “Beloved”. Her visions, raptures, and voices began that persisted throughout her life.
Her writings are all note worthy, but are a couple I want to highlight. She talks about the contemplative prayer or silent prayer as being separated into three levels. One begins by practicing the prayer of recollection where all the distractions become quieted. “Our thoughts may chatter for a while but then they grow quiet. Our senses grow still. There is an ingathering of the faculties of memory, will, and imagination and the soul becomes ‘recollected’”. (3) The prayer of quiet may come next. It ‘s comes as a gift of the divine and can best described as a feeling of grace. The last level is the prayer of union. It is where the seeker becomes one with the Lord. There becomes no separation between the two.
Another aspect in this book is when she describes the spiritual work we do as an analogy to working in our garden. There are four types of “waters” for our gardens that correspond to our spiritual path. Beginners are asked to do the initial work on their souls such as the practicing of “virtues”. This can be illustrated as having to do the watering by dipping into our own well to water our garden. It requires each of us to supply the effort. (4) This in turn, creates momentum, where the garden begins to become nourished and grow. We learn we have periods where we can stop and rest. We see the results in our efforts.
Second, we find ways to begin to connect to the source of water and build waterways that will provide for the ongoing sustenance. This is where the Prayer of Quiet begins to appear. We feel the presence of the Divine. “ She sees that she no longer belongs wholly to this earth because the Beloved, in his great goodness, is about to make her a citizen of heaven” (5)
The third water is described as a stream or spring. This is where there is very little effort required. It is as if the Lord is watering our garden by himself. There is a steady stream entering the very soul, nourishment from above.
The last source of water is reached where the divine begins to tend the garden as we learn how to distribute our gifts to others. This is where the Prayer of Union begins. “The fragrance of her flowers has grown so sweet that other souls are attracted to it.” (6) This is indicative of “our Beloved” granting us his favors. This work and St. John’s illustrate the role of the divine as redeemer. We as seekers begin the arduous task of advancing ourselves by working on our “collective selves” or gardens and in turn are rewarded. This is not an easy course to advance. In many of her writings she and St. John reiterate the personal trials all seekers face in the beginning. “Few souls reach this state without having suffered innumerable misunderstandings, criticisms, and illnesses.” (7) She further talks about the fact that she herself received such favors while others did not. She also reiterated and praised the Lord for giving her all the sufferings she would endure. She also considered them favors. She covers this much more in her later work, “The Interior Castles”. This seems to be God’s will and not ours to question his wisdom. These favors have come to Teresa in the form of visions, direct spiritual communications, and voices. These have at many times been difficult because of the intensity and ecstatic nature of these raptures or “visitations”. They at times caused her to pass out where it became impossible to hide them from others. Her emotional descriptions of the later stages or dwellings as she approaches her “spiritual wedding” with the Christ are simply overwhelming to read.
In Chapter 22, Part Two, of “the Book of My Life”, Teresa advances advice to the world leaders about where to put ones priorities. It seems to apply to our current age as well. “Blessed be the souls the Lord brings to an understanding of the truth. If only world leaders could enter this exalted state…” (8)
Teresa’s last written masterpiece “The Interior Castle” was written while she was in her sixties during the height of the Inquisition. I cannot adequately describe what travails this revered personage had to undergo yet remain true to her internal calling to God. There were her life-long health problems, her opposition of others in her church, and her active calling to establish a newer order of the Discalced Carmelite houses throughout the countryside in Spain. This required long torturous trips in the countryside in donkey carts and ongoing concerns about funding. This extraordinary woman was able to transform the very world she inhabited. She speaks simply and humbly yet quite eloquently. Her mind is sharp and focused when she discusses the trials of her fellow seekers. She does go to great lengths when she describes her own failings. One can be really surprised to hear how much she seems to loathe her own spiritual failings. Both of these written works carry this theme. I’m amazed with the arc that her writings exemplify this over and over again from a woman that is directly experiencing these communications with her “Beloved”. She compares her life as a worm being gradually transformed as her communication became ever increasingly ecstatic and more revealing. There has been some discussion over her self-castigation. Some believe she did to help protect herself from religious prosecution. I can’t rule that out entirely but there were various types of self-flagellation being used to heighten ones spirituality during that time.
At the heart of her works is the ability to directly communicate with her “Beloved”. She directly was able to see the Christ. When she was busy establishing the newer Discalced order, God was directly guiding her throughout this very difficult time. It’s been stated by her fellow sisters that while she wrote “The Interior Castle”, that she was directly connected to her “Beloved”. I am not one who can attest to this, yet I’m myself transported while reading her works. I have never before read such inspiring words. Both her and St. John of the Cross’s words resonate in such a way with me that it awakens long dormant memories. There is indeed worthiness in reading the lives of our saints. Teresa herself prescribed this very thing.
“The Interior Castle” becomes a real road map into the very center of our lives. It helps by pointing out pitfalls that might ensnare unsuspecting seekers. It helps by describing the way to Christ as a series of life long lessons not done alone but with our Creator. It’s a series of steps one makes into the ever heightening of our spiritual senses. It is truly inspiring. In her writings she details the journey by comparing herself to a silk worm that has to undergo its own transformation. There are seven “dwellings” we can reach in our transformation, each one being closer to the purer light of our Creator. She also incorporates the “Four waters” from her earlier works plus the different “prayers of consolation, quiet, and union. It is a description of the active work involved with the seeking and serving of God thru inner discipline, prayer, and contemplation.
What helps to make these writings so powerful and unique is that the humble, authentic voice of Teresa keeps coming through along with her highly emotional insights gleaned from her conversations with her “Beloved”. The results are a highly personal account of her journey and visions of devotional services rendered to the Christ and the Father.
What may we learn from these two mystical writers and livers of the “mystical” way? I’d like to think that we all will eventually be making a similar journey. I think these two will continue to cast a giant presence for all earnest seekers. Their writings may reflect their historic times and events, yet will remain imbued with a universal element we can all relate to. St. John of the Cross could be instrumental in explaining the necessary role that transformation has in the evolvement of the soul, the purgation of our darker elements. It also explains how the active forces of God may interact with each of us to help us along in this journey. There is merit in the expression, “ it is always darkest before the dawn”. It has been indeed dark when I’ve been confronted with my most unvarnished truths that have resided somewhere in my vast interior. It is also a consolation knowing that I am not ever alone.
Teresa’s writings help explain the work involved individually and with her observations of others. She has seen herself stumble along the way and has directly seen how her “beloved “ has helped her personally and in her work as a nun. The analogy of the effort required to begin the spiritual work on oneself is accurate. One who has just begun this work has to draw up his own waters from the well. This seems to illustrate the work we undergo when we practice the “virtues”. I think these must be the same as some of Edgar Cayce’s, like practicing patience and long-suffering, which are found in his “Search for God” works. This, in turn, develops a capacity where we learn how to construct ways to allow the work to gather momentum and “watering our garden” becomes easier. It may be that we have found others to share our inner resources with. It may also mean that our lives are being blessed with favors from God who at some point starts to “water our gardens” Himself.
Both writers draw a distinction of beginners and adepts. There may be long periods at the beginning where no apparent results are forthcoming. These “aridities” may seem to stretch on forever. One cannot make too much out of these. One must learn how to simply renew one’s effort. I have had long periods of acridities but they are easily forgotten when the first signs of my inkling spirituality started appearing.
There seems to be a difference between Edgar Cayce’s approach to spiritual growth in that Edgar’s spiritual work seems to emphasize meditation. Both St. John of the Cross and Teresa seem to use contemplation. They might be techniques or disciplines used to achieve the same outcome, stilling the mind. Both were a part of the Church where one could find redress from the outer physical world in their cloistered or monastic orders. From what I’ve been told, Edgar Cayce advocated finding God in the everyday world. I’ve been fortunate in finding both a career and a spiritual avenue that allowed me to practice a form of contemplation. This led to a gradual spiritual awakening for myself. I think contemplation closely resembles Edgar Cayce’s “watching oneself go by.” Diffused contemplation occurs when the spiritual elements, the “divine waters” combine with one’s mental aspects and gradually lifts one’s thoughts and actions into the spiritual realm. There is “no doubt that God is in us and we are in God.” (9) This follows some Gnostic writings that emphasize our dual role as spiritual beings living in a transitory physical world. We become citizens of both.
Another similarity between Teresa and Edgar Cayce is where Teresa mentions daily “hitting the mark.” I think it’s the same thing as when Edgar Cayce talks about building the mind “line by line.” We all need to lay the proper spiritual foundation that will be able to support the influx of newer higher spiritual vibrations. We cannot afford to “build our house on sand.”
I have found the “waters of God” without using any real meditative techniques. I, at many earlier times, viewed my own life as being just a prayer. I like to think that the favors I’ve been blessed with are a result of the work I’ve done for others and myself. I do not know why I have been blessed in this way but the more I share my gifts with others, the more favors and visions I receive. Teresa says this is “God’s will” that these favors come to us. (10)
One thing I think I need to address is that for the most part the inner seven dwellings are not meant to be seen as distinctly separate. They remain areas of graduated influence. It’s easy to for our human nature to assign added meaning to the higher levels. I do think it is accurate to portray the higher levels to be more difficult and steeper. The “way” might simply mean that the responsibilities become much more important because we are interacting with a broader scope of our humanity. That might translate into being the reason why we may endure more suffering and periods of aridity before enlightenment comes. It might also mean that the spiritual rewards are greater too. In the September 2007 “Personal Spiritual Newsletter” (11) under the question and answer section, there is a discussion of different levels in the Cayce materials. These different levels may be achieved from individual work but would seem to disappear when we all have fully realized our divine natures. We all become One.
Another fact is that we are moving into the Aquarian Age. Cayce gives a clear date for this change but the influences are made to shift over a matter of time. I think the seven inner dwellings are similar. We will not notice any clear changes except in retrospect. The symbol of the Water Bearer sending the “water” for the nourishment of humanity seems quite apt here.
I’d like to end this on a personal note. All of these books by St.Teresa and St. John of the Cross have increased my own understanding of my divine nature. I have felt my own inner resource resonate and awaken from these writings. What, at times, seemed dormant has now been awakened. Over the past five or six years, my own understanding of myself has been reduced to nothing and at the same time I have been given me so much more. My capacity to find another level in my own life has given me hope that I can truly be of service to others. These years have gone by swiftly but have left me with a much deeper sense of who we are. I will continue to ask and pray for guidance.
1. Caroline Myss, as quoted on back book cover; Teresa of Avila. Teresa of Avila, The Book of My Life as translated by Mirabai Starr. Boston & London, New Seeds, 2007.
2. St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul as translated by Mirabai Starr. New York, Riverhead Books, 2002. p. 100.
3. Teresa of Avila, Teresa of Avila, The Book of my Life as translated by Mirabai Starr. Boston & London, New Seeds, 2007. p. xxvll
4. ibid. pg. 71-79.
5. ibid. p. 103.
6. ibid. p. 120.
7. ibid. p. 120
8. ibid. p. 150.
9. ibid. p. 25
10. ibid. pg. 63-69.
11. Personal Spirituality Newsletter. Questions and Answers. September, 2007. Association for Research and Enlightenment.
Association for Research and Enlightenment. Personal Spiritual Newsletter. Questions and Answers. September, 2007.
du Boulay, Shirley. Teresa of Avila, An Extraordinary Life. New York: BlueBridge, 1991, 2004.
St. John of the Cross. Dark Night of the Soul as translated by Mirabai Starr. New York: Riverhead Books, 2002.
St. Teresa of Avila. The Interior Castle as translated by Mirabai Starr. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003.
Teresa of Avila. Interior Castle as translated and edited by Allison Peers. New York: Doubleday, 1961.
Teresa of Avila. Teresa of Avila, The Book of my Life as translated by Mirabai Starr. Boston and London: New Seeds. 2007.