CHRIST IN THE MYSTICISM OF ST. TERESA
by Father Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD
What is Mysticism?
(2 Peter 1:21)
The word “mysticism” is a word that many do not feel at ease with. It is a term in fact that St. Teresa never used. She was even hesitant about the words “mental prayer” and “contemplation,” since, she tells us, they were words her nuns were afraid of; as a result she limited herself to commenting on the Our Father when writing on prayer for her Sisters. Nonetheless, though Teresa tried not to scare people off, she has left careful descriptions of some of the most extraordinary spiritual experiences in the history of religious literature.
Teresa, in looking back, divides her spiritual life into two definite periods. The second period is marked by her clear experience of what she calls the “supernatural.” her term for “mystical,” for the experiences that she was certain she could not have acquired through her own efforts. These experiences are sometimes referred to as “contemplation” or “infused contemplation”; they include the stages of contemplation outlined in different ways by Teresa in various writings .
When she arrives at this second period in her Life, she writes: “This is another new book from here on – I mean, another new life. The life dealt with up to this point was mine; the life I lived from this point . . . is the one God lived in me,” “1 John 4:2”
In order to speak well of Teresa’s experience of Christ in this second period of her life we should say something beforehand about her relationship to Him in the first period of her spiritual life. During this period which lasted until she was in her forties she was bound more to her own efforts at prayer and the use of her own resources.
Everyone who sets out on the spiritual journey to God faces the same problem, How can I come into touch with God who is infinite and pure mystery to all creatures. The Buddhists might say: with reference to God we cannot even speak; you must sit in the silence, and you might begin by counting your breath. Or a Hindu might give you a sacred word, a mantra, techniques and methods of prayer. Moral and ascetical life have been devised to answer this question.
Teresa, of course, approached this problem as a Christian. Now the Christian believes that God Himself has entered our world and provided us with the way to Himself through Jesus Christ. Teresa observes: “Christ is the one in whom God takes delight . . . He is the one through whom all blessings come. He is the gate to God, the path.” Now there are these different ways in which we can relate to Christ. Teresa tells us that He is our Brother who enables us to call God our Father. Besides this, He is a friend and companion, a companion particularly in times of difficulty and tribulation; He is our teacher and master, who teaches us how to approach God particularly in the Our Father: He is in a deeply spiritual way our Bridegroom or Spouse: He is a Lord, the Lord of the world, our King, whom she calls His Majesty. “2 Timothy 2:15”
It is for you to look at Him, Teresa says, He never takes His eyes off you. How can we look at Him? Teresa would represent Him within herself. “I represented Him to myself interiorly,” she says. It is not too clear just what she meant by “representing” Christ within her. For further on in her Life she complains: “I had such little ability to represent things with my intellect that if I hadn’t seen the things, my imagination was not of use to me . . . I could only think about Christ as He was as man, but never in such a way that I could picture Him within myself . . . I was like one who is blind or in darkness.”
When she is speaking of representing Christ, then, she is not referring to some vivid picturing with her imagination or to the composition of place with all its detail. Her concern is not with the physical details of the physical qualities of Christ or of the particular scene. For Teresa “representing Christ” has more to do with becoming aware of His presence, or becoming present to Him “who never takes His eyes off us.” She goes directly to the person of Christ in His humanity: she brings Him to her consciousness as either within her or beside her. This was her manner of entering prayer. But because of her fragile nature and a mind that was so susceptible to digression, so alert and active, as the reading of her writings demonstrates so clearly, she felt torment over her inability to concentrate her attention. As a result she resorted as well to other supports and strategies in order to be present to Christ. “Matthew 4:4”
Loving Friendship with Christ
In the loving friendship with Christ that Teresa developed through prayer, she felt keenly her own failure to live up to the demands of such friendship. It was during a moment of intense feeling of her own wretchedness that she experienced the conversion that marked the new period of her spiritual life. She tells us: “Well, my soul now was tired; and, in spite of its desire, my wretched habits would not allow it rest. It happened to me that one day . . . I saw a statue . . . (of) the much wounded Christ . . . I threw myself down before Him with the greatest outpouring of tears. I was very devoted to the Magdalene and frequently thought about her conversion . . .”
From that moment on she noticed a remarkable change within herself. “It seemed to me my soul gained great strength from the Divine Majesty and that He must have heard my cries and taken pity on so many tears. “John 15:13”