Monday, April 29, 2019

Mystics, Visions and Prophets

 Saint Teresa of Avila wrote a great deal about her relationship with the Christian Church. Looking at her writing you get the sense that she might have been a little intense in her determination to do right by her understanding of God. When she was eleven she and her brother had decided it run away from home to fight for the Crusades, they were half way down the road when the parental side caught up with them and dragged them back home. Later in life Teresa had a more pacifist approach, "I do not fear Satan as much as I fear those who fear Satan." Of the orders, joining the Carmelite order, an easy going kind of order, was probably the best one to give her personality a chance to evolve in a more accepting environment. The problem was she struggled with a regular series of often very frightening, painful and physically draining visions over which she had no control. In analyzing her writings members of the medical profession have suggested that she may have suffered from a form of epilepsy. When her visions first started she understood them in terms of levitation and was concerned that she might have been possessed by a demon. Whenever Teresa felt levitation coming on, she asked her young sisters in the convent to hold her down and not tell anyone. This request of hers, she knew was a bit sinful and she took her worry to her father confessor, poured out her heart to him, which itself was slippery slope for a young nun because of the more innate boy/girl circumstance and she sort of knew that her confessor had a special fondness for her, and she knew of a women outside the order who had so special a fondness for him she'd given him a copper charm to wear around his neck. The whole thing was difficult for a person very determined to remain in God's favor and who had definite ideas about what remaining in God's favor required. Fortunately Teresa's confessor told her that far from being possessed by the devil, her levitation was a grant of rapture from God. And there are some strange reports that Saint Teresa would sometimes levitate, or whatever, during Mass.

In her writings Teresa talks about learning how to manage her afflictions. She been bedridden for a year. After a levitation on one occasion she was so paralyzed, all her joints seem to have un-jointed and she could only move one finger. She sometimes just liked to be alone, she knew it wasn't right, she loved others but she sometimes found the presence of others painful. But however it occurred or whatever caused it, her devotion to God grounded her, offered her a path. Her desire to be alone became "devotion to silence" so that she might in silence better commune with her creator without distraction. It was path she chose and not an easy one, "Dear Lord, let me suffer or let me die." Teresa's mysticism, taken from her visions of hell, of Saints, the phases of prayer, and the phases a soul went through on its journey to heaven were for the Catholic Church very re-affirming at a time when the Protestant Reformation was gaining strength, causing some distress in the more political corners of the Church of Rome which had failed to void the schism by simply declaring the Protestors heretics without the church being able to find sufficient political support to punish the heretics. Teresa too had a quarrel with Rome, it was too interested in earthly matters and needed to revert to its more spiritual foundations. The other point about her visions, I think worth mentioning, is the detail with which she was able to recount them. One of her visions involved her being repeatedly stabbed by an angel, she could see the spear in her belly and when the angel withdrew the spear she could see her entrails. The pain was intense, but the sweetness of the pain was "so surpassing... I could not wish to be rid of it." Teresa in her heart understood the truth of her journey through life in a wonderful way, "the feeling remains that God is on the journey, too." Quarrel if you want, but Teresa had visions as a mystic in and for the patterns of her faith, her visions weren't the revelation of a prophet with a mind to add to and sort out a perceived confusion in the tapestry of an established understanding.

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