Saint Teresa of Jesus and the Search for the Sacred

Does the Church’s liturgy enable, now, the expression and communication of sacred realities? Is the ‘sacred’ still a meaningful category?

Editor’s note: The following essay was originally given in slightly different form as an address on November 23, 2015, at the presentation of Fr. Uwe Michael Lang’s book Signs of the Holy One: Liturgy, Ritual, and Expression of the Sacred.

 
Among the signal events to mark the Church’s life in 2015 was the 500th birthday of St Teresa of Jesus. The year’s peak event, her feast on 15 October, was overshadowed by headlines from the Synod; yet this year has been nonetheless a Teresian year, calling to mind the Castilian Doctor’s formidable legacy. I found myself gently haunted by Teresa while reading Fr Uwe Michael Lang’s Signs of The Holy One [Ignatius Press, 2015].

I should like, with her help, to reflect on questions raised by the book. For this is a volume that interrogates. It formulates problems not susceptible of easy resolution. There is material here for an examen of consciousness. I invoke the term ‘consciousness’ advisedly. Although Fr Lang mainly addresses issues of liturgical praxis, he knows better than just to bemoan the transgression of rubrics. He points towards a breakdown of sense in liturgy. He shows how this breakdown ominously points to senselessness likewise in life and belief. It is tempting to imagine his subtitle ending with a question mark: ‘Liturgy, Ritual, and Expression of the Sacred?’ Does the Church’s liturgy enable, now, the expression and communication of sacred realities? Is the ‘sacred’ still a meaningful category? 

The book’s first part expounds the sense-content of ‘sacredness’ as defined by modern anthropology and theology. The sheer variety of approaches bewilders. This is brought out in the second part, which indicates wrong turns taken in sacred architecture, music, and art over the past half-century. They happened because the signifier ‘sacred’ was often put, as it were, on its head. Hijacked by human criteria, it could no longer effectively point upward and out to the transcendent. The crisis of sacred liturgy and art is thus a crisis of purpose, of finality. By way of illustration, Fr Lang cites examples apt to make the reader smile. Really, though, there is cause for sadness. When the proclamatory impact of Christian devotion is compromised; when the aesthetic response to faith becomes purely subjective, cut off from a sharable paradigm; when ritual seems little more than fortuitously repeated action: then woe is us, for the Gospel is not preached with the force it requires and deserves. What can we do? How can we respond? We might turn for counsel to the half-millenarian, plain-speaking Doctor of Ávila.

Teresa’s Autobiography, completed in her fiftieth year, chronicles the irruption of the divine into an ordinary life. Seeing Teresa at a distance, we may object to the adjective ‘ordinary’. She seems anything but! Teresa, however, argued this point with passion. She was conscious of singular favour shown her; but she insisted that nothing in her nature marked her out from the common run of men and women. She presents her life in its extraordinariness as a typical life, an exemplar each of us might emulate, had we but faith and courage to surrender to God’s work in us. The trajectory she traces reaches from the outset right to the loftiest end of spiritual life. She counsels souls who wobble ‘like hens, with feet tied together’ but also those who soar like eagles (xxxix.12).1 Nor does she forget the perplexing darkness of the long intermediate stage when the soul, like a timid dove, is dazzled by rare glimpses of God’s Sun while, ‘when looking at itself, its eyes are blinded by clay. The little dove is blind’ (xx.29). Everything she writes, she tells us, is born of experience. For long years she herself ‘had neither any joy in God nor pleasure in the world’ (viii.2). She lived in an in-between state, a no-woman’s land. What changed it? No summary can do justice to her subtle account of the transformative miracle wrought in her by God.

We can, though, get some sense of its impact. Teresa testifies how, at a decisive juncture, ‘todos los que me conocían veían claro estar otra mi alma’: her soul had become other; it was no longer what it used to be (xxviii.13). She had seen something that changed her way of seeing. It caused others to see her differently. It was not, she says, a matter of ‘a radiance that dazzles’, rather of ‘a soft whiteness’, ‘an infused radiance’ that, for being gentle, was so unlike any earthly light that in comparison with it ‘the brightness of our sun seems dim’. Measured against Uncreated Light all light of this world seems ‘artificial’. Had we a choice, she assures us, we should never again ‘want to open our eyes for the purpose of seeing it’ (xxviii.5). To entertain such grace is not just sweetness and joy. It brings on a new kind of homelessness, a numbing sense of being out of place, and that for good. At the end of her book Teresa remarks that life in this world seems to her now ‘a kind of sleep’ (xl.22). She yearns to awaken to eternity. She is weary of being torn apart by existential – or better, essential – tension, for ‘natural weakness’ cannot sustain such spiritual vehemence (xl.7). Anyone who makes even moderate progress in prayer is reminded, like her, of how little Spirit our natural human frame can bear. ‘¡Válgame Dios!’, he or she might exclaim with Teresa: ‘God help me!’

Teresa is a witness to the beautiful dimension of faith. When she speaks of it, she is categorical: ‘The fact of seeing Christ left an impression of his exceeding beauty etched on my soul to this day: once was enough’ (xxxvii.4). This beauty is disturbing, even dangerous. To behold it is to be struck down. It is to walk thenceforth, like Jacob out of Jabbok, with a limp. Teresa illustrates what this means when she speaks of her transverberation, when her heart was pierced by an angel with a fiery lance. The moment has acquired emblematic force in the mystical and aesthetic canons of the West. Bernini’s marble account of it still both enchants and shocks, yet is, for all its formal perfection, but an outsider’s limited view. Teresa stresses the exquisite beauty of the angel, an emissary sent from before the burning holiness of God. The impact on her of this beautiful encounter is complex. So physical was the transfixing that her innards seemed to be drawn out when the lance retreated. So spiritual was it that it left her ‘completely afire with a great love of God’. She makes no apology for not defining the ratio of embodied and transcendent experience. Paradox alone can convey what she went through, as she sums up: ‘It is not bodily pain, but spiritual, though the body has a share in it – indeed, a great share.’ Small wonder that for days she was left as in a stupor (xxix.13f.).

Given the intensely personal nature of Teresa’s relationship with God, one might expect her to treat with detachment the rites of the Church, so objective and therefore, in the root sense, so common. Not so. When at one point adversaries threatened her with heresy-hunters, there was one point about which her mind, often disturbed, was at rest: ‘no one would ever find me transgressing even the smallest ceremony of the Church’ (xxxiii.5). Her veneration for the sacraments was great; though nowhere, perhaps, is her liturgical faith more staunchly professed than in an incident involving sacramentals. Shortly after mentioning the transverberation, Teresa speaks of meeting the devil, hell-bent on causing her to fall. She made the sign of the cross. This drove the tempter away momentarily, but he soon returned. She doused him, therefore, with holy water. At that he vanished ‘and never came back’. This gave Teresa food for thought: ‘I often reflect on the great importance of everything ordained by the Church and it makes me very happy to find that those words of the Church are so powerful that they impart their power to the water and make it so very different from water which has not been blessed’ (xxxi.2ff.). Again we find a stress on otherness, on sacred power effecting transformation.

There was no shortage of overwrought folk claiming God-given illumination in mid-sixteenth-century Spain. They were considered a threat to sound doctrine. Alumbrados were pursued by the Inquisition. The very notion devoción became, with time, a term of ridicule. Teresa was wheat among thorns. Not only was she recognised as orthodox. Her authority was soon unquestioned. Proclaiming her Doctor of the Church in 1970, Paul VI simply confirmed the ‘eminence of doctrine’ acknowledged by Gregory XV in 1622. Yet at the same time he was certain Teresa carried a particular message to our confused modernity. We still hear the passion (perhaps also the pain) in the voice of that contemplative pope five years on from the closure of Vatican II, when he speaks of the primacy of mental prayer:

[Teresa’s message about prayer] comes to us, children of the Church, in an hour marked by endeavours to reform and renew liturgical prayer; it comes to us, tempted by the busyness and noise of the external world to surrender to the breathlessness of modern life and so to lose our soul’s real treasure in pursuit of the seductive treasures of this earth. It comes to us, children of our time, at risk of losing not only the habit of colloquy with God, but even the sense of a need, a duty, to adore him and call upon him.2

Teresa’s doctorate was evidently meant to orientate a Church in the throes of cultural revolution. The appeal has lost none of its relevance. Strikingly, the points just listed from a 1970 papal discourse – problems of liturgical reform, of materialist distraction, of a diminished perception of the sacred – are also to the fore in Signs of the Holy One. It is not, then, too far-fetched to adopt a Teresian perspective on issues arising from the book. We might focus on two: the theme of sacred ritual and the theme of beauty.

An early subsection asks how ritual ‘works’. The rather austere answer is that it operates an interplay between ‘canonical’ and ‘indexical’ messages. What on earth does that mean? In a nutshell, that objective propositions about truths outside myself intersect with my self-expression. Ritual allows me to read my personal story into a larger narrative, yet my story, for being thus guided, remains mine. By way of illustration, we are invited to think of the penitential rite at Mass. As a set formula of words and gestures it is canonical, a given. Yet for it to be meaningful I must make it my own. I must channel my repentance from within into forms without. Thereby the outward form becomes, precisely, the index of an inward reality. This intimately soul-searching exercise, performed within a canonical frame, becomes a moment of communion. The bubble of subjectivity bursts. Individual experience unfolds within a collective whole, expands, and is caught up in a living tradition that reaches to the wellspring of covenantal life and points forward to the heavenly Jerusalem. Drawing on the splendid intuitions of Victor Turner, Fr Lang shows how, by this process, we enter a state of liminality. We ‘cease to be bounded by the secular structures of [our] age and confront eternity’ (37).3 There, on the threshold, an entirely new communitas is born whose participants may ‘integrate their experience of the human condition in all its fragility and ambiguity into a cosmic order’ (43).

The notions of expansion and ascent, of fragmentation finding wholeness, are lovely but need a counterpoise. Else, where does the properly ‘sacred’ sphere begin? Where do we leave the profane? A chapter is devoted to these questions. One might argue that nothing is profane; that in the wake of the incarnation the world as such is sacramental. Fr Lang attends to such views in the optimistic theologies of Schillebeeckx and Rahner, but explains why he finds them wanting. He sets himself the task of ‘recovering the sacred’ (50), surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. The book contains a treasury of texts by Bouyer, Pieper, and, of course, Ratzinger. Sacrality is found to be essentially a function of worship. Sacraments recover their determinate sense as perceptible signs by which man’s sanctification is wrought (58). An expository crescendo draws the reader near the edge of his seat. Just as he awaits the finale, however, the symphonic resolution of several contrasting themes, the music stops, the light comes on and the entr’acte is announced in the form of a matter-of-fact excursus on ‘Liturgy in the Mass Media’. This reader is left with tantalising questions. If we attend to Teresa, for whom exposure to God’s power engenders otherness, for whom ‘the words of the Church’ make things into what they were not before, must we not take extreme care not to circumscribe the sacred, be it in cultic terms? Fr Lang, following Aquinas, calls a thing sacred ‘eo quod ad divinum cultum ordinatur’ (57). It is a venerable definition, in line with the usage of Jerome’s Vulgate. Yet strictly applied it fixes the ‘sacrum’ as a functional term descriptive of human action – exalted action, admittedly, but human nonetheless. How does this ‘recover’ the sacred? Does it account for what happens beyond liminality? Can it direct with firmness such composite notions as ‘sacred art’, ‘sacred music’? And what sense does it make of the enigmatic description of Christ, in the chapter’s last sentence, as the ‘supreme sign of the true Sacred’ (62)? There is promise in this phrase, penned by Benedict XVI. One would love to see it developed further. As it is, we have one set of definitions rising from below, another suggested from on high, but no fully satisfactory sense of where they intersect. That point is perforce a point of rupture, of explosion. Humanity meets God not in continuous progress but in a shock of recomposition. Teresa remarks that the Lord would often prepare her for graces by leaving her deshecha, ’undone’, ‘in pieces’ (xxxviii.17). An element of that dynamic is inescapable whenever human beings draw close to divine Being.

I insist on this not to be pedantic but to press towards an insight emerging in the fourth, perhaps richest, chapter of the book, on the search for beauty. The sacred manifests the true. What is true impinges on the beautiful – but how? The poet’s dictum, ‘truth is beauty, beauty truth’, rings hollow when subjected to scrutiny. I was delighted to find a footnote to this chapter referring to Navid Kermani’s seminal study of 1999, Gott is schön, on the aesthetic experience of the Qur’an (99). By happy coincidence Kermani released his latest book at exactly the same time as Fr Lang published his.4 Kermani’s contains a series of reflections on Christian art. To find a Shia Muslim expounding Caravaggio is exciting. His outsider’s perspective reveals something essential about the proprium christianum. It is an obvious truth, but one to which habit blinds us: the fact that many motifs depicted beautifully in Christian art are in themselves quite hideous, scenes of violence and grief. To reduce Christian beauty to what pleases belies the crucified core of our faith and self-understanding. Again, we might turn for verification to Teresa. Her pivotal encounters with beauty were moments of delight, yes, but also of pain and estrangement. Popular ideas of beauty, locked in subjective perception, must capitulate before a testimony like hers. The beautiful has lost its value as a sign of something absolute. It is something we now pursue for itself, with toxic consequences. Fr Lang cites Roger Kimball citing Dmitri Karamazov: ‘Beauty is the battlefield where God and the devil war for the soul of man.’ It is a fact that this statement of Dostoyevski’s is sometimes invoked as a mystic aphorism. But should it be? Dmitri makes it in a state of agitation, pacing a ramshackle garden shed. He is tipsy, having knocked back a half-bottle of cognac. He is haranguing an audience of one, his meek little brother. He rambles, trying to confess an impossible love. When he speaks of the ‘battlefield’ of beauty, it is not as a philosopher but as someone just a little mad. His point is that most men do not know what beauty is and so surrender to deception. They seek it in Sodom, not in icons of the God-Bearer. It is not beauty as such that is the battlefield, but counterfeit beauty, projected in the likeness of possessive desire, from which may God save us!

If you accept this reading, it actually lends further force to the quotation in our context. No less than the worldview of Kant and the Romantics, a Karamazovian indulgence of appetite accounts for that visceral turn towards the subjective which defines and imprisons modern sensibility. Fr Lang identifies this tendency lucidly. He then formulates what seems to me the really crucial insight of this book: that it is, in consequence, all but impossible now ‘to restate the metaphysical foundations of beauty’. Why, we have abandoned the categories needed for such statement! Our mind-set, even as people of faith, is this-worldly by conditioning. How can we speak truly of God, of the life of the soul, of worship? Faced with concepts of potentially transcendent significance – ‘sacredness’ or ‘beauty’ – we spontaneously order them in terms of experience, sentiment, or function. We pull them down to where we can reach them, refer them to ourselves, then see how they might serve us. Are not many failures in sacred liturgy and art simply results of well-meaning but presumptuous attempts to induce the sacred? And do not many ‘conservative’ reactions to ‘modern’ mistakes do exactly the same, though by different paths? As for beauty, would we risk letting it raise us from sensory delight to the truly tremendous? I think of a line from Rilke’s first Duino Elegy: ‘Denn das Schöne ist nichts als des Schrecklichen Anfang’; ‘For beauty is only a step removed from a burning terror we barely sustain’.5

After the traumas of the 60s, Paul VI appointed a guiding star for the Church: Saint Teresa. She loved the Lord fondly yet adored him as ‘Majesty’. She testified how high, how different are the things of God, how far from being harmless. The pope wished the Church to emulate her fervent prayer, to enter with her into the mystery of God, the flood of mercy that remains, all the same, ‘burning terror’. Fr Lang cites a similar summons from Joseph Ratzinger. In 2000 the then cardinal remarked how precious it would be ‘to regain a faith that sees’, a contemplative faith (118). We can be grateful to Fr Lang for providing a diagnosis of symptoms that keep us, still, from seeing. They call for treatment. One remedy prescribed is the hermeneutic of historic continuity, a diachronic re-assessment of the Church’s life of worship. Who could disagree? Theologically speaking, though, liturgical renewal will presuppose a keen awareness of rupture. It will posit a clear, articulate sense of who God is, who we are. It will humbly own the ontological gap. It will know that to behold the beauty of the Lord is to be ‘undone’, then to be made ‘other’. Its sacred purpose will draw on a metaphysics charged with adoration. Popular liturgical debate does not always impress by high metaphysical intent. To speak with Teresa, one sometimes feels closer to the poultry yard than to the silent flight of eagles. Fr Lang’s book is an invitation to soar. May it be widely heeded.

ENDNOTES:

1 References in Roman numerals are to the Vida of Saint Teresa of Ávila, cited in Edgar Allison Peers’ translation in volume one of The Complete Works of Saint Teresa of Jesus (London: Sheed & Ward, 1946), though sometimes altered slightly following Silverio de Santa Teresa’s 2nd edn of the Spanish text, Obras de Santa Teresa de Jesús (Burgos: El Monte Carmelo, 1930).

2 Paul VI’s proclamation of Teresa doctorate can be found on the Vatican website.

3 References in Arabic numerals are to Uwe Michael Lang, Signs of the Holy One: Liturgy, Ritual, and Expression of the Sacred (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2015).

4 Navid Kermani, Ungläubiges Staunen: Über das Christentum (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2015).

5 The free but faithful rendering of the line from Rainer Maria Rilke’s First Duino Elegy is John Waterfield’s, available online.

About Fr. Erik Varden, OCSO 0 Articles
Fr. Erik Varden, OCSO, is Abbot of Mount St Bernard’s Abbey in Leicestershire, England.