Saint Teresa of Avila as an Interspiritual Mystic

May 4, 2021

A Summary of a OneSpirit Interfaith Worship Service Address, by Rev Jenny Miller

Teresa of Avila’s ‘epic life’ inspired George Elliot’s book Middlemarch, and even Florence Nightingale described Teresa as ‘the most active of the mystics’. Teresa was a Spanish Carmelite Nun, who reformed the Discalced Carmelite Orders for stricter observance. ‘Discalced’ means ‘Barefooted’ – hence, no shoes for vows of poverty. However, it is lesser known that Teresa of Avila was born of first generation Jewish ‘Conversos’ in Southern Andalucian Spain which was strongly influenced by both Jewish Mystical Kabbalah as well as Sufi Islamic Mysticism, after centuries  of Islamic Rule. Therefore, Teresa’s spirituality and mysticism has been argued by academic scholars, Green & Swetleiki, to be not just Christian but indeed a blend of Christian, Islamic-Sufism and Jewish Kabbalah.

Teresa was born to a Jewish ‘Conversos’ family during the time of the Infamous Spanish Inquisition. ‘Conversos’ means at best, ‘New Christians’ and at worst, and more honestly, ‘Converted Christians’. Prior to the Spanish Inquisition, in the high middle ages, Spain enjoyed a convivial period of the three cultures of Christianity, Judaism and Islam living together in relative harmony and where philosophical and mystical ideas across cultures where regularly exchanged in freely held conversations in bathhouses. During my own visit to Andalucia’s Seville, I saw for myself the mix of the three cultures in one city. The photograph on the left of Seville Cathedral in Spain shows the appropriation of the original Grande Mosque, with the dome of the mosque covered in the now Christian Cathedral arches, showing how the mix of cultures became expressed in architectural blends…

Following the Spanish Inquisition, Spanish Jews and Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity, facing social prohibitions, burning of cultural and spiritual books and facing public ridicule, expulsion or even death if they lapsed into their own spiritual practices. Teresa’s own Grandfather was ‘reconciled’ by the Inquisition after facing public ridicule of being marched through the streets of Toledo, whilst wearing ‘sanbenitillo’ costumes of ‘bright yellow emblazoned with a flaming cross and snakes’ as a result of for  ‘secretly observed Jewish rites’. Conversos families outwardly behaved as a convert, whilst observing their true faith in secret. This is especially understandable given the Jewish Talmudic prohibitions of Avoda Zara, or ‘foreign worship’ as idolatrous. Frightening times – As a free spirit, it makes me ever more grateful for the liberal spirituality of the OneSpirit Interfaith Foundation.

Teresa’s contemplative writings on the soul as an Interior Castle of seven portals to the soul’s union with God were written for nuns who had a calling to a devotional life of prayer and contemplation. Crucially, nuns of the Carmelite orders sought to know God through direct experience, not through intellectual discourse and their lives became a continual communion with God’s Presence in their lives. In the beautiful words of Mirabai Starr, from her translation of Interior Castle:

‘There is a secret place. A radiant sanctuary. As real as your own kitchen. More real than that. Constructed of the purest elements. Overflowing with the ten thousand beautiful things. Worlds within Worlds. Forests, rivers. Velvet coverlets thrown over featherbeds, fountains bubbling beneath a canopy of stars. Bountiful forests, universal libraries. A wine cellar offering an intoxication so sweet you will never be sober again. A clarity so complete you will never again forget…’

– The Calling, Mirabai Starr

Teresa’s style is heartfelt, conversational and contemplative, and always writing from her own direct experience so she writes, not in an intellectual way, but in a way which is expressed from the wisdom of her own direct experience. Indeed, in describing a mystical experience, Teresa wrote that her mind and eyes wanted to come with her, but that they simply could not make the journey. Her senses were simply unable to withstand the Presence of God. Only her soul had the stamina to be in the company of the Divine. So, What is the soul? Teresa describes the soul as a castle, made of a diamond or a transparent crystal, with many rooms. She says:

Let us think of our soul
as resembling a castle
formed of a single diamond,
or a very transparent crystal
containing many rooms
of which some are above,
some below, others at the side.
In the centre,
in the very midst of them all,
is the principal chamber,
in which God and our soul
hold their most secret communion,
Nothing can be compared to
the great beauty and capabilities of oursoul.
However keen our intellects be,
we are no more able
to comprehend the depths of our soul
than we are to comprehend God
for our soul has been created
in the image and likeness of God.
It is our soul’s likeness to God
that makes it possible for us
to commune with the God in whose image
we have been made.
(Translated by Mirabai Starr)

So, Teresa’s writings of her intimacy with the sacred in the depths of her soul continue to move and inspire spiritual seekers today, who long for direct experience of their own, beyond intellectual concepts. Contemporary realised teachers, such as Eckhart Tolle, tend to use the neutral word ‘Presence’, rather than God or Soul, which appeals to both spiritual seekers as well as the spiritual-but-not-religious, as well as  atheists, humanists and agnostics amongst us, who have ironically been called the ‘nones’ [n-o-n-e-s] in theological circles! Not nuns with habits, like Teresa, but nones, without habits! Eckhart Tolle talks about the experiential living presence beyond concepts of God, which occurs when we move from our beliefs about God to an actual realisation of knowing, when we take our attention to the Presence of the present moment… a presence that is both within and without,  when you realise that you are that Presence, disguised as a person…Evelyn Underhill, one of the great authorities on Western Mysticism defines a mystic as ‘a person who has, to a greater or lesser degree, had a direct experience of God’.

Teresa’s wisdom illumines the journey to Union with God who is Radiant Light in the centre of the soul and Teresa speaks to us of her experiences in a soulful ‘sprawling’ language of the heart that helps us to illuminate the soul’s transformation from caterpillar to a butterfly… Teresa’s mystical realisation is no less astonishing than realising that we are a butterfly-like soul that, in the words of Caroline Myss, ‘has a body, but is not the body’. This level of mystical teaching can be found in many Eastern teachings, such as Hindu Advaita and Buddhism, which encourages meditation on the Emptiness of the Body; or as Hindu Advaita Vedanta reminds us ‘neti neti’, I am not the Body, I am not the Mind, ‘not this, not that’!

When people glimpse such experiences of Soulful Presence, even if momentarily, the experience can be life changing and for those people, they can then speak from that direct experience ….So, Teresa is speaking to us from her own mystical experience as depicted by Bernini’s famous sculpture in Rome of Teresa’s mystical ecstasy of mystical union with God, as an Angel pierces her heart with an Arrow.

Teresa’s ecstacy is depicted as the Soul’s realisation of the deepest nature of Union of the Centre of the Soul with God, as ‘the Ground of Consciousness’ which she describes as being like a Transparent Crystal Clear Diamond of God’s Radiance.

Therefore, whilst Teresa was a Christian Discalced Carmelite Nun, she was born of a Jewish conversos family and her mystical writings, which were considered so unique in terms of Christianity, such that they arose the suspicion of the Inquisition on a number of occasions, have been reassessed under modern academic scholarship to reveal influences of and similarities with Jewish Kabbalistic and Sufi-Islamic Mysticism. In Spanish, Teresa’s Interior Castle is called ‘Los Moradas’ which is more accurately translated as ‘The Dwelling places’, which lends a subtlety to her experience of the soul which is more attuned to Sufi-Islamic and Kabbalah esoteric understandings of  soul interiority. The Soul is regarded as having seven levels or interconnecting rooms or stations or dwelling places. In terms of the Christian tradition it draws heavily on the Christian mystical text, ‘The Songs of Songs’. Teresa herself commented on The Song of Songs, but apparently only fragments survive today, which may indeed have been in order to hide it from the Inquisition, which interrogated Teresa more than once. This must have been a frightening prospect given the horrific consequences of being declared a heretic.

The rediscovery of Teresa’s Judeo-conversos origins after the Second World War coincided with a post-holocaust reconsideration of the treatment of Jews by church and state and a re-evaluation of the conversos voice in Spanish literature generally.

Interestingly the Discalced Carmelite Order was considered ‘Jewish Christianity’ because it was connected to the Judaic Old Testament heritage of Elijah in the Holy Land at Mount Carmel – ‘Carmel-ites’. Indeed, in Catherine Swetlieki’s book ‘Spanish Christian Cabala’ was that the imagery used by Teresa to describe the soul as a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, very closely resembles Jewish Kabbalistic imagery of heavenly palaces made of diamond-like sapphire’ which is particularly fascinating because the word sapphire comes from the Hebrew word sappir, meaning ‘radiance of God’. So, Why  Blue Sapphire-like Diamond?

As Mark Boyer says in his book, ‘Divine Presence’, ‘Sapphire probably refers to the Blue Sky. Sapphire is a Brilliant, Deep-Blue Mineral. It is being used to describe the dome of the sky…That is why….the sky is like sapphire’.  So, the Radiance of God is likened to a vast sky-like spaciousness that is Blue, Sapphir – and Sapphir is connected with the Sephirot, or Tree of Life of Jewish Kabbalah. As an Interfaith Minister, I can’t resist another image of the Divine as Blue in the Hindu image of Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu, the Sustainer of All Life in the Hindu Trinity who is also depicted in a contemporary image as an All-Seeing Blue Diamond-like Crystal.

I find it so fascinating how such similar images and motifs across religions, emerging in different continents and ages can have such similar depictions. When I was training as a Yoga teacher, twenty years ago, I asked the Swami, ‘Why is Krishna blue?’ and Swamiji simply silently pointed to the sky!  As Eckhart Tolle reminds us, we (in our deepest nature and soul-self) are not the body but we are that spacious Divine Presence that is at once both within and without…Presence disguised as a person! A soul in a body, not just the body. Similarly, the influence of Sufi-Islamic Mysticism can be found in Teresa’s work, of ‘Las Moradas’, the Dwelling Places, as Sufis also speak of ‘the seven valleys of the way’ or sometimes called the ‘spheres’ or ‘planes of consciousness’ in more modern Sufi translations.

Teresa’s prayer, ‘Let nothing Disturb you, let nothing frighten you’ takes on a deeper significance when seen in the context of Teresa’s own life under the watchful eye of the Spanish Inquisition, being interviewed for heresy during her lifetime – what fear she must have had in articulating such non-traditional Christian descriptions of the soul and what fear she must have taken to her own contemplative prayer at times when faced with the prospect of an interview with the Spanish Inquisition. So, Teresa’s unwavering faith from her own experience of her soul’s Union with God’s Presence, during an epoch of such fear of persecution for conversos families during the Inquisition, can inspire us in seeking solace in the depths of our own souls, especially during sometimes frightening times of anxiety and fear during this pandemic.

In the same way that Teresa’s interspiritual influences must be re-examined in the light of the post-holocaust re-examination of the conversos voice in Spanish literature, so too this must resonate for us today with the call from the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement to re-write White Colonial History to reflect the voice of History from the side of the BAME Communities…’History is History’ and, I feel, history books should be rewritten to reflect newly revealed truths whenever new evidence comes to light that a distorted version of History has been written by those vanquishers of power; whether the Christian Spanish Inquisition of the Middle Ages in Spain, or even White Colonialist historians of the Western World.

So, I would like to end with a beautiful prayer from Teresa:

“Let Nothing Disturb you, Let nothing frighten you. All things are passing away. God alone suffices…May an Angel graciously wound your own heart with the Arrow of Divine Loving Presence…”

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