Adventures in Advaita Vedanta, the philosophy and science of spirit. We are one you and I; are you curious why?..


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Veil of Charisma

Hari OM

Story-day is for cultural exploration, puraanas and parables and finding out about leading lights in spiritual philosophy.

"It is love alone that gives worth to all things." St. Teresa

Teresa of Ávila

Also called Saint Teresa of Jesus, lived from March 28, 1515 to October 4, 1582, (or October 15th by Gregorian measure as this was the very point at which the switch from Julian measure took place. Oct 15th is the 'feast day' of St Teresa). Forty years after her death, she was canonized and was in 1970 named a Doctor of the Church, joint first female for the honour (with Catherine of Sienna) . Her books include her autobiography (The Life of Teresa of Jesus) and her most charismatic and spiritually meaningful work The Interior Castle. An additional work is Way To Perfection, which could be considered more 'accessible' for the daily devotional and the two together are considered very powerful. (The links here will take you to CCEL where you can download the texts at no cost.)

In 'WTP', St Teresa advocates disciplines and advices on the best use of prayer, silence and 'meditation'. Meditation in this context refers more closely to 'mananam', the Sanskrit term for contemplation - it literally means 'turn the mind'.  This is taken much further in 'TIC', in which a much more in-depth look at the inner search is given. Whilst couched fully in the terms of the Western Catholic tradition, much of it can be understood from the Vedantic view also.  It is yet another example of how Western Mystics began to arrive at somewhat similar conclusions to those of the Rsis.  A key difference, however, is the continued reference to dualism, God as a separate entity.

Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada was born in the province of Ávila, Spain. Through the paternal line, she was of Jewish heritage (her grandfather converted to avoid persecution but is thought to have continued in his birth faith). Her father adopted Christian practice and, buying title and marrying into Spanish Catholic society, ensured standing for the family. Teresa, it seems, was an impressionable girl, fascinated by stories of saints, enamoured of 'flashy knight' novels, romantic in nature and, as with a teenager of any era, concerned with her appearance.  Her mother's instillation of faith in Teresa, then her subsequent death, caused Teresa to enter a convent. Here, she became quite ill (poor health was a continued theme for her). Early during sickness, she experienced periods of religious ecstasy through the use of the devotional book  the Third Spiritual Alphabet. It was an influential work of the time and, following the example of similar writings of medieval mystics, illuminated the benefits of examining the conscience, spiritual focus and deep introspection. Other works on spiritual 'exercise' also added to her own burgeoning mystical nature.

She claimed that during this early illness she experienced an understanding of what it meant to be herself (recollection), through levels of such profound peace (devotions of silence) and still more to levels of perfect union with God (devotions of ecstasy). With this experience, the awful nature of sin clarified in her understanding and also the need for 'subjugation to God'; surrender.

Friends began to worry and suggested that her newfound knowledge was diabolical, not divine. This is often the reaction of those external to the individual's spiritual process, the 'put down'. It can happen for many reasons; simple fear for the mental stability of a dear one; concern that one who is moving inwards is moving away from them; fear that the other is being controlled in some fashion (in modern times this could be by substance abuse, for example); their own incapacity to follow the intellectual reasoning or to share in the charismatic experience. Whatever Teresa's "friends'" reasons, her response was to dig more deeply spiritually. She was not going to let go of her hold on this experience.

She began to inflict various tortures (mortifications of the flesh) upon herself. All serious seekers take on some form of austerity, but self-flagellation and such like are very extreme indeed. Teresa became firmly convinced of a number of visions, including that Jesus Christ presented himself to her in bodily form, though invisible. A famous vision is that of a seraph which drove the fiery point of a golden lance repeatedly through her heart, causing spiritual-bodily pain. (This was the inspiration for one of Bernini's most famous works, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa at Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.)

The memory of this episode served as an inspiration throughout the rest of her life and motivated her lifelong imitation of the life and suffering of Jesus, epitomized in the motto usually associated with her: Lord, either let me suffer or let me die.

Teresa had entered the Carmelite Monastery in Avila, 1535.  She found herself increasingly disturbed at the spiritual laziness among the 150 nuns living there. The 'observance of cloister', designed to protect and strengthen the spirit and practice of prayer, became so la it no longer held value.  The daily intrusion of visitors (often high-ranking), pervaded the atmosphere with frivolity and inconsequential chatter.  These violations of the solitude absolutely essential to prayerful progress grieved Teresa to the extent that she longed to do something about it.

She resolved to start a reformed Carmelite convent, correcting the laxity which she had found around her. Guimara de Ulloa, a woman of wealth and a friend, supplied the funds. Teresa worked for many years encouraging Spanish Jewish converts to follow Christianity.

The absolute poverty of the new monastery, established in 1562 and named St. Joseph's (San José), at first caused some scandal among the citizens and authorities of Ávila, resulting in threat of suppression; but powerful patrons, including the bishop himself, and some healthy donations and ability to draw prosperity helped to appease this animosity. In March 1563, when Teresa moved to the new cloister, she received the papal sanction to her prime principle of absolute poverty and renunciation of property, which she proceeded to formulate into a "Constitution". Her plan was the revival of the earlier, stricter rules, supplemented by new regulations such as the three disciplines of ceremonial flagellation prescribed for the divine service every week, and the discalceation (going barefoot) of the nun. For the first five years, Teresa remained in pious seclusion, engaged in writing.

In 1567, she received a authority to establish new houses of her order, for which effort (and later visitations) she made long journeys through nearly all the provinces of Spain. As part of her original patent, Teresa was given permission to set up two houses for men who wished to adopt the reforms; she convinced John of the Cross and Anthony of Jesus to help with this. In 1576 a series of persecutions began on the part of the older observant Carmelite order against Teresa, her friends and her reforms. The general chapter forbade any further expansions and condemned her to voluntary retirement to one of her institutions. She obeyed and chose St. Joseph's at Toledo. Her friends and subordinates were subjected to greater trials.

Over several years Teresa wrote pleading letters to King Philip II of Spain, who finally granted relief. As a result, in 1579, the processes before the inquisition against her, Gracian and others were dropped, which allowed the reform to continue. In total seventeen convents, all but one founded by her, and as many men's cloisters were due to her reform activity of twenty years.

Her final illness resulted in her death in 1582. Her last words were: "My Lord, it is time to move on. Well then, may your will be done. O my Lord and my Spouse, the hour that I have longed for has come. It is time to meet one another."

The essence of Teresa's mystical thought is the ascent of the soul in four stages:

  1.  "mental prayer", is that of devout contemplation or concentration, the withdrawal of the soul from without and specially the devout observance of the passion of Christ and penitence. 
  2.  "prayer of quiet", in which at least the human will is lost in that of God by virtue of a charismatic, supernatural state given of God, while the other faculties, such as memory, reason, and imagination, are not yet secure from worldly distraction. While a partial distraction is due to outer performances such as repetition of prayers and writing down spiritual things, yet the prevailing state is one of quietude.
  3.  "devotion of union" is not only a supernatural but an essentially ecstatic state. Here there is also an absorption of the reason in God, and only the memory and imagination are left to ramble. This state is characterized by a blissful peace, a sweet slumber of at least the higher soul faculties, a conscious rapture in the love of God.
  4. "devotion of  rapture," a passive state, in which the consciousness of being in the body disappears. Sense activity ceases; memory and imagination are also absorbed in God or intoxicated. Body and spirit are in the throes of a sweet, happy pain, alternating between a fearful fiery glow, a complete impotence and unconsciousness, and a spell of strangulation, intermitted sometimes by such an ecstatic flight that the body is literally lifted into space. This after half an hour is followed by a reactionary relaxation of a few hours in a swoon-like weakness, attended by a negation of all the faculties in the union with God. From this the subject awakens in tears; it is the climax of mystical experience, productive of the trance.

A good deal of this is recognizable in vedic terms.  In fact, the Sanskrit tradition is that of seven stages of 'enlightenment' and there are distinct similarities in Teresa's experiences. However, it would be said that she did not actually reach the stage of 'moksha' - absolute liberation and discovery of the ultimate truth. Had this woman benefited from contact with a guru of Vedanta, almost certainly she would have risen to the final stage.

This is not to belittle what was achieved!  To even reach to the highest of this saint's experiences would be incredible.  Another thing which makes her worth the reading is that she constantly points out to the 'lowly' practitioner, that there is a way to follow and that it includes giving selflessly, living simply and allowing for the ever-present Divine in our actions; as this verse of hers depicts.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

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