Redefining mysticism

St Teresa of Ávila, by Peter Paul RubensIn the final chapter of his book on Teresa of Ávila (see previous post), Rowan Williams discusses the nature of “mysticism”.

He begins by pointing out that St Teresa would never have used the term “mysticism” in the sense it is used today. For Teresa, “mystical” knowledge of God meant “the sort of knowledge of God that is obscure to the intellect”, rather than referring to a particular type of ecstatic experience. As Dr Williams observes:

Mysticism has come to be opposed to the rational and institutional aspects of religious life, and it is very frequently regarded as a form of experience common to all religious traditions and representing a level of unity in the religious apprehension of reality deeper than the merely historical and linguistic diversities between faiths. (p.144)

This is not Teresa’s understanding of “the mystical”. Her experiences of the mystical were “lived out within the historical structures of the Catholic Church” (p.148), and, while Teresa “is fascinated by her experiences”, she sees them ultimately as incidental to the encounter with Christ within his Church that is at the heart of her vocation. As Dr Williams says:

[W]hile the student of phenomenology might conclude that, say, John of the Cross had more in common with Shankara than with someone like Teresa’s tough peasant secretary and nurse, Ana de San Bartolomé, the Christian theologian would have to disagree. John and Ana both ask to be judged by the pattern of the Word of God made flesh and crucified. (p.146)

This leads Dr Williams to propose a “new model” for understanding mystical experiences within different religions. His starting point for this is his insistence that:

we should be suspicious of any theory that presupposes innocent and empty consciousnesses receiving, the world over, experiences of much the same kind, and then translating them into a particular religious dialect appropriate to the locality. What happens to the self in the states we call “mystical” must, on the contrary, have some intelligible connection with the language and tradition in which that self is formed. (p.151)

Dr Williams goes on to note how every religion has some kind of “generative element”. For religions such as Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, that may be a moment of transition from an old to a new religious tradition (the enlightenment of Gautama, the dictation of the Qur’an, or the life, death and resurrection of Jesus). By contrast, religions such as Hinduism and Judaism emphasise the return to a “timeless pattern of wisdom”. In that context, Dr Williams proposes the following redefinition of “mysticism” as:

whatever in a religious system is thought to enable a re-establishing of contact with that generative element, over and above the ordinary ritual means of recollection or reappropriation. (pp.152f.)

Since Christianity “has a rather more complicated foundational story” than other religions, its mystical literature is correspondingly diverse. After all:

What is it that needs to be recapitulated? The movement out from heaven and back to it? The pattern of the incarnate ministry? Jesus’ path to the cross? The disciples’ experience of the resurrection? In some sense, all of these, but no single life is likely to be able to manage this range. (p.156)

Thus many forms of Christian mystical experience are to be found, each emphasising a different “generative element” that it seeks to recapitulate. This can result in an unbalanced experience, where one element is emphasised to the exclusion of others, or where devotees of one brand of Christian experience insist that theirs is the only “authentic” way. By contrast:

what gives particular greatness to those figures whose life and work have been seen as classical and authoritative in Catholic tradition is their capacity to see the unity of all these different aspects of spirituality because they see the unity of the divine act underlying them. (p.157)

The power of a figure like St Teresa of Avila is that “she succeeds in ‘internalizing’ an unusually full range of Christian themes, myths, or images”. This is because she:

becomes ever more conscious of the unifying themes of her basic theology, and – perhaps consequently – less passionately attached to the normative authority of her own experiential patterns, though she never wholly casts off this tendency. (p.157)

Thus Teresa’s life exemplifies what she sought for the life of her reformed Carmelite monasteries:

its character as manifestation, a making concrete of the possibilities of Christlikeness, showing what it means to live within the movement of God’s love towards the world. (p.158)

As Dr Williams says at the very end of the book:

[Teresa] reminds us that we do not yet know what it would look like if the community of Christ’s friends let themselves be fully taken up into God’s self-imparting act. (p.171)


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