Saint Teresa of Jesus and the Search for the Sacred | Fr. Erik Varden, OCSO | Catholic World Report
Does the Church’s liturgy enable, now, the expression and communication of sacred realities? Is the ‘sacred’ still a meaningful category?
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.
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.