As a biology major with little experience with religious texts, I first came to the writings of St. Teresa of ávila (1515-82) through the required reading list of an undergraduate religious studies course. Reading St. Teresa opened up a new genre of Christian literature for me, and it helped me understand her relevance for contemporary young adults. The saint’s work illustrates how the union of one’s personal sufferings with those of Christ creates a text for anyone who has struggled to articulate questions of divine love and human frailty. As she alternates between rapture and despair, Teresa shows that much of the mystic experience revolves around embracing the reality of pain as a necessary step on the path to spiritual knowledge.
In her autobiography, St. Teresa addresses the nature of the soul’s relationship to God and considers the ability of persons to know the ultimate nature of both the spiritual world and the physical. The pursuit of such knowledge, as documented in her writing, involves searching for meaningful symbols with which to identify—a timeless quest. In an increasingly secular culture where many are desperate for answers, misguided efforts may yield little insight into the human condition, especially for those who fail to ally their experiences with faith.
Mysticism, however, by synthesizing sensory depth with improved intellectual awareness, allows an exercise of the spirit beyond the scope of most modern lifestyles. Studying Teresa’s experience can provide a new perspective on one’s own life and on the nature of life itself.
Though I have never known the heights of her ecstasy or rapture, I can empathize, as can most people, with their essential counterpart: a despair of having lost one’s faith and spiritual bearings. Frequently Teresa mentions as a necessary part of the mystic experience the feeling of being lost in a spiritual void. With surprising composure she acknowledges it as typical, perhaps normative. In fact, this same darkness, which has long intimidated great thinkers and compelled many to seek enlightenment through physical means, forms a strong core of the meditative tradition of mysticism.
The “dark night,” for example, the image of the mystic St. John of the Cross, became the subject of his most famous work, as well as an enduring symbol of artistic despair by those who seek beauty in art and literature. The dark night is a state to be considered thoughtfully and not shied away from, Teresa writes, because the strength of faith will allow one to prevail.
Emptiness, Not Nothingness
The other day, I was thumbing through Carl Sagan’s book The Varieties of Scientific Experience. At one point, the author discusses how the universe is mostly nothingness; but because people are so convinced of the significance of their lives, they regard existence as the focal event of the universe when, in reality, grains of matter are little more than the cosmic equivalent of dust in the wind. Purely because existence is tangible, as if satisfying some aesthetic sense, he writes, it appears to be the dominating element of the physical universe. In reality, he concludes, that which exists is eclipsed readily by an overwhelming expanse of nothingness. The illusion that humankind and its immediate awareness are the center of the universe is a powerful and contagious one. It was and remains easy to believe that God created the universe for human happiness.
Christian mysticism, like modern cosmology, requires that the salvation of humankind does not comprise the center of the universe. Instead, it is the sparse moments of unity with God, buried in the void of existence, that make life meaningful—life being the grains of matter and the dispersed foundations for existence. Despite people’s relatively minuscule stature in this context, the memorable interactions between divinity and individuals, as illustrated in Teresa’s ascent to Christ, evolve into a covenant symbolic of God’s enduring interest in humanity, as well as a secure reminder of God’s attention.
Teresa effectively declares that the universe of faith, while filled with nebulae of experience that make it beautiful, is still mostly emptiness—the substance of the dark night. In many ways, then, mysticism is a type of faith easily adaptable to disordered times, filled as they are with the angst of political unrest and economic uncertainty. In mysticism Christ is to the Christian what Sisyphus is to Albert Camus: a figure who bears pains similar to ours and provides a symbol of identification. Otherwise, it is easy for people to turn away from a religion that they perceive as revolving around salvation, when the immediate vantage point of life affirms that suffering is and will always be an essential component.
St. Teresa also shows that the mystical experience regularly generates profound art. Mysticism is a powerful catalyst for the human mind as it tries to make sense of contemplation. Like the concept of the muse, mysticism emerges as a transformative force of the personality, rather than as simply a mechanism of worship. Its intense emotionality brings about states of mind that might otherwise have gone unacknowledged, especially during episodes of rapture—the mystical complement to the dark night—represented by glorious moments of direct communication with Christ.
Though we may understand the subtler side of mysticism as characterized by the dark night of the soul, its visionary stage of rapture is equally enigmatic. This component, with its unmediated access to God, may be the hardest to account for in the context of traditional Catholicism. It is, after all, a blessing that few people have received. And its influence, though compelling, is evidently evanescent.
St. Teresa sheds powerful insight into rapture. Her language consistently alludes to the carnal aspect of the feeling. This use of similar language to describe the two seemingly opposed mental states of mystical rapture and sexual ecstasy presupposes continuity between divine and human love. Though it appears radical at first, this suggestion provides a powerful insight. For if faith is a specialized form of divine love, then the rapturous side of mysticism may be defined as being to faith what passion is to mortal love: a complementary, though not necessary, component. This relationship justifies the passing character of mystic rapture (sometimes it is there and sometimes it is not: the dark night). It also explains its value within the context of organized religion as a factor that may enhance spirituality but is not essential. Just as one can and will have love without passion, one can and will have faith without mysticism.
Despite its complexities, mysticism remains an essential element of the Catholic tradition. If nothing else, life is essentially a mystical experience, requiring faith that the whole will emerge as greater than the parts, in which one is consumed by darkness. For if darkness is more common in the world, then light will still prevail as the defining aspect of life by virtue of its rarity. And if life is essentially a mystical experience, then it is also an artistic one. For in the mystic tradition, as long as the powers of expression exceed the capacity of the soul to suffer, a fragile equilibrium emerges between pain and beauty that enables the soul to nurture a unique breed of inspired art. Otherwise it is, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the true dark night without the illumination of faith or hope, “which really always comes at three in the morning.”