Professor Bernard McGinn and his wife Patricia McGinn visited Australia in April and May as part of the celebrations for the anniversary of the birth of Saint Teresa of Avila. In Melbourne he gave a lecture entitled ‘The Contemplative in Action’, then two days later a workshop at the Library. By way of introduction at the workshop Professor McGinn gave two short papers on Mysticism and Teresa. Here is a summary of some main points, written down by Carol O’Connor.
Mystical Theology: learning to know God in a hidden way for the whole of life. It is a way of life in which you reach the hidden presence of God.
Every baptised Christian is called to the mystical life. Special gifts or experiences are not necessary. For Teresa of Avila the journey is finding God within and increasing love of God and love of neighbour.
Teresa of Avila doesn’t use the word ‘mysticism’ in her last work, ‘The Interior Castle’. She does so elsewhere before this work. This could be due to the fact that by this stage of her life she is concerned about the judgments of the Inquisition. She does, however, refer in the work to ‘mystical theology.’
Mystical Theology doesn’t have a definition, but a description:
That part or element of religion which is a preparation for and has the effect of deepening our consciousness of God’s presence in our lives and the lives of others.
· That part or element of religion which is separate from but interacts with the institutional and academic. It can be found in nearly all religions, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, etc.
· It is one of many elements, others being sacraments, scripture, and prayer. It is a preparation for deeper awareness of God, deeper union with and in God. This is a transformation process, and allows the mystic to transform other people. Teresa of Avila talks about there being thousands of mansions, and in ‘The Interior Castle’ she depicts the few that she knows about. Great mystics, like Eckhart (whom Teresa of Avila would not have read), are called to communicate that transformation and invite others on that path.
· The word consciousness widens the meaning out, whereas experience can be misleading. This is a coming to know God on a new deep level. It involves the whole consciousness, not only feeling but thinking, knowing, acting, deciding. It informs acts of love and how we are living.
· Consciousness of God’s presence is both personal, and transpersonal (beyond). It is very important to avoid objectifying God. Also, as Simone Weil talks about, “ we need to understand our contact with God comes through absence as well as presence. She writes, “Contact with human creatures is given us through the sense of presence. Contact with God is given us through the sense of absence. Compared with this absence, presence becomes more absent than absence.” We also find this paradox in Sufi, Zohar, etc.
Reading works of the Mystics involves reading the work for its evocative power, poetic beauty and invitation to transformation. Mystics express God in positive-negative language, in what are called in the Greek kataphatic and apophatic traditions. Not naming or denying is at the essence of Mysticism. They affirm, deny, then move beyond; what in Latin is called super-sensualis.
Bernard McGinn identifies three great layers of Christian Mysticism in Western Christianity. Here is where Teresa fits in, in terms the Western tradition:
1st CE 200-1200: Monastic Foundations. This is a period that starts with the Desert Mothers and Fathers. Also, Origen, Dionysius, Augustine, Ambrose of Milan, Bernard of Clairvaux. They set up the traditions.
2nd 1200-1650/1700: New Mysticism. Figures here include Bonaventure, Eckhart, Mechtild, Catherine of Siena, Hildegard and Teresa of Avila. Cultural changes begin to happen: mendicants (preaching), apostolic life and transforming life. They are actively going out into the world and doing things. And democratisation, where it’s made clear that mysticism is for everyone and not just some slect group of the elect. Vernacularisation occurs in this period. Teachings about God are given not just in Latin but in the vernaculars of different Christian societies. Tensions start between institutional hierarchy (Christian Church and structure of society) and the practice of mystical theology. This even leads to mystics being condemned e.g. the French woman Marguerite Porete, who was burned at the stake June 1st 1310. (A sign of what could happen to someone like Teresa.) Teresa is an inheritor of the final chapter of this form of mystical theology, that kind of way of doing the practice. She read widely, Augustine, Jerome. Her themes are not her creations but part of the tradition, however she is also creating new things, e.g. prayer of quiet, sleep of the faculties.
3rd 1650/1700-present day: Crisis and Renewal. Now entering the modern era.
There was suppression and condemnation of many mystics in the late 17th century, e.g. Jeanne Guyon. Quietism became common, a way of doing religion after the Reformation, in response to Church concerns about ecstatic union with God. Renewal really begins at the end of the 19th century. Names mentioned in the modern era included Therese of Lisieux, Thomas Merton, Simone Weil, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. These mystics are very different in character from those of previous periods.