Catholic reform in the sixteenth century did not begin as a response to the Protestant movements of the age; it is much more accurately seen as a parallel reaction to some of the same problems and stimuli, and it very notably has the same interest in the 'interior' and the individual. Erasmian influence had already spread to southern Europe before Luther's breach with the Catholic hierarchy, and the reforming movements of Spain in particular reflect this independent stimulus. Sixteenth-century Spain unquestionably produced the most important writers on spirituality in our period—the great reformers of the Carmelite nuns and friars, Teresa of Avila (1515-82) and John of the Cross (1542-91), and the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556). It also nurtured one of the most independent artistic geniuses of the age in El Greco, whose painting can properly be seen as a rendering in the field of visual art of some of the themes of Spanish Catholic radicalism in the sixteenth century.
The fact that Spain was the nursery of so much religious creativity itself tells us something about the social sources of religious reform. The peninsula had only recently (1492) been reclaimed by Christian armies in its entirety from 'Moorish' (Muslim) occupation and the new society that was developing was aggressively and self-consciously hostile to the presence of 'impure' elements within it—to people of Moorish or Jewish descent, 'New Christians', who were generally regarded as unreliable members of Catholic society. People of Jewish descent in particular were suspected of continuing to practise Jewish rites in secret, and the Spanish Inquisition had originally been set up (in 1480) to deal with this. The result was a society pervaded by concealment and mutual suspicion, as persons of mixed descent sought to establish their credentials. Many town councils, cathedral chapters and religious orders began to enact statutes forbidding entry to people of 'New Christian' background. The secular literature of this time reflects widespread tension over all this, and much of it articulates a plea for sincerity and openness, and for the valuation of people by moral rather than racial standards. In addition to this focal issue, economic vicissitudes had reduced many traditionally aristocratic families to near poverty. From this side also, the potential inconsistency between appearance and truth was an acute problem (Williams 1991).
Several religious orders had begun early in the sixteenth century to reform themselves by returning to the original asceticism of their founders, and this had been part of a wholesale reform movement in the Spanish Church after the 'reconquest'. Part of this movement was an Erasmian interest in the primitive purity of the Christian religion itself, which generated a massive investment of scholarship in biblical research; and this in turn produced in some circles a humanistic ethos, sympathic to Erasmus's stress on inner uprightness and truthfulness, and indifference or contempt towards the ecclesiastical establishment.
The situation was further complicated by the growth of small groups of clergy and laity eager to learn about and practise contemplative prayer. These were much encouraged by some members of the Franciscan order, and became increasingly associated in the popular mind with extreme or outrageous expressions of religious feeling—claims to total unity with God or sinlessness or infallible inspiration—and (predictably) with sexual license. A complicating and novel factor was that women played a leading role as teachers and interpreters of prayer in many of these groups. Such circles were known as alumbrados, the 'enlightened'. Their object was to attain total renunciation and submission to God's will, and something like a suspension of normal consciousness and will. More cautious 'reformist' circles preferred to emphasize the disciplines of 'recollection', meditational techniques leading to the simple focusing of the mind on God. Here again, the Franciscans had a crucial role, and the Third Spiritual Alphabet of Francisco de Osuna (c. 1492-.1540; Osuna 1981), first published in 1527, provided a popular and authoritative guide for many. It is essentially a quite conservative text, drawing on the style and emphases of Augustine and Bernard and other medieval authorities: the soul is to draw closer to God by reflecting on its own nature as spirit; meditation on the person of Christ is a crucial stage on the way, but is finally to be set aside. Along with works by a few other writers of similar background, the Alphabet became a favourite text for literate and devout laypeople—like the uncle in whose house the young Teresa first read it.
This widespread interest in 'mental prayer'—i.e. in the progress towards a form of prayer intended to be as perfectly receptive to God as possible, as against prayer that was the performance of verbal or other actions—was far from welcome to anxious authorities. The stress on the hidden working of God within the soul suggested a certain relativizing of the importance of the ordinary activities of Christian life, and of the hierarchy that administered them. As Spain became more and more the flagship of Catholic Europe in the war with 'heresy', concern with doctrinal as well as racial purity intensified; in 1569, the Inquisition prohibited the reading of a large number of books in the vernacular on the life of prayer, including virtually anything that appeared to encourage passivity in prayer for laypeople (women in particular), and some works that favoured frequent communion (also seen as a dangerous recognition of the rights of lay piety). Osuna's Alphabet escaped condemnation, but other works of his were named, and the Alphabet was not to be reprinted for over sixty years. Throughout the century and beyond, this particular controversy persisted, between those who encouraged all to aspire to a state of pure receptivity or passivity to God in prayer, and those concerned to regulate and control the possibilities open to the laity, and who regarded passivity in prayer as the first step towards the most serious heresy and blasphemy. The dramas of Spain in the sixteenth century were to be rehearsed again within the Jesuit order early in the seventeenth century, when there was a sharp struggle between those who wished the Society to return to a more contemplative vision, and those who sought to reduce the length of time spent in training and spiritual formation so as to make the Society a more practically effective and flexible institution. The result, partly inspired by the remarkable General of the Society, Acquaviva (head of the order from 1581 to 1615), was both a repudiation of activism and a programme designed to 'standardize' the life of prayer as lived in Jesuit houses—a skilful compromise that succeeded in establishing for the centuries ahead a classical form of Jesuit spirituality. And a similar conflict recurred later in the seventeenth century in France with the controversy over 'Quietism', in which the formidable Bishop Bossuet attacked the entire genre of what was now increasingly designated 'mystical' literature.
This is to run ahead; but it helps to set the scene for the struggles and achievements of Teresa of Avila in her day (for works, see Further Reading). As the daughter of a wealthy family of Jewish origin, she inherited one of the most central and persistent social challenges of her society—how to make sense of a social order that granted economic status and respectability to the racially 'impure', but preserved an underlying hostility and contempt that made it impossible for the 'New Christian' ever to belong fully, except at the cost of dishonesty. As a woman, committed to practising and teaching prayer, and even to interpreting the Bible, she was also a highly suspect and vulnerable figure. Part of the impulse of her attempt to reform her order came from deep dissatisfaction with the socially divisive form of religious life common in her convent and most others, where distinctions of class or family secured different levels of privilege and comfort in the common life. And this dissatisfaction was in turn nourished by her own experience as a Christian: she was abidingly conscious that, from the beginning of her monastic life, there had been a complete lack of correlation between the gifts given her by God in prayer, gifts of deep absorption and joy, and the immature or lukewarm level of her actual practice and understanding. Despite early experiences of profound receptivity to God, she had for many years practically given up private prayer; but a moment of visionary insight in the presence of a statue of the suffering Christ recalled her to seriousness, when she realized that she was the object of unconditional divine love, and was 'needed' to give friendship and compassion to Christ in his agony. All this laid the foundation for a consistent and far-reaching grasp of friendship with God as the basis of discipleship, a friendship initiated by the causeless love of God himself, and issuing in the possibility of mutual friendship between Christians. In this way, she learned to repudiate completely any suggestion that worldly 'honour' had any place in the monastic community, and was careful to legislate for small communities, in which each could have direct and equal personal contact with all, and share in the ordinary manual work of the house. Christ's incarnation is the pattern for such a refusal of status and distance: and the honour that matters is being made 'kinsfolk' of Jesus through the Church. Teresa's long discussion of the Lord's Prayer in The Way of Perfection takes this as its starting point (Williams 1991: chs. 1 and 3).
Her autobiography, written at the suggestion of her confessors in the early 1560s, is a careful apologia, insisting that she did not seek experiences of passive contemplation: they were given to her, often utterly unexpectedly and disconcertingly. She was thus able to present herself as a loyal Catholic, reluctant to look for extraordinary depths of prayer, yet compelled by God to receive unusual gifts. In this work, which received a good deal of unsympathetic attention from the Inquisition at various points, she elaborates her first theory of how growth in the spiritual life is to be charted—the celebrated image of the four methods of irrigating a garden (by hand, by a water wheel, by irrigation ditches and by rainfall). The significant progression is from a state where everything appears to turn on human effort to one where the agency of God is all-important. This is not a method for spiritual growth, but a structure for interpreting its evolution; Teresa nowhere commends a specific method, and her whole approach depends, in one sense, on the impossibility and unreliability of methods. The autobiography makes extravagant claims about the higher reaches of prayer, where union with God—she alleges—is manifested in preternatural experiences of total absorption and ecstasy. When she wrote her masterpiece, The Interior Castle, in 1577, she had rethought this issue, and was able to produce a new synthesis of great power and comprehensiveness. Here the dominant image is of the soul or self as a many-roomed castle: growth is progression towards the centre of the castle, which is where God already lives. We pass through seven different sorts of 'mansions' (moradas, stages on the journey) in this process: as in the Life, the progression is from activity to passivity and also from uncertainty to assurance, the assurance represented by the imagery of betrothal and marriage. Only from the final level can we look back and see how at a particular point a 'pledge' occurs between God and the soul of such a kind that there can be no final rupture. Very significantly, she now denies that final union is identical with experiences of rapture and suspension of ordinary consciousness: the ultimate state is one in which contemplative activity has become habitual to the soul, so that we can go about our normal business while God is consistently and harmoniously at work within us.
There is much of incidental interest in the Castle: Teresa discusses how to distinguish between different kinds of visions and 'locutions' (words or statements heard by the inner intelligence), how to cope with the periods of agonizing unsettlement caused by the sporadic visitation of preternatural effects in mind or body (including levitation), and, most significantly, the role of the incarnate Christ in prayer and meditation. In sharp and deliberate contrast to Osuna and the tradition he speaks for, Teresa, always profoundly incarnationalist, denies that there is ever a stage at which we can properly stop thinking about or at least fixing our regard upon the humanity of Jesus.
In this respect, she appears at first a little at odds with her close friend and follower, John of the Cross (for works, see Further Reading); yet closer examination suggests that the difference is not after all so marked. Certainly John's influence on the Castle in general is considerable, and it is usually agreed that Teresa's more cautious approach here to exceptional and dramatic spiritual experiences is the result of the continuous contact with John's teaching that she had experienced for some years, when he was confessor to her and her community in Avila. John is a very different writer in all sorts of ways. His background is in the ranks of the impoverished gentry; he grew up in something like real destitution, having to support a widowed mother by manual labour. But, as a Carmelite friar and candidate for the priesthood, he acquired a thorough education in scholastic theology, and his prose writings are technical and painstaking in a way Teresa's never are. He was also a poet of extraordinary skill and power, turning the idioms of lyrical and erotic Spanish verse to his own purposes (Thompson 1977). While the parallels between sacred and secular eros had been often exploited before (by Bernard of Clairvaux, Richard Rolle and numerous lyricists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), John gives new and radical emphasis to the sense of erotic loss. The loving self is essentially a homeless and disoriented self, desperately seeking to recapture an intimacy and presence that has apparently vanished for ever. John even recasts, in his Romances, the entire story of creation and incarnation in terms of an erotic history, the finding and winning of a partner for the Son of God. The incarnation is the point when the Son and the bride embrace each other; it is also, however, a moment when humanity and divinity exchange some of their properties, God assuming the sorrow of the human condition and humanity receiving the eternal joy of the Godhead. The union of the incarnation depends on a reciprocal dispossession, God abandoning what is proper to him and humanity abandoning the self-obsession that keeps it from God. Christ alone can be the agent of both acts of renunciation.
Thus, although John follows earlier writers in suggesting that there comes a point where actual meditation on the human life of Jesus can be a distraction, there is no point at which this humanity does not underpin and make sense of the Christian's spiritual journey. In the most systematic and orderly of his prose works, The Ascent of Mount Carmel/Dark Night of the Soul, John gives a very important place to the idea that Christ is the paradigm for spiritual renunciation. Just as he is on the cross 'reduced to nothing', deprived of everything, including spiritual consolation, unable to do anything in particular, so we must confront the calling to a total emptying out of what we think of as action, understanding and joy—since it is on the cross that Jesus most decisively acts to bring God into the world, and completes the task his Father has given him. The Ascent/Night describes in painstaking detail how all the ordinary capacities of human consciousness and subjectivity have to let go of their usual objects and gratifications, both material and spiritual. Faced with the nada, the 'nothing', that then emerges, they can begin to discover God as the proper object of all the self's activity, and so advance towards perfect union with God, a state in which all we are and do is shaped by the obscure presence of God in us—not as an object for the mind, but as an agency given free rein in our inner life. The whole process is summed up neatly by John when he says that the three 'faculties' of the soul as defined by Augustine and the tradition flowing from him, the capacities of memory, intelligence and will, must be completely transformed into the three 'theological virtues' named by Paul as hope, faith and love. And for this to happen, they must first of all enter into darkness—the 'night of sense', in which all gratification of the outer, material perceptions and aspirations disappears, and the 'night of spirit', in which we leave behind even what we think of as the proper and due rewards of prayer and piety. Both 'nights' have an active and a passive dimension— what we do and what God does. The ultimate purification is the passive night of the spirit, which John famously describes as the most intense loss and suffering imaginable, a state where all landmarks disappear and we are thrown back on naked faith with no definable content. In this deepest darkness, the movement towards the dawn begins; not that it is succeeded simply by 'positive' instead of 'negative' experiences; but the self becomes aware of 'touches of union' in the depths of its being. In the imagery of The Living Flame of Love, one of his most mature, though diffuse, works—the fire of the Spirit begins to transform the whole self as it consumes all that resists or holds back God the Holy Trinity. And in this condition, the world around ceases to be just a sign of God's absence, tantalizingly pointing away from itself: we rediscover our environment as charged with the love that is transfiguringly at work within us, an insight spelled out especially in the last sections of John's commentary on his Spiritual Canticle: the contemplation of God leads to 'contemplative' knowledge of creation.
All John's prose works are in fact commentaries on his poems; but, for all the complexity of the commentaries, it would be a mistake to think, as it has become rather fashionable to do, that the poems are everything and the commentaries a kind of misunderstanding by John of his own genius. The prose has its own beauty, its own distinctive energy, often carried along by free and imaginative allusion to Scripture; and it is where we see most clearly how the scheme of our pilgrimage into hope, faith and love is anchored in a trinitarian and incarnational context. But the lyrical intensity and delight of the poetry is, of course, essential to disabuse us of the caricature that John is simply rejecting the created order without qualification. Perhaps his most central message is that only by learning detachment from our affective responses to things, learning, that is, not to regard 'satisfying' responses as an end in themselves, are we set free to encounter reality as it is, both creation's reality and God's. Certainly he is as austere as could be in encouraging us not to seek or cling to happiness and comfort in our prayer, and in suspecting 'religious experiences' as a goal. But this is to allow us to be open to that receiving of God (and God's creation) that we could never predict or imagine, the utterly surprising meeting of the desires too deep in us to be at first visible.
The parallels with the agenda of Luther and Calvin are clear (it is striking that all the writers so far discussed are driven to put the dereliction of Christ on the cross near the heart of their discussions). All look for a refinement of suspicion in our apprehension of ourselves and our world, for a turn inwards to seek the truth; all, however, insist also on suspicion of certain kinds of interiority (superficial emotion, good intentions, the sense of security or rightness). What we find in the work of Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, is above all a set of guidelines for constructively training such suspicion and acquiring an instinctive discernment. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises (begun in 1522, but not published until 1548; Loyola 1991) represent the central element in the formation of members of the new community, the Society of Jesus, which spread so rapidly and influentially in sixteenth-century Europe and beyond (Teresa was greatly helped by Jesuit guides in her struggles to discern God's will for the reform of her own order). The Exercises are a month-long programme of daily reflection, centred almost exclusively on the Bible, the Gospels in particular, aiming at uncovering what one most deeply wants, so as to enable the choice of a new and more faithful state of life. The technique is startlingly novel, requiring careful and sustained examination of conscience over a set period, the disciplined use of the imagination in bringing before the eyes and 'inner' sense the circumstances of the Gospel history, and a programme for techniques of intensifying appropriate affective responses to the nature and action of God. Although it is a short work, it is very hard to summarize, being nothing if not practical. It should be noted, though, that, despite all the formal and highly organized provisions of the Exercises, the goal is the same as that of Teresa or John—proper receptivity to God. And both the Exercises and Ignatius's other works, autobiographical and reflective, make it clear that the life and experience envisaged is one marked by many traditional signs of spiritual advance—spontaneous and uncontrollable weeping, for example, sensitivity to the diverse sorts of impulses or 'motions' in the soul, and the development of skills to discern those that come from God from those coming from the devil or our own self-love, the learning of rhythmical forms of prayer that involve the body's 'attention' as well as the mind's—all things that we can find in the classical spiritual writings of the Christian East a thousand years before. In the century or so following Ignatius's death, there were those who used his and other methods of imaginative reflection on the Gospels in a wooden and legalistic way, not allowing the transition to be made to contemplative receptivity (Teresa and John complain of insensitive directors and confessors, and the Anglo-Welsh Benedictine Augustine Baker (1575-1641) is scathing about the psychological effects of forcing this sort of meditation on those ready for other paths). But this is very far from Ignatius's own intent, and more recent thinking about the Exercises has conspicuously rediscovered their original flexibility and dynamism.
Was this article helpful?
Discover the Secrets of Meditating Like an Expert In Just 7 Days Or Less And, Start Enjoying More Happiness, Peace, and Better Health, Right Now. Now, you too can learn to go deeper, and enjoy all the benefits of meditation, even if you have never tried to meditate ever before.