Wednesday, January 16, 2008

So-called Bridal Mysticism

I’m thinking people who seem to be excited about Pope Benedict’s apparent desire to re-emphasize “bridal mysticism” ought to be wary of it.

Two of its most prominent practitioners and expounders were Teresa of Avila (or “Teresa of Jesus,” as she took to calling herself) and John of the Cross. I’ve begun reading a book about them, The Dark Night of the Soul, by Gerald G. May, a psychiatrist, and have been poking around the Internet reading some of the primary material as well. And so far, darkness is about all to be found.

For starters, both of these people were panentheists, but that is for another post. What I want to point out here is how so much of what passes for spirituality with people such as these is instead a heady, and flattering, mixture of fantasy and emotion, and especially of sublimated sexuality. Perhaps the most startling illustration of this is Teresa’s famous “experience” called the “transfixion” or “transverberation” of her heart, celebrated yearly by Catholics as a feast day in August. This description is found here.

c.1559-62: Teresa experiences, perhaps several times, her famous "transfixion" or "piercing" by a cherub with a golden, fiery-tipped spear. She records this in her Life as follows:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see, unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision. . . . It was our Lord's will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful--his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. . . .I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. (Life, 29.16-17)

Here is another translation:

I saw in his hands a large golden dart and at the end of the iron tip there appeared to be a little fire. It seemed to me this angel plunged the dart several times into my heart and that it reached deep within me. When he drew it out, I thought he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me; and he left me all on fire with great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan, and the sweetness this greatest pain caused me was so superabundant that there is no desire capable of taking it away.”

Also from the same web site is a translation by Alvin Joaquin Figueroa, of Teresa’s poem, entitled, “Dilectus Meus Mihi”, or, “My Beloved is Mine”, a title obviously taken from the Song of Songs.

When the sweet Hunter shot and wounded me
My soul rested upon Love’s arms.
And regaining a new life
I have changed in such a way,
That I am my Beloved’s
And my Beloved is mine.
I have surrendered to Him
And to such a great extent
That I am my Beloved’s
And my Beloved is mine.
He wounded me with a love arrow
And my soul became one with her Creator.
I do not want any other love,
For to my God I have surrendered.
I am my Beloved’s
And my Beloved is mine.

And here is a painting (not true to Teresa’s description of a very little angel on her left side), which any honest person can recognize as depicting an erotic experience. It is quite sad to mistake such sublimation for spirituality.

John of the Cross does it, too. Here is one of his poems. To be sure, he gives each stanza an allegorical, “spiritual” interpretation; nevertheless, this is sexuality posing as mysticism.

Stanzas Of The Soul

1. One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

The big mistake – or one of them, at least, is that John of the Cross and Teresa both take their own souls to be the Bride of Christ. That’s flattering, but a no-go. The Bride of Christ is the Church.


Emily H. said...

Have you seen Bernini's sculpture The Ecstasy of St. Teresa? I think it illustrates your point. That's one piece of work that's always creeped me out by the obvious blending of spirituality and sexuality.

Emily H. said...
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Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Hi, Emily. No, I don't remember having seen that! I did find a photo of it, though, at:

And I have seen the one in St. Peter's Basilica, which at the time (1991) I thought bad enough, as an example of confusing emotion with spirituality. (And in this statue, the emotion isn't even so explicitly sexual.) A photo of that one is here:

Claire said...


What did you think of the Gerald May book about the dark night?

Thank you,

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Hi, Claire,

I had the feeling, although just now I can't remember why, that Gerald May didn't know what he was talking about. That's why I changed my mind about a follow-up post based upon the book. That's also why I googled Teresa and John of the Cross to find their own writings.

If you've read the book, I'd love to hear your opinion of it and compare notes!

Claire said...

Hi Anastasia,
I really liked the book. It seemed to very much resonate with God's personality, at least, insofar as I glimpse it. I am a big fan of Gerald May's writing. I am also learning about Orthodoxy, and that too seems deeply true. I am trying to figure out where the interfaces are or perhaps aren't. I'm wondering what you disagreed with in the book itself (I'm less concerned with issues of bridal or non-bridal mysticism or expressions/interpretations of them.) Thank you,

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Okay, Claire, here's what I'll do. I'm going to review that book and refresh my memory.

I do remember that what I thought was that May had misunderstood Teresa and John of the Cross. It didn't have to do with God's personality or with Orthodoxy.

Give me several days or a couple of weeks, and I promise I'll get back to you!

As for God's personality, well, Christ is definitely the Bridegroom of the Church, and the biblical images of heaven are often images of a wedding feast. He certainly loves us that dearly, if that's what you mean.

It may (or may not?) be of some interest to you that I once called myself a true daughter of Teresa. I was heavily into the same stuff May is into and describes, heavily into what I now criticize. For some reason, which I shall try to recall, I just thought May didn't describe it very well.

Claire said...

You wrote, "I was heavily into the same stuff May is into and describes, heavily into what I now criticize."
I do want to hear about this.
If you want, you can write me at
But don't worry about it if it's a hassle, and of course, there's no hurry or anything like that...
Thank you!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

You are transparently jealous that authentic spirituality includes the experience of union with Christ in all senses--His bride is taken body, mind and soul in each and all her members. There is shame only in the lies you preach. The legalism you stand for is false religion--Antichrist--and Jesus is even now discrediting and destroying such falsehood.