In August 1991 Father Pius Sammut, Discalced Carmelite was interviewed by a journalist for a popular newspaper in Malta. Here are excerpts of this interview.
When and by whom was your Order founded, and who took over from the founder?
The Order of the Discalced Carmelite Fathers sprang from a 16th century reform inaugurated by Saint Teresa of Avila. Distraught at the havoc ‘the Lutherans’ were causing to her beloved Church, and further tormented by the thought that thousands of ‘indios’ had never heard of Jesus Christ in the newly discovered America, she tried to play her part in this enormous world chessboard; “to worry about anything else seems ridiculous”, she remarks.
Instead of closing herself in a spiritual nutshell, “all my longing was and still is that since Jesus has so many enemies and so few friends, these few friends be good ones. As a result, I resolved to do the little that was in my power; that is to follow the evangelical counsels as perfectly as I could and strive that these few persons who live here do the same” . Hence she conceived a contemplative life which stresses a balance between silence and solitude and a life in common. This was her dream and she worked hard to create first, contemplative communities for women and then, together with Saint John of the Cross, communities of men who can bring their experience of prayer into pastoral work. She did this by reviving the ancient spirit of Carmel : prayer, community, Marian simplicity, joy, healthy asceticism. It was a daring enterprise because it meant organically uniting the solitary life of the hermits of Mount Carmel (Israel) and the apostolic mission of the mendicant orders. She knew that outward action must flow from a state of soul. The old trunk of Carmel was to bud forth anew!
Teresa of Jesus was no doubt a remarkable woman of dynamic talent – could this quality be because of her Jewish origin?
Quite a lot of importance today is being given to this fact. Her grandfather was a Jewish ‘converso’ namely a christianized Jew. He even had to accuse himself before the Inquisition of judaizing and as a penance was compelled to wear in procession for seven Fridays the humiliating sanbenito. After his reconciliation, out of necessity he moved with his family to Avila where he could resume his profession as a cloth merchant. His son Alonso, Teresa’s father, was fourteen at the time and no doubt this event remained impressed in his mind. Teresa herself speaks very little of her Jewish ancestry but undoubtedly her dynamism can be attributed partially to her Jewish blood. “Teresa and three ducats, that’s nothing; but God, Teresa and three ducats, that’s everything” – this favorite maxim of Teresa does have a ‘rabbinical’ flavor, no?!
What were the conditions, spiritually, in her times?
Spain at the time was a world in effervescence not only politically but also spiritually. Three basic characteristics pervaded popular spirituality : a call to interior life, the practice of mental prayer and strong leanings towards mysticism. Giving support to this spiritual rebirth was the Spanish Catholic reform initiated well before the Council of Trent and championed by the militantly fervent Cardinal Cisneros. It is the time of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The time also when newly founded printing presses were offering to the people a large supply of literature on prayer and interior life. All this developed as strong pietist strain that gave rise to an illuminist movement which produced excellent as well as distorted forms of spirituality. On the other hand, while mediaeval Spain had been the most liberal country in Europe with Christian, Mohammedan and Jew living there side by side in peace and friendship, now political reasons made Spain a very intolerant and suspicious land. The Inquisition gained ground and power as a guardian of the authentic Catholic faith.
The ground thus was very fertile for a creative genius like Teresa. However we find her torn apart by her doubts on one part, fearing that she may have been deceived by her own experience and on the other hand an inner conviction that she was on the right path. Nevertheless when others approached and cautioned her about Inquisition, she merely remarked ” this amused me and made me laugh!”. This is the stuff great women are made of.
She was no doubt a holy woman of powerful intellect – when was she declared doctor of the Church? Are there more women saints declared doctor of the Church?
She was declared doctor of the Church on the 27th of September 1970 by Pope Paul VI. Hitherto no woman had been accorded this official distinction. Hence Teresa of Avila was the first woman declared a Doctor by the magisterium of the Church. This resistance to women being recognized as teachers of the Catholic faith came from a biased interpretation of what Saint Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians (14, 33-34) : “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches; they are not allowed to speak”. The excellence of her doctrine however had made such an enormous impact that Pope Paul VI realized that the time was ripe for such a recognition. Even popular devotion put her on a par with various doctors of the Church ; in Cospicua Malta, in our convent of Saint Teresa (one of the first Churches in the world to be dedicated to this Saint) there is a very interesting painting portraying Saint Teresa conversing with Saint Thomas of Aquinas. Father Thomas Alvarez, the Teresian Carmelite who prepared the dossier for the official recognition of Saint Teresa as Doctor of the Church, was thrilled when he saw this portrait.
The only other woman doctor recognized by the Church is Saint Catherine of Siena; she was proclaimed Doctor a month later. Since then twelve saints, eminent for their doctrine and universal influence of their message, have been presented to the competent authorities in Rome to be accorded the title of Doctor of the Church but none were accepted. In April 1991 during our last General Chapter, the superiors of the Order approved a resolution to present Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus to the Holy See so that she may the third woman to be acclaimed Doctor of the Church. Our Father General was impressed by the omnipresence of Theresa of Lisieux in the ex-communist countries : Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Cecoslavakia, Hungary, Poland…. She is a true disciple of Saint John of the Cross and a real daughter of Saint Teresa.
What in your opinion is Teresa’s major work on spirituality?
This a very difficult question. Since 1964, the year I entered Teresian Carmel, I have been taught to cherish every single word of our ‘Holy Mother’ as she is known affectionately in our convents, a lesson I eagerly and willingly learnt. Hence her books are all very dear and precious to me. The Book of her Life, an autobiographical book is rich in its spontaneity and vision, The Way of Perfection is impressive for its practicality, the Interior Castle is probably her masterpiece both from a literary as well as from a spiritual standpoint, while the Book of the Foundations where she describes vividly the adventures of her voyages, is simply a mine of spiritual and psychological digressions.
How can one understand her horrible description of hell? Can one take that literally or symbolically?
She speaks about hell in her Vida, chapter 32. There she describes how one day in prayer “she found herself plunged apparently into hell”. Her language is strong, but considering the baroque style of the times, quite restrained. She speaks about a furnace ‘very low, dark and close’, the ground ‘saturated with water, mere mud exceedingly foul, sending forth pestilential odors and covered with loathsome vermin”. What is very interesting is how she does not get lost in these external choreographic descriptions but describes vividly the psychological pain she felt there : “anguish, a sense of oppression, of stifling and of pain so keen…”. Obviously her language is symbolical, very biblical I must say. Hell is basically an eternal sense of unfulfillment, the basic and perpetual loss of the Beloved; and one way of describing this experience is by stressing the physical pain which one feels when one realizes that he missed out in life… for ever.
However, I would like to note also that this experience of hell which God gave her, did not have a boomerang effect of skepticism on her, in the sense that she started pitying herself or being excessively worried about her salvation; quite the contrary it spurred her to do something beautiful for others. In fact she calls this vision ‘one of the grandest mercies of our Lord’, because it helped her to realize how contingent everything is in this world, including ‘trouble and contradictions’, and at the same time it started her mind thinking what can she really do for others so that they can avoid this eternal bitter experience.
Who are the persons whom you think inspired her most in her spiritual life?
Teresa had a knack of making friends. Her character, ever so exuberant and joyful, helped her to meet a whole spectrum of ‘letrados’ who supported her immensely in her remarkable journey towards intimate union with Jesus Christ. We find laymen like Francisco de Salcedo, illustrious Dominican scholars like Garcia de Toledo, Pedro Ibanez and Domingo Banez, the newly-ordained Jesuit priests Diego de Cetina, Juan de Pradanos and Francis Borgia, the ex-duke of Gandia, the Franciscan penitent and reformer Peter of Alcantara… She was always on the look out for spiritual directors that are men of learning and men of experience. And normally, her conviction and charming influence won them over to the path of serious prayer. It was a reciprocal relationship.
Then, in Summer 1567 Teresa met John of the Cross; at the time, already fifty three years old, she was working on the foundation of her second Carmelite monastery in Medina. John, just twenty six, had just been ordained priest in the university town of Salamanca and was singing his first solemn high mass in the same town. At the time he was passing through a profound crisis and in fact had made up his mind to become a Carthusian ‘to leave the world and be submerged in God’; she was searching for ways and means how to inaugurate her project of giving new vitality to Carmel among men. She won him over by her persuasive arguments. He agreed “on condition that he would not have to wait long”. In these words we see Saint John of the Cross whole and entire. He was a mystic, a man in love, a man of decision. He did not waver or shuffle, he took the shortest road, straight up the hill. “Works, not words” would remark Teresa!
What would you consider as common ground between St Teresa and St Juan de la Cruz? And differences?
They are very different – he is an introvert, a born artist, reticent about his experiences, incisive in his words and in his approach, a lover of anything that is beautiful; when the going was heavy, he used to lead all the brethren of the community out in the fields to freshen up the atmosphere! She is full of life, joyful, keen on friendship, a very typical Castilian woman : natural, direct, colourful; in Avila they still preserve the flute and Basque drum with its little bells that Teresa used to play with and sing and dance; the Nuncio Sega even called her “a restless vagabond woman!”
In spite of this obvious difference in age and temperament, John exercised a strong influence over Teresa. One can notice an increasing doctrinal firmness in Teresa’s works which definitely owe something to John. In the beginning it is Teresa which imbues John with the new spirit of fraternity which she dreamed of in her new Carmel. She is already mature and has much more experience than John. She takes care to train him well into this new life style which she has originated for her Carmel. The roles were reversed when five years later, Father John is called by the same Teresa to animate spiritually the monastery of l’Encarnacion in Avila from where she had left to start the enclosed Carmel. There he took over as her spiritual director; he is present in the most decisive moment of her spiritual journey, namely spiritual espousal. He is firm, tactful and on-going; he is not afraid to let her risk in her spiritual adventure. None of them were ever afraid of risks. “We are the beginners; let us always strive to begin!”
She admires him enormously : “I look here and there for light and I find all I need in my little Seneca. He unites the greatest experience with most profound knowledge”. “A man from heaven, divine” she writes later, in one of her letters. He also holds her in high esteem, and in fact worked hard after her death to have her writings published. There is vast human richness in the creative activity of both, in Teresa’s prose style, in John’s lyrical gift.
Why was such a holy man persecuted? Was it jealousy? lack of comprehension?
Ben Sirach is very explicit : “My son, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal…. Gold is tested in fire, and chosen men in the furnace of humiliation”. Mediocrity which is the stuff life is made of, hates ideals and people who believe in ideals; hence it is normal for men with high ideals and clear insights to encounter criticism, mockery and even harassment. Chickens hate eagles!
The historical facts were simple. A serious dispute arose between the Calced and the new Discalced Carmelite Fathers. Defence mechanisms on one part, excessive pretensions on the other side created a sense of animosity which resulted in an official decree from the General Chapter at Piacenza to suppress the new Carmel, even ‘with the use of the secular arm if necessary’. Father Maldonado, right hand man of the Vicar General executed the decree to the letter, arresting John in a conventual prison in Toledo. “Why if he is a saint, does he not abandon novelties which are scandalizing the Order in which he made his first profession? Surely that would be more humble, more charitable and more perfect…” that’s how many reasoned. The problem is that a saint judges by other norms…
As usual, God managed to transform this traumatic experience of his prison into an enterprising maturing event. He suffered physically and psychologically, and yet later on, in one of his rare sharing, he states that he would be ready to exchange years and years of this kind of prison for one single grace that he received there. In prison he had an overwhelming experience of complete denudation. A decisive step which he describes so vividly later on in his major work The Dark Night : in such an annihilation there is no illusion. But this experience blossoms out in pure love. And in such a love there is liberation. Total liberation. It is in his prison that he created the most inspiring poem ever written in mystical literature – The Spiritual Canticle: “The bride has entered/ The sweet garden of her desire,/ And she rests in delight,/ Laying her neck,/ On the gentle arms of her Beloved…..
How relevant do you think is the teaching of this true mystic to contemporary society?
Saint John of the Cross is not a popular saint, and perhaps he will never be. Quite a good number of Christians never heard of him. Others are afraid of him! His is a strict and radical following of the Gospel, but unlike the charismatic Teresa or Francis of Assisi, he appears to lack humanity. His name evokes a form of Christianity which many feel is beyond them; he is regarded by many as the personification of austerity. When you mention his name what comes to mind is ‘The Dark Night’, with all the negative connotations that evokes. It could be truly said that he is admired but not loved. He has had a bad press! However we Carmelites know that he was a lot more human than most people realize! We believe that there is need for John’s wisdom and experience in our modern world. The Church needs him and his guidance more than ever.
Saint John of the Cross is a new saint: he is still being rediscovered. Creative in his literary dimension, profound in his psychological insight, unsurpassed perhaps in his poetical imagery, he is above all a man of God, a qualified witness who saw and heard in a clear way those realities which many times we only manage to glimpse from afar. He not only experienced God but also traced out a very practical path how to arrive at this union with the living God, disclosing all the traps which our self destructive desires and appetites lay out on the road. Even today psychoanalysts are fascinated at the profound way he scrutinized man’s psyche and interior frictions. Spirituality is the real answer to man’s problems today. And John of the Cross in his simplicity and radicality can offer us just the right tonic for the voyage.
The problems which beset today’s society are obvious. When he was speaking to the Carmelite Sisters in Avila, Pope John Paul made a very significant remark. He said that society made a very serious mistake in closing all its windows which opened towards heaven. The consequences are obvious : pain, anguish and despair, thinly camouflaged by empty commodities. Mystics can offer us the real solution. They are accomplished witnesses of God, they have a vision, they have walked a path, they have discovered Love and hence can wake us up from our utter mediocrity by opening up for us new vistas and provoking us to seek new itineraries. In the famous film Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Neil Diamond sings : “How much more there is to living! Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there’s a reason to live. We can lift ourselves out of ignorance. We can find ourselves as creatures of excellence, intelligence and skill. We can be free.” Saint John of the Cross is a living guarantee that one can live otherwise because he has lived otherwise and has left behind him a way which we ourselves can follow.
Both are masters of mysticism – what can they do to materialistic society?
It is not enough to be aware that consumerism or the lust for power or institutionalized violence constitute an evil. Rather we have to do something to avoid being seduced by them and at the same time change this reality. The first step towards excellence is to abhor mediocrity. If we sit smug and satisfied in the darkness of apathy, our potential will never see daylight. One of the most relevant contributions that mystics can offer is what is normally termed their Christian realism. They know that sin is present in human reality; hence this reality is ambiguous; but they know also, because they have experienced it themselves in their own flesh and blood, that the Spirit of God is likewise present in all these realities, making them possible vehicles towards God.
God is dangerous. But He is so beautiful! Mystics know this. They have fallen in love with God – this is the whole secret of their yearning, their power, their liberty. They are extraordinarily free and extraordinarily fruitful, for they head on steadily towards their goal, without deviation – and their goal is God who is ‘hermosura’ – ‘beauty’ as Saint John of the Cross so enthusiastically discovered. Bergson remarks : “their accumulated vitality pours out in an incredible energy, daring, power of conception and achievement”. The most impressive aspect of their message today is that contact with God is presented to us as a real, attainable experience. And this contact with God will make man more human. I think it was Anne Frank who said that “everyone had inside himself a piece of good news – the good news is that you really don’t know how great you can be, how much you can love, what you can accomplish, what your potential is…”. Mystics can bring out all this hidden potential from any Christian.
In Latin America many theologians are studying seriously the teachings of these mystics to thrash out the implications of the gospel motivation as a significant component in the struggle of the poor for justice and for the rights of the oppressed. It was the Jesuit Karl Rahner who openly stated that the Christian of tomorrow will either be a mystic or else will not be a Christian at all.
How strong is the cult of these two saints in the world?
They are acclaimed within the Catholic Church and outside the Church as the experts in spirituality. Besides, their influence reaches outside the religious milieu : philosophers, psychologists, literary critics, historians look towards these two figures for their inspiration. Pope John Paul himself, an eminent admirer of Saint John of the Cross specifically points out this universal impact in the Apostolic Letter ‘Master in the Faith’ which he promulgated on the occasion of this Fourth Centenary last December 1990 : ” It is a joy to attest to the multitudes of persons from the most diverse points of view who are drawn to his writings : mystics and poets, philosophers and psychologists, representatives of other religious creeds, men and women of culture, and plain folk.” The same can be said of Saint Teresa.
As I have just mentioned, even outside Christian circles they have a tremendous influence; our Fathers in Taiwan (we have three Maltese Fathers founding Carmel in Taiwan) tell us how Confucianism and Buddhism masters look with reverence towards these two mystics. Jacques Maritain always maintained that Saint John of the Cross is the saint nearest to atheists, because in his writings he destroys all kind of images of God. He liberates God from all the images and deformations into which we have straight-jacketed him!
What is the approach of Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross to the mystical life?
Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross believed that intimacy with God is not an escapism or an alienation from life with its anxieties and problems but an essential dimension in the incarnate nature of Christian spirituality. By mysticism they did not understand exotic. Unfortunately in our common jargon, mysticism has become a kind of an umbrella term for all manner of religious oddity – anything vague, woolly or inexplicable soon earns the label ‘mystical’. The English translator of the works of Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross, Professor Allison Peers, an Anglican, suggests that we simply disregard the word and think of what it means. “A mystic is a person who has fallen in love with God. We are not afraid of lovers – no, indeed, ‘all the world loves a lover’. They attract us by their ardor, their single mindedness, their yearning to be one with the object of their love. It was in just that way that Saint John of the Cross thought about God and strove after God, longing, too, that others would do the same.”
The essence of Christian mysticism is simply a deep level, nay the deepest level of discipleship. “Oh soul, created for these wonders, souls called to see them realized in yourselves! What are you doing? What are you playing at?” And the amazing thing is that a man who probes into the divine necessarily incarnates the human in an integral manner. In simple words, a man who experiences God, becomes more human and humane.
What precisely did Saint John of the Cross understand by the dark night?
We may think that the dark nights which Saint John speaks about in such a masterly way in his works are something that happens to great saints. This is not so. He speaks about two kinds of nights, the active and the passive night. The active night symbolizes our own efforts at self-purification, while the passive night is an image of the trials and sufferings which God brings about into our life against our will or at least without consulting us! These are more beneficial as they penetrate deeper into the soul. Most people do all they can to avoid such trials; that is only natural. However if only we realize that God is at work through these afflictions and learn to be flexible enough to adjust ourselves to the new directions God’s will is giving us, life would become more tranquil. For John of the Cross abnegation and renunciation are not a death to values, but rather to the more subtle forms of slavery and selfishness that reign in us.
The point which John stresses is that there is nothing voluntaristic or tinged with moralism in our way of conversion. His point of departure is the fact that God has been ‘converted’ to us from the outset and wishes to transmit to us his life and total liberation. But this cannot take place so long as we are filled with anything that is incompatible with love, with liberty, or with God. Hence the need of emptying ourselves of all our idols, selfishness and hankering after self-aggrandizement. And the beautiful thing is that this denudation of our sick self is something which He does for us if we let him do it!
However we must always keep in mind that detachment is only a means to an end. Night gives way to light and it has meaning only in so far as it is a passage to light. Hence the dark night becomes a fertile desert, a renunciation that generates love. On the one hand, it liberates us from all the fetishes which society imposes on us : the profit motive, consumerism, money, power, pleasure which all are sources of servitude and injustice; on the other hand it helps us to find God without deforming him, by annihilating all false experiences of God. And so we can reach out to the authentic God of Jesus, of the poor, of universal brotherhood. We can liberate because we have been liberated.
Mystical phenomena – how can genuine mystical phenomena be distinguished from possible fake paranormal phenomena?
“By their fruits you shall know them” – that’s the simple principle outlined to us by our Master. Genuine mystical phenomena is always accompanied by three practices, says Teresa : love of neighbor, detachment and humility. The fruit is always peace, delight and calm. Sensationalism, eye catching tactics or melodramatic demeanor are all signs of a sick mind! Teresa and John believe that as regards mystical graces one’s whole task consists in accepting the cross of dryness with courage, humility and the freedom of spirit that comes from detachment even from spiritual consolation.
What do you think would be the reaction of the two mystics to our contemporary society?
I think they would simply live their own adventurous life of love, convinced that their example would seduce many to live this same experience. Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross abounded with life. They loved and were loved. They are worth knowing. “Our Lord never fails us”, Teresa would say. And John would add : “O sweetest love of God, so little known, he who has found its veins is at rest!” My only suggestion is that we let Teresa and John speak to us directly; it is a worth while venture.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.