The Marvels of Divine Union
in The Last Mansions
Taken from the September-October Issue 2006
of the Carmel Clarion
by Philip Boyce, OCD
The thought of describing the marvels of God’s union with the purified soul at the summit of the way of perfection makes even saints, who have experiential knowledge of what they would relate, have their misgivings and express their reluctance. If the experience of the Divine is always beyond the range of words, how much more difficult must it be to convey the crucifying delights and heavenly secrets of that perfect union which is the theme of the Seventh Mansions of The Interior Castle?
Even St. Teresa of Jesus expresses her hesitancy despite singular grace she was given of describing the mystery of her unique wealth of mystical favors. She knows very well that she is stammering only something about the many unutterable secrets that are revealed to her and to others, whom God united to himself in a convent of unending love. She therefore feels the need to ask God ‘to move her pen and give her understanding’ (cf. IC 7, 1,1). Indeed, this hesitancy appears at the start of each of the four last Mansions, and from the Fourth onward she asks no more than to be able to say ‘something about the remaining stages in a profitable and comprehensible manner, knowing well that it is impossible to adequately communicate the tidiness and depth of the experience itsel’ (IC 4,1,1).
Since the new world experienced by the mystics is something of which they have no true likeness or term of comparison from normal sense perception, they are obliged to have recourse to symbolic language. They endeavor to describe their experience in analogical terms, using images and symbols which have a power of suggestion beyond that of literal statements. Genuine mystics seem to have an endless store of comparisons, yet they realize that every image is inadequate to their purpose and cannot really convey the divine reality. Having expended entire pages on detailed and ingenious descriptions, as often as not they end by saying that the reality is completely different and far beyond that what they have written. They seem to themselves to speak ‘from the outside’ and to risk betraying the beauty and dignity of what they contemplated. Sometimes their fears go farther, “My words are more of a desecration and a blasphemy than a description” exclaims Bl. Angela of Foligno.
For all that, they have written what seems to us to be exceptional, almost inspired, pages about their experiences of the living God. At times they were commanded to do so under obedience, by a confessor or spiritual director, or even by God himself. Their intention in writing their accounts was the welfare of souls and the glory of God.
The theme of their disclosure can be summarized in a few words: they speak of the purification and unfolding of divine love in their lives, and of the wonders wrought by God in their souls. Their experience is inevitably one of dying to themselves in order to live for God; a story of surrender and conformity in Christ; an interpersonal communion and donation. The deeper the union and the more overpowering the invasion of God’s light and love, the more the human frame suffers and he more unutterable are the joys and marvels experienced.
In order to communicate in words something of the marvels of divine union in the last Mansions, St. Teresa has recourse to the symbolism of marriage with all its suggestive imagery: intimate love, mutual surrender, persevering fidelity, interpersonal communion, indissoluble friendship and unity of hearts. By the end of July 1577, la Madre was at Avila and had completed her account of the first four Mansions as well as a substantial part of the fifth. Then the longest interruption in the composition of the book occurred, a period of between three to four months. When she returned to her task and began the final chapter of the fifth Mansions, she left aside for the moment the allegory of the butterfly, which she had been using, and introduced another ‘comparison’, as she calls it, in order to give a better description of the higher stages of divine union in the last series of Mansions. It is the nuptial imagery which she develops into an allegory. And she claims she cannot find a more adequate image, “You’ve already often heard that God espouses souls spiritually. Blessed be His mercy that wants so much to be humbled! And even though the comparison may be a coarse one, I cannot find another that would better explain what I mean than the sacrament of marriage’ (IC 5,4,3).
1. Marriage Symbolism in the Bible
No one can enter into a human being in a relation of love as closely and penetratingly as his creator. It is not surprising then that God made use of the most intimate of unions between two creatures on earth namely, that between husband and wife, in order to present an image, however inadequate, of the eternal fidelity, the tender and ardent love, which binds him to the soul he created and redeemed. He revealed himself to Israel as the one true God. Because of his free and elective love, Abraham and his descendants were a chosen people. The resulting bond of friendship between them in the history of salvation was a sacred covenant. This latter was persistently described by the prophets in terms of nuptial love, as a marriage between Yahweh and the people he had chosen.
The earliest prophet who spoke in a significant manner of this theme was Hosea. Through the sad vicissitudes of his own marriage, he came to realize the bitterness caused by a faithless ‘wife of harlotry’ (Hos 1,2). This gave him an insight into the incomprehensible love, tender and persevering, of Yahweh for his people, who were so unfaithful to him and continued to run after false gods and selfish loves. He contemplated the tragedy of God’s unanswered love in the fickle devotion of is own wife. The experience led him to understand more deeply the reality of God’s love, which is not attracted by some good quality in Israel, but his beloved. Rather, by freely loving his chosen people, he makes them worthy of love, even of divine love.
In fact, the very word used by Hosea for this love (hesed) is a technical term in covenant or contract language. When applied to Yahweh it signifies his steadfast, tender and invincible love for his people. Used in the context of married love by Hosea, it evokes a close and indissoluble bond of friendship. Thus Yahweh is called the ‘husband’ who for a while repudiates Israel his unfaithful ‘wife’ (cf. Hos 2,2), but who will take her back again and heap spiritual gifts upon her when she abandons her adulterous loves. “I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness and you shall know the Lord” (Hos 2,19-20).
The marriage imagery of God’s love for his people is developed by later prophets. They draw on it to portray the days of Israel’s fidelity, when she followed Yahweh in the desert, like a devoted and loyal bride (cf. Jer 2,2). They also use it to condemn the later period of infidelity, which in their eyes is equivalent to adultery (cf. Jer 3,1-5); Ezek 16). Isaiah echoes Hosea’s words censuring Israel for its infidelity (cf. Is 1,21), but even nore so pledging God’s personal and steadfast love for his faithful ones. “For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name (.. .) For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she was cast off” (Is 54,5-6). This love is forgiving and has the fervor of a first love: the little remnant will be the object of God’s care, who will take his joy in her “as the bridegroom rejoices in his bride” (Is 62,5) and will clothe her “with the robe of righteousness” “as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Is 61,10).
The Song of Songs (or Canticle of Canticles) also celebrates the love of a bride and bridegroom for each other. Scholars disagree about the literal meaning and origin of this sacred text. However, a long-standing Jewish and Christian tradition has interpreted these poems in an allegorical sense as an image of the pure love and mystical union between Yahweh and his chosen people or in the Christian tradition, between Christ and the Church. “Whatever theory of interpretation we adopt,” states the Jerusalem Bible, “we are justified in applying the Song to the mutual love of Christ and his Church or to the union of the individual soul with God. Mystics like St. John of the Cross were wise to use the Song as they did. “Probably no other book of the Old Testament was so richly and willingly commentated and meditated in Christian antiquity, right up to the Middle ages and beyond. The Fathers of the Church perceived its true spiritual meaning, and took its daring words of love to praise the unlimited love of God for is people and his Church. They also extended the symbolism, especially in later centuries, to signify the bond of mystical union between Christ the bridegroom and the individual soul his bride, or in a special way between God and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The New Testament continues this nuptial imagery. It is particularly evident in the writings of St. Paul who appears as the spiritual father of the Corinthian community; prepared by him to be presented to Christ on the day of his coming. “I betrothed you to Christ so as to present you as a pure bridge to her one husband” (2Cor 11,2). The locus classicus however, is in his Letter to the Ephesians, where he draws a parallel between a human marriage and the marriage of Christ to his Church. Christ is presented as the head and husband of the Church for whom he has sanctified himself to make her holy and spotless (cf. Eph 5,21-28).
Finally, in the pages of the Book of Revelations (Apocalypse), this same imagery is repeated to portray the union of the triumphant Church with God. The Church in glory is “the bride, the spouse of the Lamb” (Rev 21,9). The final and complete establishment of the kingdom of God will be a marriage union between Christ and those countless saved by his Blood. “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Rev 19,7).
2. St. Teresa’s Use of the Marriage Allegory
The nuptial symbolism of love enters systematically in the final Mansions with the advent of a strictly mystical life. Although love is never absent from spiritual growth, its manifestations previous to this point are not so intense and absorbing as to warrant the nuptial imagery. In earlier Teresian writings we do find references to this symbolism, but only in general terms. Thus, she often speaks of Christ as the spouse of the soul, and in one passage of the Way of Perfection, while explaining the familiarity and friendship that a soul of prayer should cultivate with Christ, she urges her daughters to get to know their Spouse and to have that same care for im that any woman in the world would have for her husband (W 22,7). However, the imagery is not developed any further or applied to the spiritual life in a systematic way. As one of the leading modern writers on Teresa states:
Only mystical love, therefore, raises the soul’s relations with God to a nuptial level by imitating a process of growth that terminates in the ‘mystical marriage’ (7th Mansions), which is prepared by a pre-nuptial state of mystical betrothal (6th Mansions), which in its turn is preceded by an affective prelude or a kind of loving education imparted by the first mystical state (5th Mansions).
It is now possible that St. Teresa is indebted, in her use of this imagery, to St. John of the Cross who makes even more abundant use of it. However, from her own writings it is evident that the proximate basis for her introduction of the nuptial allegory was Solomon’s Song of Songs. In a mystical experience of about the year 1565, the aptness of these inspired words to describe what she herself had been recently undergoing struck her forcefully. This led her to write a commentary on this inspired book of the Old testament. Choosing seven verses from it, she outlined in as many chapters the seven stages of the spiritual journey to complete union of love with God. These pages are a presage of the most developed and systematic treatment of the same theme in The Interior Castle.
It seems probable that the first draft of these Meditations on the Song of Songs (or according to Fr. Gracian’s title, Conceptions of the Love of God) was written about the year 1566, and the final one between 1572 and 1575. Although these dates are culled from internal evidence in the text itself, and are only approximate, they would seem to be acceptable. From this chronological collection, one can deduce that it was while the author herself was suffering the violent raptures and painful phenomena of spiritual betrothal that she was consoled and reassured by hearing some verses from the Song of Songs, “through them she understood” she writes, referring to herself, “that her soul was being well guided” (Med 1,66). The experience left her with the inner conviction that a soul in love with its divine Spouse can undergo “swoons, deaths, afflictions, delights and joys with Him” (ibid.).
A few years later she gives a doctrinal and systematic exposition of this deepening union in The Interior Castle. In doing so, she merely follows the evolution of her own mystical experiences. As elements of her allegory, she makes use of the normal stages leading to marriage in the social structure of sixteenth-century Spain. They include the initial meetings (vistas) between the two young people in question, by which they come to know and like each other. As these meetings become more numerous, the couple begin to exchange gifts, fall in love and join hands. This leads to engagement or betrothal, and finally to the definitive union in the sacrament of marriage.
Applying this imagery to the spiritual and mystical journey, St. Teresa teaches that the ‘meeting’ that Christ has with the soul in the union of the Fifth Mansions increase mutual knowledge and love. The soul learns ‘about the goodness of its Spouse and determines to please him at all costs’. Even one meeting wold be enough to leave the soul ‘more worthy for the joining of hands’. The soul is left “so much in love: tan enamorada” that it is very careful not to refuse God what he is most seeking, its exclusive “affection” (cf. IC 5,4,4).
The souls yearnings of love grow deeper and more ardent, and it remains “wounded with love” (IC 6,1,1) in a manner that cannot be cured until union is complete. The numerous trials, typical of this period, refine and fortify the soul making it more worthy to be a promised bride of the divine king. Mystical betrothal takes place in a rapture that draws the soul out of its senses (IC 6,4,4). Normally, it introduces a period of ecstatic contemplation, violent rapture and painful trances. Life seems an exile, and the soul longs for death. However, in this crucible of suffering love, God protects and fortifies the soul. Since the joining of hands is a natural sign of affection and support, Christ mystically joins hands with his bride, making her understand that “the soul is now His, and that no one should touch it” and that “He will protect it, from the whole world and even from all hell” (IC 6,4,16).
The jewels exchanged between them include on the soul’s part, its exclusive lof its Spouse, its zeal in caring for his honor and its avoidance of all that would displease him; and on God’s part, the three precious graces of increased awareness of is grandeur, self-knowledge that induces humility, and sovereign detachment from the things of this world (IC 6,5,10).
The tormented period of spiritual betrothal which can last for years, prepares the soul for the grace of complete union with its Spouse. The effect of these excruciating pains and desires is twofold. The first one is the purification and refinement of all its tendencies at a depth beyond the reach of human effort, generous as it may be. The second one is the positive preparation for the definitive mystical espousal with Christ. The soul’s surrender to God, its fidelity and love increase with great intensity. Finally, when the bride is sufficiently prepared and made worthy of her Spouse, she is introduced into the innermost Mansion. She beholds in ecstatic wonderment the life of the Holy Trinity in the deepest abode of her soul, and then one day Jesus gives her his hand, taking her as his bride, and declares that no one will ever separate them again. The spiritual marriage is complete: the two loves have become one living flame, indistinguishable and indissoluble.
III.The Union of Spiritual Marriage
As a proximate preparation for the union of spiritual marriage the Lord reveals to the soul in its inmost center, direct knowledge or a so-called intellectual vision, the splendors of the indwelling Trinitarian life. The new and deep understanding would seem to be, in one form or another, a necessity at this point, springing from the nature of a close friendship. Those who are true friends have no secrets from each other. As Christ said to his apostles, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15,15). The soul’s friendship with its God has now become so close that in this deepest center the Lord “desires to remove the scales from the soul’s eyes and let it see and understand (. . .) something of the favor He grants it” (Jn 7,1,6).
The grace of mystical marriage was conferred on St. Teresa in concomitance with an especially intense imaginative vision of the Sacred Humanity. It occurred while she was at the Convent of the Incarnation, Avila, in November 1572. St. John of the Cross, who had been appointed confessor of that convent six months previously, broke a final host one morning while distributing Holy Communion, in order to provide for two remaining sisters, one of them being St. Teresa. For a moment she thought he might have intended it as a mortification. In an interior locution, Christ immediately assured her that no one would separate them. Then in an imaginative vision, he gave her his right hand and said:
Behold this nail, it is a sign you will be My bride from today on. Until now you have not merited this; from now on not only will you look after My honor as being the honor of your Creator, King, and God, but you will look after it as My true bride. My honor is yours, and yours Mine. (Sp Text 31,1).
St. Teresa’s doctrinal exposition of this state of union is based on her own experience. She is certain that others may receive the same grace in a different manner (IC 7,2,1). In fact, the extraordinary and phenomenal aspect does not belong to the essence of true union. And yet there is a danger (still very real at the present time) of giving more credit to the miraculous and the unusual, than to the ordinariness of solid virtues, self-sacrificing charity, unassuming goodness and conformity of will to God’s good pleasure. Consequently, it is always necessary to differentiate with clarity and decisiveness between the essence of this highest form of union and the adventitious that may or may not accompany it. Fr. Marie-Eugene makes the point convincingly:
Confusion between being and appearing, more importance given to the appearing that is brilliant and show, than to the being that is hidden and obscure, these give rise to practical error as to the nature of perfection and the goal to be attained, and may occasion errors in direction from the very beginning of the spiritual life. Souls are thus retarded in the way of perfection or even brought to a definite standstill. The road of the imperfect soul, in the chart of Saint John of the Cross, that ends at an impasse, is indeed the road on which, the soul seeks as an end the goods of heaven, of glory, joy, consolation, security, light, in short, all the goods that accompany union, but are not union, and even hinder one from attaining it, if desired for themselves (I Am a Daughter of the Church 11,569).
By means of extraordinary manifestations, a person is given cognizance of and my be able to express more adequately, the inner reality. The unique favors experienced by St. Teresa enabled her to gain an interior perception of the journey she had traveled, and consequently in her spiritual treatise, to map out its progress for other souls. However the essential and indispensable element in perfect union of love is mutual and unconditional surrender, conformity of wills and inner peace in bearing the cross. All this may be rendered more or less communicable human words. On the other hand, it may well remain a hidden and wordless secret.
It is important, then, to underline the nature of genuine union at the level of the seventh Mansions, and to determine the true signs of its authenticity.