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A handbook on mysticism

The Interior Castle: St. Teresa of Avila, Translated from the Spanish by Mirabai Starr, Riverhead Books: 302 pp., $23.95

August 24, 2003|Patricia Hampl | Patricia Hampl is the author of several books, including the memoir "Virgin Time" and the essay collection "I Could Tell You Stories."

The chronicler of mystical experience labors at a distinct disadvantage as a memoirist. After all, by definition, spiritual transcendence resides beyond story. It is even beyond words. That is its point or at least its strongest claim: that it cannot be described. But since when did "the indescribable" ever stop a writer?

The most convincing and enduring testaments of mystical union in the Christian tradition turn for a method -- it seems instinctively and against the let-me-be-lost-in-you-oh-Lord claims of the writer -- to the ways and means of autobiography. Perhaps it must be so. On this subject, personal experience alone is authority and intimate testimony the only thing that counts as expertise. No detached investigator can assess and no objective journalist can accurately "report" on transcendence. We're stuck with the claim of the first-person account.

Autobiography, a form that in our day bristles with sharply secular and psychological concerns, traces its literary taproot to St. Augustine's attempt, begun in 397, to struggle the angel of mystical union onto the mat of the page in his "Confessions." Nor is he alone. The history of Western autobiography is punctuated by such religious accounts, as if the very insubstantiality of spiritual life were, paradoxically, the real subject of any examined life, the engine powering every personal story.

After St. Augustine, there is the "great" St. Teresa of Avila's autobiography, another classic of Western autobiographical literature. In modern times, the slim "The Story of a Soul" by St. Therese of Lisieux ("The Little Flower," as she is known, to distinguish her more childlike spirituality from that of the mature Teresa) remains a perennial bestseller. The personal accounts of such unsettling 20th century mystics as Simone Weil and Edith Stein also retain a hold over the imaginations of readers. Describing the indescribable by using their own lives as their only evidence, these spiritual writers cannot stray far from personal testimony. Augustine, Teresa, Therese, Stein, Weil -- all mystics, all memoirists.

Perhaps because of the centrality of spiritual testimony in the history of autobiography, the classic works of religious witnesses emerge again and again over the centuries in fresh translations that bear the mark of their own times as well as the testimony of their original authors. Following her 2002 translation of "Dark Night of the Soul" by St. John of the Cross, Mirabai Starr, a professor of Spanish and of philosophy and religious studies at the University of New Mexico, has translated "The Interior Castle," a manual on contemplative prayer that St. Teresa began in 1577. The translation is earnestly contemporary. What E. Allison Peers' 1972 translation renders "This sort of life will be a great mortification" becomes, in Starr's version, "You might feel ashamed of this lifestyle." And in seeking to calm the overheated spiritual seeker, the Peers version urges "relax as much as you can." Starr turns this to "try to do something for fun."

Starr does not claim to present a rigorously accurate translation that leaves intact St. Teresa's sometimes embarrassing (for feminists at least) habit of self-disparagement and her urgent claims of orthodoxy. Starr even acknowledges "brazenly rewriting" the book "in hopes of making it accessible to a contemporary circle of spiritual seekers." A faintly Buddhist sensibility reigns in the translation: St. Teresa speaks in Starr's version of "mindfulness." "Sin" becomes "limitations" and "negativity," "hell" morphs into "the underworld," and "the devil" is decommissioned as the "spirit of evil." Starr's St. Teresa even speaks of "the perils of unconsciousness" -- a very post-therapy Teresa indeed. Yet this version of St. Teresa's "Interior Castle" -- perhaps a fairer description than "translation" -- delivers what it promises, if at a certain price of historical and theological accuracy. St. Teresa feels immediate, her advice cogent. And this version has the interesting advantage of indicating the tenor of our times, if not St. Teresa's.

"The Interior Castle" is, in effect, an antimemoir. It is St. Teresa's second try (written more than a decade after her 1565 autobiography) at describing the galvanizing, subliminally erotic communion with the divine that is her radical spiritual legacy within Christianity. Unlike the autobiography, this later book is not a personal story. St. Teresa even employs patently transparent locutions like "I know a person who ..." to put a scrim between herself and her testimony.

Both the autobiography and "The Interior Castle" were undertaken at the request, really the command, of her religious directors and were probably partly written as prudent defenses against the ever-vigilant Inquisition. Mystical prayer may not strike the secular modern as a particularly dangerous political enterprise compared, say, to a direct critique of the ruling structures of the prevailing powers of church or state.

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