Conversation with Rowan Williams about Teresa of Avila

teresaThe following is the draft of an interview with Rowan Williams to be published in the May/June 2014 issue of Theology.

“The more clearly and freely we see a figure like Teresa against the background of her age,” writes Rowan Williams in the conclusion to his Teresa of Avila, “the more we may appreciate the possibility of a ‘conversation’ with her. If she is made simply a mouthpiece for would-be timeless pieties, she becomes remote and eccentric, inviting the ill-informed scorn of an age uninterested in those pieties. If she is conscripted into the service of typically twentieth-century causes, she becomes only a sounding-board for our own preoccupations.”

The purpose of this interview, conducted twenty-two years after Williams’ book first appeared, is to have a conversation about Teresa. Or, rather, about some of the strands that make up what we know of her life and work: her relatively privileged, and yet deeply perilous status as the daughter of a recently ennobled family with Jewish antecedents in sixteenth-century Spain; her theology of prayer, both lived and written; her preoccupations and her silences; the relationship with God and with herself at the heart of her writings, and the model of relationships at the heart of her organisation of reformed Carmelite communities.  KJM

Kirsty Jane McCluskey: How did you come to Teresa; what was your path?

Rowan Williams: I was a teenager. The curate in my parish was leaving to go to a missionary job and getting rid of some of his books. He gave me an armful of old paperbacks including St. Teresa’s autobiography, and I began to read it. I don’t think I made much of it at the age of fifteen or sixteen: it was clearly important and impressive, but I didn’t know what to do with it. It was really only a few years later, I suppose when I was studying theology here, that I began to read again in that area, and really to read St. John of the Cross a bit more intensively. I read him very intensively when I was a graduate student. So I think John was the person I read most in my twenties, and then getting back to Teresa and realising that, actually, I’d missed out on quite a lot of that. I wrestled with some of the attempts to map Teresa’s account of the spiritual life onto John’s—that they appear to be saying the same things and describing the same stages—I think now that’s a complete waste of time. They are who they are; they have their metaphorical schemes, which are diverse.

KJM: Do you think that attempt is a perpetuation of the same patriarchy under which Teresa lived, by which she has to be equivalent, or subjugate, to the male mystic of her generation?

RW: There is a great deal in the literature that—covertly or overtly—assumes perhaps that John is the clever one, and Teresa may be the deep one, but she is, after all, a woman.

KJM: Emotional.

RW: Emotional, yes. The funny thing being, in a way, that whereas we now have another kind of gender stereotyping—where we say, “Oh, women are more contemplative than men,” or something like that—in the sixteenth century, it was exactly the opposite. Women were not capable of contemplation because they were not very clever, and contemplation is an intellectual thing. Teresa was up against that all the time, and hence her very dry and gritted-teeth remarks to the effect that “of course, I’m not a theologian,” repeated again and again.

KJM: “And, of course, I’m a woman.”

RW: “Of course, I’m a woman.”  Preemptive strikes.

KJM: Perhaps also anticipating and subverting what she knows her male confessors may say or may think.

RW: She’s very subversive in that way. I don’t know how consciously she’s doing it—whether she’s really being ironic all the time—but there’s an irony in the fact she does it. And it is of course the classic subaltern strategy, isn’t it, both to inhabit and to mock the structures that are imposed. She does that spectacularly.

KJM: Of course, it would be too easy—particularly for a contemporary female reader—to assume that she is necessarily being ironic at all times. Especially as it would often be a more comfortable assumption. But there must be part of her gender discourse that is ingrained.

RW: She must have internalised a lot of it. But there are moments, as when she says, and almost breaks out in saying it: “I realise that we women are weak and silly and all the rest of it, but I know who stood by the side of our Lord at the cross.”

KJM: There’s an edge of frustration in there.

RW: Yes, a real edge of honesty.

KJM: Your book on Teresa first came out in 1991; I have the 2003 edition. Has your relationship to her developed further since then? Has your analysis advanced?

RW: I haven’t done a great deal of work on her since then. I go back to her, obviously, from time to time. I think that the themes which were uppermost in my mind writing it, and especially her interest in friendship, have become more and more vivid: the fact that, for her, the essence of the contemplative community is this friendly relationship based on the friendship that God accords. That seems to be increasingly important as a way to understanding, not just her practice in terms of how she organised the life of the sisters, but also something about contemplation itself: that it’s not the conquest of an alien territory, but something is first of all made possible by an invitation. I use the language of the conquest of an alien territory particularly because, of course, she had a brother who was fighting with the Spanish forces in the New World, who sent her potatoes as a present on occasion. Not many people know that.

KJM: I certainly didn’t. I’m enlightened.

RW: And while she, at some points, gets into the sort of apocalyptic language about Europe falling apart, when it comes to it she’s interested in that kind of relationship that is made possible by somebody else’s voluntary welcome; and the impossibility of sustaining all that when institutions get too large, which explains her almost obsessional concern to limit the size of her communities to a dozen or so sisters in a small house. So yes, that’s something I continue to reflect on quite a bit, but I find myself going back to St John quite a lot as well, and that’s something I want again to dust off. I’m more and more interested in St. John’s semi-popular poetry.

KJM: Is this a project that you might now pursue?

RW: Well, I’ll see. One of the big anniversaries is coming up: Teresa’s birth, the year after next. I’ve had a couple of invitations to speak about her and about the Carmelite reforms, so I know I’m going to have to dive back into that pool very soon.

KJM: Five hundred years: that’s a big anniversary. And yet it’s striking how clear her voice is, and how direct, even across the centuries; even as there is so much that has to be understood by the contemporary reader. What’s interesting too is that she talks a great deal about her gender, albeit in this semi-subversive way, but what she doesn’t talk about is her social status, which must have been just as fundamental to her experience.

RW: This is one of the deafening silences in her work; except, of course, in the way it’s displaced. I mean by that that she can never, of course, talk about the Jewishness of her family. It would have been suicide—quite possibly literally—to talk about that. So she has to come at it sideways by saying that we must not be preoccupied about people’s background, about people’s status. It’s the friendship thing from another point of view. Until I wrote that book, I don’t think I’d begun to realise just what a pervasive theme that was; but you read the books with those spectacles, and you suddenly see everywhere this almost compulsive return to the question of status and origin. Well, until the 1950s nobody really knew about that family background.

KJM: Which just goes to show—although I often hear the opposite from non-historians—that it is always worth going back to well-trodden ground, because there is always the possibility of a new perspective or even new evidence.

RW: That’s right. And it didn’t take a great deal of work, I think in the forties and fifties, to turn up some of the records of Teresa’s family, tracing the fact that her father had been before the Inquisition at one point before he moved to Avila, and the whole picture of a family desperate to start a new life. It’s a fascinating one. John of the Cross, likewise: all sorts of questions about his family background. We don’t know if there was any Jewish hinterland; there may have been. More to the point, of course, is that he lost his father at an early age; he was the breadwinner for the family. He worked in a hospital for people with acute diseases, possibly syphilitic. His social background and his education are very different from Teresa, who’s a spoiled young brat from a wealthy family—a Juliet figure, I sometimes think, as well—whereas St. John struggles and struggles, and finally makes it to university after this very unpromising beginning.

KJM: And yet both of them ended up working on the margins.

RW: Both of them, on the margins, very consciously so. Teresa always very skilful of course, from the margins touching the centre; she knows when to write to the King, pull the levers and call in the big battalions. John is not a politician; he can’t do that and, of course, suffers accordingly.

KJM: Because ultimately both of them are claiming—and this is something you touch upon frequently in your own work—that a Christian commitment necessarily transcends King and Country; and Church, indeed. To say that this was provocative at the time is massively understating it.

RW: I think so, because in the Reformation era both sides are deeply wedded to the centrality of institutional loyalties, whether it’s the monarchy in England—the reformed monarchy—or the reformed Tridentine church, and figures like Teresa and John are just not quite at home in that. In their diverse ways, they are beginning to say what has been said more vividly in the twentieth century by many who have stood out against totalitarian regimes: There is a kind of belonging that is a lot more significant than the belongings that are pushed at us by family, by state, by institutional Church.

KJM: This question comes with the benefit of hindsight because, of course, both were very marginalised and the majority of people at the time would not have come into contact with their spirituality. But mysticism is not something often mentioned in the way people talk about mainstream religion today. I wonder whether mystical experience is still possible, or whether we have pathologised the transcendental to the extent that a Teresa or a John could not express themselves at all in these days and be taken seriously?

RW: That’s quite a complicated question, really. People have certainly tried to pathologise Teresa, in particular, and she undoubtedly had some very strange experiences. At the same time, people do still have these experiences and are sometimes very frightened of talking about them, because they don’t want to be thought insane or disturbed. People look with a mixture of suspicion, respect and envy at those who claim some sort of connection with the transcendent, and don’t quite know what to do with it. There are two problems, I think, in our modern discourse about mysticism. One—I hinted at this, I suppose, in the book—is to identify mysticism with a whole succession of odd experiences; whereas I think that for Teresa, and certainly for John, the really stomach-churning, dramatic and bizarre experiences are just your entry into another level. It’s not that you go on having stomach-churning, bizarre experiences and mystical ecstasy right up to the end. The whole point is to get you to another kind of normality, almost. So the mistake now is often to see mysticism as just about ecstasy. People look at Bernini’s famous statue and think that’s mysticism, whereas Teresa, I think, would have taken a very dim view indeed of that statue, very dim. “That’s precisely not the point: of course I had these extraordinary experiences, and I wished at the time I wasn’t having them, but eventually what it permitted me to do was to wash the dishes mindfully and prayerfully.” She more or less says that.

Now the other error, I think, is the old chestnut about spirituality and religion: “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” A statement which drives me to distraction, as you can imagine, because there the spiritual becomes something very private, very interior, which doesn’t really threaten anybody very much and doesn’t do what people like Teresa are doing, which is to put a sharp question from the margin. To say, well, if you’re serious about being spiritual, you live differently: get used to it. Those two problems make these questions all the harder these days.

KJM: And, of course, Teresa in particular has been a hook upon which people hang their ideas about hysteria, sexual repression, everything to do with the body, and especially the female body.

RW: Absolutely, yes. I think a very important moment in Teresa’s evolution, which she records—she actually dates it—is the day on which she realised she no longer wished she were dead; as if she’s settled into her body here and now. The mystical is here and now, this is where I’m sitting, this is where my body is.

KJM: She really is extraordinarily clear in expressing how she feels, to the extent that it can be a little startling. I was surprised, after the first chapters of her autobiography in which she really excoriates herself, how compassionate she is in giving instruction to others, particularly those who don’t have a religious vocation. Do you think her methodology of prayer is useful now? Can it have a direct application?

RW: I think it’s enormously useful. She gives you a structure—whether it’s the Four Waters or the Seven Mansions—at the heart of which is a moment of transition, when you have to recognise that the initiative has passed from you. Again, mapping the Waters onto the Mansions is a fool’s game, really. The point is that in both of those structures there’s a moment when you have to say: “I now have to let it happen. I now have to let go of sheer effort, or imagining that sheer effort will do it.” And, as you say, she’s very compassionate and very realistic, and will give you practical bits of advice, like: Carry a picture of Jesus in your pocket and just make contact occasionally. That’s the kind of thing you need.

KJM: That receptivity you describe would be too easy to confuse with a traditionally “feminine” passivity, but it’s not that at all, is it?

RW: It’s not feminine passivity, because receptivity is something which all serious spiritual writers in the tradition want to talk about. While we may say that the feminised picture of the receptive soul, in St. John of the Cross as much as Teresa, is bound up with all kinds of stereotypes that we might want to question, the salient point is that receptivity is not seen as an exclusive feminine characteristic. The male mystic has to become feminine in relation to something. Problematic, but it’s one way of what I suppose some would call queering the discourse in the sixteenth century.

KJM: I suppose it goes to show that we have always had gender stereotypes, but we have always had people who transcend those stereotypes and actively subvert them.

RW: And the other side of the feminised metaphor St. John of the Cross always uses is something like, from the early Christian period, the vision of St. Perpetua; where, before her martyrdom, she sees herself being changed into a man, and wrestling with men in the arena and throwing them in the sand. Another odd bit of stereotype management and stereotype subversion.