My Flesh Faints for Thee
Whitehead and Teresa of Avila
O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee, my flesh faints for thee.
Whitehead's philosophy can help people interpret and appreciate eight mystical sensibilities. These are described in another article in JJB: Process and Mysticism.
1. mysticism of inter-connectedness,
1. mysticism of local community,
3. mysticism of creative energy,
4. mysticism of divine archetypes
5. mysticism of divine love,
6. mysticism of collective unconscious,
7. mysticism of mysticism of shamanic journey
8. mysticism of ordinary life
The reflection below, focuses on the fifth type -- a mysticism of divine love -- as illustrated in Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). Love mysticism is especially important in monotheistic spiritual traditions and can serve as an antidote to overly authoritarian images of the divine which reduce God to a monarch, a Caesar-like figure, whose sole preoccupation is with reward and punishment. The value of love mysticism is to remind us that the love of God is much less judgmental, and much more intimate, than is ever understood if we render unto God that which belongs to Caesar. The love mystics invite us to consider God, not as a monarch but as a loving presence to whom we are inwardly drawn, lover to Lover. See also the essay on Process Thinking and Rumi.
Beside me, on the left, appeared an angel in bodily
form.... He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire.... In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share.
- an account written by Saint Teresa, taken from the Khan Academy's story Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa:
Teresa of Ávila, also called Saint Teresa of Jesus, baptized as Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada, was a prominent Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint, Carmelite nun, writer of the Counter Reformation, ... Wikipedia
Always we are thirsty. Always we are seeking a satisfaction that is deeper and wider than the finite satisfactions we know and enjoy. We are not sure how to name this satisfaction. Sometimes we call it Peace or Love or Joy. Sometimes we call it God.
The good news is that Joy is seeking us, too. At least this is how things look from a process perspective, God thirsts for intimacy with us just as deeply as we search for intimacy with God. There is a courtship at work in the universe and one of the courtiers is divine.
God may also be a little jealous. The problem is not that God wants all the attention. The problem is that God is infinitely spacious, filled with potentiality, but lacking in concreteness. It's good to have all this potentiality, but the potentiality is incomplete without the finite satisfactions of the world. Whitehead puts it simply: "God is completed by the individual, fluent satisfactions of finite fact." (Process and Reality, 347).
Thus we can say that God is jealous of our finitude. God wants and needs to feel the world through our bodies, to know what is is like to see and touch, taste and smell, succeed and fail, live and die. This seeking is part of God's desire.
The psalmist writes: My flesh faints for thee, O Lord. The psalmist could have added: And you faint for my flesh, too.
If two persons -- one human and one divine -- are this much in love, it is natural that they seek some kind of union.
Whitehead believes that this union occurs naturally, in God's own life, as God receives our experiences into the divine life enabling us to become,as it were, transformed selves: "The temporal occasions are completed by their everlasting union with their transformed selves." (Process and Reality, 357)
Should this be the case, we can rightly take heart in the idea that the Joy for which our hearts yearn -- and all other hearts as well -- is somehow realized, if not in our own continuing journey after death, then at least in God's continuing journey. The love affair continues in God's memory. Every life -- human and otherwise -- is carried in the memory even as it passes away.
But perhaps we can experience a consummation of this love affair in this very life, at least in certain moments.
This seems to be what happened to Teresa of Avila. She is the well-known Christian mystic whose ecstasies were depicted by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1647-1652) in The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. Scroll down for video to learn more.
From a process perspective, Teresa's ecstasies are best understood as moments in which her own consciousness is infused with God's desires, God's lures, These lures are what process theologians call the initial aims of God. They are inwardly felt goals, deriving from the divine reality, which carry with them God's own love for the world. They are love letters from God which are breathed into the human heart, moment by moment, as divine sighs.
Ethically-minded people might think of God's lures primarily in social and ethical terms, but not in intimate and sexual terms. For them the lures of God will understood as callings toward ethical ideals of love and justice, but not love letters addressed to an individual soul. Process thinkers can correct this imbalance by recognizing that, for some people in some circumstances, a meaningful way to feel God's presence is as a Lover.
The ecstasies of St. Teresa are illustrative. They point to ways of being connected to God that are beyond God the Father and also God the Mother. We are betrothed to God and God to us, at a level deeper than words and physical in its intimacy.
An appreciation of her love mysticism can help us overcome the gap between flesh and spirit, recover the sacrality of sexuality, and recognize that, most deeply, the very reality we seek, when we fall in love with other persons, is more than the persons themselves.
Falling in Love
Falling in love is one of the most beautiful experiences a person can ever have. It is a gift from heaven and a realization of heaven on earth. It contains within it an intimacy of felt presence and a longing for felt presence.
But the very experience of falling in love can lead to tragedy, for the lovers themselves, if they make gods of one another, confusing the finite with the infinite.
It can help to know that the experience is a window into a deeper falling for which we yearn at all times. A falling in love with the Love at the heart of the cosmos, whom some address as God.
Always we are thirsting for this Love. And always the Love is thirsting for us, too. In heaven the Love of God transforms us into the selves we are called to be. Who knows? There may be a continuing journey in the context of which we are aware of the transformation, we may live as a memory in the divine life, with no subjective experience of our own. Time will tell.
In moments when the thirsting is satiated, we become God's body and God is made whole. Christians think of themselves as the body of Christ. This body is like that of God; it needs the multiplicity of the world in order to be itself. Let Teresa's poem tell the story:
Christ has no Body But Yours
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.*
From a process perspective, what Teresa says of Christ can be said of God. And the people who become bodies of God are not limited to Christians.
Wherever there is truth, goodness, and beauty, God is embodied and thus completed. Wherever there is tenderness and compassion, wisdom and creativity, there is God. How lonely the Lover until embodied by the world. God needs our ecstasies, too.
We need not all be mystics like Teresa of Avila. But we can have mystic sensibilities which share in her intuitions that God -- the very heart of the universe -- is is a Joy beyond understanding whose satisfaction is our heart's desire.
* Excerpted from the Journey with Jesus website, weekly essays by Daniel B. Clendenin, PhD: www.journeywithjesus.net.