The saint and the poetBy Simeon Dumdum Jr.
Cebu Daily News
In the Cornaro Chapel of the Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome is a piece of sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Regarded as one of his masterpieces, it portrays the ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila.
The saint’s intense desire to be one with God yielded a vision, which she describes in her autobiography in these words:
“I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful—his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim… I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of his goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.”
I have been reading John Donne’s Holy Sonnets and am struck by how Sonnet No. XIV, despite its wit, resonates with St. Teresa’s mystical experience.
John Donne belonged to a group of English poets in the early 17th century, which Samuel Johnson described as “metaphysical,” and whose method of writing he pictured in this way: “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises.”
Here’s Sonnet No. XIV:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend.
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new,
I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,
Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
The poet addresses the “three-person’d God,” the Blessed Trinity—one God, three persons—according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the mystery of God in Himself.” This God acts with gentleness—He knocks (Father), breathes (Holy Spirit) and seeks to mend (Son).
Which, in his case, Donne finds insufficient. He wants God to “batter his heart.” He calls on God to “o’erthrow” him so that he can “rise and stand,” and “to bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” Alliteratively Donne uses three actions in a series—break, blow, burn—again evoking the Blessed Trinity.
He continues his plea for God to treat him with violence for his own good. He compares himself to a town taken over by the enemy. He desires but is helpless to let God in because the one assigned by God to rule the town–Reason–is itself kept captive and weak and, worst of all, untrue. (In Donne’s time, towns had gates, and to forcibly open them there was need of a battering ram, clearly the reason why Donne begins the poem with the word “batter.”)
At the same time that Donne professes his love for God, who he knows loves him in return, he acknowledges that he is “betroth’d” to God’s enemy, for which reason he asks God to “[d]ivorce me,’untie or break that knot again,” to abduct and imprison him. And here we find in these memorable last lines the paradoxical character of God’s love: “for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”
Unless God makes him his slave, he will never be free, unless God completely takes him for himself, as a man would a woman, he will never be chaste.
No doubt, the poet Donne had the words. But the mystic St. Teresa had the experience.
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- The name of the rose
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