Confessions of a She-Geek

August 21, 2013

Do You Hear What I Hear?

One thing I find interesting about The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself is how the author uses her life story more as a framing device for discussing spirituality than an opportunity to talk about herself. I’m not saying that Teresa removes herself from the equation (although I get the sense that if she thought she could get away with it, she would have); more that she picks and chooses anecdotes specifically to illustrate what happens when faith grows and one’s connection to God deepens.

Early in the book Teresa focuses on the fundamental concepts, describing how to lay a solid foundation of faith through prayer. There are several types of prayer, Teresa explains, and people will progress at different speeds and achieve different levels of connections with God. Most people will be able to reach a point of inner calm, where they connect to the Spirit within them. These people will be rewarded with gifts of the Spirit and will happily remain at that point of spiritual development.

A few people, like Teresa, will have deeper, more mystical spiritual experiences. As Teresa’s development progressed, she began to “hear” and “see” God. Teresa says that this doesn’t mean hearing and seeing with physical senses, nor is she referring to the mental “voice” that we hear when we’re thinking. The “hearing” is more like suddenly knowing or understanding something that she would otherwise never have known or understood.

The “seeing” is more like becoming aware of someone whose presence cannot be determined by physical senses: “[One day while I was at prayer] I saw Christ at my side – or, to put it better, I was conscious of Him, for I saw nothing with the eyes of the body or the eyes of the soul… I most clearly felt that He was all the time on my right, and was a witness of everything I was doing.”

She describes invisible light and inaudible sounds, and struggles with finding a way to fully convey the experience to her priest and the other sisters in her order. When her priest asked Teresa how she could be sure that this was real; that it was God’s presence, Teresa could only say that she just knew it somehow. I can imagine that must have been frustrating, but it also makes sense that someone who’d progressed to a point in spiritual development that most people will not reach, would struggle to express what it was like.

It reminds me of the scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where McCoy asks a newly-resurrected Spock to describe the experience. Spock replies that he couldn’t do that because McCoy had no frame of reference, and therefore no words would be able to explain it in a manner that McCoy would grasp. To paraphrase McCoy’s response, McCoy would need to die himself in order to understand Spock’s description.

How do you explain the color blue to someone who is blind from birth? The best you can do is look for a metaphor; something within the listener’s experience that might get the concept across. But when push comes to shove, the only way to see what blue looks like is by seeing it. It seems to me that this was what Teresa ran into. She knew of no words to fully express something that was so far out of most people’s experience, so she used the words see and hear as metaphors in an attempt to make herself understood. But she was frustrated, because these words fell short.

When you consider that Teresa is describing communing with God, is it any wonder that words failed her? That she was unable to explain because she was experiencing God on a deeper, less-filtered level than the average person? According to the Bible, when God manifested to humans, He used different methods. For Moses, it was a burning bush. Other people had different experiences. Was this because the interactions were tailor-made for the humans involved?

One reason I love TV shows like Eli Stone and Joan of Arcadia is because they explore this concept: how different people experience God. In Joan of Arcadia, God puts it this way: “I don’t look like this. I don’t look like anything you’d recognize. You can’t see me. I don’t sound like this. I don’t sound like anything you’d recognize. You see, I’m beyond your experience. I take this form because you’re comfortable with it, it makes sense to you. And if I’m “snippy” it’s because you understand snippy. Do ya get it?”

This actually meshes with Teresa’s account: it’s clear that the people around Teresa experienced God in ways very different from her. Parenting experts say that parents have a different relationship with each of their children. What works with one child will not work with another. And parents will get the best response when they use an approach that fits the child in question. I think the concept translates pretty well to prayer. If prayer is connecting to/communicating with the Father, it makes sense that the Father will interact with each child in a manner that best fits the child.

That’s something to keep in mind.

Advertisements

Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: