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death by cancer and a serious heart condition May experienced a seeming
epiphany making him forget much of his former psychological training and
overlook "embarrassing" aspects of his topic. Still he retains a rich
dyadic experience gained with "fellow-seekers" though packaging it in
committed language. Moreover, though it often seems he achieves his claim of
"[grasping] much of the original meaning" (p. 10) of the writings of
Teresa de Ávila and Juan de Yepes de Álvarez (hereafter "Teresa" and
"Yepes" or "Juan" respectively), his claim that "here
and there I have also added some of my own distortions" turns modesty into
hubris. He likely imposes on them a vague and referent-free theology not of
their making. The only available "jacket" of the times that could
gloss the "peak-experiences" they reported was "theology."
I'll continue underscoring the relatively few merits of his votively
investigated opus concluding with deficits unfortunately numerous.
Reviewing extensive research on the
subject yielding three dozen moot issues, I find May reveals degrees of
misconception re the following. "Mysticism":
1. has no essential connection
with (at least monotheistic, "Western") religion.
2. is, therefore,
available to all humans at very least (against p. 12), including
"pagans," agnostics, atheists, adiaphorists, humanists, satanists,
3. does not require
ego-suppression, self-conquest, or purification (against p. 166, "The ego
seems to begin in . . . arrogance, feeling it can . . . master its own
destiny." The journey, he claims, goes "from delusional arrogance
through humiliation to self-acceptance.") In reality, the Jungian
"center of my consciousness," the "ego," "feels"
small within the "center of my totality," the "self."
4. has no connection
with dubious notions of "mental illness" (about which May is at least
5. may or may not
involve lights, sounds, smells, "voices," or other
6. has a rich,
complex relationship with "passivity/activity,"
"withdrawal," and the like.
7. is not
"epilepsy" (a vague, non-organic category). (If discussed, May would
likely have claimed the opposite.)
8. does involve
"split-brain" (whether left-right or anterior-posterior). (May's
"theurgic" commitments makes him ignore this.)
9. doesn't require
guides or gurus.
10. is as "effable" as any objectifiable, wordless
experience can be but almost certainly not before cool Monday-morning
quarterbacking. Failure of the hard work of poetized or other expressive
communication of "raw" experience [Apparently words "cook"
it!] stands in the way as a kind of anticipation of the "agony of
realization." "Las palabras
sólo permiten un intento de aproximación a lo inefable." (Rossi [4.], p.
239; "Words only give us a hint of the ineffable.").
Oddly, May includes Teresa in a book that explores a
subtitled "darkness and spiritual growth." Having read key works of
prose and poetry by and about Teresa, I'm unable to recall any reference to
"darkness." She is a writer of light, "diamond" (the
"rey/king" at the center of the "moradas/chambers"),
verdant "palmitos" and other items with mandalic centrality, lyrics and
sounds of an uplifting sort, and perfumes (whose scent her strict
"ordered" life did not prevent having her sheets imbued with). Juan
himself may only be situationally attracted to darkness, one filled with the
Toledan starlight. Brennan (1.), p. 30, refers to Juan's being imprisoned in a
six-by-ten-foot closet -- perhaps inspiring a "womb"-obsession I
shall not carry to Freudian lengths -- "lit by a loop-hole three fingers
wide" through which I seem to recall he was barely able to see the night.
Though May, pp. 34-6, summarizes the stories of Juan's escape, he'd have done
better inserting text like Brennan's report even more heart-thumping (p. 28,
the abduction; pp. 34-8, the actual process of escape) than the Conan Doyle I
read as a teen. (The companion abducted with Yepes was indeed "Germán de
San Matías" [May, p. 203, note 19]; a confusion may arise from the fact
that Juan was "Juan de San Matías" before he was "de la
Cruz.") Brennan notes (p. 48) "his predilection for retiring to some
dark and confined place that opened onto a wide view." At the location
referred to, Iznatoraf, Yepes would repair to a cupboard-sized belfry where
"through a loop-hole [another!] in the wall one had a view of hills and
May, p. 56, misses the
brain-lateralization in Yepes' sketch (Brennan, p. 48) of Mount Carmel. It's
not hard to see in it the "mushroom-cloud" nature of its vertical
centrality representing the human brain trailing into a "medulla
oblongata" showing a very modern, balanced sense of "left- and
right-brain." On the left are "scientia" and
"intellectus," as we would expect of that crudely narrow
"ego" side. (Unfortunately also there is the
"sapientia"/"wisdom we'd expect on the right.) On the right we
"properly" find the expansiveness of "c(h)aritas,"
"gaudium" ("joy," "ecstasy"),
"patientia," "pax," "continentia" (perhaps best
rendered as "moderation," with a sense of "balance,"
"centeredness"). The "split" may further be reflected in
the "dos maneras" (May, p. 206, note 8) of "activa" and
"passiva." Further, the reference, p. 119, to Teresa's
"gustos" versus "contentos" may further underscore the
That Teresa's view of the
"integration of the personality" is like a Jungian
"mandala," not a serially arranged "periwinkle" of
"rooms"/"stages" one behind the other, is seen when she
says "estaban colocadas como las hojas de un palmito, un fruto
compuesto por una serie de hojas estrechamente unidas alrededor de una parte
central que es la que se puede comer." (Rossi, p. 231) Or again at the center
one finds a "Rey" or "sol"
"como un palmito, que para llegar a lo que es de comer tiene muchas
coberturas. . . ." (de Jesus [1.], p. 11). There is a radial symmetry of
"leaves" such that one arrives at the central fruit much like eating
an artichoke by peeling away each covering leaf - not a bad metaphor for the
modern humanistic psychology these intrapsychic geniuses anticipate.
May idealizes by (unconscious?)
suppression certain unusual facts regarding his heroes and a period he admires:
after contracting pleurisy and despite Teresa's opposition to extreme practices
Yepes "was found to be wearing a chain with points that cut into his
flesh, which in places had grown over it." (Brennan, p. 63); thought dead
Teresa had been laid in a casket with the usual wax drippings covering her eyes
when she "woke up," whether from a meditatively induced comatose-like
state or from a "catatonia" likely to be a questionably imposed
"diagnosis"; a certain Sor María de la Visitación developed
"stigmata" -- shown in the last century easy to produce by
"somnambulists" who go into the "other-guided focus" of
"hypnosis" with relish and depth -- until the Inquisition questioned
a nun who peeked through a keyhole claiming to see her "painting her
wounds and proved the truth of this evidence by washing them. . . ."
(Brennan, pp. 61-2) (By the way, palm
wounds logically would tear through while "spikes" placed between
radius and ulna would hold.); "He was not allowed to bathe or change
clothes." in May, p. 35, becomes in Brennan, p. 32, "His tunic, which
was clotted with blood from his scourgings, stuck to his back and putrefied.
Worms bred in it. . . . " lest anyone have illusions about inter-order
To his credit May leans on the
issue of paradox as when Teresa says: "I find it helpful to speak
nonsense." (p. 125); "The understanding, if it does understand, does
not understand how it understands." (p. 126). This is the "classic
theme," p. 208, note 28, of "understanding by not understanding"
as in the "docta ignorantia" of Nicolaus Cusanus, where we may say
the full powers of "both sides of our awareness" are mediated as
"insight" through the corpus callosum, or, as a student of humanistic
psychology, Linda Walterreit (5.), stated it, as "the moment when
everything comes together, all at once." (Even the famous "gestalt
gorilla" in the cage put boxes and sticks "insightfully"
together to get at suspended bananas.) There are simply times in our lives when
words of experiential conviction pass our lips such that we absolutely "know"
in a way not reducible to syllogism or "scientific" inference. That
paradox partly expresses itself in the psychological "obscurity," p.
67, May rightly distinguishes from physical darkness.
The numerous faults in May's
argument include the following: May beats to death a claimed derivation for
"contemplation" as some kind of
"holy" ["con (cum) templum (-o; the correct ablative ending)")]
process, one unfortunately with absolutely no epistemological basis and whose
most specific meaning is "taking aim," as with a weapon, such as a
bow and arrow ([3.], p. 445). He tends to view "oración" more as
"prayer" in a devotional sense incompatible with the self-unifying,
focused meditation Teresa drove through the restrictive forms of her time.
Teresa used numerous terms -- "arrobamiento" (a being "robbed up
into"?), "traspasamiento," "recogimiento," etc. -- the
last of which May meaninglessly renders as a kind of cognitive transcendence,
"The Lord made me recollected during conversation. . . ." (p. 22).
"Recoger," and the many related terms Teresa uses, when not devoutly
taken to indicate a physical "elevation," probably speaks to the kind
of total, unplanned, somatopsychic sense of having one's unified forces
"gathered together and up-stolen" into an exalted feeling -- "me
dejaba toda abrasada en amor grande. . ." ("left me aflame in great
love"; de Jesus, p. 238 [Vida,
end of chapter 29]) -- that made her embarrassed to be in public while thus
enthralled. (We overlook, in our own embarrassment, the "spearlike
object" ["dardo"] that seemed to have fire at its iron tip
"arriving at my entrails" ["entrañas"] -- wherever Freud
would have imagined those to be -- at the risk of overdoing the oft-noted
"dovetailing" of "sexual" and "mystical"
experience. This certainly explains the modern yen for the metaphors of Yepes,
vaguely sexual in nature, as superior to those of Teresa and of Fray Luis de
León, when an inverted order of valuation is likely more sustainable.) He
entirely misses what would be for him the compatibility of the "Penn
school" of "neuroscientific" explanation of mystical experience
of researchers like d'Aquili and Newberg, the most developed, when it doesn't
descend to churchiness, and easiest to understand of that genre.
Thus, May leaves us with the proverbial
"mixed bag" in which we can still find some well fashioned goodies.
(1.) Brennan, Gerald. Saint John of the Cross: His Life
and Poetry. Cambridge, 1973.
(2.) De Jesus, Teresa. Las Moradas/Libro de su Vida.
Mexico, D.F.: Porrúa, 1992.
(3.) Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short. A Latin
Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.
(4.) Rossi, Rosa. Teresa de Ávila: Biografía de una
escritora. Barcleona: Icaria, 1984.
(5.) Walterreit, L.C. What is the experience of the
moment when everything comes together all at once? Unpublished master's
thesis, Merrill-Palmer Institute, 1980.
2005 A. P. Bober
A. P. Bober has studied a psychology
spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential
phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic
European-based sociology including the "critical" view. His
teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental
dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and
"issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first
two fields. Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as
metaphorically tied to neurophysiology.