Sister Wendy was an erudite and delightful cloistered art historian in a veil who knew that Poetry is a song of the heart from a mind spring of sense and sensitivity, not to be burdened with a weight of reason. The result is a lovely apple-picking of her favorite poems in her pretty poetic orchard to share the beauty with the universal reader whose heart intoxicated and the spirit exalted in ethereal ecstasy. Her selection of poems manifests the finer tissues of her heart and the higher octaves of her spirit. Reading the entire book creates empathy for the sensitive minds of the poets so physically poignant that the reader senses the pain and the longing of the poets vis-à-vis.
Sister Wendy, also known for her long-time BBC documentaries on the history of art, speaks her heart through the poems of her choice colored in the spectrums of human emotions, ranging from longing to wonder, hope to sorrow, and anger to love. Even the subject of Faith becomes alluring due to Sister Wendy’s magical transformation of the matter into fairy-like ideation with sensually diaphanous wings as pagan as could be. Her interpretations speak on the poet’s behalf as an individual soul at the utter solitude, not as a literary artificer whose achievement merits the name in the canon of literature. In doing so, Sister Wendy brings out the poet’s true sentiment under a forage of words and shines her mystic perspectives on the poet’s reading in a splendid but straightforward way.
The reader will find famous, not-so-famous, and obscure poems from Elizabethan England to 20th century America in this lovely book. Sister Wendy is both discriminating, and non-discriminating in the human emotions poured into the world of poetry. She is discriminating in the sense that she has a “Third Eye” that sees the poet’s soul and understands the sentiment nuanced in the poem, including wrath and despair, poisons to the mind. Non-discriminating in a way, she values poems spirited in the heroic but straightforward endurance of existential malaise in everyday life written in the plebian language. From Shakespeare’s ‘Fidele’ to John Harris’s ‘Feral’ and many more, the reader will feel ennobled to walk the gardens of the poetic Elysium with Sister Wendy introducing you to each of the poets’ greeting and smiling.
Her epithet is deservedly illustrious, equal to her protean capacities for being multifarious: saint, mystic, and artist’s muse who was a curious kind of practical mystic with vision to match – that she would talk and hear God’s words from within and share them with the crowd in practice of charity, faith, and hope but never without heart. Protestant Elizabeth I of Great Britain might have envisioned the image of a Catholic nun of Spain a night before her Tilbury address that she had a woman’s body but had the bravery of a king. She is also the Doctor of the Church. She is Saint Teresa of Avila, the headstrong founder of the Carmelite Discalced and the woman of Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.
My first encounter with this remarkable woman was not religious but academic; while researching women’s monasticism in the high medieval age during my college. Teresa saw many women who were too poor to pay dowry and didn’t want conjugal life found convents as shelters from social conventions without certain religious convictions. Consequently, convents became gossipy sonority houses populated with lackluster and jealous nuns backstabbing one another. The sad atmosphere of the convents used as a mere social institution propelled Teresa to establish the Carmelite Discalced – the Convent of Saint Joseph – with physical labor and disciplined monastic rules not without tenderness attended to individual nuns from all walks of life. She abolished land ownership and rent collections of and by nuns and instituted self-sufficiency of working without shoe but sandals, hence the name “Discalced.” The reformation within the Church was seismic but was a necessary medicinal receipt for the ailing monastic community.
What is most brilliant about Teresa was to create the idea of “The Interior Castle,” a philosophy that the creator of the Universe dwells inside the castle of our souls. That God is from within us, rather than the beyond betokens the idea of personal God with whom we can communicate and thus become a literal mirror image of him for what’s best in ourselves. In fact, this revolutionary philosophy is also linked to Giordano Bruno’s “The Memory Palace,” from which the knowledge needs to be unlocked to bestow upon us the power and joy of the knowledge from within. Further, it is related to the idea of the Nine Muses, whose inspirations are invoked from our minds, not from the Olympus or oracles. All of the mentioned above shares one origin in the cognitive technique employed in Christian meditation developed from the essential reading and contemplating the Bible. But Teresa’s Interior Castle is a beautiful poetic license to enrich power that is never esoterically prideful but blissfully joyful. Where Bruno’s Memory Palace and the Artist’s Nine Muses are not all-inclusive, Teresa’s Interior Castle is universal with tender charity and faith even if it is not necessarily Christian God.
Teresa of Avila was one brave and adventurous woman who was a prototype of feminist in the sense that she voiced out her mind to the patriarchal church authority in danger of being suspicious of heresy or witchcraft even in Catholic Spain, known for the Spanish Inquisition. But she was not a vociferous activist for abolishing the Church or would-be founder of an offshoot of the Church. Teresa was religious of the supreme kind. However, she never abandoned her femininity latticed with passion for helping a young priest in his spiritual crisis in war with physical temptation, tenderness for attending those in need of her consolation, and beauty that was both beautiful externally and internally. She shows us that a strong woman doesn’t need to shout out invective expletives or clamor for the reward for her damages in the name of womanhood when it is really for her sworn revenge. Aside from sectarian religious affiliations, Teresa of Avila deserves her reputation as a star in the Milky Way of the Great.
Going to mass every Sunday morning has become a mechanical reflex of programmed biological locomotion ever since I realized that my beliefs were abstract ideals hard to fit in the real world. All those sacraments of the church I learned by rote as a child has become the artifacts of ancient esoteric religion that has turned into institutional paganism itself. In a word, I am on the verge of losing my faith altogether, if not already, still tempted to recourse to the fragments of the belief that I try to reason on my own terms, which I often find hard to win because something such as the message supposedly from the Holy Spirit I randomly picked up yesterday after a mass permanently binds me to the old religion.
I didn’t care much less about Pentecost Sunday when the Holy Spirit descended from heaven filled the hearts of the faithful with messages from God to each different individual. The little bookmark-like cards containing each of Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit were randomly distributed to the attendants after the Eucharist. The priest said they were blessings from God curtailed to individual needs, never coincidental and ever mysterious. I picked up one that was not what I would like, but that what I had denied. It was not Wisdom, Understanding, or Knowledge that I still crave the most. But it was Piety instead, that not so wonderfully mysterious or romantically awe-inspiring banal word for showing respect for God, the church, and the religious people. St. Thomas Aquinas would rebuke me for my low regard for Piety, but it is rather clerical and prosaic virtue that even the most unlearned would have. After all, absolute obedience to God and the Church was what drew Luther’s bow of the Reformation.
But how could it be possible that my gift from God was Piety amid my own religious turmoil in soul’s dilemma? Indeed, there must be more than a respect for priests whom I think as presumptuous elitists inured to be respected, not accustomed to respect. Piety encompasses dutifulness, fidelity, allegiance, and loyalty, giving the impression of militaristic steadfastness. In my own words, I interpret this augury as indicating patience to endure and fulfill obligations till the ripe time and chance happen to me during my journey to a preordained end. My loyalty then requires fidelity of my consistent devotion to a job, filial duty, and the church by not falling wayside to the current instigation of a rebellious spirit. Am I not being an Oracle of the Holy Spirit?
I keep the card and wonder if it is a manifestation of synchronicity. Whatever and from whom it may be, one thing is sure that reverence for obligations arising from a sense of duty helps your ship’s sailing across life’s undreamed shores and unpathed seas against the thunderous maelstroms in nature’s whimsical and capricious temper. It might be just a random message, but then there is nothing as coincidence because we are made of such wonderful stuff of fire, dew, and spirit. What’s more, if I can use the message as a divine oracle to guide my journey into the unknown tomorrows, then it will be all the more beneficial, just as the people of the ancient civilizations did the same. And I think that is why religion exists.
“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary,” said Thomas More, who died for his relentless faith despite Henry VIII’s promise of honor he would confer on to his most trusted counsel in his cabinet. Samuel Johnson also confirmed that faith required no byzantine theories or philosophy for the validity of truth. Until I attended a public Sunday mass in a parking lot yesterday, I had not realized the power of faith, which I doubted I still had in my heart.
The beautiful liturgy of the mass, which culminated in the Eucharist, was akin to a flowing of streams of life to the eyes of a seasick seaman and the thirst of a weary traveler. I had never expected such exaltation of the soul with faith disappearing into an abyss of despondency populated with a school of doubt, disbelief, and frustration nurtured in a reality of everyday life. But while listening to a priest’s sermon based on the reading of Matthew 25:31-46, which is about the importance of practicing faith into actions, especially by sharing milk of human kindness with people you feel least likable or unkindest.
The priest further asked if we would counsel with God in making decisions in life or just about anything needful of help. No one answered yes because let’s face it, we regard such tendency to recourse to God as a derogatorily medieval way of living life in this Digital Age of Artificial Intelligence. We try to reason our faith with the validity of practical truth and willfully turn our heads from the Gospel with the usual facade of “Religion has nothing to do with it.” But then can you also prove that we are nothing but of a highly complex living organism made of accidental atoms, sans souls? What is the feeling that urges you to search for meaning in life, our sense of purpose? Can atoms do it?
It is my wholly solipsistic reflection of hearing mass, but now I feel like finding Ariadne’s Thread in the labyrinth to find a way out on this last day of the church calendar. What a feeling. Peace to be with you, and God bless you all.