- Spanish Mystics' writings

"The Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse" by El Greco


In 16th century Spain there was an extraordinary explosion of mystical and contemplative activity as part of the task of the Counter-Reformation. It was not an abstract mysticism, but aimed at self-support in order to undertake practical reforms in the Carmelite Order and found a new missionary Order, The Jesuits. The protagonists were prolific writers who knew how to communicate their experiences. Ignacio de Loyola was an example and others were Teresa of Ávila and her disciple Juan de la Cruz.

The Exercitia spiritualia by Loyola was not published until 1548 after a Latin version was completed. His original owes much to medieval collections of meditations and spiritual exercises such as Ludolph of Saxony's Life of Christ (1374); the Flos sanctorum, which is a compilation of edifying lessons from Jacobus de Voragine (1228–98); Thomas a Kempis's (1380–1471) Imitation of Christ which Ignatius read in Manresa; the Meditation of the Life of Christ by Pseudo Bonaventura; and García de Cisneros’s (c.1455–1510) Ejercitatorio de la vida espiritual of 1500 and Llibre del Crestià (Book for Christians), written around 1400 by the Catalan Franciscan tertiary Françesc Eiximenis. The books that were popular in the rest of Europe stressed Christ’s humanity and suffering. Eiximenis, however, sees Christ as exclusively divine and omniscient and the Virgin practically his equal. The images and artefacts that were used in other European countries to focus the Christian’s attention on Christ’s Passion had no place in Castile where the mystery of the Incarnation was prominent. However, unlike these late medieval meditations Loyola's Exercises were not for the practitioner to use but they are a manual for a spiritual director to guide the directee.

Medieval Castilian Christianity shares with Sufism and Jewish mysticism the centrality of interiority and divine revelation leading to ecstatic transformation. Although others have noted Islamic and Jewish traces in the works of sixteenth-century mystics such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Cynthia Robinson suggests that Semitic influence in Spanish Christian devotional practice may be much older. Castile had a tradition of 3 confessions > Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Robinson offers concrete evidence of the profound impact of each religion on the other two in Imagining the Passion in a Multi-confessional Castile. She adduces considerable specific differences in Iberia compared to other European contemporaries : altarpieces that differ radically from their European contemporaries; architectural ornament; a rare series of narratives of Christ’s life; indulgenced prayers; Muslim and Jewish mystical texts; lives, hours, devotions, and Psalters of and to the Virgin which appear to be uniquely Iberian and find resonances in both Hebrew and Arabic mystical literature; sacred gardens and trees in both textual and visual culture from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish contexts; preaching manuals written by converted Jews. These offer evidence of the plurality of late medieval Iberian religious life within Christianity but also in each culture’s relationship with the other.

It is clear that there is a different vision of reformation emerging between Northern and Southern Europe in the 16th century. The North is moving towards reform through the Aristotelian horizontal outlook as exemplified in Novum Organum by Bacon with his acceptance of the senses and interest in external reality. The South is following a Platonic and oriental mystic tradition looking upwards towards the heavens, ignoring sensory information and turning to internal conversion.

Exercitia spiritualia  by Ignacio de Loyola

Holland and Spain were united within the Spanish empire under Philip II and upon arrival in Spain The Imitation of Christ by the German-Dutch writer Thomas à Kempis had a vital impact on Ignatius of Loyola. His reading prompted him to found The Society of Jesus (1534). The Jesuits founded schools throughout Europe and the teaching reflected the training of their teachers in classical studies and theology. They also sent missionaries around the world in an effort to evangelize.

Loyola was wounded in the leg at the Battle of Pamplona (1521) and repaired to his father's castle to recover. During his recuperation he read many religious texts and this motivated him to undergo a spiritual reconversion and a vocation for the religious life. It was during this time that he wrote the Spiritual Exercises.

The first activities of Ignatius de Loyola (1491-1556) in his diffusion of the method through his Exercitia spiritualia (1522–1524) made him suspect of heterodoxy (assimilated to the followers of Erasmus). He was prosecuted, prohibited from preaching in 1524 and he had to interrupt his studies. However, during the Counter-Reformation the Jesuits agreed with Erasmus in his criticism of the Protestant idea of ​​predestination and supported the Church in its struggle.


The book is divided into four sections corresponding to 4 weeks. There is a small introduction which provides an outline of the material and a spiritual preparation for the devotees to purify them of sin and distractions. Special instructions are given throughout the book to the spiritual director of the exercises.

Week 1 is devoted to practising the discipline of rejecting distractions through self-examination whose goal is to "praise, reverence and serve God". The instructions help focus the mind of the participant by centring attention on a location in the life of Christ or the Virgin such as the cross, lakeshore or carpenter's shop then moving back in time to significant moments in their life. Each participant examines their conscience three times a day. Meditation is to be used in conjunction with the senses. On reflecting on hell, for example, the participant should feel the heat, smell the brimstone and hear the damned screaming. The spiritual life involved the body and the mind.

Week 2 focuses meditation on the kingdom of Christ. Christians imitate his life by recalling his actions in the world. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis is recommended reading during this week. The subject of meditation is the Incarnation and the virtues of the kingdom life. There are two standards of behaviour > Christ and Satan. The goal is to detach oneself from all worldly attractions. During this week free will is also a subject. The will is free when the goal of choice is to do God's will.

Week 3 deals with meditation on the sufferings of Christ. The disciple uses visualisation to retrace the route of the passion from the Last Supper to Gethsemani to the crucifixion and burial. Eating and drinking rules are taught in this session. Temperance is the golden rule and while consuming participants should concentrate on the spiritual reality.

Week 4 contemplates the resurrection and the experience of divine love measured in "deeds rather than words". Three methods of prayer are practised :

- moral contemplation using the 10 commandments, the 7 deadly sins and the 5 senses to self-purify. 

- meditation on the words of prayers like the Our Father using a particular bodily postures.

- rhythmical recitation of selected prayers and contemplation of Christ's life taken from the gospels.

The final section of the book has rules for Christian living, especially when faced with feelings of desolation. 


The book was attacked, particularly by the Dominican order, who headed the Spanish Inquisition, for resembling the quietist texts of the alumbrados, a mystical movement some of whom fell victims to the Inquisition as purveyors of heresy. Despite being addressed to a spiritual director, not directly to the participant, the Exercises were slightly heterodox in their insistence on a subjective relationship with God. “During these Spiritual Exercises when a person is seeking God's will, it is more appropriate and far better that the Creator and Lord himself should communicate himself to the devout soul.” This was a threat to the Church's power as mediator between humanity and divinity.

The Exercitia offered the faithful a novel way of conversion through ordinary prayer and so established a new equilibrium between self-formation and Church guidance and between freeing and disciplining the imagination. This prompted Jesuit superiors from the 16th century onwards to authorise a unique way of performing the Exercises in order to maintain their own authority and ensure that the practices were orthodox. 



In order to make good decisions practitioner have to free themselves from attachments like personal predilections, social pressures, fears of poverty, the wish for fame and everything that is an obstacle to best serving God. Detaching yourself from particular desires is the position of freedom from which to judge the correctness of behaviour.

Quest for the Eternal

The main goal of the exercises is to go beyond yourself and effect a spiritual conversion. Any objective less than this will end up in disillusionment or false consolation. The goal is expressed by the apostle Paul, “I had all these things, but all of this is garbage, nothing, all of this is loss compared to gaining Christ.”

Mercy and Sin

The conversion of the participant lies in recognising the experience of love and forgiveness. But in order to know God's mercy the believer must have a deep sense of sin. This is presented as a destructive force ruining human relationships with themselves and their world. The recognition of divine mercy, in spite of sin, will bring about a conversion based on love not fear.

Going beyond

The term magis in the Exercises is translated as 'excellent, the best'. It means always trying to outdo yourself and strive for improvement. The path to sustained conversion is not trying to be an A but going still further in each commitment to wholehearted service through personal motivation.


The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila


Teresa of Ávila was a Carmelite nun, but she found the rules lax and decided to found a new order that embraced the values ​​of poverty and simplicity. She was an energetic leader and travelled the country founding new monasteries. Her mystical experiences began when she was hospitalized with malaria. She had seizures which made her appear dead for up to four days. Afterwards she was paralyzed for three years and was never completely well. It was a period of intense pain, but she began to have spiritual visions and a sense of inner peace that helped her transcend physical pain. She used these experiences for the rest of her life as sources of energy for her reform task.

Composition of the Interior Castle (1577) came about after Teresa had a vision from above which pictured “the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of a very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions”. The vision is notably similar to that of The Book of Revelation chapter 21. 


The book is composed of 7 mansions which represent a continuous growth in spiritual conscience.

1st Mansion is pictured by Teresa's first way of drawing water from a well using a bucket. This needs a lot of effort. The drawer is a person who has not grievously sinned but who is still attracted by the world and its pleasures.

“This knowledge of ourselves is so very important, that I wish you never to admit any relaxation therein, however highly elevated you may be, because while we live on this earth, nothing is more necessary for us than humility… for, in my opinion, we shall never be able to know ourselves, except we endeavour to know God. By considering His greatness, we discover our own baseness; by contemplating His purity, we discover our own filthiness, and beholding His humility, we shall discover how far we are from being truly humble… our imperfections better discovered by being contrasted with the divine perfections” (11–12).

2nd Mansion. These participants have practised Mansion 1 but worldly attractions persist and penance seems unreasonable. The advice is to mix with those who have progressed to higher Mansions and embrace hardships and dryness in prayer. Persistence is the key to progress and that involves getting to know yourself better and thinking of divine mercy.

“... embrace the cross, which your Spouse carried on his shoulders, and remember that this should be your motto, viz., “That she who can suffer most for the love of Him, will be the happiest.” Let everything else be secondary to this; if our Lord shall grant you this favour, give Him many thanks for it” (22-23). 

“The gate for entering this castle is prayer” (25).

3rd Mansion. These participants love penance and prayer. They practice charity towards their neighbours and lead a regular life. However they find that human nature weighs on their spirit and they don't find spiritual joys. To prepare for prayer the participant must attend actively to the internal presence. To advance they should draw humility from aridness not restlessness because spiritual joy in prayer is not a sign of perfection. 

“...perfection does not consist in having sweetness, but in this; in loving most (and so the reward will be in proportion), and in striving who will labour the best in justice and in truth” (37).

4th Mansion. This is the second way of getting water. You have to crank a wheel and move the water through an aqueduct. This involves less effort.

These followers attain an experience of detachment and internal freedom. Their ties to earthly things are loosened and they desire more severe penances for the love of God. In prayer they receive infused contemplation which is a loving awareness of God. This encounter transforms the person imperceptibly.

“Because the most pleasing and substantial service we can do for God is to have only His honour and glory in view and to forget ourselves, our own benefit, delight, and pleasure” (57-58).

5th Mansion. This is the 3rd way of getting water. You divert a stream and have it run into the garden. This is even less effort.

The faithful participant at this level has forsaken self, is ready to submit to severe penance and looks on earthly thing with disgust. They have had unforgettable experiences of full union with God which Teresa describes as “a glorious foolishness, a heavenly madness”.

“this soul having entirely resigned herself into His hands, the greatness of His love has so captivated her, that she neither knows nor desires anything except that God would dispose of her as He pleases.” (77).

6th Mansion. This is the 4th way of obtaining water. It works by a gentle rainfall during which the soul has no work to do.

These followers experience several forms of prayer union with God. Their awareness and discourse are centred on God. They take no pleasure in worldly things and have no attachments. They are hooked on penances. Emptiness in prayer is of no hindrance but a help to acquire more virtues. The devotees enter into ecstasy losing sense perception and undergo a deep experience with God. Levitation may occur.

“how much our Lord is pleased with our knowing ourselves, and with our continually endeavouring to consider again and again our poverty and misery, and how we have nothing except what we have received” (126).

7th Mansion. This is the relative perfection of a Christian life : forgetfulness of self, desire to do God's will, wishing for redemptive suffering, no inner trials, sleep and food are nothing, persecution is a joyous affair. Extreme delight in penance “her true penance is when God takes away her health and strength, so that she is unable to do any penance” (182). The believer is both Martha (active) and Mary (contemplative).

“The difference between this mansion and the rest is, that there are scarcely ever any aridness, or interior disturbances, like what used to be at other times in all the rest; but the soul is almost always in quiet, and she is never afraid that this sublime gift would be counterfeited by the devil; and, therefore, she is confident it comes from God” (188).


The underlying theme is the redemption of sinners through God's saving grace (called mercy by Teresa). This is a traditional prophetic theme in the Old Testament and is also core to Protestant theology.

The Soul  

The book is about the progress of the soul. The authoress is saddened by the way people don't care for their souls. She affirms that faith tells us we have souls made in the image and likeness of God and she therefore wants to look after this beauty.

The castle metaphor

Teresa imagines the soul “as if it were a castle made of a single diamond” and in it there are 7 mansions with many rooms. The walls of the castle are the human body. Outside the walls lie all the attractions of sin to be overcome by the soul. 

God is immanent

God dwells in the 7th Mansion, the innermost home of the soul. “All harm comes to us from failing to realize that God is near.” For “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).

The mission of the soul

The soul has to journey to God and in our lifetime make its way to the final Mansion where it is united with God. The journey is finalised in heaven with the beatific vision.

Mortal sin. 

This is the utmost damage done to the soul and it brings “endless and eternal evils in its train.”.

The journey begins with forgiveness. 

It is only through recognising the mercy of God that we can start out on the journey.

Entry to the castle. 

It is through prayer that the soul enters the castle and is redeemed by God's mercy. “Souls without prayer are like people whose bodies and limbs are paralyzed.”


The Stanzas of the Soul by John of the Cross


John of the Cross entered the Carmelites in 1568. He was very demanding and the other monks criticized him for his exhortations to abandon comfort, liberties and pleasures. In 1577 the ecclesiastical authorities kidnapped him and he was imprisoned under torture for nine months. It was during this captivity that he underwent a spiritual awakening and that he wrote his two most famous poems: Spiritual Canticle and Stanzas of the Soul (also called Dark Night of the Soul). This latter is the poetic summary of his mystical journey and is the basis for his two theses which he wrote after escaping. One is The Ascent of Mount Carmel where he comments on his poetry and explains his mystical path. The other is The Dark Night, a treatise on the journey of the soul towards God. This is summed up in an unstoppable desire to fully know and love God, abandoning everything that does not contribute to this communion. For him the senses are illusions that distort the reality of union with God.

Teresa and John met when she was founding her reformed Carmel and was 52 years old. John was about to leave his Carmelite order to go to the Augustinians, but he joined the new Teresian company. He was 25 years old.

Stanzas of the Soul

"1. On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!—
I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.

2. In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy chance!—
In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.

3. In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.

4. This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me— A place where none appeared.

5. Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!

6. Upon my flowery breast, Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

7. The breeze blew from the turret As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck And caused all my senses to be suspended.

8. I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies."


John of the Cross wrote two treatises based on his poem in order to explain his mystical journey > The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel


There are three books in the treatise :

Book 1, a Prologue, has 15 chapters. It is a commentary on the first stanza of The Stanzas of the Soul. This concerns the preparation of the soul to achieve union with the Divinity. The aim is to disencumber the participant from temporal sensual things and how not to encumber the spiritual since detachment and liberty of spirit are needed for the union with God.

"In order to expound and describe this dark night, through which the soul passes in order to attain to the Divine light of the perfect union of the love of God, as far as is possible in this life, it would be necessary to have illumination of knowledge and experience other and far greater than mine; for this darkness and these trials, both spiritual and temporal, through which happy souls often pass in order to be able to attain to this high estate of perfection, are so numerous and so profound that neither does human knowledge suffice for the understanding of them, nor experience for the description of them; for only he that passes this way can understand it, and even he cannot describe it."

Book 2 has 32 chapters and comments on the second stanza of the poem. The commentary deals with the spiritual means of ascension to God which is through the first virtue, Faith. 

"In this second stanza the soul sings of the happy chance which it experienced in stripping the spirit of all spiritual imperfections and desires for the possession of spiritual things. This was a much greater happiness too, by reason of the greater difficulty that there is in putting to rest this house of the spiritual part, and of being able to enter this interior darkness, which is spiritual detachment from all things, whether sensual or spiritual, and leaning on pure faith alone and an ascent thereby to God. The soul here calls this a 'ladder,' and 'secret,' because all the rungs and parts of it are secret and hidden from all sense and understanding. And thus the soul has remained in darkness as to all light of sense and understanding, going forth beyond all limits of nature and reason in order to ascend by this Divine ladder of faith, which attains and penetrates even to the heights of God. The soul says that it was travelling 'disguised,' because the garments and vesture which it wears and its natural condition are changed into the Divine, as it ascends by faith. And it was because of this disguise that it was not recognized or impeded, either by time or by reason or by the devil; for none of these things can harm one that journeys in faith. And not only so, but the soul travels in such  concealed and hidden ways and is so far from all the deceits of the devil that in truth it journeys (as it also says here) 'in darkness and in concealment' -- that is to say, hidden from the devil, to whom the light of faith is more than darkness." Chapter 1/1

Book 3 has 45 chapters and is about purging the active night of memory and will. There are instructions on how to apprehend these two faculties so as to unite with God with the second and third virtues : Hope and Charity.

"The first faculty of the soul, which is the understanding, has now been instructed, through all its apprehensions, in the first theological virtue, which is faith, to the end that, according to this faculty, the soul may be united with God by means of the purity of faith. It now remains to do likewise with respect to the other two faculties of the soul, which are memory and will, and to purify them likewise with respect to their apprehensions, to the end that, according to these two faculties also, the soul may come to union with God in perfect hope and charity. This will briefly be effected in this third book. We have now concluded our treatment of the understanding, which is the receptacle of all other objects according to its mode of operation; and in treating of this we have gone a great part of the whole way. It is therefore unnecessary for us to write at equal length with respect to these faculties; for it is not possible that, if the spiritual man instructs his understanding in faith according to the doctrine which has been given him, he should not, in so doing, instruct the other two faculties in the other two virtues likewise; for the operations of each faculty depend upon the others."

The Dark Night


There are two dark nights : one of the senses; the other of the soul. They deal with the problems of meditation. The first two lines of Stanzas of the Soul explain the effects of the two spiritual cleansings: one of the sensual part of man and the other of the spiritual part. In the other six stanzas are expounded the effects of spiritual illumination and union of love with God.

The dark night of the Senses cleanses and moves motivations away from sweet feelings during meditation. By detaching from feelings the soul changes from meditative to contemplative prayer.

The dark night of the Soul is for contemplatives. It gradually weans the participant from contemplative to unitive prayer.

Book 1 The Night of Sense. This is a purifying effect on the soul through the gift of contemplation. It is perceived through pain, darkness, emptiness. 

“Recollected persons enter the Obscure Night sooner than others, after they have begun their spiritual course; because they are kept at a greater distance from the occasions of falling away, and because they correct more quickly their worldly desires, which it is requisite to do even at the commencement of the blessed Night of Sense”.

Book 2 The Night of the Spirit. This stage of progression purifies the intellect and will and completes the reform of the senses. It fits the person to be perfectly united with the Divinity. The transition from the Senses to the Spirit can last years and this intermediate stage is known as "the state of proficients". The soul is freed and is attuned to the Spirit. The whole process is a gradual transformation into Godlikeness. John calls the development an "oppressive undoing", a purgatorial feeling of abandonment.


No consolation 

In the Night of Sense earthly realities such as the sunset or joyful relationships are still attractive but there is no longterm happiness in created things. Prayer is also dry and unsatisfactory.

“It is then probable, in such a case, that this aridness is not the result of sin or of imperfections recently committed; for if it were, we should feel some inclination or desire for other things than those of God. Whenever we give the reins to our desires in the way of any imperfection, our desires are instantly attracted to it, be it much or little, in proportion to the affection we regard it with”.


The soul wants to give everything to God in a strong spirit of service. God begins to take over the person's will.

Inability to meditate

The participant finds discursive reasoning possible but not what they desire.

“In prayer we ordinarily follow the gentle lead of the Spirit, and in these beginnings of infused contemplation His action tends to preclude our action. We are thus disinclined to meditate, and should we force ourselves to it, we would find little or no profit and would forfeit inner peace.”


The soul realises that it is completely dependent on God and without Him can do nothing. The knowledge of God is perfected in love and self-knowledge perfected in humility. This is the state of perfection.

Heroic virtue 

All virtues experience growth and self-knowledge ends in humility and obedience. Purity of soul is gained through the dark night.

“O how happy must the soul then be when it is delivered from the house of its sensitive appetite! None can understand it, I think, except that soul which has experienced it. Such a soul clearly sees how wretched was its former slavery, and how great its misery when it lay at the mercy of its passions and desires; it learns that the life of the spirit is true liberty and riches, involving innumerable blessings, some of which I shall speak of while explaining the following stanzas, when it will clearly appear, what good reasons the soul has for describing the passage of this awful night as a happy lot”


No comments:

Post a Comment