As part of my M.St. I carried out some research for an essay on a famous Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Catholic Church in: Visions Within: Spiritual Development and the Evolution of Imagery in Teresa of Ávila's The Interior Castle. Among the images that most caught my eye were descriptions of the interior of the heart, likened to a crystal, which is introduced at the start of her book:
I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions. (I,i,1)
... and in the centre and midst of them all is the chiefest mansion where the most secret things pass between God and the soul. (I,i,3)
In my brief analysis I mentioned the profound influence of Tercer Abecedario (Third Spiritual Alphabet), written by a near-contemporary, Fray Francisco de Osuna, who was born a couple of decades before St. Teresa. However, although I had learnt that he had used imagery, owing to time constraints I hadn't pursued this beyond a reference to fortification.
Yet the name of this Franciscan friar lodged in the back of my mind. A year later I was helping out on a Buddhist meditation retreat at the Ladywell Retreat and Spirituality Centre belonging to the Catholic order of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood. Whilst there I wandered into the library and I came across The Third Spiritual Alphabet, a translation into English by a Benedictine of Stanbrook (Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1931). I read a few paragraphs about the basic matter of personal conduct and was impressed by the sound practical advice, which seemed similar to advice for bhikkhus.
So I decided to look for a copy of this edition. It's not so easy to find, but fortunately I managed to trace one in a local shop, St Philips Books, St. Aldates, Oxford, and promptly went in person where it was duly found on a shelf, though somewhat tucked away. There is a more recent translation by the Paulist Press, New York, but I felt inclined to the earlier publication. One feature of the 1931 edition is that there are detailed footnotes that link this work with that of St. Teresa.
Yesterday, I took the Third Spiritual Alphabet with me on a ramble towards Chilswell, found a quiet spot and browsed. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the processes of recollection, especially where he writes in the Sixth Treatise:
There now remains only the tenth manner of re-collecting or gathering together God and the soul - the end for which it has aimed by all its recollection. This truly takes place when the divine Light infuses itself into the soul as into glass or crystal, sending forth as a Sun the rays of its love and grace that penetrate the heart after having first been received in the highest point of the spirit. This is followed by the most perfect recollection which unites and collects together God with the soul and the soul with God.
The footnote notes the relationship to St. Teresa's thoughts:
This passage is strongly suggestive of The Interior Castle: 'It is very important for us, sisters, that we should not consider our soul to be in darkness.' (Castle, vi, viii, 4). Like Osuna, S. Teresa compares God to the sun. This idea is maintained throughout the Castle. Speaking of the darkness of the crystal caused by sin, she writes: 'Notice that it is not the fountain and brilliant sun that lose their splendour and beauty, for they are placed in the very centre of the soul and cannot be deprived of their lustre. The soul is like a crystal in the sunshine over which a thick black cloth has been thrown, so that however brightly the sun may shine, the crystal can never reflect it (Castle, M. i, ch. ii, 3).
This observation has striking parallels with the Buddha's description of the mind's quality as pabhassara citta a Pali term meaning 'luminous' or 'brightly shining'. There is indeed a very brief sutta called the Pabhassara Sutta (A i. 10) which indicates the mind is actually inherently "luminous". A 20th Century meditation master, Phra Acariya Mun Bhuridatta Thera emphasizes this in his teachings, 'A Heart Released':
The mind is something more radiant than anything else can be, but because counterfeits — passing defilements — come and obscure it, it loses its radiance, like the sun when obscured by clouds. Don't go thinking that the sun goes after the clouds. Instead, the clouds come drifting along and obscure the sun.
Many Buddhist meditation methods make use of associations of clarity and luminosity to lead the mind towards purity. In the Dhammakaya tradition, we often use a crystal sphere. It's relatively easy to visualize and provides a focus in which to distil feelings, perceptions, mental recollections and consciousness. Placing this at the centre of the body is especially significant as it provides a gateway to the Middle Way. It's only the beginning of a long process leading to successively to great clarity and more refined forms of radiance, at each stage enabling the mind to identify and overcome subtler forms of defilement. The benefits of a crystal ball are further explained for practitioners.
There is growing contemporary interest in Christian mystics; it has notably opened up opportunities for fruitful dialogue among monastics of different religious traditions. Now the spheres of such meditative practices have been ostensibly widened into society more generally, particularly in academic circles. I am wondering whether the reflections of Fray Francisco de Osuna may be found to have relevance and to be a source of inspiration at The Cave of the Heart: Contemplation, Mindfulness and Social Renewal, a conference at St. Mary's University College in Twickenham.