Lilac still perfume the air as we walk on those rare sunny spring days. April was our wettest in 45 years. I think May will also break records for rain. The garden is enjoying all this rain. The flowers are more abundant. Even the Star of Bethlehem by the front door sprung dozens of blooms that glowed against the rampant background of pseudolamnia and mint.
Growing up in La Paz, a district of Iloilo in Central Philippines, my family (that is, my mother and siblings; my dad worshipped other gods on Sunday) attended the small Aglipay church barely fronting the town plaza. Between it and the sprawling, monolithic Roman Catholic church dead center facing the square was an area with a tall concrete fence all around and a tiny gate to one side. This was the convent of Discalced Carmelite sisters. They were dressed in a brown habit, a black veil and white wimple. The habit had a wide, black leather belt from which hung a large black rosary. For years, that habit was my idea of how the archetypal image of Catholic nuns.
I met a Carmelite nun many years later. At the time, Jean Alice was acting prioress of Our Lady of Carmel monastery in Indianapolis. By then I had all but forgotten the brown-garbed nuns of my childhood until the name of the order, not plain but “discalced” (barefoot or sandaled) Carmelite, the same order identified on the cut-iron top of the gate back in La Paz. Jean Alice and her sisters no longer wore the traditional habit. After Vatican II, monastics relaxed their use of habits. She also met me wearing dun-colored skirt and top, all different shades of brown. A friend recommended Jean as someone who could help me re-adjust to normal life after a nine-day Buddhist retreat shook up my sense of the real. She introduced me to the thinking of Teresa de Ávila and Juan de la Cruz. I wonder today if the small, Filipino Carmelite nuns in La Paz could have taught me about the mystical teachings of these Spanish saints. Then again, if they could have I would not have known what they were talking about.
These memories were called forth by my reading of the life of Teresa by English writer, Shirley du Boulay. Waking at four this morning I decided to read instead of trying to go back to sleep. Boulay’s book is much easier reading than Teresa’s own autobiography, Libro de la Vida. She utilized quotations from the saint’s own writings which gave me a sense of Teresa in contemporary language easier on the mind’s ears. Her description of Teresa’s mystical states reminded of attempts to describe satori in the Buddhist tradition. Back in the 1980s, Jean and I communicated with each other well using the different languages of Eastern and Western mysticism. Shirley du Boulay’s book early this morning brought back the power of those early exposure to what I now believe are naturally accessible human mental states. Not everybody has the the gift of mystical states but like ambidexterity or a gift for languages, the capacity for accessing mystical states is inherently human.
Since the 1980s I’ve re-adjusted completely to normal (i.e. following consensual norms) but now I feel I’ve lost something precious. Maybe as early memories come back to us, these other gifts too can return and enrich our lives at a stage when we can appreciate them.