Hope from mystics for a world at 'tipping point'
BookEnfolded in Love series: Julian of Norwich, Therese of Lisieux and Teresa of Avila (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2019)
By Samantha Bews
April 5 2020
We live in turbulent times. Extreme weather events, political upheaval and new technologies that were unimaginable only 20 years ago spin together to create whirlwinds of anxiety. Beliefs and institutions that once sustained our society are crumbling. The other night my 16-year-old affirmed he’s committed never to have children. Recently I was asked to put in an expression of interest for an art project entitled “A Positive Future”. Inspiration eluded me.
So it was with some hope that I agreed to review these books, which are taken from the writings of three Christian mystics: Julian of Norwich, Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa of Ávila. As part of the Enfolded in Love series, they were first published in the mid-1980s and are reproduced today to encourage us to “engage with the great spiritual mentors through daily reading and meditation”. Each book is devoted to a single saint and the readings are edited extracts from their written works. The books include a bibliography, a list for further reading and an index to the original works.
There are two books devoted to Julian of Norwich: Enfolded in Love (also the name of the series): daily readings of love, forgiveness and joy, and In Loved Enclosed: Daily readings of vision, compassion and hope. Julian of Norwich lived in late 14th-century England, and after a critical illness from which she nearly died, became anchoress to St Julian’s church in Norwich. Her writing and teaching “flew directly in the face of the ecclesiastical teaching of the time” to the extent that she risked being burnt at the stake. Hers was a God of great tenderness and compassion, both father and mother to His children, and a God that gave hope to the desperate. Her most famous words, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”, are rooted in her experience of intense suffering and the ecstasy of divine love.
Thérèse of Lisieux was born in 1873, joined the Carmel monastery near Lisieux when she was 15, and died only nine years later aged 25. The readings for this book, By Love Alone: Daily reading of the ‘Little Way’ of love, trust and surrender, are taken from her autobiography The Story of the Soul. Longing to be a priest, prophet, martyr, apostle and doctor of the Church she eventually came to understand that hers was to be a different kind of sainthood. The “Little Way” was how she described her spirituality; a way of trust and absolute surrender. She is one of the most popular saints in the Christian world and the Basilica of Lisieux is the second-most-visited place for pilgrimage after Lourdes.
Teresa of Ávila was a Carmelite nun, religious reformer and theologian of the contemplative life. She was born into a marginalized family (her grandfather was a Christian of Jewish descent) at a time of great social and racial unrest in 16th-century Spain. It was after she entered the monastery as a young woman that she suffered long periods of serious illness during which she received some extraordinary experiences. During her lifetime, and as the foundress of 16 monasteries, she wrote letters, instructions to her Sisters, poems and treatises on the progress of the soul to God. Five of her books (including her autobiography The Life of St Teresa of Jesus, The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection, on the interior journey of contemplation) have been sourced for this part of the series, Living Water: Daily readings of poverty, union and mission.
It is interesting that publishers Darton, Longman & Todd reissued this series at this time in our cultural history. It is apposite that they are works of women, and women who were not well educated. Julian of Norwich described herself as a “plain unlettered woman” and Teresa of Ávila had none of the formal education that her religious brother and friend St. John of the Cross was privileged to.
Theirs is a theology gained through lived experience. In his foreword to In Love Enclosed, Luke Penkett describes Julian experiencing the “sight, sounds and smells of daily life” from within her cell, and in Living Water the life of Teresa of Ávila balanced beautifully “between her down-to-earth practicality and the ecstatic experience of contemplation”. Similarly, Thérèse of Lisieux came to know the fullness of God’s love through small daily acts of attention. These women reflect much of what is changing in contemporary Western society, where diversity of voices and experiences are acknowledged as valuable, and where experience has an authenticity that traditional power structures have lost.
This brings me to my quibble about the series. The production of these books looks cheap. Although I can accept an argument that keeping costs down is an important factor in making the books available to the broadest possible market, I feel the publisher has missed an opportunity. Our bookshops are flooded with books about spirituality, self-improvement and the wisdom of other religions. The Enfolded in Love series, with writings by women mystics, invites a new readership. They offer mysticism and wisdom in words that go beyond institutional religion and the traditional Christian market. I sense that if they had been produced beautifully, new hands may have reached for them on the shop shelves. Beauty is inherent within their pages, beauty is needed to produce a tantalising material object, and beauty is what is missing from their covers.
This brings me to hope.
I did as the publisher suggested and read these books daily over several months. I started as bushfires raged through NSW, then Queensland, then Victoria and news of our burning country hit screens all over the world. I finished the books as we turned to autumn and coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the WHO. As I read, the words of these mystics affected me greatly. They grounded me in a reality that stretches beyond the limits of this material world. They affirmed again and again the value of suffering and opened my heart to the merciful breath of God. They rooted me in a priority more vital than the preoccupations of my daily life. They affirmed my sense that in these tumultuous times we are going to have to dig deep and that we are called to stand with courage in truth; that love costs, but that we will be flooded with a love beyond our comprehension; that we are included in the love of God, if only we give up what we know and join Him.
This series of books has been curated by Fr Luke Penkett, the honorary librarian and archivist at the Julian Centre in Norwich. It is fitting that all profits from their sale will go to sustaining the Centre’s work. The mystical voice is much needed for a world at the tipping point of crisis.
Samantha Bews is a theatre artist and writer living in central Victoria. She is a member of the World Community of Christian Meditation and worships at Christ Church Castlemaine.