The central teachings of contemplation are relevant for us now as we are forced to slow down due to Covid-19 and lockdown restrictions.
Contemplation is also regularly practised and described by religious poets and mystics, and these writings were the focus of our South Sydney Uniting Church Bible study group last month.
We discussed passages from the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila and the exiled priest Ezekiel – Teresa’s having an interiority that contrasts starkly with Ezekiel’s poetic-prophetic activity.
To help us reflect on the readings, we were introduced to the socio-cultural context of the times in which Teresa and Ezekiel lived.
Saint Teresa was born in Avila, Spain, in 1515, to a wealthy merchant family. In her lifetime, Spanish secular law was based on Roman law, where women were understood to be under male guardianship in all matters. Fathers governed daughters, husbands governed wives, and uncles or any male relative ruled widows.
The aristocracy and the church wielded immense power and, despite the popularity of Marian cults, women were seen as second-class citizens – stereotyped either as virginal goddesses or evil temptresses. As a woman of Jewish background, Teresa was subjugated both by prejudice and the law, which in part may have led to her valuing the interior world. As one of our group questioned, her interior world may have been the only space Teresa experienced any sense of freedom.
Ezekiel was a priest born into a priestly lineage in Jerusalem. He was also a Hebrew prophet called to his mission through a powerful vision of God’s chariot – four living creatures and wheels within wheels. This vision is described in the Book of Ezekiel and is thought to be Ezekiel’s inaugural vision where he is called to minister to God’s people after they are exiled by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.
Ezekiel is said to have had many more visions across the course of 22 years, occurring for five years before the destruction of Jerusalem, and after this when he and his fellow Judeans were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. The last of his visions speak of the return to and rebuilding of Jerusalem.
The vision of the chariot is wild and vibrant and full of fire. Teresa’s vision is very quiet by comparison; an intense interior vision in which she speaks of feeling the presence of Christ.
Where the visions converge is they both speak of divine presence. For Ezekiel this was the Spirit of God among exiles, amid despair, and for Teresa it was the sense of Christ standing beside her.
Having discussed the differences and similarities of these visions, our group considered making poetic responses. One group member wrote this beautiful poem, which expresses the importance of stillness and reflection: “A deeper breath, draws me to a space of suspended animation / I sense this moment, full of portent / Silent, I wait, watch, and wonder / And in the silence, I hear and in the darkness, I see … / The body uncurls, the clenched fist opens, the small spirit spark glows a little brighter, and my heart cracks open.”
This poem also reinforces a central message in mystical and contemplative experience about change, transformation and the strength we can gain from the refiguring of our experience through contemplation.
An important message for these challenging times.