Friday, July 27, 2007

Religious Melancholy

The Melancholia anthology by Jennifer Radden contains a beautiful excerpt from a work by spanish Christian mystic St Theresa of Avila called The Interior Castle. She is also featured prominently in George Eliot's novel Middlemarch. It is actually a set of advices she gives to her fellow nuns. I found the book on the internet (link here) but couldn't find the exact excerpts. Most of the instructions are about how to control one's sadness and devote one's energies to the prayer and how not to allow the devil prey on these weaker souls.

Melancholia of course is one of the seven deadly sins. (Sloth is actually the spiritual sloth, not necessarily physical.) It is very interesting to read religious thought on the subject. An oppressive sadness basically means a rejection of God's grace and one's own duty towards Him and also disaffection with the beautiful world created by him and the plan that God has made for human beings in this world. And of course it is the Devil who is ultimately responsible. (Milton's Satan is a great melancholic character too.) A previous post on Sloth here.

In this particular book the approach to melancholy is a little different. As is common in all mystical traditions, the devotion to God is seen in terms of romantic, even sexual, terms. Faith is nothing but a tormented soul's cravings for a union with God. And the melancholy is actually that of an unrequited desire. She is basically warning the nuns about how too much longing for an "speedy espousal" and too much emotion can leave them vulnerable to the work of devil. Two sample paragraphs here.

"In the state I speak of these longings can sometimes be arrested, for the reason is at liberty to conform to the will of God and can quote the words of St. Martin; should these desires become very oppressive, the thoughts may be turned to some other matter. As such longings are generally found in persons far advanced in perfection, the devil may excite them in order to make us think we are of their number—in any case it is well to be cautious. For my part, I do not believe he could cause the calm and peace given by this pain to the soul, but would disturb it by such uneasiness as we feel when afflicted concerning any worldly matter. A person inexperienced in both kinds of sorrow cannot understand the difference, but thinking such grief an excellent thing, will excite it as much as possible which greatly injures the health, as these longings are incessant or at least very frequent.

You must also notice that bodily weakness may cause such pain, especially with people of sensitive characters who cry over every trifling trouble. Times without number do they imagine they are mourning for God’s sake when they are doing no such thing. If for a considerable space of time, whenever such a person hears the least mention of God or thinks of Him at all, these fits of uncontrollable weeping occur, the cause may be an accumulation of humour round the heart, which has a great deal more to do with such tears than has the love of God. Such persons seem as if they would never stop crying: believing that tears are beneficial, they do not try to check them nor to distract their minds from the subject, but encourage them as much as possible. The devil seizes this opportunity of weakening nuns so that they become unable to pray or to keep their Rule."

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