Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A conversation on Benedictine spirituality and prayer with Sr. Teresa Forcades

This is an English translation of an interview in Catalan with Sr. Teresa Forcades, "Si no et coneixes a tu, Déu no et troba a casa, Déu te l'inventes": Conversa amb Teresa Forcades, which appeared in the Franciscan publication Recerca, no. 44, 2009, pp. 14-28.


Teresa Forcades i Vila (Barcelona, 1966) is a doctor, theologian and nun. Bachelor’s in Medicine (1990); went to the United States to pursue medical studies and also studied Theology for a Master’s of Divinity at Harvard (1997). She also has a Bachelor’s in Fundamental Theology from the Institute of Fundamental Theology of Sant Cugat. She devoted her PhD thesis in Public Health to alternative medicine and undergraduate thesis in Theology to the Trinity. She entered the Monastery of St. Benedict of Montserrat in 1997 and made her solemn profession in 2003. She combines monastic life with medical research, conferences, seminars and courses in her specialty, feminist theology.


She recently defended her doctoral thesis titled: “Being a person today: a study of the concept of "person" in classical Trinitarian theology and its relation to the modern notion of freedom”.

In a really calm setting amid the mountains of Montserrat, the Monastery of St. Benedict appears. It’s already evening and the cool air and enveloping silence really invite one to pray, to contemplate…Vespers is approaching and it is a while before we find Teresa: a warm welcome, introductions…In the chapter room , we begin the conversation, which reveals both the simplicity and the wisdom of our speaker…and the Benedictine peace…


Teresa, for you, is the spiritual experience sudden? And if not, how can it be promoted? How do you discern whether an experience is from God?


There are spiritual experiences that are sudden and ones that are not. Sometimes what I feel is that there is something that has been gestating within me. I somehow have the notion of "something" that opens up, but which I can not put a name or face to and, as such, I can’t say in the end if it is imaginary or something real. But the experience is there, as an interior process, then in a moment of prayer, sometimes it manifests itself, it is born, it is a sort of part within where you say: "I already knew that ...!”. I have experienced this continuity and I think it is part of the way God is manifested. But other times – you were speaking about sudden experience – the experience I've had is of something that has surprised me, that seems to me like it is coming from outside. Then I say: "God said to me, Jesus said to me." That does not mean I have heard words like those I am now pronouncing, but an interior impact or an inner softness united to the conviction that God speaks to you, such as the moment when they told me that I could not to do a doctorate in theology because I had studied at a Protestant university and they were not going to validate it and I had to start from scratch. When that happened to me it was hard because I was in a sensitive period in my monastic training and I had not yet found my place. The experience of prayer in that context was as if Jesus were telling me: “Don’t cry, nothing is happening. If you can’t do the doctorate in Theology, do it in Medicine.” And I was thinking: “This is a monastery. I can’t do a doctorate in Medicine in a monastery." Then I went to talk with the abbess, but not with the intention to put it forward, but simply because it is very good if you are able to express things of the spirit to another person. This is for me a very useful and simple criterion of spiritual discernment : express what you feel to someone else, and suddenly, the other no longer needs to tell you anything. The very fact of expressing what you are bearing inside dilutes it. It was like an inner ghost, something that when put into words and expressed to someone else loses substance and then the other is there to listen and you tell them "well, really, I now see that…” Other times it's not like that and what you had inside gains strength when it is expressed. When I spoke to the abbess about the possibility of a doctorate in Medicine, she said to me: "Fantastic! And what are you going to do it on?”


Another criterion of spiritual discernment is openness; I think St. Ignatius has said: the evil spirit is always compulsive. It imposes itself, it is violent, rigid. Of course it may be true, but I’m suspicious when someone says: "God grabbed me by the hair and took me to the monastery!” God calls us and His call may have great strength and great urgency -- I had experienced it like this; but even in the force and urgency, God is always gentle. I can experience that God is dragging me violently and that God could allow me to experience it that way, because there is a pedagogy that respects my freedom. There is a process. The spiritual experience of another cannot be judged. But from my experience, I would highlight God’s gentleness, which can also make us ignore Him: "Look, I'm at the door and knocking, if anyone listens and opens the door to Me, I will come into their home and eat with them…”

And if I don’t listen to you? Then I’m not going to come in or eat. Why? Don’t You have the power? I have all the power, but what sense is there in exerting it if it’s not through love, what sense does love have if it is not coresponsible, not reciprocal? It’s a dialogue, isn’t it? I’ve already put in my part but ... and you? The key that opens the door to the heart is inside. And this is always a sudden experience, because many times it leaves you in doubt. You say: “Yes, but does that mean that this is what God wants?” I think that doubt makes us human, because it makes you realize your vulnerability and it makes you realize that you may be wrong, that you don’t know it all. And this, experienced confidently, puts you in a life space where you breathe and those around you too. And it is not incompatible with prophecy, because in the testimonies of prophecy in the Bible itself there is already a struggle, a kind of saying: “What do you want of me? I can’t…I am not the one…” It is a Biblical language that can translate this inner feeling: “Does this mean that we are on the right track here?” I don’t see this as a weakness but as a humanization, because it humanizes us to the extent that we open ourselves in trust. In that sense there would be yet another criterion for me: intercession. The experience of God could lead you to speak a word, to express a difficult subject in the community itself; this should always be done from an inner desire for everyone to emerge as a winner, even though you might make decisions that are painful for you or for others that are inspired by God, but the way you live them out cannot be negative or vengeful. However, the human psyche can make you see it as magnificent and it even appears in the Bible as a good thing: “the vengeance of God.” But the prophets, who are the great denouncers, are also those who know how to say: “No, wait!” or like Jesus: “Don’t uproot the fig tree.” The crushed reed: We don’t break it! However, the most practical is to break it and go find another…But what characterized the Spirit of God is this spirit of recycling; what seems weak is perhaps the strongest, a crushed reed perhaps has more resilience and resistance than the one that has never been crushed.


I came to St. Benedict’s loaded with medical books and I settled into one of the cells in the inn to study. When the bells rang for going to Vespers, already on the first day, I felt an emotion within me that I couldn’t define. Those bells called out to me in a surprisingly personal way. I came down for Vespers and Compline, then Matins the next day (which are at 6 in the morning), Lauds, Mass, Sext…What was happening to me? I looked at the nuns in the choir (…) “Do you imagine yourself living like that?” When the nuns left the choir, I stayed a long time looking at the Christ in the large window without saying anything, without thinking anything, without feeling anything (…) Once this had been going on for two weeks, I decided to climb up to Montserrat (the sanctuary) to buy myself the Rule of Saint Benedict, to see what it said. I read it straight through and I discovered to my great surprise and astonishment that I had a Benedictine vocation (…)


I don’t know how but, little by little, a great trust in God was growing in me and a feeling of radical freedom that I had never experienced before. A great surprise, a great liberation and a feeling of wanting to pour out my whole present, past and future at the feet of the One who loves so much. I don’t know, it’s hard to express. It’s like a need to adore, to remain in awe for all eternity…(*)


Tell us about aridity during prayer. What do you do when you pray? How do you pray?


I do what I can. I can share an experience that has been important. Something I started to do when I felt…, the minutes went by, an hour and a half of Lectio became an eternity…What do I do? So something came out of me spontaneously that I later saw had an official name: focusing. It is a more psychological than spiritual technique developed by a psychiatrist from Chicago and there are courses on it. When I read about it in a book, I said: “It seems to me that I do that!” Independently of the name, I discovered that I tended to fill this aridity with mental investigations, a sort of examination of conscience, a closed circuit that makes you nervous and is not experienced as anything that has to do with the joy of the Spirit, the transformation of the heart; it was heavy, closed in, it even burdened the mind. So the thing is decanted by starting the prayer session by asking myself: “How am I?” And that presupposes that I don’t know how I am – you're supposed to know it – but you really don’t know it; the truth is that I have no idea, I can be sad and not know it, I can be anxious and not realize it, others might have noticed, but me…


Before entering the monastery I thought I liked to pray a lot. Whenever I went on retreat I always felt caught up in the experience of God and I felt a deep and quiet yearning for silence and solitude, I saw an unattainable space within myself and I felt called to immerse myself ever more freely (…) After entering, things changed a bit. The expectations were not met. Instead I felt my own emptiness, the seeming absurdity of praying when one doesn’t feel like it and not being able to distract oneself with anything until the end of an hour and a half that seemed eternal. (*)


The interview is interrupted because the bells ring. And we find ourselves at Vespers, a time to share prayer with all the sisters, an insistent psalmody from the choir to the great window that is long, wide and deep, of an angular Christ, the somber cut of rocks, pine trees and four stars that gaze upon us…


And in the chapter room, we take up the conversation with Teresa again …Now she tells us about personal mystical experience during liturgy…


I had experienced participating in liturgical prayer and having an experience of God during communal liturgy here in my monastery and something happened to me similar to Focusing: this summer, in Germany, I read Matilde de Hackeborn, a medieval Cistercian mystic who explains her prayer life and talks about her experiences of God during community celebrations. The commentator on the book, a Spanish Benedictine, says that experiencing God in the midst of liturgy is characteristic of Benedictine spirituality.


For me the experience happens with a sudden awareness during the Eucharist or other moments of prayer in the choir: “Ah! God is here.” The community exists, I am here and here God is speaking to me in as specific and personal a way as if I were experiencing God in solitude, but it is in the midst of liturgy and the community and it doesn’t alienate you from the celebration or make you want to walk away; on the contrary, you want the celebration to last forever. Suddenly a bit of Gospel or some other text from the Scriptures is proclaimed that you have heard a thousand times and it is useful to you, it fills you, touches you. Sometimes it’s just a word: heaven, kindness, forgiveness, glory…You receive it in the midst of the community, with those who are present, those who are absent, and all of Creation. It’s a foretaste of a heaven that is even better than the sky up there. And it has nothing to do with the formal perfection of the celebration. Sometimes it can happen on the day when the top singers aren’t there and everything is just going along as it can and they are even out of tune.


And that interesting point you started to explain to us about “how am I”?...


To ask myself “how am I?” presupposes and exposes my own ignorance of my inner state and the little value of what I can think or deduce through logic. It’s not about developing a satisfactory response at the intellectual level, but looking for a response in physicality, in the physical body, describing bodily sensations. How am I? Sometimes languidness, sadness emerge in you…But where is that?...In the belly, the chest, the legs?...What color is it? How is it shaped? Is it pointed, is it round?...The feeling was that this spontaneous thing that was coming out of me led to an inner dialogue capable of breaking the closed mental circuits and establishing new associations. Then, through these images, the whole analogical part of the brain is stimulated -- I’m theorizing now – that is different from the logical one. Ideas can be preconceptions that block, because you have things that you understand, but you are much more than what you know. St. Augustine says that the mystery is not just God, it is that we are a mystery to ourselves. I think this kind of inner dialogue with my own body helps me to stimulate, to open up; first I identify or perceive a sensation of inner malaise and when I approach it through the colors or shapes, I no longer have to ask myself the meaning of what I am doing because I experience something new, alive. This exploration of one’s own inner state can be related to the passage in the Gospel where Jesus meets Zacchaeus and says to him: “Today I am coming to your house.” Well then, God always comes looking for us in our home but we ourselves are not at home. So how do you want us to meet? It’s that God doesn’t come, we complain. No, you’re the one who doesn’t come!...You are not at home. You are…I don’t know where you are…You are not in yourself. You are not in your moment. And God is always there in your moment. I am with you always, God says, “I will be with you, day after day, until the end of time.”…It’s you who has gone away and I don’t know where you are!....


It’s what St. Augustine says: “I looked for you outside and you were within…” He says it in the Confessions: “O Beauty so ancient and so new, I found you late. I sought You outside and You were within me, but I was not in me.” This technique I was talking about – it must be one among thousands – since no one told me about it but I found it, has been especially interesting to me, a sort of scientific investigation or adventure; I lost the tedium of saying “God is good…God is here…” This is magnificent but it can be awful if you are experiencing it from outside. The best phrases, the best expressions can be absolutely dead letters…


When you get to the place of pain, what happens there…?


It’s not always the same, but there can be an emotional reaction of liberation, the discomfort disappears with a sort of crying, all in all rather brief but it can be intense, and it gives way to a different inner feeling that allows one to breathe more deeply, then a prayer of thanksgiving, a tenderness, the place of love for God and others emerge. As you listen to this living interiority, it no longer seems that you are talking to the wall but that there is a Presence there but that, obviously, it has happened through entering into a specific emotional state and the answer emerges from this entering into the body. For example, a sister looked at me wrong or said something to me and I had not wanted to answer or it didn’t come out of me and I stayed annoyed. This might have happened this morning but I have gone on with my life and at the moment of prayer in the evening, I don’t remember it consciously. Then, when I do this kind of exercise, I discover a pain in the neck, I concentrate on the color…the shape; it’s a real dialogue with a physical part…and it is accompanied by a bit of illusion, cognitive illumination. I see the face of the sister and the word that didn’t come out of me in the morning now comes out and it can lead you to talk to that sister. Now we are touching a living part. And this is explaining it rapidly, but it goes little by little and each time it’s different.


Prayer is not repeating phrases but it’s like a discovery, a real dialogue that brings something new and this can often be the starting point for me, and then the texts of the day which, supposedly, are what we have to do, but it is nothing rigid. I find looking at the readings very rich. Normally I do those for the next day, since we do Lectio after Vespers (an hour and a half) and, as such, the next day’s Mass is what I prepare. And it is good for me to do these daily readings in other languages, because they repeat themselves and this is what happens with formulas: you feel the most marvelous thing, but you no longer read it; you know it by heart and when you start, you are already at the end and you lose the nuances and all…So, since I am studying German – because I am spending some time in Germany – doing it in that language or in the original languages is good for me. It’s what St. Ignatius says too, that when you find an image, something that resonates, you stay there. It’s not about doing duties but staying with what resonates in you. The monastic tradition talks about lectio, meditatio, and contemplatio. Lectio is relaxed reading, letting it in, letting yourself be affected; meditatio is when you stop and try to delve deeper cognitively into some aspect of what you have read; and contemplatio is when you let it strike your heart. In contemplatio you don’t read (lectio) or think (meditatio). You do what St. Teresa says: love and let yourself be loved. For me contemplatio has to do with novelty, the novelty of having let yourself be affected by the gentleness of God, His kindness, His truth, His Presence.


The most practical and striking aspect of the liturgy for me as we experience it in the monastery is its frequency (…) Halfway through an article or halfway through a paragraph: ding, dong, ding, dong…the bells ring. Sometimes they annoy me, but most of the time, even though I leave in the middle of fascinating work, they are liberating for me – they free me from my own passions or an excessive identification with the work I am doing; they make me lighten up, they tell me that my efforts don’t have the last word (…) they invite me to linger, to open a free space within myself, at a distance from what I have in my hands (…) But it isn’t just a free space, but rather – as liturgy always is – a place of solidarity, of communion. It is not an empty space into which I retreat to rest, but rather a space that opens me to others (*)


And how is the fraternal relationship involved in your prayer? What is the relationship between God, the sisters, and prayer?


It’s what I said about the knots in the throat…In that sense, this would be another example: One day when I was praying at the hour of lectio, I read Jn. 17, Jesus’ farewell speech, and I lingered on the verse that says: “Father, I want them to be where I am.” Jesus is asking that all the disciples – who are about to betray Him (He already knows this, and in the earlier paragraph has already said “how long will I have to endure you?”) – be where He is. I suddenly thought: is this what I’m asking for? Do I really want my sisters to be where I am? Do I really want them to be in the middle of my relationship with God?


Then I realized that I was experiencing a way of relating to God that was: “Well, I’ve now done the duties. I have supported the sisters and now comes the prize which is the relationship with God.” But…it’s not that…the “prize” – intimacy with God – should also include them. What are you saying now? I’m going to have to be with them in eternal life? I remembered chapter 72 of the Rule of St. Benedict which says “let the monks endure one another’s infirmities, both physical and moral, with great patience.” That bit I already knew, but then it occurred to me that Chapter 72 continues “and may God bring us all together to life everlasting.” That is God’s promise and our faith: that God is love means that by living with this one and that one and the other one…an ever more loving relationship ever freer in the Spirit of God, you experience the greatest happiness, the greatest fulfillment…It’s clear that it is forever! But this “forever” doesn’t have the negative connotation of “this difficult and painful life together today is for all of eternity.” It’s the other way round: “The fullness of Heaven is already in some way here among us.” It means that God’s love is already in these specific sisters and in you in spite of your defects and theirs…the plenitude of the beyond that begins here. Relationships are always a challenge and when you acknowledge the difficulties before God, when you are praying, each difficulty can make you discover an aspect of yourself, it can put you before God at a point that is more truthful – one’s self-knowledge grows, which cannot be separated from the knowledge of God. If you don’t know yourself, God doesn’t find you at home, you are inventing God.


Speaking of fraternal or communal relationships, I was thinking of the model you propose in Trinitarian anthropology…How does this model fit in and what problems are there in applying it to these relationships you experience in community?


Viewing a person in a Trinitarian key is equivalent to believing that there is no excuse not to love. In the person of the Spirit I experience love as reciprocity. I give to you, you give to me. It is joyful love. But what happens if I give to you and you don’t give to me? Then Love is not so happy now, but you can also experience it in the figure of the Father who is pure gift.


Pure gift only has meaning if lived in a spirit of reciprocity. If you give and you fence yourself off from receiving, it isn’t love.


But there are times when, being at the point of reciprocity, you receive nothing – this is the love of pure gift and it is kept in the Father’s breast until it finds its fulfillment some day. The same thing happens if you receive without giving, without giving of yourself or returning Love: this is not very happy Love either, if you don’t give because of stinginess, because you don’t want to, you don’t love; but sometimes you don’t give or you don’t give of yourself because you can’t, because you don’t know better; that is the Love of poverty, the Love of pure receiving which stays in the breast of the Son -- who identified Himself with the poor --until it finds fulfillment one day. The commandment to love is forever, not just for Sundays or feast days…it’s for every day and every situation. Without exception. You extend your hand, if the other doesn’t take it: pure donation; you continue to extend it, if the other takes it: reciprocity of love! And if it’s you who can’t make the gesture of extending the hand? Accepting this poverty contributes to Love more than you think. Pure receiving is what disturbs us the most because we think: Love is always “giving”. Always? And the act of asking for forgiveness? Is asking for forgiveness love? You tell me! To ask forgiveness, if it is sincere, is an act of love, but it is not an act of giving something. You, when you ask forgiveness, are going to receive, like a poor person, with empty hands, saying: “I don’t have what you have and I will only have it if you give it to me (your forgiveness). We can always do this. Even though you say “I have nothing to give”…well then, receive, but receive in the sense of opening yourself to your poverty, acknowledge your poverty…Sometimes I use the older sisters in the house as an example, like Maria Nativitat, who died at 100 and when I would help put her to bed she would say to me: “This body no longer heeds me in anything, it’s as if it weren’t mine, but it is mine and I love it!” M. Nativitat experienced her helplessness from a place that made her luminous. I still remember it today and that was five years ago now and I will always remember it.


I think that the Love of pure receiving is the most interesting. It’s what Jesus came to reveal to us. Jesus came to call the sick, the sinners, the poor. I think this is the challenge, the secret, the hidden pearl for which it is worth selling everything: to be able to live from this core of filial trust. To learn to receive, to be poor.


We say: But what if I don’t have anything…I have nothing…Don’t worry, if you don’t have anything, open yourself to the gift. And what if the gift doesn’t come? Woman of little faith! If you only knew what God wants to give you! That is faith, which always comes to the body and goes through the body, through the specific. The coming of the Spirit is guaranteed, God gives it to us by the handful, but the plenitude of the Spirit -- as in the case of Jesus and many saints -- may coexist with a life journey that appears to be a failure. The gift of the Spirit means God’s Providence. To have faith is to believe that in any circumstance in your life you can make a gesture of love and nothing more is asked of you. And that is possible because you believe in Providence. I can, because God promised me I could, because I trust in something we call Providence, which means that God will never abandon you and, if He does not abandon you, it means that at any moment His life that is His spirit will be present in you, and you will have the option to stifle it (1 Te 5:19: “Don’t stifle the spirit”) or let it express itself.


If you let it express itself, love will express itself because God is Love, the Spirit is love, and through Love there will be freedom and the feeling that you are the one who is living your life.


And then, St. Paul says: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” I don’t want what I called “me” to come back, says Paul, because I am more “me” now that it is not I who lives in me than when it was thought to be “me”. It is not a word game. Christification brings you to your core and at the same time it opens you to a deep relational dynamic that makes you say: Of course I am me! I am me more than ever! But, at the same time: You in me, I in You…Menein, that Greek verb that means “to remain” (he who remains in me): “Remain in the love I have for you” and “I am in the Father, I remain in the Father and the Father in Me…” Menein is the main verb in the Gospel of John, which is the gospel that reveals the Trinitarian perichoresis. This word “perichoresis” is used to express the relationship of the persons of the Trinity. It comes from the Greek word “choreio”, which means “to make room for” but the “peri” is also interesting, which means “around”; after all, isn’t love making room for the other within me? Of course it is! But it’s even lovelier to think that love is making room around the other: I love you when I let you be. I distance myself, not because I don’t want you to touch me or because I am frightened…but because I want you to be what you are called to be, whether I have a role to play in your unfolding or not…


It’s the same as when God created…


Ah….yes!...That’s why love has to do with freedom, because when you love and are loved you create spaces for freedom, not understood as separation but as “I’m letting you be yourself”, I don’t want to invade you, I don’t want to devour you. By making this gesture which makes us take a step back, we achieve the greatest intimacy; letting the other be, love that is no longer possessive, that is always discrete…Do you want to come?...


Gratuity is giving without demanding or contempt, it’s receiving without being able to give back and it’s sharing. It’s doing like the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It’s loving. And it includes freedom, it includes the best of freedom, the sense that no one can force you to give of yourself, to receive or share yourself (…) God could not oblige the Israelites to say Yes, in the same way as He cannot oblige us to love. We can live under the Law with thankfulness or we can live reluctantly, but we cannot choose the Law. We can live our reality as communitarian beings with thankfulness or reluctantly, but we cannot choose our reality. We are communion and only in giving, receiving and sharing do we find our happiness.(*)


(*) FORCADES i VILA, Teresa: Experiències de fe. La llibertat com a comunicació d’amor. Quadern 21, Espai Obert. Ed. Claret. Barcelona, 2006

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