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Biographies > Amazing Christians

by Peter Holleran

Colorful Characters, Great Souls

St. Catherine of Sienna - Born Mystic

   Saint Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380), born Caterina Benincasa, was the twenty-third child of her parents. At the age of five she had a vision on a hillside of Jesus sitting on a throne, surrounded by Peter, Paul, and John. When she was seven she left home to find a hermitage in the wilderness but, overcome with fear and loneliness, claims that she was "carried in a swoon by her Lord back within the city walls." After this Catherine dedicated her life to Christ, swearing off meat to subsist on bread and herbs. She refused offers of marriage when she was twelve, and even cut off her hair when challenged to prove the sincerity of her desire for spiritual life. She practiced self-imposed austerities, as indicated, from a young age, often sleeping no more than two hours out of forty-eight ("the most difficult of all ways of overcoming self," she once wrote). At sixteen she entered the Order of Mantellates (female Dominicans) and in the solitude of her prayer cell frequently went into ecstatic raptures. In Divine Dialogues she confessed that she was often "listening to choirs of heavenly music and smelling the flowers of paradise." Raymond of Capua, her biographer and confessor, said that in her ecstasies "her limbs became stiff, her eyes closed, and her body, raised in the air, often diffused a perfume of exquisite sweetness."

   After a mystical marriage to Christ, which took place in her cell in 1366, Catherine left the solitary life of prayer to become a servant of the sick and needy, spiritual advisor to kings and popes, as well as spiritual guide to a group of devoted followers who gathered around her. During the Black Death, which decimated the population of Europe, she led a band of men and women to attend the sick and dying, often burying the infected corpses with her own hands. For many years she tried to unify the discordant factions of Christendom, and, while she was successful in getting the Pope to return from Avignon to Rome,she could not prevent the great schism.

   Catherine died in 1380 after many months of intense austerities, during which time she did not eat. She was only thirty-three years old. [Jesus, Swami Rama Tirtha, and Sankara also died at thirty-three].

   St. Catherine received invisible stigmata (felt but not seen).

   Divine Dialogues consists of spontaneous outpourings of ecstatic speech transcribed by Catherine's attendants whenever she would go into such states.

   "How glorious," says the Voice of the Eternal, "is that soul which has indeed been able to pass from the stormy ocean to Me, the Sea Pacific, and in that Sea, which is myself, to fill the pitcher of her heart."

   Saint Catherine is a good example of an emotionally sensitive contemplative character overcoming herself to the point of engaging self-transcending service. Her only liabilities may have been a product of the religious tradition she was a part of. For example, a chief limitation of the conventional Christian perspective can be in its valuing of visionary phenomena. Yet the greatest of Christian mystics have held that such "sweets" are only a "lure" for beginners, and must be passed beyond or understood rightly for genuine growth of the spirit. Saint John of the Cross plainly stated:

   “Many souls to whom visions have never come are incomparably more advanced in the way of perfection than others to whom many have been given."

   Saint Bernard confessed that God had very often entered his soul during contemplation, even though he had never seen any vision, never heard any inner voices, and never received any supernatural revelation. Many visions are not really received by the individual, in fact , but are actually concretizations of his own mind. As the Indian yogi, Swami Rama Tirtha stated of his own visions of Krishna who appeared to him with his eyes open as if outside his own body: "this marked a particular stage of the mind-concentration and it was really the materialization of my own imagination, the precipitation of my own mind." (1)

   The mystical inspiration behind the vision is real, but the form it takes is limited to a particular tradition and state of mind, and it is a mistake to worship or value it for its own sake. It is also a mistake to conceive of it as necessarily a direct visitation or communication from God Almighty, instead of as an emanation from the Higher Self, called forth in response to a devotional gesture, and a foretaste of a realization which one is as yet unable to fully comprehend. However, this must not be underrated either. Even Ramana Maharshi once said, “visions are better than no visions,” in that the individual may be getting closer to an experience of the Self. Brunton states

   "A part of the source of these visions is to be traced back to the suggestive power of the thought-form already implanted in the mind, but the other part, the sudden and dramatic and total change of heart and shift of outlook, has still to be accounted for. What is the secret? It is contact with the Over-self, Grace." (2)

   It is one's own divine soul that provides the experience of both the image and the ecstasy in mystic visions. It is all a subjective creation. A master or sage can trigger or activate one's soul, so to speak, but the content of one's experience is derived from the soul. In some cases a Master can impress one with his own image-making faculty, and in that case the image one receives is more directly related to his influence. In either case, however, the experience arises on the same rnetaphysical plane and must be understood and passed beyond (although it need not be suppressed). Not all visions are products of the brain. Some arise from a deeper personal mind and are projected through the brain. Some may, as stated, be impressed on the mind of the disciple by a Master, although they still appear through the medium of the disciple’s own soul. This is not a small thing, as the soul of man is divine and rooted in God. No vision, however, is absolute truth, or other than mental in nature. This was Brunton’s assertion. This is not to be explain them away, but only to understand them better. The divine response to honest heartfelt prayer will come through whatever medium the aspirant is most familiar with and responsive to.

   "Those who have the less clear vision do not perceive so distinctly as the others how greatly He transcends their vision," said St. John of the Cross, thus making a distinction between beginners and proficients on the Way.

   It is possible that this young fourteenth-century saint transcended attachment to visionary phenomenon:

   "After a certain day when she underwent an experience wherein God seemed to take out her heart and carry it away, Saint Catherine of Siena remained peaceful and contented for the rest of her life. She could not describe the inner experience but said that in it she had tasted a sweetness which made earthly pleasures seem like mud and even spiritual pleasures seemed far inferior." (3)

   She was only nineteen years old.

1. Paul Brunton, The Wisdom of the Overself (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1984), p. 417-425
2. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 1987), Vol. 14, 5.96
3. Ibid, Vol. 16, Part I, 3.81
4. An advanced mystic I knew on the path of Sant Mat has a beautiful vision of St. Catherine of Siena and felt she was one of her previous incarnations.


   St. Teresa of Avila - Spiritual Ecstatic

   St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), unlike Catherine of Siena, did not have an inclination for mystic raptures as a child. She was raised in luxury, with a penchant for mischief and a fondness for fine "dress and ornaments". At the age of sixteen she was sent to an Augustinian convent for boarding school. There she learned to delight in the lifestyle of the nuns, and at twenty-two took her vows in the Carmelite Order. For the next two decades she went through a "stormy sea", a difficult ordeal of emotional-spiritual transformation, in which she vacillated between a desire to serve God and a desire to serve self. She endured many physical ailments, food cravings: and much emotional turmoil before she was firmly grounded in the life of the spirit. In 1567, while gazing upon a statue of Jesus, she had a conversion experience that changed her life forever. In her Autobiography she wrote:

   "Until now the life I was describing was my own, but the life I have been living since is the life God has lived in me."

   Teresa manifested extraordinary spiritual phenomena, including profound mystical rapture and even episodes of bodily levitation. (1) Her Autobiography communicates in detail the specific character, nature, and stages of a wide range of spiritual experiences. She wisely points out the actual source of those experiences by telling us that "such great gifts come through abandoning everything to God and dying to oneself."

   Even so, she went through her dark nights. deCaussade wrote:

   “There are times when everything irritates and wearies you; so they should. Saint Teresa even said that at these times she did not feel that she had strength enough to crush an ant for the love of God. Never could anyone attain to an entire distrust of self and to a perfect confidence in God unless he had passed through these different states of complete insensibility, and absolute powerlessness. Happy state which produces such marvelous effects.”
(Letters, Book Seven, 8th)

   When she died her body emitted an undeniable fragrance like fresh flowers, and on one occasion some priests dug up her body to steal relics, and the fragrance permeated the convent floors alerting the nuns that her grave had been opened! (This phenomenon of the subtle magnification of the aura of a saint has parallels in many traditions. When Kirpal Singh was alive, whether I was meditating some distance away or sitting in his presence, I would catch the sweet scent of roses; after his death I no longer found this to be the case. Perhaps this was because his body had been cremated).The body of St. Teresa did not decompose for many years after her death. (2)

   Teresa became dismayed at the worldly lnfluences impinglng upon cloistered life, and so she started her own order, the Reformed or 'Discalced' Carmelites, which engaged a stricter rule, including fasting and abstinence from meat. Over the next thirty years she founded seventeen convents and many monasteries. She was an advisor to the King of Spain and a close friend of St. John of the Cross and St. Ignatius Loyola.

   In the midst of her life in God, Teresa sometimes transcended the bounds she set down for others. Once some of her nuns noticed an unusual aroma coming from the kitchen. Upon investigation they found her enjoying a feast of roast duck. Their sensibilities offended, they asked the saint how she could do such a thing, to which she replied, "When I pray, I pray, and when I eat duck, I eat duck!

   An unconfirmed story I have come across also suggests that late in life Teresa fell in love with a young man. A simple human thing like this would surely have been kept a secret from the Church, suppressive as it has been of life and sexuality. The Christian tradition in general has been at war with bodily life ever since St. Augustine, and St. Teresa felt compelled to suppress her more obvious spiritual ecstasies, especially because of their sensuous nature, especially the most famous one where her heart was pierced by a sword, making her nuns swear not to reveal them to anyone. To be open about such things during the time of the Inquisition was to risk severe persecution. Whoever threatened to take power away from the Church by advocating that common people take a "deeper walk with the Lord" did so at their peril. St. John of the Cross, Fenelon, and Michael de Molinos all faced prison terms, not so much for questioning the sacraments of the Church, but for promoting the practice of quiet meditation, which was certainly what the Master Jesus taught when he said that one should "pray to the Lord in secret, not as the pharisees and scribes." It has certainly been true, as the philosopher will Durant once wrote, that "The Church has persecuted only two groups of people. Those who did not follow the teachings of Jesus and those who did!"

   As the title of her book, The Interior Castle, suggests, St. Teresa taught a mystical Christian path of devotional interiorization of attention, with true “cosmic consciousness” at best being seemingly considered a real possibility only after death. Nevertheless, her ecstatic signs showed a profound submission to the spirit, and she, along with St. John of the Cross, was an excellent psychologist of the soul. She also insisted that her followers be intelligent, exclaiming, "May God preserve us from stupid nuns!"

   Some have questioned the nature of St. Teresa’s ecstasies, as well as that of other medievil mystics, seeing in them the evidence of pre and peri-natal experiences, such as experienced in Primal therapy and the holo-tropic breath-work of Stanislov Grof. See A Reappraisel of Teresa’ of Avila’s Suppossed Hysteria. For instance, near-death or hellish experience may be a re-experience of near-death in the birth canal, etc. It is also quite possible that the mystical and psychological experiences may be mixed and overlayed on one another in any given individual. An understanding of this would have been nearly impossible during St. Teresa’s lifetime, but it calls for investigation.

   For St. Teresa to have made the transition to something like the “I AM” or Witness self, would likely have required that she give up the position of the independent soul desiring to re-unite with a God conceived as an objective other: this would have been unacceptable to the Christian tradition she was a part of, and therefore need to be kept secret, and further, to realize that there is only God, in the ultimate stage of the path, would have been nothing short of heresy. She did, however, (like St. John of the Cross) speak of a state higher than that of ecstasies and raptures, but it is not exactly clear how that compares with the stages given in yoga. So we just do not know. Some of this difficulty is that her books, such as The Autobiography and The Interior Castle were written at different stages of her spiritual life. It does need mention that her ecstatic mystical experiences diminished in later life as she settled into a more stable peace in the midst of an active life of service. An amusing story is recounted by Craig Isaacs:

   “St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross are good samples of people with vast experience of ecstasies and visions, who found them more distracting than helpful. One story of these two is that they were praying together one day when a young sister looking for her mother superior walked in on them, only to find them holding onto their chairs which were levitating off the ground. Both were struggling to get the chairs back on the ground because it was disturbing their prayer time. Teresa is known to have said that as she reached the state close to the transforming union that she would look back at the days of frequent ecstasies and remark how quaint they were, it she would never sacrifice the experience of her union with Jesus to experience them again.” (John’s Apocalypse, p. 79)

   Her surrender to, love for, and absorption in the radiant power of God were an inspiration to all and an example of devotional qualities awakened in a mature spiritual practitioner.

1. Powers like this are well-documented in the yoga tradition of India; for a detailed description of their origin and nature see the yoga sutras of Patanjali.
2. This is one of the signs of super-regeneration that sometimes occurs in advanced stages of spiritual practice. Teresa shared this sign with Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, and Paramahansa Yogananda.


   St. Therese of Lisieux - the Battle for Faith

   [Note: this entry, considered necessary but not part of this original series of essays, is almost entirely borrowed from other sources]

   “The spread of devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux is one of the impressive religious manifestations of our time. During her few years on earth this young French Carmelite was scarcely to be distinguished from many another devoted nun, but her death brought an almost immediate awareness of her unique gifts. Through her letters, the word-of-mouth tradition originating with her fellow-nuns, and especially through the publication of , Therese of the Child Jesus or "The Little Flower" soon came to mean a great deal to numberless people; she had shown them the way of perfection in the small things of every day. Miracles and graces were being attributed to her intercession, and within twenty-eight years after death, this simple young nun had been canonized. In 1936 a basilica in her honor at Lisieux was opened and blessed by Cardinal Pacelli; and it was he who, in 1944, as Pope, declared her the secondary patroness of France. "The Little Flower" was an admirer of St. Teresa of Avila, and a comparison at once suggests itself. Both were christened Teresa, both were Carmelites, and both left interesting autobiographies. Many temperamental and intellectual differences separate them, in addition to the differences of period and of race; but there are striking similarities. They both patiently endured severe physical sufferings; both had a capacity for intense religious experience; both led lives made radiant by the love of Christ.

   The parents of the later saint were Louis Martin, a watchmaker of Alencon, France, son of an army officer, and Azelie-Marie Guerin, a lacemaker of the same town. Only five of their nine children lived to maturity; all five were daughters and all were to become nuns. Francoise-Marie Therese, the youngest, was born on January 2, 1873. Her childhood must have been normally happy, for her first memories, she writes, are of smiles and tender caresses. Although she was affectionate and had much natural charm, Therese gave no sign of precocity. When she was only four, the family was stricken by the sad blow of the mother's death. Monsieur Martin gave up his business and established himself at Lisieux, Normandy, where Madame Martin's brother lived with his wife and family. The Guerins, generous and loyal people, were able to ease the father's responsibilities through the years by giving to their five nieces practical counsel and deep affection.

   The Martins were now and always united in the closest bonds. The eldest daughter, Marie, although only thirteen, took over the management of the household, and the second, Pauline, gave the girls religious instruction. When the group gathered around the fire on winter evenings, Pauline would read aloud works of piety, such as the of Dom Gueranger. Their lives moved along quietly for some years, then came the first break in the little circle. Pauline entered the Carmelite convent of Lisieux. She was to advance steadily in her religious vocation, later becoming prioress. It is not astonishing that the youngest sister, then only nine, had a great desire to follow the one who had been her loving guide. Four years later, when Marie joined her sister at the Carmel, Therese's desire for a life in religion was intensified. Her education during these years was in the hands of the Benedictine nuns of the convent of Notre- Dame-du-Pre. She was confirmed there at the age of eleven.

   In her autobiography Therese writes that her personality changed after her mother's death, and from being childishly merry she became withdrawn and shy. While Therese was indeed developing into a serious-minded girl, it does not appear that she became markedly sad. We have many evidences of liveliness and fun, and the oral tradition, as well as the many letters, reveal an outgoing nature, able to articulate the warmest expressions of love for her family, teachers, and friends.

   On Christmas Eve, just a few days before Therese's fourteenth birthday, she underwent an experience which she ever after referred to as "my conversion." It was to exert a profound influence on her life. Let her tell of it - and its moral effect - in her own words: "On that blessed night the sweet infant Jesus, scarcely an hour old, filled the darkness of my soul with floods of light. By becoming weak and little, for love of me, He made me strong and brave: He put His own weapons into my hands so that I went on from strength to strength, beginning, if I may say so, 'to run as a giant."' An indelible impression had been made on this attuned soul; she claimed that the Holy Child had healed her of undue sensitiveness and "girded her with His weapons." It was by reason of this vision that the saint was to become known as "Therese of the Child Jesus."

   The next year she told her father of her wish to become a Carmelite. He readily consented, but both the Carmelite authorities and Bishop Hugonin of Bayeux refused to consider it while she was still so young. A few months later, in November, to her unbounded delight, her father took her and another daughter, Celine, to visit Notre- Dame des Victoires in Paris, then on pilgrimage to Rome for the Jubilee of Pope Leo XIII. The party was accompanied by the Abbe Reverony of Bayeux. In a letter from Rome to her sister Pauline, who was now Sister Agnes of Jesus, Therese described the audience: "The Pope was sitting on a great chair; M. Reverony was near him; he watched the pilgrims kiss the Pope's foot and pass before him and spoke a word about some of them. Imagine how my heart beat as I saw my turn come: I didn't want to return without speaking to the Pope. I spoke, but I did not get it all said because M. Reverony did not give me time. He said immediately: 'Most Holy Father, she is a child who wants to enter Carmel at fifteen, but its superiors are considering the matter at the moment.' I would have liked to be able to explain my case, but there was no way. The Holy Father said to me simply: 'If the good God wills, you will enter.' Then I was made to pass on to another room. Pauline, I cannot tell you what I felt. It was like annihilation, I felt deserted.... Still God cannot be giving me trials beyond my strength. He gave me the courage to sustain this one."

   Therese did not have to wait long in suspense. The Pope's blessing and the earnest prayers she offered at many shrines during the pilgrimage had the desired effect. At the end of the year Bishop Hugonin gave his permission, and on April 9, 1888, Therese joined her sisters in the Carmel at Lisieux. "From her entrance she astonished the community by her bearing, which was marked by a certain majesty that one would not expect in a child of fifteen." So testified her novice mistress at the time of Therese's beatification. During her novitiate Father Pichon, a Jesuit, gave a retreat, and he also testified to Therese's piety. "It was easy to direct that child. The Holy Spirit was leading her and I do not think that I ever had, either then or later, to warn her against illusions.... What struck me during the retreat were the spiritual trials through which God wished her to pass." Therese's presence among them filled the nuns with happiness. She was slight in build, and had fair hair, gray-blue eyes, and delicate features. With all the intensity of her ardent nature she loved the daily round of religious practices, the liturgical prayers, the reading of Scripture. After entering the Carmel she began to sign letters to her father and others, "Therese of the Child Jesus."

   In 1889 the Martin sisters suffered a great shock. Their father, after two paralytic strokes, had a mental breakdown and had to be removed to a private sanatarium, where he remained for three years. Therese bore this grievous sorrow heroically.

   On September 8, 1890, at the age of seventeen, Therese took final vows. In spite of poor health, she carried out from the first all the austerities of the stern Carmelite rule, except that she was not permitted to fast. "A soul of such mettle," said the prioress, "must not be treated like a child. Dispensations are not meant for her." The physical ordeal which she felt more than any other was the cold of the convent buildings in winter, but no one even suspected this until she confessed it on her death-bed. And by that time she was able to say, "I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me."

   She mentions her own patience humorously. During meditation in the choir, one of the sisters continually fidgeted with her rosary, until Therese was perspiring with irritation. At last, "instead of trying not to hear it, which was impossible, I set myself to listen as though it had been some delightful music, and my meditation, which was not the 'prayer of quiet,' passed in offering this music to our Lord." In 1893, when she was twenty, she was appointed to assist the novice mistress, and was in fact mistress in all but name. She comments, "From afar it seems easy to do good to souls, to make them love God more, to mold them according to our own ideas and views. But coming closer we find, on the contrary, that to do good without God's help is as impossible as to make the sun shine at night."

   In her twenty-third year, on order of the prioress, Therese began to write the memories of her childhood and of life at the convent; this material forms the first chapters of , the . It is a unique and engaging document, written with a charming spontaneity, full of fresh turns of phrase, unconscious self- revelation, and, above all, giving evidence of deep spirituality. She describes her own prayers and thereby tells us much about herself. "With me prayer is a lifting up of the heart, a look towards Heaven, a cry of gratitude and love uttered equally in sorrow and in joy; in a word, something noble, supernatural, which enlarges my soul and unites it to God.... Except for the Divine Office, which in spite of my unworthiness is a daily joy, I have not the courage to look through books for beautiful prayers. . . . I do as a child who has not learned to read, I just tell our Lord all that I want and he understands." She has natural psychological insight: "Each time that my enemy would provoke me to fight I behave like a brave soldier. I know that a duel is an act of cowardice, and so, without once looking him in the face, I turn my back on the foe, hasten to my Saviour, and vow that I am ready to shed my blood in witness of my belief in Heaven." She mentions her own patience humorously. During meditation in the choir, one of the sisters continually fidgeted with her rosary, until Therese was perspiring with irritation. At last, "instead of trying not to hear it, which was impossible, I set myself to listen as though it had been some delightful music, and my meditation, which was the 'prayer of quiet,' passed in offering this music to our Lord." Her last chapter is a paean to divine love, and concludes, "I entreat Thee to let Thy divine eyes rest upon a vast number of little souls; I entreat Thee to choose in this world a legion of little victims of Thy love." She counted herself among these. "I am a very little soul, who can offer only very little things to the Lord."

   In 1894 Louis Martin died, and soon Celine, who had of late been taking care of him, made the fourth sister from this family in the Carmel at Lisieux. Some years later, the fifth, Leonie, entered the convent of the Visitation at Caen.

   Therese occupied herself with reading and writing almost up to the end of her life. That event loomed ever nearer as tuberculosis made a steady advance. During the night between Holy Thursday and Good Friday, 1896, she suffered a pulmonary haemorrhage. Although her bodily and spiritual sufferings were extreme, she wrote many letters, to members of her family and to distant friends, as well as continuing . She carried on a correspondance with Carmelite sisters at Hanoi, China; they wished her to come out and join them, not realizing the seriousness of her ailment. She had a great yearning to respond to their appeal. At intervals moments of revelation came to her, and it was then that she penned those succinct reflections that are now repeated so widely. Here are three of them that give the flavor of her mind: "I will spend my Heaven doing good on earth." "I have never given the good God aught but love, and it is with love that He will repay." "My 'little way' is the way of spiritual childhood, the way of trust and absolute self-surrender."

   A further insight is given us in a letter Therese wrote, shortly before she died, to Pere Roulland, a missionary in China. "Sometimes, when I read spiritual treatises, in which perfection is shown with a thousand obstacles in the way and a host of illusions round about it, my poor little mind soon grows weary, I close the learned book, which leaves my head splitting and my heart parched, and I take the Holy Scriptures. Then all seems luminous, a single word opens up infinite horizons to my soul, perfection seems easy; I see that it is enough to realize one's nothingness, and give oneself wholly, like a child, into the arms of the good God. Leaving to great souls, great minds, the fine books I cannot understand, I rejoice to be little because 'only children, and those who are like them, will be admitted to the heavenly banquet."
(Lives of Saints (John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.)

   St. Therese of Lisieux was in acute trial in the last year of her life, which she described as a black hole, darkness, and a thick wall separating her from God, spoke of giving up hope for the glorious "fatherland" of light, and abandoning oneself to "nothingness":

   "You believe that one day you will walk out of this fog which surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness...My smile is a great mantle, which covers a multitude of sufferings. The sisters and people think that my faith, my hope and my love are profoundly fulfilling me, and that intimacy with God and union with His will, live in my heart. If they only knew...only blind faith moves me along, because the truth is that all is darkness for me. Sometimes the agony of desolation is so great and at the same time the living hope for The Absent so profound that the only prayer I am able to recite is “Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in You. I will quench your thirst for souls.”" ( Last Conversations)

   The experience of St. Therese of Lisieux may offers some insight for the religious on the connection between suicide and faith:

   Suicide: Insights from St. Thérèse of Lisieux by Fr. J. Linus Ryan, O. Carm.

    “The thought of suicide comes to most people at some time in their lives. For the majority it may be only a fleeting thought that is fairly quickly dismissed. But for others it can be a real temptation that must be strenuously fought. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower (d.1897), would seem to belong to the second category. Even though she was an enclosed Carmelite nun in a French provincial town, who died at the age of twenty-four, she has something important to say to people seeking to tackle the problem of suicide.

   The issue of suicide seems only to have come to her towards the end of her life. Her sister, Mother Agnes, said to her a week before she died, what a terrible sickness and how much you suffered! She replied, "Yes! What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not any faith, I would have committed suicide without an instant's hesitation." (LastConv 22.9.6).

   About a month earlier she was in such pain that she spoke of nearly losing her mind (CG 22.8.97). At this time too she said to her sister, Agnes:

   "Watch carefully, Mother, when you will have persons a prey to violent pains; don't leave near them any medicines that are poisonous. I assure you, it needs only a second when one suffers intensely to lose one's reason. Then one could easily poison oneself." (August 30, Green Notebook).

   Her sister repeated this on oath at the process for Thérèse's beatification (PA 204). In fact, another young sister who was helping to nurse her - Sr. Marie of the Trinity, - also testified the following: 

   "Three days before she died, I saw her in such pain that I was heartbroken. When I drew near to her bed, she tried to smile, and, in a strangled sort of voice, she said: If I didn't have faith, I could never bear such suffering. I am surprised that there aren't more suicides among atheists."  [Text in Procès de béatification et canonisation. Vol. 1  Procès informative ordinaire (Rome: Teresianum, 1973) 472. English tr. in C. O'Mahony, St. Thérèse of Lisieux by Those who Knew Her: Testimonies from the Process of her Beatification (Dublin: Veritas, 1975) 254.]

    These texts make clear that suicide was not just a passing idea, but a consideration that she thought about very seriously. We have some idea of how grave this thought was when we look at her physical, psychological and spiritual state at the time. Her thoughts on suicide are found in the last months of her life.

    At this time Thérèse was desperately ill with a terrible form of tuberculosis. The first sign of the seriousness of her condition was a hemoptysis (coughing blood from the lungs) on the night of Good Friday in 1896. From that time her health deteriorated. After a year she was very seriously ill with intense chest pain, frequent hemoptysis and weakness. From July 1897 until her death on 30th September that year she had acute pain, often with suffocation. In time the tuberculosis spread throughout her body, so that around the 23rd August medical people spoke of gangrene of the intestines; there was a collapse of bodily functions. Though best medical practice at the time was morphine injections, her superior, Mother Gonzaga, thought that religious should suffer, and would not allow its administration to Thérèse (later the same superior would refuse morphine when she herself was dying with cancer). 

   Her psychological and spiritual sufferings were as great if not greater than her physical distress. Within a few days of her first coughing of blood, Good Friday the previous year, she had a sudden collapse of her faith experience. What had been normal to her, like thoughts of heaven, now seemed a fantasy. She spoke of a high wall between her and faith realities. She was in acute darkness of faith almost without remission until her death. The images she used were of darkness, a black hole, a thick fog, a tunnel and a high wall that she could not scale. In the meantime, she kept the best side out as it were. She continued her religious exercises, she wrote charming devotional poems at the request of the sisters of her community. But all the time, she was personally in darkness, with no feeling of faith. She said that she really knew the experience of atheists. She was walking through a dark night of faith.

   When we put these facts about her physical condition and her spiritual and psychological darkness side by side with her thoughts of suicide, we find a deeper perspective. For many religious people the thought of God or Heaven can be a reason against suicide, but Thérèse is now without any sense of the Divine Presence, devoid of faith experience, clinging on in darkness. As such her experience is of interest not only for the issue of suicide, but also for the whole area of unbelief. She knew in the depths of her being the crushing desolation of unbelief.”
- from www.sttherese.com  [for an in-depth discussion of this topic see “Suicide and the Spiritual Quest” in the Articles section of this website]


   St. Philip Neri - the Fire of Grace

   St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) was the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory and became known as "the Apostle of Rome". He renounced a desire of traveling to the Far East (fired by the letters of St. Francis Xavier and the Jesuit missionaries from India) when a Cistercian monk, Vincent Ghettini, admonished him, "Rome is to be your Indies." He became the spiritual guide of many souls, including bishops and popes. He preached in the market place, cared for the sick, and performed miracles, including raising a young boy from the dead. St. Philip was venerated as a saint during his lifetime and did much to sanctify the city of Rome.

   One of the most interesting psycho-physical events in the history of the western religious tradition occured to Philip when he was twenty-nine years old. While praying during the Feast of Pentecost he experienced a "tangible fire of Divine love," and saw "a ball of fire enter his mouth and sink down into his heart." He thereafter felt a burning in his heart and throat that continued throughout his life, causing him to keep his windows open and his cassock unbuttoned in order to cool off. Special permission was granted from the pope in order for him to bypass the required dress code for priests. During this initial event St. Philip developed a palpatation of the heart that became so violent at times that it shook his chair, bed, and even his entire room. He felt his heart swell until there was a lump the size of a man's fist on his chest. After his death two ribs over the heart were found to be broken and arched outwards and had apparently been that way for half a century. Many people testified to being healed of various ailments, physical and spiritual, after enjoying one of his super-charged embraces.

   St. Philip was a very humorous individual, and spared no effort in making himself look ridiculous or contemptible. He had a wonderful ability to relieve others of their depressed spirits, and he even kept books of jokes in his room for the benefit of those who came expecting him to look saintly. He could see into the hearts of others and provoke conversions in recalcitrant individuals. All in all, he was one of the most interesting characters in the history of the Catholic Church, and the devotional Christian tradition.

   St. Philip Neri was canonized on March 12, 1622, along with four others: Isadore of Madrid, Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, and Teresa of Avila.


St. Seraphim of Sarov - the Descent of the Spirit

   St. Seraphim (1759-1833) is generally considered to be the greatest of the Russian saints. He became a monk at nineteen, a deacon at twenty-seven, and a priest at thirty-four. Then followed many years of asceticism and relative seclusion as he cultivated the inner life. For five years he lived in a cell, never leaving it or seeing anyone, and for three years he is said to have subsisted on grass alone. He left his cell in 1825, at the age of sixty-six, and entered on a period of spiritual "elderhood" in which he offered his guidance and spiritual help to others.

   Seraphim was seen in a bodily transfigured condition on numerous occasions. One of his disciples, Ivan Tikhonovich, related:

   "Father Seraphim became silent and bowed forward slightly. His eyes were closed and his head was bowed. He gently massaged his breast around the heart with the palm of his right hand. His face began gradually to change and to give forth a wonderful light. Finally it became so bright that it was impossible to look at him. Such joy and heavenly rapture were expressed on his face that he could be called an earthly angel or a heavenly man." (1)

   A famous "Conversation" between Seraphim and his friend, Nicholas Motovilov, describes this transfomation on another occasion, and also describes the "transmission" of the Holy Spirit (kundalini-shakti?) from master to disciple:

   "We are both together, son, in the Spirit of God! Why lookest thou not on me?”

   I replied:

   "I cannot look, father, because lightning flashes from your eyes. Your face is brighter than the sun and my eyes ache in pain!"

   Father Seraphim said:

   "Fear not, my son; you too have become as bright as I. You too are now in the fullness of God's Spirit; otherwise you would not be able to look on me as I am .. "

   After these words I looked in his face and there came over me an even greater reverential awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling brilliance of his midday rays, the face of the man who talks with you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone grasp your shoulder; yet you do not see the hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading several yard around and throwing a sparkling radiance across the snow blanket on the glade and into the snowflakes which besprinkled the great elder and me. Can one imagine the state in which I then found myself?

   Seraphim engaged many methods in his years of practice, including the "prayer of the heart", but he taught that such secondary means as fasting, almsgiving, petitionary prayer and other Christian acts were of use only if they led one to acquire the Holy Spirit of God, which is a direct spiritual experience. According to St. Seraphim, one should gather the mind into the heart, which will then be warmed by the grace of the Lord "when the Spirit of God descends to man and overshadows him with the fullness of His outpouring." (3)

   This is a clear description of the spirit in its descending phase. The teaching and practice of the Russian mystics generally exemplify this stage, although some of them (including St. Seraphim) appear to have gone further (see "Theophane the Recluse").

   The 'Jesus Prayer' ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me") is practised in all Orthodox Churches (Greek, Russian, Syrian, Bulgarian, Nestorian, Coptic, etc., but perhaps nowhere as much as on Mt. Athos, Greece. In the fourth century Father Chrysostum of Constantinople taught one to "pray truly to finally lead to a state where the mind is always in the heart," while Gregory the Sinaite wrote, "lead you mind down from your head into your heart, and hold it there."

   St. Seraphim died on January 2, 1833. He was found, his cell on fire, kneeling before an icon. Thus in death as in life his disposition was that of full devotional submission to the forms of his Beloved.

   While there have been great saints in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, the general acceptance of mystical experience has been greater in the latter. This may be, in part, because the Eastern church does not labor as much under the burden of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas as its Western counterpart, and is therefore more disposed to allow the intrusion of the spirit in the world and the body-mind of man. Whereas mystics in more western countries have always risked charges of blashphemy for claiming to have communed with and received the divine life and light in their own bodies, since Church doctrine held that God and the flesh were eternally separate except in the person of Christ. The original Niceo-Constantinopolitan Creed, which the orthodox Church upholds, maintains that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father to the Son (“et in sanctum, qui ex patre filioque procedit”), however, thereby allowing for the possibility of spiritual transmission via Guru-Kripa (or Shaktipat). In the Roman Catholic Church (to combat the 'Arian heresy' that held that Christ was human and not divine) altered the credo, wording it slightly differently to 'the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son', perhaps suggesting a more aloof Trinity, where belief in Jesus is more important than contemplative submission. This is the famous 'filioque clause', the essential cause for the Great Schism between the Roman Church and the other Orthodox Churches in 1054 A.D. that still exists to this day.

1. Valentine Zander, St. Seraphim of Sarov (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1975)
2. Franklin Jones, The Spiritual Instructions of Saint Seraphim of Sarov: A Siddha or Master-Yogi of the Eastern Christian Tradition (Los Angeles, CA: The Dawn Horse Press, 1973), p. 51-52
3. Ibid, p. 54


Theophane the Recluse - the Prayer of the Heart

   Theophane (1815-1895) was the son of a parish priest. He studied in seminary and then spent four years at the Theological Academy of Kiev (1837-1841). During the next twenty-five years he was successively a priest, professor, rector, and Bishop. His heart, however, was not in such active roles but rather in a life of silent contemplation, and his last three decades were spent in seclusion, in prayer and writing. Theophane was undoubtedly the most prolific of the nineteenth century Russian monastics, and most certainly the most highly educated. He translated a number of Greek spiritual works (including the Philokalia and "The Way of the Pilgrim") and wrote commentaries on the epistles of St. Paul. He is most well-known, however, for the correspondences he maintained with many people in all parts of Russia. The guidance they received from him has been published in ten volumes and is imbued with his love of the orthodox church Fathers as well as an awareness of contemporary problems.

   Theophane's habits were those of utter simplicity. He lived in two barely furnished rooms, and his diet consisted of tea and bread, with an occasional egg. He taught that true prayer consisted of "standing before God with the mind in the heart.”

   "On the first moment after awakening, as you come to yourself, descend into the heart." (1)

   The heart as the seat of spiritual practice and transformation is a central teaching of the eastern Fathers, with which Theophane is in complete accord.

   "In the fourth century that best known of the Fathers, Chrysostom of Constantinople, taught the method of "praying truly which finally leads to a state in which the mind is always in the heart." And in a later century, Gregory the Sinaite wrote: "Lead your mind down from your head into your heart, and hold it there." (2)

   Theophane wrote:

   "In the beginning when someone turns to the Lord, prayer is the first exercise. He starts to go to church and to pray at home either with a prayerbook or without one. But his thoughts wander all the time. It is impossible to control them. But wiith exercise in prayer his thoughts begin to settle down and prayer becomes purer. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of tlle soul remains unpurified until a spiritual flame appears in his heart. This little flame is the work of divine spiritual grace which is common to all and is nothing special. This flame appears as a result of a certain measure of purity in the moral life of a man who is making progress. When this little flame appears or when a continuous warmth is formed in the heart, then the whirling of thought stops ... In this state prayer becomes more or less unceasing. The prayer of Jesus ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me") serves as an intermediary. This is the limit which prayer practiced by man can attain without special grace. I believe that all this is clear to you. Later on in that state infused prayer, which is not the work of man, comes as a gift. A prayerful spirit comes and summons one down into the heart, just as one person might take another by the hand and draw him forcibly from one room into another. The soul is bound by an external force and remains willingly while the prayerful spirit is with it.”

   “I know two degrees of this infused prayer. In the first degree a soul sees everything and has a consciousness of self and of the external world. It can judge and rule itself. It may bring this state to an end if it wants to. This, too, must be understandable to you. The Holy Fathers, particularly St. Isaac the Syrian, indicated a second degree of gratuitously given or infused prayer. Beyond the prayer which I have just described, St. Isaac mentions another prayer which he calls ecstasy or rapture. Here, too, a prayerful spirit comes, but the soul led by it enters into such contemplation that it forgets its external location. It does not meditate but contemplates. It has no more power over itself and is unable to end this state at will...In some people this prayer has been accompanied by a luminous radiance of the countenance and all around the person...The holy prophets were in this state when the spirit carried them away."

   This describes a fairly advanced level of mystic realization, and compares with passages from St. Teresa of Avila. Theophane recognizes the limited significance of the initial visions of subtle light, as well as the potential limited efficacy of the prayer with the Name (also known in Hinduism as mantram yoga). He seems to point to the absorption of the attention or mind into the heart. It is difficult to say, however, if these great practitioners transcended the "causal body" in the right side of the heart to realize the subjective self in the manner of the advaitic sages such as Ramana’s Maharishi, but, rather, appear to enjoy subtle perception of the domain of the heart, in the form of interior light visualized therein or in the heart chakra in the center of the chest. But we simply do not know. They were great exponents of the heart, and no doubt advanced in their researches.

   Furthermore, the Jesus Prayer is essentially an exercise of prayer to God (conceived as an "other"). It has contemplative implications when it becomes deep and constant, but its use assumes the bodily based point of view, of "me" and "God", eternally separate. The Russian (and Greek) Orthodox mystics finally reach a state where there is only light, and where the ego appears to be lost in its infinite and universal blaze, but this ecstatic state in itself is not the highest according to the Indian teachings, but, rather, one step removed therefrom:

   "Where the Greek Orthodox Church regards the Light experience as the highest point reachable by man, the Indian Philosophic Teaching regards it as the last stage before the highest. For anything which is "seen" implies the existence of a "seer" as separate from it. This is not less so even in the case of the Holy Light. Not seeing but be-ing is the final experience according to this Teaching. "You have to go beyond seeing and find out who is the 'I' who experiences this light," said Ramana Maharshi to a disciple." (4)

   The Eastern Church fathers in general, however, saw visionary phenomena as something to be ignored as one tried to contact the uncreated light through the Prayer of the Heart:

   "In solitude and retirement the Hesychast repeats the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The Hesychast prays the Jesus Prayer 'with the heart'—with meaning, with intent, 'for real'. He never treats the Jesus Prayer as a string of syllables whose 'surface' or overt verbal meaning is secondary or unimportant. He considers bare repetition of the Jesus Prayer as a mere string of syllables, perhaps with a 'mystical' inner meaning beyond the overt verbal meaning, to be worthless or even dangerous. This emphasis on the actual, real invocation of Jesus Christ marks a divergence from Eastern forms of meditation.”

   “There is a very great emphasis on humility in the practice of the Jesus Prayer, great cautions being given in the texts about the disaster that will befall the would-be Hesychast if he proceeds in pride, arrogance or conceit. It is also assumed in the Hesychast texts that the Hesychast is a member of the Orthodox Church in good standing.”

   “While he maintains his practice of the Jesus Prayer, which becomes automatic and continues twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the Hesychast cultivates watchful attention (Gr. nepsis). Sobriety contributes to this mental askesis described above that rejects tempting thoughts; it puts a great emphasis on focus and attention. The Hesychast is to pay extreme attention to the consciousness of his inner world and to the words of the Jesus Prayer, not letting his mind wander in any way at all.”

   “The Hesychast is to attach Eros (Gr. eros), that is, "yearning", to his practice of sobriety so as to overcome the temptation to accidie (sloth). He is also to use an extremely directed and controlled anger against the tempting thoughts, although to obliterate them entirely he is to invoke Jesus Christ via the Jesus Prayer.”

   “The Hesychast is to bring his mind (Gr. nous) into his heart so as to practise both the Jesus Prayer and sobriety with his mind in his heart. The descent of the mind into the heart is taken quite literally by the practitioners of Hesychasm and is not at all considered to be a metaphorical expression. Some of the psychophysical techniques described in the texts are to assist the descent of the mind into the heart at those times that only with difficulty it descends on its own.”

   “The goal at this stage is a practice of the Jesus Prayer with the mind in the heart, which practice is free of images. What this means is that by the exercise of sobriety (the mental ascesis against tempting thoughts), the Hesychast arrives at a continual practice of the Jesus Prayer with his mind in his heart and where his consciousness is no longer encumbered by the spontaneous inception of images: his mind has a certain stillness and emptiness that is punctuated only by the eternal repetition of the Jesus Prayer.”

   “This stage is called the guard of the mind. This is a very advanced stage of ascetical and spiritual practice, and attempting to accomplish this prematurely, especially with psychophysical techniques, can cause very serious spiritual and emotional harm to the would-be Hesychast. St Theophan the Recluse once remarked that bodily postures and breathing techniques were virtually forbidden in his youth, since, instead of gaining the Spirit of God, people succeeded only "in ruining their lungs."

   “The guard of the mind is the practical goal of the Hesychast. It is the condition in which he remains as a matter of course throughout his day, every day until he dies. It is from the guard of the mind that he is raised to contemplation by the Grace of God.”

   “The Hesychast usually experiences the contemplation of God as light, the Uncreated Light of the theology of St Gregory Palamas. The Hesychast, when he has by the mercy of God been granted such an experience, does not remain in that experience for a very long time (there are exceptions—see for example the Life of St Savas the Fool for Christ (14th Century), written by St Philotheos Kokkinos (14th Century), but he returns 'to earth' and continues to practise the guard of the mind.”

   “The Uncreated Light that the Hesychast experiences is identified with the Holy Spirit. Experiences of the Uncreated Light are allied to the 'acquisition of the Holy Spirit'. Notable accounts of encounters with the Holy Spirit in this fashion are found in St Symeon the New Theologian's account of the illumination of 'George' (considered a pseudonym of St Symeon himself); in the 'conversation with Motovilov' in the Life of St Seraphim of Sarov (1759 – 1833); and, more recently, in the reminiscences of Elder Porphyrios (Wounded by Love pp. 27 – 31). Orthodox Tradition warns against seeking ecstasy as an end in itself. Hesychasm is a traditional complex of ascetical practices embedded in the doctrine and practice of the Orthodox Church and intended to purify the member of the Orthodox Church and to make him ready for an encounter with God that comes to him when and if God wants, through God's Grace. The goal is to acquire, through purification and Grace, the Holy Spirit and salvation. Any ecstatic states or other unusual phenomena which may occur in the course of Hesychast practice are considered secondary and unimportant, even quite dangerous. Moreover, seeking after unusual 'spiritual' experiences can itself cause great harm, ruining the soul and the mind of the seeker. Such a seeking after 'spiritual' experiences can lead to spiritual delusion (Ru. prelest, Gr. plani)—the antonym of sobriety—in which a person believes himself or herself to be a saint, has hallucinations in which he or she 'sees' angels, Christ, etc. This state of spiritual delusion is in a superficial, egotistical way pleasurable, but can lead to madness and suicide, and, according to the Hesychast fathers, makes salvation impossible."
[from Hesychasm, in; wikepedia]

   Conceding that some of these Church Fathers did pass from the lesser experience of visionary phenomena to the intuitive realization of consciousness itself as in jnana samadhi, the subtle error of their approach, in many cases, is that they conceived of the ultimate goal as "within". They did not, generally, advance from realization of the inner Self (a profound and necessary, yet transitional, transcendental stage, to realization of the all-pervading universal Self. They did not appreciate what Paul Brunton called the "hidden teaching beyond yoga.” Thus, they were inclined to view life as somewhat of a problem, to be dealt with negatively through asceticism and psychic inversion, which is understandable given the time and place where they lived along with their traditional background. In case anything be omitted, however, here is more on the the Jesus prayer, including its various stages.

   All of this is not to say, in any way whatsoever, that these saints were not mature spiritual practitioners and great souls, on fire with divine love, endowed with keen insight into human nature, and far along on the road of self-sacrifice, which many of them most certainly were. Far from being dry ascetics, moreover, many of the so-called "Orthodox" saints were exaggerated personalities, like the "Fools for Christ", who made liberal use of life's energies to express their communion with God.

1. Put Ko Spaseniju, Kratkij Ocerk Askitiky (Moscow, 1908) (quoted in: The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox AnUlology (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd, 1976)
2. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, inc., 1987), Vol. 10, 6.19, p. 227
3. Solvanie pisem (collected letters), 6 volumes (Moscow, 1898-1899) (quoted in: The Art of Prayer, op. cit.
4. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 14, 4.206


Father John of Kronstadt - The Power of Prayer

   Father John (1829-1908) was a Russian Orthodox priest who was much loved by the people and became revered as a living saint. His popularity was so great that thousands thronged to his church to hear him speak. At one point his congregation increased to such a size that it was impossible for him to grant interviews for private confessions, and so he instituted what became known as the "general vocal confession", which the entire assembly of the church would shout out their sins and beg him to intercede for their forgiveness. It was said that this event was at the same time both terrifying and liberating. Father John's innovative confession became the stimulus for the modern liturgical and Eucharistic reformation of the Orthodox Church.

   As a boy Father John was emotionally drawn by the sermons of the church and the religious life, but his intellectual capacity was slower to develop. At the age of ten an important event occured which was to change this forever. Distraught over his limited ability to read, and the sorrow he had caused his parents who went to great expense to provide for his education, he ardently prayed to God:

   "Suddenly it was as if a veil had fallen from my eyes, as if my reason had woken up, and I clearly pictured the teacher, his lessen, and I remembered what he had been talking about. I felt easy and joyful in my soul ... never did I sleep so peacefully as that night. As soon as day dawned, I jumped out of bed, seized my books and, oh joy! - I read with greater ease and I understood everything." (1) (2)

   This conversion experience made a great impression on young John who went on to attend seminary school and later the Theological Academy in St. Petersburg. For fifty-three years, while marrying and raising a family, he served as curate and rector of St. Andrews Cathedral, a church he once envisioned in a vivid dream. He worked hard to improve the living conditions at Kronstadt, a naval base that was a dumping ground for beggars, tramps, and criminals from all of Russia, and he also founded a house of industry with workshops and schools funded by contributions from all parts of the country.

   Father John's sermons drew large crowds who we!re captivated by his radiant personality. He was a gifted healer of both physical and spiritual ills, with mystical insight and the ability to see into the minds and hearts of others. He was a staretz or holy man in the tradition of St. Seraphim of Sarov, although it is unclear whether he had the initiatory power or spiritual transmission of the latter. Father John was also a prophet, forseeing the fall of the Czarist government. His greatest work was My Life in Christ, a book of over one thousand pages. When he died over 60,000 people paid him their respects.

   Referred to in the Greek and Russian traditions as the sacrament of renewal, the act of confession serves to free attention from the body-mind, or self, so that it can be turned to the Divine. First confess, it is asserted by many Christian sects, and then receive communion. Get things straight with your neighbor before you sit down to pray. There is a profound psychological reason behind such advice, for one whose attention is bound up in negative emotional concerns can scarcely be considered to be in a position to transcend himself. One must be restored in relationship to others and to the power of life itself before his prayer will be effective. Such prayer, moreover, must be followed by sincere action to rectify whatever wrong was acknowledged in confession before it can be said to be complete. Indeed, such change of action is a powerful prayer itself.

   Father John’s general vocal confession was meant to serve to bring the dark side of oneself out of the shadowy realm of subjectivity, in order that it might be released. The ego-I arises chiefly in relationship, the field of the body-mind, and every ego-I is also an addict, committed to separation through wrong thinking and emotional reactivity. The idea behind confession is that one must voice ones seemingly hopeless conviction as an egoic addict, totally dependent on the power of grace, before one can be a conscious recipient of that grace, or even become a truly human presence in the world. Many groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymus and other “twelve step” programs understand that the most basic principle of tansformation lies in the recognition of ones total dependence on a power greater than ego, and that without this nothing can be achieved, nor will addiction be eradicated.

   The Catholic church exhorts one to confess his sins, but traditionally in relative secret, behind a partition, and not face to face. This has some value, but perhaps even better is the practice of confession in relationship, whereby one is refreshed in feeling, through reflection of oneself to others, and not simply through a ritual expiation via a priesthood. To truly confess sin is to serve to move beyond the disposition of sin itself, which is nothing other than the ego itself, and not only one of its particular forms. The etymology of the word “sin” is, in this regard, highly revealing. During the Middle Ages when archery contests were held there was an individual whose function was to examine the targets and shout out the results. Those whose arrows fell outside of the bull's-eye evoked the cry, "He sinned, he sinned!" They had simply missed the mark. They had not done anything wrong, per se, but they were off the mark. And so it is with us, in most cases. Sinful actions, then, are those performed in weakness or ignorance that are eccentric to the purposes of self-transcending realization. Until one conforms his entire life to spiritual practice and intention, moreover, all actions lead to the same result. It has been said, "You haven't sinned, but you have been born." Only self-transcendence or true seeing lifts the man out of the perpetual machine of cause and effect (endless destiny-producing actions leading to other such actions) that is the theater of ordinary human life. Only spiritual intuition frees one from identification with the "sinner" himself .

   To those mired in such identification, however, the release of "sins" through the act of confession serves to restore the being to equanimity, and that is a positive and necessary step. To be full confession must progress from the more or less negative (or sober) estimation and assessment of oneself as an ego to the positive and faithful acknowledgement of the divine as the reality of love at 'the heart of the universe, including the body-mind. It is to perform an act of creative affirmation of the Truth beyond self, thereby minimizing the reinforcement of the sense of separation and God-apart that is the liability with traditional forms of religious practice. Truly, however, one often has to really hit bottom first, coming to rest in a dark cauldron where the divine alchemy takes place. Always, however, the Overself stands there with you, pulling one through and beyond until one comes to self-understanding and true devotional surrender.

1. Bishop Alexander, Father John of Kronstadt (Crestwood, N. Y.: St. Vladimir's Press, 1979), p. 6
2. A similar transformation happened to a great Tibetan Lama, the Third Dodrupchin Jigme Tenpe Nyima:

   "Dodrupchen went to Dzogchen Monastery and studied with Khenpo Pema Dorje. At the beginning it was difficult for him to understand the meaning of philosophical texts. He often cried himself to sleep, and in the morning he found that his head was stuck to the pillow because of his tears. One morning he said to his tutor, "Last night in a dream I saw three lamas in ascetic costume in a temple. The middle one was holding a volume in his hand. I asked him, 'Who are you? What is this volume?' He replied, 'I am Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje. This volume is for helping people who cannot learn their lessons.' I asked him to give me the book. He did so, and I felt extremely happy. So I have confidence that if I study today, I shall learn." Thereafter, the breadth of his understanding suddenly burst forth, and he had no difficulty in understanding the meaning of the texts." (from Masters of Meditation and Miracles by Tulku Thondup, Shambhala, 1999, p. 238)

   And also Chan Master Sheng Yen, slow-witted as a boy before entering a monastery at the age of thirteen;

   “The Abbott, seeing the young monk’s slowness in developing, told him to prostrate to Guanyin (Avalokitesvara) Bodhisattva every day. Eager to make progress, Sheng Yen woke up before everyone else and prostrated five hundred times each morning, and the same after everyone else went to sleep. One morning after prostrations he experienced a sudden outpouring of sweat that left his mind extremely clear. After that he was able to memorize sutras with ease.” (from Attaining the Way by Sheng Yen, Shambhala, 2006, p. xix

   The moral - never underestimate the power of prayer and grace to eliminate obstacles.


Padre Pio - Healer Saint

   “Keep strongly and constantly united to God, consecrating all your affections, torments, and your entire self to Him, patiently awaiting the return of that beautiful sun, whenever the Spouse is pleased to visit you through trials of aridity, desolation and darkness of spirit.”

   Padre Pio (1887-1968) was one of the most controversial religious figures of the twentieth century. He has been hailed as a monk, a mystic, a stigmatist, and a charlatan. A spiritual enigma to many, he was subject to fits of spontaneous energy, claimed by some to be emotional hysteria, or even epileptic siezures, along with fevers as high as 125 degrees, believed to be medically impossible!

   "Some of Padre Pio's temperatures were so high that the mercury shot out of the thermometer...One doctor, who was speaking to another doctor about Padre Pio's high temperatures, stated: "When I took his temperature, it went right off the scale. I had to have a special thermometer sent down, and it registered 125 degrees last night and 120 degrees this morning. He shouldn't even be alive." (1)

   For fifty years, beginning in 1918, he bore the marks of the stigmata on his body, and many spiritual healings were attributed to him. He received over five thousand letters a month from supplicants around the world desirous of his intercession. While forbidden by his superiors to write or preach, his silent prayers where sent out for the benefit of all.

   Many spiritual phenomena where associated with Padre Pio, including bilocation (for instance, coming to the aid of soldiers during war time), emanation of celestial perfume, seemingly miraculous cures (including, in one instance, restoring an eye to a man who had lost one in an explosion, and in another, bringing sight back to a girl without pupils, another medical impossibility), conversions, prophecy, and the reading of hearts. The stigmata wounds that opened in 1918 never healed and he lost a quantity of blood every day. He ate only 300-400 calories of food consisting of a light lunch of vegetables, fruit, and occasional fish.

   "In 1945, Padre Pio's intake of food was measured at three and one half ounces a day, yet he weighed more than 170 pounds." (2)

   Once he fasted for eight days and actually gained weight; he joked that perhaps he should eat more to lose weight! It was hard to account for his good health in light of the blood loss and sparse diet (yet there have been those, such as fellow stigmatist Teresa Neumann, who essentially ate nothing at all, for years. Such individuals have an unusually strong connection with the prana, or life-force, and can to varying degrees "feed" directly from that source itself).

   In spite is all this, the author of Padre Pio: The True Story, writes:

   “Padre Pio came to be thought of as a sort of magical man, who, every twenty-four hours worked twenty-five miracles, a fairy godfather who knew everything and could do everything. [Of how many spiritual masters has this not been said by their devotees?] it was expected that the friars who lived with him were constantly awed by stupendous displays of prophecy, supernatural intuition, and miraculous healings. This conception of Padre Pio was far from the truth. To most of those who knew and lived with him, Padre Pio was a kind, gentle, devout, and holy man, but an ordinary man...Padre Gerardo, who lived with Padre Pio two years, observed: “He had human emotions. He was not an angel. He was a human being. He got angry for the same reasons that other people get angry. Yes, I believe that on occasion he did have supernatural gifts. But when you spoke to Padre Pio, he was natural. You were impressed by his spirituality, by his obedience, by his charity, but nothing else.” (p. 308)

   Padre Pio, like most good saints, would almost invariably would attribute any healings, and even his bilocations, to God, and deny any personal agency.

   Padre Pio began his day at 3 A.M., and held confessions shortly after dawn. This lasted until the evening with hundreds of confessions heard each day. Such was his popularity that people began lining up at 2 A.M., having often waited ten days to see him. Yet despite his acute perception of the state of mind and soul ofothers, Padre Pio confessed,

   "In other souls, through the grace of God, I see clearly, but in my own I see nothing but darkness." (3)

   This troubled him to the end of his life. Though he could by the grace of God see clearly into the hearts of others, he remained in doubt of his own salvation. This is not entirely unusual among Christian saints; Mother Teresa of Calcutta conceded to decades of feeling abandoned by God, and near the end felt unsure of her salvation.

   Of one of a number of sufferings he endured, from 1915-1916, he wrote in a series of Letters:

   "The heavenly Father has not ceased to allow me to share in the sufferings of his Only-Begotten Son, even physically. These pains are so acute as to be absolutely indescribable and inconceivable...My condition is becoming unbearable and I remain alive only by a miracle...The Lord caused me to experience the pains the damned endure in the infernal regions...I am suffering immensely and I feel I am dying all the time." (4)

   He was a man of deep emotion:

   “When the breathe left [his mother] Guiseppa’s body, Padre Pio uttered a heartrending scream and collapsed, suffering for hours on end, “Mammella! Mammella! My beautiful Mammela! His grief shocked everyone. He seemed absolutely shattered. He was unable to return to the friary or even attend the funeral, he wept and wailed like a baby.” (5)

   After a long life of service and suffering, healing and giving spiritual guidance to countless numbers of people, beginning in 1965 Padre Pio began to feel that he was becoming useless. As quoted by biographer Bernard Ruffin:

   “He had to be assisted in dressing, bathing, and even, much to his great humiliation, in the most intimate necessities of life. ‘I am reduced to a state of helplessness,’ he lamented. ‘May the Lord call me now because I am no longer permitted to be of any use to my brethren.’”

   “During his last three years, he gradually withdrew from life. He never laughed or joined his colleagues for recreation. He could no longer read. When not going about his sacred ministry, he simply sat by himself, praying the Rosary in silence. Father Joseph Pius, who was with him a great deal during his last three years, felt that the old man was gradually withdrawing from everything he loved in anticipation of death...Although he still felt unworthy and unsure of his salvation, Padre Pio was glad at the approach of death. He frequently told his superior, Padre Carmelo: “Give me the obedience to die.”

   Another author adds:

   “To the outer world, Padre Pio was still an object of affection and admiration. On the fiftieth anniversary of his receiving the stigmata, someone wished him another fifty years, to which he retorted “what harm have I ever done you?” (7) (8)

   Before his death his stigmata healed, allowing him finally to walk without pain.

   One hundred thousand people gathered for his funeral, mostly from Italy but many from around the world. His body was buried in the monastery at San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, a monastery that over fifty years before he had predicted would one day be built. He was canonized as Saint Pio in 2002. Although not without his detractors, some even claiming he was a fraud - perhaps because not everyone who came to him was cured, or was blessed with a child - his life has left us with much amazement and inspiration.

   “By suffering we are able to give something to God. The gift of pain, of suffering, is a big thing and cannot be accomplished in Paradise.” - St. Padre Pio

1. Brother Michael Dimond, Padre Pio: A Catholic Priest Who Worked Miracles And Bore the Wounds of Jesus Christ On His Body (Fillmore, NY: Most Holy Family Monastery, 2006), p. 42-43
2. Ibid, p. 44
3. Ibid
4. Ibid, p. 40-41
5. Ruffin, Bernard, Padre Pio: The True Story. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1982, p.
6. Ibid, p. 300
7. Isaacs, Craig, John’s Apocalypse. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016, p. 113
8. Paul Brunton pointed out that it is of interest that the stigmata does not occur in either the Protestant or Orthodox branches of Christianity, but only in Roman Catholicism where there is such a strong meditation on Christ’s wounds. Thus he asserts that metaphysically it is an example of the manifestation of the deeper power of the subconscious mind of the person, and not necessarily a supernatural visitation. Others have made such a claim. To this Padre Pio replied, “Go to the fields and look very closely at a bull, concentrate on him with all your might and see if you grow horns.” (9)

   To which one might compare this story told by Kirpal Singh entitled Stigmata and the Buffalo Boy:

  “One night on the porch I ask,‘Master, your disciple, Mrs. Gordon Hughes of Kentucky, with whom I have been corresponding, has purportedly received the stigmata or wounds of the crucifixion on her hands and feet, which bleed at Christmas and Easter. I have also read accounts of other stigmatics such as Padre Pio, Saint Francis, and Therese Neumann. How and why is this?’

   His answer is most revealing: ‘As you think, so you become!’ And he continues, ‘Once a seeker went to a Master. The Master asked him, “Whom do you love most?” He replied, “I love my buffalo most!” His Master then told him to go into a room and think only about his buffalo. Two days later the Guru returned and told this fellow, “All right, come out of the room now.” He answered, “I can’t, my horns are too wide for the doorway!”’ His face wreathed in smiles and soundless laughter, Master continues: ‘But you see, this degree of identification and concentration is very rare. As you think, so you become.’
(Arran Stephens, The Moth and the Flame, p.

   One possible answer to the stigmata enigma is that sometimes it may be a product of the personal unconscious of the devout Catholic who meditates on Christ’s wounds, while in other cases it might be a product of the collective unconscious of the tradition itself superimposing the stigmata seemingly at random on an individual, if such a phenomenon is possible. In this case intense concentration and identification would not be a prerequisite.

   The first recorded incidence of the stigmata occured with St. Francis of Assisi, and there have been four hundred others. Interestingly, the avatar Meher Baba claimed that Khidr (the “verdent one” or “green man,” legendary teacher of Moses in the Islamic tradition who also appeared to various devotees from time to time) bestowed the stigmata on St. Francis in 1218 and simultaneously making him a perfect Master.

9. Ruffin, op. cit., p. 165

Teresa Neumann - “Breatharian” Stigmatist

   Teresa Neumann (1898-1962) was the oldest and strongest of ten children. She worked hard doing farm chores and also working outside the home to help supplement her father's modest income. In 1912 her parents placed her in the service of a Mr. Martin Neumann (no relation) who owned a farm and an inn. Teresa ploughed, sowed with a drill, wheeled manure onto the field, and drove the wagon to town. On top of that she carried sacks of grain weighing 170 pounds.

   She was determined from childhood to remain a virgin, and no later than her fifteenth birthday announced her intention to enter a convent. Her plan was to be a missionary sister to Africa, but events turned out otherwise. When the War broke out her father was called into service and she had to stay home to help support the family.

   On March 10, 1918 (the year in which Padre Pio received the stigmata), a fire broke out in a stable near the house of Teresa's employer. Teresa was handing buckets of water weighing from thirty to forty pounds up to her employer who was standing on the wall of the stable, when she suddenly felt a sharp pain in her spine. She became stooped over and bent to the left, and was forced to stop all manual labor. Shortly thereafter, while mounting the steps from a cellar, she fell backwards and struck her skull. After two more falls in the same year her condition deteriorated to such an extent that she became paralyzed on one side and went blind. She also developed lung trouble culminating in pneumonia, and abdominal derangement leading to appendicitis. Her entire body becarne covered with suppurating ulcers, and the skin of her left foot disappeared from ankle to sole, exposing the bone. Attempts at medical treatment failed to produce improvement in any of her conditions.

   Between April 29, 1923 and November 19, 1926 a series of six extraordinary cures took place, all of them attributed to the grace of St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897). Teresa's blindness, abcessed left foot, paralysis and back ulcers, weakness, appendicitis, and lung trouble were miraculously and spontaneously healed. On two of these occasions a Voice spoke to her saying that her cures were granted for the sake of others, and that she would suffer nuch more in order to save many souls. Over the next few years she began to manifest the various wounds suffered by Christ in his Passion: the five wounds of the hands, feet, and side, the marks of the crown of thorns, the shoulder wound where he had carried the cross, and the marks of the scourging. Teresa would have a series of visions of the Passion every week except Paschal time, lasting from 11 P.M. on Thursday to 1 P.M. on Friday. At this time her wounds would open and she would lose two liters of blood. From the moment she took Holy Communion she would be in ecstasy, unless she suffered in order to heal others, in which case she became weak and languid like a dying person. These states occured on a regular basis until her death.

   Like a number of other stigmatists, Teresa Neumann abstained from eating food. She lived on one Communion wafer per week for thirty-seven years! Her experiences were confirmed through photographs, as well as the testimony of many people, including Paramahansa Yogananda , who explained that she was sustained by prana or cosmic energy. Teresa shared the stigmata of Christ with Padre Pio and St. Catherine of Siena.

   It is an interesting phenomenon that the stigmata has only occured among Roman Catholics. Paul Brunton asks the obvious questions:

   "Why do stigmata not appear among Hindu Yogis, Chinese Taoists, and Persian Sufis? Why do they not even appear among Protestant Christians and the Greek-Russian-Syrian Eastern Church? Why do they appear only in the Catholic Church which alone puts strong emphasis on meditation upon Christ's wounds?" (1)

   Some would perhaps see this as evidence in favor of the exclusive truth of the Catholic faith, while the philosophic mind views it as a product of a particular disposition of the subconscious mind and cultural background. The religious interpretation perhaps, then, adds an element of contamination of what would otherwise be genuine aspects of the spiritual process, namely, strength of devotion, concentration of mind, and the manifestation of grace. The stigmata and other such phenomena can occur without any spiritual practice or conscious understanding at all, however, and their significance for others is certainly the revelation that there are "more things in heaven and earth" than one might imagine from the ordinary point of view.

   Another interesting phenomenon found in many traditions, but in Christianity in particular, has been that of bodily incorruptibility. St. Francis de Sales, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Charbel Maklouf, St. Louis Bertrand, and St. Bernadette Soubirous (the reknown Bernadette of Lourdes) were individuals from the Christian tradition whose bodies did not decay for years (in some cases hundreds of years, or not at all) after their deaths. A bright light was witnessed in the room when St. John of the Cross died, and his body gave off a scent of perfume. His body was still intact at the time of his last exhumation in 1955. (1) St. Charbel (1828-1898), known as "wonder worker of the East" for the over twelve hundred cases of spiritual healing that he effected, is interred at St. Maron monastery in Lebanon. A fluid resembling blood and perspiration constantly exudes from his body accumulating in his casket to a depth of three inches each year. When he died a bright light surrounded his tomb for forty-five days. The body of St. Louis Bertrand (1526-1586) remained incorruptible for 350 years until the time of its destruction during the Spanish Revolution in 1936. A more recent case is that of the Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda, whose body remained in a state of perfect preservation for twenty days after its death before his casket was finally sealed. This phenomenon is an illustration of the continued emanation of the current of spiritual force by such beings after death, whether connected or not to the physical body. For this reason the "samadhi site" (or burial place) of a saint or sage is highly valued by spiritual practitioners who find it an auspicious place for devotional and meditative practice.

   Interestingly, Paul Brunton points out that in the Russian Orthodox Church such a phenomenon (the preservation of the body of a dead monk) is treated as possession by evil spirits! In such cases, at the Monastery of Russiko on Athos, for instance, "a stake is driven through the heart and the rite of exorcism performed."(3) [The Eastern Church went so far as to consider visionary phenomenon in almost the same light, as mentioned above in the section on Theophane the Recluse]. And to be fair, the claims of incorruptibility among the religious are not without their sceptics.

1. Jean Carroll Cruz, The Incorruptibles (Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1984)
2. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett: New York: Larson Publications, 1987), Vol. 10, 6.19. p. 239
3. Ibid, Vol. 13, Part 3, 5.83


   Jacob Boehme is treated in a separate article.

   And last, but not least, we have the modern mystic/healer, Daskalos, the 'Magus of Strovolos', a humble and very human Cypriote master with amazing powers whose not-to-be-missed life is detailed here, which also links to a delightful interview and much more extensive article on his teachings on this website called '"The Idea of Man".


   All in all, such a fascinating tradition Christianity has been!