Monday, June 22, 2015

Kerry Howley: The Satan of Small Things

The devil “works like a noiseless file,” St. Theresa writes from a cold room in a walled city. This is past the time when various friends insist that her rapturous erotic visions are works of Satan, whereupon she undertakes a course of “severe mortifications.” This is past the time when a church authority reassures her that what she calls “detachable death” is a legitimate spiritual missive, at which point she allows herself to see Jesus, Hell, a fire-wielding seraph slashing at her heart.

Still she talks of the devil, because it’s not as if she can stop worrying whether the voice of God is the devil pretending to be the voice of God. And its not as if Interior Castle, her instruction manual for fellow contemplatives, can proceed for even a few pages without reminding the instructees of the danger in which they engage through daily meditation.  The soul is but a “little butterfly,” blown between the Darkness and the Light.

For example: Should you feel impelled to pray an extra hour, you will take this to be a divinely inspired will toward holiness. But you must stop to wonder: Is this inspiration diabolical? Because the devil is known to tell sisters to pray so long and so hard that their health fails, whereupon they can no longer attend to the pressing business of the 16th century nunnery. And then you must wonder: Is this doubt that I feel in my own will to pray what is diabolical? As in, is the devil shouting over God’s orders? Or is this doubt God, the one with whom the soul craves Celestial Marriage, trying to shut down the devil? I am not in fact sure that the devil works like a noiseless file. In Theresa’s telling, he seems pretty loud.

To write about the self is to fight a lifetime of acculturation, to resist the scripts that have relentlessly reordered memory into plot. “Enter within yourselves,” the Prioress instructs, sending a thousand butterflies to battle. So we do, and we find Shakespeare, Seinfeld. The enemy is diffuse. He cannot even be relied upon to be the enemy.

I find Interior Castle to be a funny book, not only because of the persistent devotional whipsaw but also because of Theresa’s ever-present reminders to check in with your superiors before acting on a personal revelation, personal revelation being anathema to the social order in which Theresa, now a high-ranking nun, has become complicit. I mean I laugh out loud when I read it. In this I suppose I am something like poor George Trow and his fedora, envious at an ironic distance I’m powerless to close. How much better to conceive of one’s inner world as an eschatological battleground, chaotic with the clamor of war, the stakes high, the enemy whole. 

Late in life, Theresa prayed herself into an excruciatingly painful trance, “the entrance low and dark and confined, the floor swarming with putrid vermin… My bodily sufferings were unendurable… a pain so acute I know not how to speak of it… The soul itself tearing itself into pieces.” 

It was the closest she ever came to knowing the devil on Earth. The vision, she said, was heaven-sent. 

Kerry Howley is the author of Thrown. 

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