“The one sadness in life
is not being a saint.”
Now that she is gone – meningitis in a Brazilian convent – perhaps it will be easier to put everything into perspective. Perhaps now I can figure out what I never fully understood while she was alive. Was she really conversing with the Christ or was she raving mad? Was she a soul especially blessed by God – with visions only a few are privileged to see – or was she delirious, schizophrenic and self-deluded? I have read and reread the writings of Saint Teresa of Ávila – the works that led to Adalenie’s full conversion – and my questions are still not answered. Were Saint Teresa and Adalenie kindred souls or was Adalenie transported to insanity by the words of the Spanish mystic? One thing is clear and this I know: Adalenie was powerfully affected by reading the Autobiography of Saint Teresa of Ávila and The Interior Castle. It was in a class on Spanish literature that we first read the works of the sixteenth century nun from Spain. And it was during that class that Adalenie – previously a militant atheist – announced to me and the whole class that she had been converted to Catholicism overnight. “I began reading the Interior Castle yesterday evening,” said Adalenie, “and couldn’t put it down until I finished it at five in the morning. What this woman says is the truth. I have decided to join her faith.” In retrospect, that abrupt conversion would be the first step in what Adalenie would increasingly see as her mystic’s quest. As she got deeper and deeper into the process, she grew to consider her very involvement in the normal world to be abhorrent.
After the class, Adalenie and I went to eat lunch at the college cafeteria. I immediately asked her about her conversion.
“So, you decided to become a Catholic by reading a single book written centuries ago. That is quite remarkable even for you.”
“It was not an overnight conversion, Javier. It was the culmination of years of disquiet and doubt, of questioning the meaning of my life. Saint Teresa of Ávila only renounced the world after a long period of anxiety.”
“So, you now intend to renounce the world?”
“I need to think about my next steps. My eyes have been opened only so recently. One thing I will definitely do is commence a life of abnegation and prayer. I’m taking Saint Teresa of Ávila as my model though it is obviously impossible for a person such as me to follow her way of perfection.”
“Are you abandoning the coke, the parties, the one-night stands? If you truly want to emulate Saint Teresa, you’re going to have to change your entire life.”
“I’ll have to do that as part of the fulfillment of the first stage on the road to God. I must learn to have contempt for all the vain pleasures of this earth. Saint Teresa teaches that the room where God dwells is surrounded by many mansions. For me to reach the center, I must first travel through the surrounding rooms. I’ll have to seek distance from the world to the extent I can. As a college undergraduate, it will be very difficult to do so. There are temptations everywhere as you well know. It would be so much easier if I were a cloistered nun.”
“You’re really serious about this stuff, aren’t you? Now you’re talking about being a nun. And just last Saturday night you got so loaded you ended up in Ramón Hijuelos’ bed.”
“I have been all things unholy,” answered Adalenie. “But I leave my past to God’s mercy. I’ve learned a lot from Saint Teresa. Did you read all the times she calls herself a wicked woman? And yet she found solace in God. Of course, only her Confessor knows the gravity of her trespasses, but I would wager that her sins were not as grave as mine. That is another reason why reading Saint Teresa’s books has brought me violently to the faith. If Saint Teresa feared perdition because of her petty transgressions, where does that leave me with my multiple mortal sins?”
“I think Saint Teresa was a little extreme,” I said. “You can become a practicing Catholic without being racked by guilt or seeking mystical trances. You can attend Mass, go to Confession and leave the rest in the hands of God.”
“When was the last time you went to Confession?” asked Adalenie.
“Not in a while,” I admitted.
“Well, that’s not good enough. Your focus on God must be at the core of your being. He must be your sole obsession, your most important friend. Loving other human beings is well and good, but only if you love God through them. As Saint Teresa says, ‘We must be servants of love,’ by which she means servants of God. Also remember this other quote: ‘If we cherished no attachment to earthly things, and all our cares were centered in Heaven, we would receive God’s blessings very speedily.’ We must aim for perfection, nothing more and nothing less, Javier.”
“You make me laugh,” I said. “How you developed a whole new philosophy of life in just a night is frankly astounding.”
“The only astonishing thing is that it took me so long.”
Before entering the first room of the interior castle I must first go through the moat full of lizards toads and serpents I must first deal with my own transgressions before I can contemplate the Passion of the Christ there are many sins to remember truly I have departed so far from God it is only his infinite mercy which even allows me to pray I am not worthy of even saying His holy name how could I thank Him for suffering so much for me a vile worm given to so many vices lust vanity and pride yet He did it for me was flogged beaten spat upon had to carry a heavy cross the extremity of his pain only matched by the extremity of His mercy I must think of how He suffered on the Cross with His mother at His side His only comfort think of His hands and feet pierced by nails the crown of thorns about his head what supreme pain He endured and He did it for me yes for me to allow me to enter the core of the interior castle I must needs purge myself of all earthly vanities become detached from all making God and only God the focus of my attention.
Saint Teresa of Ávila says that the first stage in the prayer life in the interior castle is fraught with perils we must not let ourselves be frightened by the task ahead nor let the apparent impossibility of communing with God lead us to abandon prayer for even though we are sinful wretched creatures it is the Lord Himself who guides us only bestows his favors on us little by little the key is to persevere even when the well always seems dry not a surfeit of grace despite a surfeit of heavenly desire I long for union with the Christ but still have not achieved it sometimes I fear that I shall never do so am I even engaging in a lack of humility for thinking I could enter a castle so magnificent so grand Your heavenly abode where You shine in your majesty more resplendent than a hundred suns the soul has little left to do other than to be open to the inundation of the Holy Spirit in the final stage there is ecstasy there is rapture oh Lord let me make my way to you through all the stages of prayer until you accept me as your betrothed.
Adalenie gradually became more and more religious. At first, she attended Mass once a week as required by the Church, but soon she began to attend services daily. She went to the Thomas More Center early in the morning, before classes started, and initially did not take the Eucharist, for she thought herself to be unworthy. We once had a long conversation, just about the Eucharist, and Adalenie told me she fervently believed it was the immanent body and blood of Christ Himself. She had no truck with those who claimed it was symbolic, as even some Catholics are wont to do. In fact, I now know that Adalenie believed her experience with the Eucharist was her first step toward becoming a mystic. Even at the beginning of her journey, Adalenie was transfixed by what she perceived to be the intrusion of the divine into her daily life through the Holy Host.
After taking the Eucharist, she felt awe, magnificence, delight. She felt that God Himself was directly communing with her soul. “When I take the Eucharist,” she rhapsodized, echoing Saint Paul, “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. I enter into His Passion and in a very real sense I am crucified with Him.” She spoke with extravagant enthusiasm about how the Eucharist is a re-enactment not only of the Passion of the Christ but also of His Resurrection. “If you do not take the Eucharist often,” she warned me, “you are depriving yourself of God’s greatest gift to humanity. What greater bounty could Christ have given us than the wondrous ability of harboring Him in our bodies and our souls?”
In our Spanish literature class, Adalenie’s newfound faith also reverberated. She no longer judged a work of fiction only in terms of literary merit but on whether or not it was what she called “edifying.” She had immersed herself in Saint Paul’s epistles and quoted him at length to express how she evaluated literature. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” Adalenie maintained that one should only read whatever is beneficial to the soul and that even the works of writers considered brilliant should not be read if they did damage to the spirit. “Read Cervantes, Lope de Vega, El Libro de buen amor,” she counseled, “but avoid Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez for they incite the soul to mental masturbation and the mind cannot possibly profit from their works.”
The instructor of the class – an Argentine with steel-blue eyes and thick beard named Vecchini – violently protested.
“The novels of Vargas Llosa and García Márquez are some of the most important works in the Latin American literary canon. We are focusing on twentieth century novels in the next semester, and I will not suppress them to satisfy your scruples. And I don’t understand your qualms. What do you find so offensive in the novels of Vargas Llosa for example?”
“His works describe sexual acts in such detail that he lapses into the grotesque. The Green House is about a brothel in Piura. Captain Pantója and the Special Service is about a military man who imports prostitutes into the jungle to satisfy his soldiers’ lust. La Chunga is about how three men and a lesbian play cards to determine who will spend the night with a young woman. And I definitely think it matters what you read. In your soul, there are two warring wolves, one signifying virtue, the other vice. Depending on which wolf you feed, your spirit shall either be ennobled or made base. That applies to literature as well. Tell me what you read, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
“Well, in that case,” said Vecchini, “I’m not sure you can stay in this course. I suppose you also think that Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman is verboten since it involves a child molester and a revolutionary who become lovers while they’re both in prison and share a cell. And I suppose you’re opposed to reading the works of Reinaldo Arenas also, since he writes at length about the suppression of homosexuals in Communist Cuba. Are the hagiographies of the saints the only works worthy to be read? Not only will you have to drop this course, but you probably have to switch your major from Comparative Literature to something else. How can you read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, for example, the tale of a grown man who becomes enamored of a young boy? To say nothing of Nabokov’s Lolita.”
“At some point,” responded Adalenie, “I shall be in such a state of holiness that I’ll be able to read such works without doing damage to my conscience. But for now, you’re right. I won’t be taking the fall course on twentieth century Latin American literature. And I will have to change my major to religious studies. In my French course, they read Camus, Sartre, Proust – none of whose work is particularly edifying – but they fail to read the works of France’s great Catholic writers – George Bernanos, Leon Bloy, Francois Mauriac and Paul Claudel. I have decided to avoid all that would offend the Lord so I cannot continue reading trash.”
“So, you’re dropping the course?” asked Vecchini. “You’re such a brilliant student. I hate to see you go.”
“In the last few weeks I’ve made such progress in resisting the world, the devil and the flesh. I don’t want to jeopardize that by reading works which will only serve to corrode my spirit. By gradually avoiding all occasions of sin – including books – I shall obtain the miracle of self-mastery.”
Perhaps it is presumptuous to say it is a lack of humility but now I believe I have entered the second mansion of the interior castle not through any merits of my own but through the mercy and grace of God I have made good my escape from the snakes and other reptiles trying to thwart my prayers have a deep understanding of my need to avoid transgressions which prevent some desperate souls from entering the interior castle altogether I now understand the perils of sin the traps set by the enemy I can move further into the castle notwithstanding the fact that I continue to fall and rise again while my foes are so venomous so vicious so dangerous so numerous that were it not for the grace of God I would be thrown out of the castle into the moat yet I persist in prayer let my whole life become a prayer because I know that each time I go further and further into the mansions I am getting closer and closer to an encounter with You my ingress into the castle is my soul’s delight please don’t bar me from the second mansion indeed let me go into the third and the fourth until we are finally united in rapture on the glorious day when You allow me to enter the center of the castle You are not speaking to me directly how I dream of that day but You are communicating with me through the voice of a pious friend the homilies of my priest an edifying book all the beauties of the world conspiring to make me desire the union with my one and only beloved Saint Teresa of Ávila warns us that in the second mansion of the interior castle the supplicant must prepare to engage in a fierce spiritual battle making sure she has all the necessary weapons at her disposal the Rosary the Mass the Cross above all else the Eucharist which makes a man stronger than any enemy sustains the spirit as food sustains poor flesh even on earth gives man a taste of Paradise.
I still regret having convinced Adalenie to attend the Despierta Boricua party, for it almost resulted in her ruin. In fact, I think what happened that night led her to the brink of suicide. But how was I to know how easily she could be led astray? She seemed so secure in her faith that I never thought she could lapse back to her prior life merely because she had a few too many drinks and a sniff of cocaine.
We had begun the evening in my dorm room, which was adjacent to hers, listening to some records Adalenie had just received in the mail from her older sister, mostly by musicians from la nueva trova, a type of folk protest music which began in Cuba and then spread to Puerto Rico. I was somewhat surprised that she still liked to listen to such music, for it is decidedly political, socialist and anti-Yankee, but I suppose her transformation was never political to begin with and the musicians from la nueva trova never attacked the Catholic Church nor was their work in any way pornographic. So, we listened to the masters of la nueva trova – Pablo Milanés, Silvio Rodriguez, Haciendo Punto – as we ate some mofongo cooked by Adalenie herself. The Puerto Rican dish is made from deep-fried green plantains mashed together with pork. We also drank some beer – not enough to be intoxicated – but it was probably not a good idea.
Unlike Adalenie, I am not Puerto Rican – my parents hail from Peru – but I was on friendly terms with many of the Boricuas at Yale College and knew they planned a party at the Julia de Burgos Center. Initially Adalenie was reluctant to attend – she had grown to see such parties as occasions for sin – but I told her it was harmless to listen to music and dance, that even the Christ had participated in the wedding at Cana where He had miraculously transformed water into wine for the guests to imbibe. “Joy is not proscribed by the Catholic Church,” I told her, something which I believe to this day. But I wish I had not persuaded Adalenie to attend the soirée for unwittingly I was leading her to disaster.
The evening began well enough. We chit-chatted with other Yalies of Latin American descent and drank a few cuba libres. We danced salsa, merengues and cumbias. The celebrated writer Rosario Ferré, whose daughter was a sophomore at the college, spoke briefly about her latest novel, Wretched Love, followed by Luis Rafael Sánchez, author of the highly acclaimed Macho Camacho’s Beat. I knew that Adalenie had ceased reading both authors and was especially disgusted by a scene in Sánchez’s novel where the protagonist is so enamored of his red sportscar that he masturbates on it.
As the night progressed, Adalenie got tipsier and tipsier, de copa en copa1 as they say in Spanish. She had abstained from hard liquor for so long that even a small amount could get her drunk. I thought of warning her – was afraid she might do something she might regret – but figured it was a good thing for her to be a little more patient with herself. I wish I had said something, for Ramón Hijuelos soon appeared on the scene. He was a handsome Cuban American with deep-green eyes and jet-black hair, which he held in a ponytail, known as the most shameless womanizer on campus. He and his three compañeros2 often appeared at keg parties, always on the prowl for vulnerable women who might be easily seduced. He had already bedded Adalenie in the past, and I’m sure he was delighted to see her again, for she was a woman of uncommon beauty and – at least before her conversion – a lonely woman who had been available for the asking.
At some point Adalenie approached me, with Hijuelos next to her.
“Hola, Javier,” he said. “What have you been up to?”
“Hi,” I responded dryly. I didn’t like seeing him at Adalenie’s side.
“We’re going to go for a walk,” Adalenie told me.
“A walk?” I echoed. “Where are you going to go for a walk?”
“To Ramon’s dorm room at Silliman College,” she slurred. “It’s only two – two blocks away.”
“You’re drunk,” I said, looking fixedly at Hijuelos. “What are you going to do in his dorm room?”
“No, I’m not,” she replied with the smiling expression of someone who’s had a drink too many. “We’re going to try a little ecstasy. And perhaps snort a little Yeyo. We’ll be back in half an hour.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” I stated. “Come, let’s go to a coffee shop so we can get you sobered up.”
At that point Hijuelos intervened.
“She’s as sober as can be. And who are you anyway? You’re not her boyfriend or her father. What right do you have to tell her what to do?”
“I know what you want, Ramón, and you’re not going to get it.”
And then I turned to Adalenie.
“Have you forgotten the vows you’ve made? I could understand if you relaxed them somewhat to go to bed with a man you love. But to do so for this vile worm I find it impossible to comprehend.”
“Hey,” Hijuelos interrupted. “Don’t be insulting me or I’ll punch you in the face.”
“Come on, Adalenie,” I repeated. “Let’s get out of here.”
“I’m not going to have sex with anybody,” she objected. “And can’t I loosen my vows for just one night? I haven’t had any blow in months.”
“Let’s go,” Hijuelos said as he took Adalenie by the arm. “Let’s ditch this party.”
I implored Adalenie. “You have to stay.”
Hijuelos took me by the lapels of my shirt.
“Leave us the fuck alone,” he warned me. “Or be prepared to get a beating.” His compañeros soon appeared beside him.
I pushed him back forcefully and made him fall on the ground. He got up and punched me hard in the face. I felt a trickle of blood run down my nose. I was about to respond when Adalenie stood between us.
“Please,” she cried out. “Please don’t fight over me.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked her as I cleaned my face with a handkerchief. “I leave it up to you. But tomorrow morning you’re going to wake up hating yourself if you go to this man’s room tonight.”
“It’ll be a half hour, I promise you. Then we’ll come back to the party and mingle with the folks some more. You have to trust me.”
“It’s not you I distrust,” I said. “But Hijuelos is right. I’m neither your father nor your lover, just someone who cares about you. If you insist on taking steps on your road to ruin, who am I to object?”
“You’re exaggerating,” replied Adalenie. “You’ll see. We’ll be back in half an hour.”
“What about your Catholic faith?” I asked in a desperate gambit. “Didn’t you make a pledge to reform your life?”
“Oh, let it go, Javier. Snorting a little blow is at most a venial sin. I’ve already told you I have no intention to sleep with Ramón tonight.”
And then they departed. I finally understood what the Church means when it says one must avoid occasions of sin at all costs.
Adalenie knocked on the door of my dorm room around five o’clock in the morning. The woman was disheveled and shivering, and her eyes were reddened from so much crying. When I let her in, she instantly threw herself into my arms and, amid her tears, said, “Hold me! Hold me! I’ve been walking around New Haven for hours, trying to find a bridge from which I could jump but couldn’t find one.”
“Why are you so perturbed, my little girl?” I asked her although I knew the reason.
“I did it! I did it! I let Ramón have his way with me. And when he was done, he ordered me to leave, said he had an early class tomorrow morning. He didn’t even have the decency to let me fall asleep in his arms.”
“I knew something like this would happen, Adalenie. You followed the wolf into his lair. What did you expect him to do other than devour you?”
“The worst thing is I offended my God. And for what? Ramón isn’t even a decent lover, since he couldn’t care less about the woman’s pleasure. Still, he made me commit unspeakable sins which I am embarrassed even to recount. Drunk and high as I was, it was as if I was in a dream. I was like a barely conscious automaton without thinking or feeling. And I was getting so close, Javier, so close to the Christ, almost in the third mansion of the interior castle.”
“You’re still in His castle,” I replied. “If I remember correctly, Saint Teresa of Ávila said that one should expect setbacks and reversals in trying to live a life of virtue. Don’t give up. Keep praying. Make a firm decision never to get drunk or snort blow again since you know that was the source of your weakness. And never, ever have any dealings with Ramón Hijuelos or his ilk again.”
Oh, Lord how far I have fallen You who casts pearls to the swine deigned to give me such consolations which I forgot in an instant I spit in Your face in a moment of lust there is no other way to put it already in the second mansion of your castle I decided to throw everything away well did Teresa say that the enemy of mankind tries to fool and pull back into the world a soul who through her prayers is beginning to find solace beyond it now I am back in the moat with the lizards and the frogs and the serpents chief among them Ramón Hijuelos who has done so much damage to my soul enticed me with blandishments appealing to my vanity made me giddy with cocaine seduced me with his beauty his strong muscular arms his lovely face his sinewy athlete’s body perhaps I would have stayed on the right course if You the Lord had delivered me from temptation I did not seek out the occasion to sin but you Lord did not prevent it so I utter a desperate prayer now please let me return to the castle the magnificent abode where the weary soul tired and almost defeated finds union with God the inscrutable I tried so hard to avoid the false joys and traps the pleasures and vanities of this world as Teresa says but I am too weak a vessel for so much grace although I swear I want to do your bidding I can only satisfy my innermost cravings through the grace of Your glorious company You who have shown me so much evidence of Your love please don’t quit me divine Lover beloved Bridegroom even if I fall and fall again please don’t make light of my perseverance like the insistent widow I shall continue to make my case before You my strength for self-denial please don’t let my interior castle be built of sand that will soon dissolve.
As the months passed, Adalenie increasingly put Christ at the center of her life. Not only did she decide to irrevocably change her behavior – at some point she made a vow of chastity before an image of the virginal Madonna – but even her appearance was transformed. At first, it was just cutting her hair short and avoiding the use of lipstick or makeup in order not to incite men to thoughts of concupiscence. Then she started wearing a white habit daily in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a full-length woolen dress with a large red cloth belt about her waist and a crucifix-shaped brooch at the neck symbolizing purity. Were it not for the fact she wore no veil on her head you could easily confuse her for a nun. She was certainly walking in that direction, even as I was discovering that I felt more than a simple friendship for my Adalenie.
Adalenie’s newfound faith was not restricted to a certain punctiliousness in sexual matters. It also manifested itself in multiple acts of charity which took so much of her time that I was frankly surprised that she had any time remaining for her classwork. By the second semester of her junior year, Adalenie had switched her major to religious studies, and she dedicated herself entirely to reading the pearls of Catholic literature – Dante’s Divine Comedy, Saint Augustine’s City of God and his Confessions, Saint John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Seven Spiritual Disputations and many others. She once told me she was reading such works to nourish the good wolf in her soul – the love of virtue – just like she thought reading certain scandalous texts would only feed the bad wolf of her spirit – the inclination toward vice. For her junior essay – no surprise – she wrote a hundred-page dissertation on The Interior Castle, a work with which she was becoming increasingly obsessed.
At all events, Adalenie practiced what she preached when she said she could find the face of Christ in the faces of the outcast and the downtrodden. Every weekend, she spent hours at the communal soup kitchen for the poor located on Elm Street, not too far from the Old Campus, delivering food to homeless people. I remember once when I accompanied her to the soup kitchen, and an ancient woman with bleeding pustules and a lost look on her face appeared. Not only did Adalenie immediately serve her a hot plate of beans and rice, but she also kissed her on the forehead like Saint Francis once kissed the leper. During the week, in the afternoons, she took the Eucharist to the residents of an old age home in downtown New Haven, believing it was just as important – perhaps more important – to nourish the soul as to feed the body. She told me, quoting Saint Teresa of Ávila, “I seek no contentment, no rest, no other blessing but to do His will."
At some point, she acquired a spiritual director, an old Jesuit priest by the last name Colosimo, whom I thought was a good influence on her, as he helped moderate some of her most extremist instincts. When she told him she intended to begin to fast on a daily basis, he advised her it was not necessary to punish the body for the benefit of the soul. When she admitted she avoided the company of students who were habitual sinners – in keeping with the directives of Saint Teresa of Ávila – he agreed that she should be wary of their counsel and should not mingle with those inviting her to sin but reminded her that Christ had eaten with publicans and prostitutes. When she said she planned to protest against abortion at the New Haven Planned Parenthood clinic, he told her it was important to bear witness to the truth but that one must never forget to pray for the women facing such personal dilemmas.
Adalenie reported that Father Colosimo was also guiding her on her way into the interior castle. He warned her that she should realize that in all likelihood she would never be allowed past the fourth mansion of the castle, for the next ones were reserved for special souls allowed to receive supernatural favors and to hear the voice of God directly – saints like Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Ávila or more recently Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. When Adalenie objected, saying “I must! I must!” Father Colosimo reminded her that humility was the most important virtue. He said that sinful pride could make her lose her way even after having been admitted into the first mansions of the interior castle.
“Even the most brilliant angel lost his place in Heaven,” he told her, “because of a lack of humility and a surfeit of sinful pride. Never believe that you deserve to enter the next mansions due to your own merits for that very expectation will send you back to the moats. Humility! Humility! Be thankful for the grace the Good Lord has already bestowed upon you and don’t worry if God has decided not to grant you the singular honor of communicating with you directly. As your favorite saint says, ‘God gives when, how, and to whom He wills.’ It is not right to expect miracles. God will work them for a soul when He so chooses.’”
Adalenie told me she thought the good priest was misleading her.
“Saint Teresa of Ávila didn’t write The Interior Castle for a few select. She wrote it for all Christians, making it clear that those who were humble in prayer could enter the innermost rooms of the magnificent interior castle. Teresa said – and I’m quoting her – that God makes it impossible for no one to gain such riches and that there is no reason to disbelieve that God can communicate with His creatures. It is not because of vanity that I want to get closer to God’s inner sanctum and hear His voice. It is because I can think of no other grace which is as wonderful as being at one with God, like the joy of a newly married woman with her beloved for the first time.”
“Do you really think you can see and hear God here and now,” I asked, “that you can have the beatific vision in this life and not the next? Wouldn’t that be an outlandish miracle? It seems to me that very few souls ever reach this station. Are you comparing yourself to Saint John of the Cross?”
“To Saint Teresa of Avila,” responded Adalenie as if there was nothing else to say. “Read The Interior Castle.”
Bliss there is no better word to describe the state of my spirit bliss God has allowed me into the fifth mansion of the interior castle bliss my prayer of union has been accepted I have lost all use of my senses perceive everything directly through my soul bliss it is like a dream but it is not a dream close to what some call an ecstasy a rapture where I can hear see and smell nothing yet feel that my soul dwells in God and that God is within me in the marrow of my spirit telling me beloved you are mine bliss my soul is His abode the eyes of my face do not see the ears do not hear the body does not feel yet I have the knowledge of being in the divine presence a marvelous and unmerited miracle bliss the Lord my God is visiting my soul the Holy Spirit fills my spirit like those of the apostles at Pentecost an empty cistern suddenly filled by the divine saying peace be with you an inordinate peace a heavenly peace a peace beyond human understanding a blissful peace my soul which was an ugly worm is now transformed by the infusion of God’s sublime grace into a lovely multicolored butterfly bliss Saint Teresa of Ávila said you will see God in this kind of preternatural union immersed in God you will find joy.
I was returning from my afternoon economics class when I decided to stop by Adalenie’s dorm room. The door was open, so after calling out Adalenie’s name I decided to enter, imagining she was taking a shower or busy in the kitchen. What I saw when I walked into her living room shocked me to the core. Adalenie was sitting on a sofa with her eyes wide open, immobile and unresponsive to any stimuli. When I talked to her, she did not acknowledge my presence in any way and kept staring at the wall on the other side of the room with a blank expression. When I shook her by the shoulders in an effort to rouse her, she did not react in any manner. Her arms were stiff. Her hands and body were as cold as if the soul had fled, and it even seemed that she was no longer breathing. Then I threw water at her face in an effort to wake her. She did not move and continued in her mutism and her failure to respond to anything I did. Desperate, I decided to slap her hard across the face, once, twice, three times, but she remained motionless.
I found her phone and immediately called for an ambulance. I explained Adalenie’s condition to the nurse on call, and she told me Adalenie was suffering from a condition named catatonia and that it could be very dangerous. The paramedics arrived within twenty minutes and immediately force-fed Adalenie two pills whose names I do not know, but they did not seem to have any effect. Once we arrived at the emergency room at Yale-New Haven Hospital, the head of the psychiatry department approached me and asked me a number of questions. Adalenie had still not risen from her stupor as two attendants ushered her into a private room in the psychiatric ward.
“Does she suffer from schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or any other mental illness?” the physician asked me.
“Not that I know of,” I responded, “although she does aspire to become a mystic. When she prays, sometimes it seems that she is in an ecstasy, but nothing like this has ever happened.”
“That could mean nothing, but having an exaggerated focus on religion or religious activities is a possible indicator of various mental disorders, including mania and hypomania in bipolar disorder. Catatonia is a symptom of several different mental illnesses.”
“So, you’re saying her obsession with religion may be a symptom of a psychiatric disturbance?”
“There is something called hyperreligiosity,” the doctor responded, “a psychiatric malady in which a person experiences irrational religious beliefs or episodes that interfere with normal work or social functioning.”
“Well, her religious beliefs have certainly interfered with her studies at Yale. She quit her Comparative Literature major because many of the authors we studied wrote works that she claimed were offensive to her God. We’re talking about writers who have received the Nobel Prize in literature.”
“Well, we’ll have to see. Being religious per se is obviously not an indicator of any mental disorder. To the contrary, psychiatrists have found that seeking solace in prayer is often a powerful palliative for those who suffer from mental illness. The tricky part is separating those who are zealous in their faith from those who have succumbed to religious insanity.”
“Is it madness,” I asked, “to believe that through prayer one can actually meet with God, not only spiritually but physically as well? Is it insanity to believe one can become a mystic through perseverance?”
“Well, it’s a belief of many religious faiths, so believing in mystic unions is not indicative of anything. There is a mystical tradition in the Buddhist faith, for example, indeed in all the world’s great religions. The mystic is asleep to all earthly matters. Many religions hold steadfastly to beliefs which may seem irrational to others and yet they are not insane. The Catholics, myself included, believe that the consecrated bread and wine are literally the body and blood of Christ, but no one can argue that billions of Catholics around the world are somehow mentally deluded.”
“Is it possible that Adalenie’s current condition is not catatonia but a mystic trance?”
“We’ll have to wait until she comes to before hazarding any conclusions one way or another. At all events, I’d like to keep her in the hospital for a while so that we can observe her behavior. Are you her boyfriend? We’re going to need to have somebody who can check up on her from time to time once she is discharged.”
“I’m not her boyfriend but my dorm room is right next to hers, and I can certainly be vigilant. I consider her one of my dearest friends.”
At that moment, a psychiatric nurse approached us and told us that Adalenie had regained her faculties. We immediately went into her hospital room and found her sitting up on her bed, beaming as if nothing had happened.
“You had us worried for a while,” said the doctor. “How many hours ago did you lose consciousness?”
“Lost consciousness?” she echoed. “I don’t remember sleeping. And I’ve never been more conscious in all my life.”
“Did you have a vision of the Christ?” I inquired.
“Not exactly a vision,” responded Adalenie. “I would use the word consciousness. I had a supreme consciousness of God. What I understand is that my soul has never been more alive to spiritual things nor so full of light and of knowledge of His Majesty as it is now. It’s all a bit of a blur, but I feel an inexpressible joy knowing that the Lord has touched me. The Lord gave me a sense of inebriation as He inhabited me. I’m sure I entered the fifth mansion of the interior castle since I powerfully felt the presence of God. I look forward to the sixth.”
“Let me guess,” said the doctor. “Saint Teresa of Ávila, right?”
“So, you’re a Catholic,” said Adalenie.
“That and more,” said the doctor. “I’m Jesuit-educated. I read The Interior Castle years ago while I was still in high school.”
After we left Adalenie’s side, I had a brief chat with the doctor.
“So, what is your diagnosis?” I asked him.
“I must confess to being somewhat perplexed. Catatonic episodes usually happen when the person is already suffering from another serious mental disorder. I’m not sure Adalenie does. Taking the words of Saint Teresa of Ávila literally does not qualify as madness. And most catatonics never express experiences such as those of Adalenie. We might have an authentic mystic in our midst. Perhaps the only conclusion possible – and I’m saying this as a believer rather than a physician – is that your friend is on the road to sainthood.”
“Or a madwoman on the road to the insane asylum,” I replied.
During the ensuing months, Adalenie’s apparent hyperreligiosity intensified. Contrary to the advice of Father Colosimo, her fasting became more and more severe such that her once buxom body became as thin as that of a waif. And at some point, I discovered that she only slept two to three hours at night, for she spent the rest of the evening praying. I found out she wasn’t sleeping by happenstance. Doctor Hren had suggested that she give me a key to her room just in case she ever had another rapture or incident of catatonia. One Sunday I had to go to Logan Airport at four o’clock in the morning in order to pick up some friends, and before leaving I decided to check up on Adalenie. When I entered her room, I found her on her knees, immersed in prayer.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “Why aren’t you sleeping? It’s almost sunrise.”
She turned around with a radiant face. Unlike Saint Teresa in the sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini titled The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Adalenie was not languid but beaming with joy when she responded to my question.
“I am waiting for the divine locutions,” Adalenie happily answered.
“The locutions?” I asked.
“I don’t rest until I hear His voice. Sometimes He makes me wait for several hours, at other times He is kinder and lets me sense His presence soon after I begin praying. Only then can I fall asleep.”
“Do you actually see Him? Are you saying the Christ appears to you?”
“I am not yet in that room of the interior castle. I can hear Him as I pray, but I do not yet see Him. That will be the culmination of my prayer life, when the prayer of union is answered and I become one with God, like a bride with her beloved. But for now, I’m grateful for the locutions. A single one of them is enough to prove that I’m in God’s good graces and that I should love Him above all else.”
“You’re going to become ill,” I remonstrated. “Don’t tell me that you’re doing this every night. You don’t eat, and now you’re telling me you don’t sleep.”
“All I derive from my prayers is sweetness and a pain which is exquisite. I don’t need sleep. I need more crosses. Saint Teresa of Ávila tells us that Saint Peter of Alcantara slept but an hour and a half each night and that he took food only once every three days. What does a sleepless night matter when I’m getting closer to the center of the interior castle, where the Godhead is ensconced?”
“I’m going to have to speak with Doctor Hren. And perhaps Father Colosimo as well. This isn’t normal. Tell me the truth, Adalenie. Have you had any more catatonic episodes?”
“Do you mean religious ecstasies?”
“Call them what you will,” I said. “Have you lost consciousness during prayer?”
“That is a source of sweet delight. But the Lord gives me that special grace very seldom. The answer is yes, but my raptures have been very brief, lasting no more than thirty minutes. And yet I know I am getting closer to Him, for I have also levitated. I know you’ll think I’m a fool or a nut, but it has happened more than once. As I pray, sometimes I feel my body rise from the ground and find myself floating in the air hearing the words of my beloved Bridegroom. “Do not be afraid,” He tells me. “It is I and I shall not abandon you. Fear not.” At such times, it seems to me that I am being lifted up by a force beneath my feet so powerful that I know nothing to which I can compare it. And I assure you I do not lose consciousness when it happens. I feel like I’m on the threshold of death, and yet I’m filled with a sublime joy. I am suspended and lifted up by happiness.”
“You’re quoting Saint Teresa of Ávila again, aren’t you, Adalenie? We’re definitely going to have to speak with Doctor Hren and Father Colosimo. You don’t realize it, but you’re hallucinating, confusing yourself with the Spanish mystic. It’s one thing to say you feel God’s presence. It’s quite another to say you defy gravity.”
“I’ve been studying this matter. I’m not the only person who has been given the special grace of levitation. You’re of Peruvian descent. Don’t you realize Saint Rose of Lima also levitated? Saint Francis of Assisi is recorded as having been suspended above the earth, often to the height of a tree. Saint Catherine of Sienna levitated during prayer too. Saint Joseph of Cupertino, known as the ‘flying priest,’ often went through ecstasies while saying Mass and his levitations were so frequent that people started to go to his church just to see him for entertainment. And of course, there is the case of Teresa of Ávila, my patron saint. Her levitations were witnessed repeatedly by many people, including one time when she was together in choir with the other nuns at her convent who had to hold her down so she would not fly above them. She speaks of the flight of the spirit in both The Interior Castle and in her Autobiography, and she calls it a gentle and joyful flight. Don’t tell me you don’t believe in miracles. Levitation is a miracle bestowed by God to certain souls, even sometimes to those like me who are completely undeserving.”
“Doesn’t that make you think? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that in the last two-thousand years half a dozen saints have levitated. You admit that your conduct is not saintly enough for you to deserve such a gift. I urge you to consider an alternative, though it pains me to say it. You may be suffering from a psychiatric disorder, Adalenie, and it’s having a dangerous impact on your life. I urge you – you know how much I love you – I urge you to get treated before men in white clothes put you in a straitjacket and force you to a sanatorium.”
“I don’t see my condition as madness but as the recognitions of God’s joy and peace. Wasn’t Jesus considered a madman in His day as well as Saint Francis of Assisi? God’s special favors are preparing my way to Heaven. Who cares about the travails of the body when the soul – through no merits of its own and despite being so vile – is getting closer and closer to God? How can one be demented when her condition leads her soul to such jubilation? As far as my not being a saint, there is nothing God delights in more than to communicate Himself to a worm. The graces I receive are not the imaginations of a twisted but fertile mind. I hope you can understand this, Javier. The locutions and the miracles come directly from the Godhead.”
I am sure now that I have entered the seventh mansion of the interior castle the one closest to the Divine in the center of the soul a mansion reserved for God Himself where the spiritual marriage with the Bridegroom can happen more magnificent than the wedding at Cana brighter than the careening sun at Fatima I have had this premonition since this morning that things were coming to a head Father Colosimo and Doctor Hren both subjecting me to an interrogation the poor priest suddenly conflicted for he believed in the levitation of saints long dead but could not bring himself to believe that it could happen to someone that he knew could outlandish miracles happen now in New Haven to a Puerto Rican undergraduate at Yale College? the consensus seemed to be that it was impossible that it must be some sort of mental malady the product of a mind that was diseased even Doctor Hren expressed his doubts yet I had the knowledge that tonight our celestial marriage would be consummated that I would climb the highest rung on the ladder to the Lord the only way for us poor exiled creatures to snatch a breath of Heaven while still suffering on earth poor mendicants that we are in the eyes of God wretched filth in our own.
Heavenly nuptials like childbirth do not happen without pain I see the seraph appear with his lance of gold no wings no halo just a preternatural beauty indescribable like this entire glorious vision Transverberation they called it when it happened to Saint Teresa of Ávila the angel pierced her breast with his weapon when they exhumed her body the priests found her heart had been strangely punctured now I feel the exquisite stab intensely painful and joyful at the same time a delectable distress said Saint Teresa of Ávila so sublime an ill for it anticipates the coming of Jesus who suddenly appears at first crucified tortured bloodied such a sight that it brings me to copious tears I thirst He says and extends His right hand toward me I say I am here to satiate Your thirst and kiss His hand such an impossible rapture to touch the Lord Jesus in the flesh not just a heavenly spirit but a Godman with a human body then He is miraculously transformed no longer the crucified Christ but Jesus after His resurrection resplendent in His loveliness full of splendor beauty light and majesty come to me He says for you are blessed I feel that our souls are fused together my soul now like a drop of water in the ocean of God’s love my spirit indistinguishable from His as Jesus is in the Father and the Father in Him I am bewildered and amazed I feel a supreme delight we have achieved the spiritual marriage I shall say with Saint Paul rejoice! rejoice! it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.
The day after our meeting with Doctor Hren and Father Colosimo, I attended my course on the Bible as Literature and noticed that Adalenie was missing. After the class was over, I hurriedly returned to our dormitory on Elm Street to see what was happening. After knocking on her door several times, I opened it with the key that she had given me. I once again found her in a state of catatonia, sitting on a sofa with a blank expression in her eyes and the beginning of a smile upon her lips. Unlike the previous time, however, this time she reacted when I shook her by the shoulders.
“Javier?” she asked in a groggy voice. “Where am I? What are you doing here?”
“You’re in your dorm room at Morse College. You missed our class on the Bible as Literature, and I was wondering what was going on.”
“I just had the most delectable vision. For the first time the Christ appeared to me in person, and we entered a mystical marriage. Oh why, Javier, why did you rouse me? I would have preferred to continue with my rapture for a hundred years. It was sheer bliss, even when my heart was pierced by the seraph’s lance.”
“You’re drifting again, Adalenie. We’re going to have to institutionalize you.”
“Why don’t you summon Father Colosimo? During my ecstasy, the good Lord told me that He would enlighten the old priest.”
“Jesus told you to speak with him? He mentioned him by name?”
“That’s what I’m telling you.” said Adalenie. “Why don’t we go and visit him now? His church is only two bus stations away.”
“Well, all right,” I responded. “But promise me that if he recommends you spend some time in the psychiatric ward you will comply with what he says.”
“You have my word on it, Javier. But he’s not going to agree that I should be locked up in an asylum.”
“We’ll see,” I said.
And then we took a bus on York Street which led us to Saint Mary’s Church. We found Father Colosimo in his rectory, where he had been watching a baseball game on television. The small, grizzled priest greeted us with a smile as he extinguished his cigarette on an ashtray.
“I guess we still need to talk,” he uttered gently. “We didn’t arrive at any conclusions yesterday.”
“Let’s cut to the chase,” I said. “Adalenie has had another episode, and I think she needs to be in a psychiatric institution receiving care around the clock.”
“Did you have a vision?” asked the old priest. “Or did you just hear voices?”
“I saw the Christ and He asked me to be His bride.”
“She says an angel pierced her heart with a sword,” I interrupted. “It’s completely demented.”
“Slow down, Javier, slow down. Let Adalenie tell me the full story.”
“Jesus told me to seek your guidance,” said Adalenie to the priest. “Javier doesn’t believe in miracles, so he thinks I’m mad. But Saint Teresa of Ávila also went through Transverberation. An angel pierced her heart as well.”
“I’ve heard about that,” said Father Colosimo. “The Discalced Carmelite nuns celebrate the feast of the Transpiercing of Saint Teresa’s heart every August. She was so close to God that her heart was literally pierced by His love. Padre Pio also went through the invisible piercing of his heart. And many prelates of the Church thought he was deluded as well or – worse than that – they said he was a dissembler.”
“Doubting Thomas just like Javier,” Adalenie offered. “People who believe miracles only happened when Jesus walked the earth or in medieval times.”
“Miracles happen every day,” said the priest.
I immediately objected.
“Don’t tell me you buy that Adalenie’s heart was pierced with a lance yesterday and today she’s walking gaily about town without pain.”
“Well, I was thinking last night about Adalenie’s claims of levitation. And I think the logic is the same with respect to the piercing of her heart. We have two possibilities here. Either Adalenie is deluded – the victim of some mental illness – or she actually experienced a miracle. As a matter of pure logic, it’s impossible to know for sure. But there’s one thing we know either way, irrespective of whether we’re talking about madness or a miracle. Do you know what that is, Javier?”
“I have no idea,” I admitted.
“What about you, Adalenie?”
“I’m not sure where you’re going,” she said.
“What we know for sure,” said the priest, “is that God is in control. If you’re suffering from a mental illness, abandon yourself to God’s care. If your experience is supernatural, try to discern God’s will for you. Frankly, I don’t think you need to be institutionalized right away. But if I were in your shoes, Adalenie, I would pray that the raptures cease in order for you to think about their message. Whether you’re deluded or not about the visions, I think we can safely say that it’s possible that the Lord wants you to be His bride. In other words, He might want you to become a religious under monastic vows, perhaps a Carmelite like Saint Teresa of Ávila. But in order for you to discern your vocation, it would be useful if the visions stopped. Pray that the raptures end so that you can calmly and collectedly determine God’s intentions for you.”
“That is a tall order,” replied Adalenie. “If you only knew the joy I experience every time the Christ invades my consciousness…”
“I understand that,” replied Father Colosimo. “I am sure that thinking you see Jesus fills you with bliss. But there is something you must realize. To truly figure out God’s will, you must be fully conscious when you try to decipher it. Pray that you can understand his message without being catatonic. God speaks to us every day in the silence of our hearts if we only have the willingness to listen. The mind is capable of receiving direct infusion from God. When we allow our minds to be given to God, He imparts a knowledge and wisdom directly from His own Mind. And there is nothing crazy about that. The Son of God already exists within you.”
“She needs to have someone watch her day and night,” I interjected. “I’ve heard that catatonic episodes sometimes end in death. Malignant catatonia in particular can be fatal.”
“I was getting to that,” said the grizzled priest. “I was thinking, Adalenie, that you should move to a convent where the nuns can watch over you and keep you company. If you lapse into one of your ecstasies, they will know what to do. And that way you can also see what life as a religious is like. Living in a convent will help you discern whether that is God’s purpose for you.”
“That makes sense,” said Adalenie. “Perhaps by offering a spiritual marriage to me the Christ is asking me to take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In other words, maybe He wants me to become a nun.”
“Yes!” replied Father Colosimo emphatically. “I am thinking of a Carmelite convent in Cleveland. As I’m sure you know, that is the order founded by Saint Teresa of Ávila. The Mother Superior is a joy. I’ve known her for years. I’m sure she’ll accept you with open arms.”
I learned that Adalenie had died of meningitis while tending to the poor in the favelas of Sao Paulo. By then, I was a student at Yale Law School, and I went to Mass every Sunday at Father Colosimo’s church. One Sunday, after the Mass was ended, he approached me and took me by the arm.
“I received a message from Mother Superior Mary of the Christ Crucified of the Carmelite convent in Cleveland, and she told me Adalenie had succumbed to a contagious disease while working as a missionary in Brazil.”
I was dumbfounded. Adalenie was only twenty-two.
“She’s finally with the Lord,” said Father Colosimo. “She is one with Christ as she always wanted.”
“Did they ever figure that out?” I asked. “Were her visions a symptom of mental illness or were they miraculous?”
“Well, I’ve spoken with the Mother Superior, and this is what I know. During Adalenie’s first year at the Carmelite convent, she prayed that her visions cease so she could discern her purpose, and God answered her prayers. From the beginning, the Mother Superior thought Adalenie would make an excellent nun, for she was hard-working and exceedingly pious. There was no task that was beneath her, no requirement too onerous for her. In speaking with the Mother Superior, I concluded that her visions returned after the end of her first year at the convent, by which time Adalenie had already made her first vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The Mother Superior determined that her raptures did not come from madness but from a certain inclination of the spirit, a special blessing from God. But the Lord was kind with Adalenie, and her ecstasies never lasted more than half an hour. As far as levitation, the Mother Superior reports that Adalenie was never again in such a state, at least not in the presence of others.”
“What do you think?” I asked the priest. “Do you actually believe she levitated or that it was all a fantasy and a self-delusion?”
“We’ll never know, will we? But what we do know is that her experiences brought her closer and closer to her God, that she entered the innermost place in the interior castle.”
“I’ve never fully understood what Saint Teresa of Ávila meant when she referred to the interior castle. Is it the soul? Is it a place in Heaven? Is it a state of prayer?”
“The interior castle is a journey, Javier. A pilgrimage of the soul on its way to God. When one enters the final mansion, one finds God in the recesses of his own soul. As the Trappist Merton wrote, ‘In the center of our being is a point of pure truth which belongs entirely to God.’”
I left the church and decided to walk back to Yale Law School, thinking about my Adalenie with a grief I could not contain. The truth is that she had been one of the persons I loved most on this wretched planet. My instinct was always to protect her from predators such as Ramón Hijuelos as well as from the depredations of mental illness. Hopefully I’ll meet with her one day again in Paradise. I’m sure that one way or another she is living with the Christ.