LTRP Note: The following is an excerpt from Carolyn A. Greene’s novel, Castles in the Sand, based on the true story of contemplative spirituality in the church today. A growing number of Christian colleges, seminaries, and universities are incorporating this mystical spiritual formation into classes and chapel programs. This excerpt takes place during a lecture by the very contemplative professor, Ms. Jasmine. For those who are skeptical about this, check out our growing list of “contemplative colleges.
From Castles in the Sand: The Lecture –
Winter Term 2008
“Please keep your questions for the end of the lecture,” Ms. Jasmine announced. “Instead of boring you today, I will use the last part of our class time for your inquiries regarding your marks.” She pulled a thick stack of papers from her briefcase and put them on the desk. She nodded disapprovingly at Tessa, who was ten minutes late again. Tessa could already tell the room was going to feel much too warm. Her cheeks and nose were still rosy from her brisk morning walk as she sat down in the front row of the lecture hall beside Elise. She pushed up her sleeves, pulled off her knit hat, and shook the melting snowflakes onto the floor.
Ms. Jasmine removed her glasses, glanced at the clock on the wall, and walked to the white board. Her black high-heeled shiny boots were the kind that clicked loudly with each step she took. She picked up a marker and began her lecture. Tessa admired her black pants and bright pink tailored jacket with oversized buttons that only someone like Ms. Jasmine could get away with. It seemed that anything she wore made her look elegant, even that bright pink lipstick.
“That’s gotta be Bombshell Blonde hot pink lipstick by Gigi,” Elise leaned over and whispered to Tessa. “I have that one, but it looks totally dumb on me. Maybe if I get a psychology degree like she has, I can afford to look like that someday.”
Tessa was … wondering whether she received a good mark on her paper.
“After today’s lecture, I will hand back your papers. You have all worked very hard, and I’m pleased to say a few of you have done excellent research. In fact, several of you have earned such high marks you are being considered for a special, brand-new scholarship which will be announced in the spring.”
Tessa had indeed done her research for this paper on prayer. It had been an enormous challenge trying to work with a chatty roommate nearby. If it hadn’t been for earplugs and her favorite quiet spot in the library, she could not have accomplished what she had. Tessa had never applied herself so completely to any assignment, but because she liked Ms. Jasmine, she had put a lot of effort into this class. Even so, she thought if anyone in this class deserved a scholarship, it was Elise. Elise did everything well, putting more effort into studying than Tessa had energy for, and always achieved her goals for the difficult assignments she tackled.
“I’d also like to mention that we had a great turnout two nights ago for the outdoor prayer walk, in spite of the snow. Wasn’t it lovely? Thank you Elise and Tessa for helping organize the evening.”
Ms. Jasmine allowed a few minutes of chatter while she turned and wrote something on the board. It was a time line of the current era, something she often drew during her lectures, although it wasn’t too likely anyone could make out the title, as usual.
“Can you read that?” whispered Tessa.
“No,” Elise answered, “typical doctor’s handwriting. It’s just another one of her time lines.”
“All right, students,” Ms. Jasmine said loudly, drawing a vertical line at the sixteenth-century mark as she waited for the noise to stop. “Let’s talk about controversy and the test of time. As you know, some of the early Christians who were contemporaries were known to disagree on many things. Two, for example, are St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, yet their writings are considered to be the greatest of all mystical theology. Even St. Teresa’s advisors couldn’t agree on whether her experiences were from God or from the devil. Some thought her visions were the work of the Holy Spirit, and others remained convinced that her visitations were illusions of Satan. But in the end, the truth came out. Today we see how valuable her writings and experiences are for the church. So in spite of these controversies, the works of many of these misunderstood saints have stood the test of time and are still in print today. You all, of course, know that St. Teresa is a personal favorite of mine.”
She turned and made an “x” on the board at the 1970 mark on her time line. “Case in point . . . some of you may have read in your research that not too long ago, St. Teresa was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul the VI. She was the first woman to be named as a Doctor by the Roman Catholic Church. By the way, ladies, be glad you live in modern times. It took Teresa of Avila several hundred years to get her doctorate. It only took me eight.”
As Ms. Jasmine waited for the chuckles and giggles to finish, a girl wearing thick glasses near the front of the room, whom Teresa only knew by first name, gingerly raised her hand.
“Yes, Nicky,” responded Ms. Jasmine.
“Um, one book I read said something odd,” began the girl timidly, her cheeks flushed. “It mentioned that mystics like St. Teresa had erotic experiences during their spiritual peaks. Can you comment on that?”
“Yes, thank you for that excellent question,” Ms. Jasmine answered in her usual professional manner. “We can all learn from a fairly new view within psychology and holistic health that an erotic component can be integrated into the mystical ecstasy, which brings about a whole new level of union with the divine. Take for example St. Teresa’s experience of ecstasy with the angel that is so beautifully captured in the statue by Gianlorenzo Bernini. Of course, you can imagine that critics opposing mysticism would have an even tougher time accepting this as a superior level of intimacy. I guess it all depends on what one believes. Those of us who understand the mystical state as a state where God is encountered would welcome this deeper dimension of spirituality.”
Tessa felt more than a little embarrassed to think about what Ms. Jasmine was implying. She slid down slowly in her chair and looked straight ahead, not wanting to hear anymore about that. It just didn’t sound right. They had all read the same book, but she didn’t have the courage to ask such a question in front of all the guys. She didn’t really want to know the answer, anyway.
“And let me add this,” continued Ms. Jasmine. “While I personally do not see the need, there are some contemplative practitioners who offer ‘warning,’ saying that this kind of prayer is not for the inexperienced novice.” Ms. Jasmine made quotation marks with her fingers as she said the word in a mocking tone.
Teresa’s ears perked up. A warning? Ever since the retreat she’d been having very good success talking to Jesus during her journaling times, and had even written about it on the student blog. She vaguely remembered seeing that warning in some book she had read. The author had advocated praying a prayer of protection before praying with your imagination, but she had completely ignored it. Now, a brief cold wave of fear passed over her, but she refused to consider it and quickly put it out of her mind. How could she fear the gentle Jesus she met on the beach, and the warm presence she’d experienced only a few nights ago in the prayer labyrinth?
“One well-known contemplative author writes,” Ms. Jasmine continued, “that you must offer a prayer of protection to God, lest you come in contact with demons.”
Half the class snickered when Ms. Jasmine overemphasized the last word in a low scary tone, especially a group of guys in the back row. “Thomas, you always have novel ideas. Could you tell the class what you and your friends find so amusing?”
“Uh-huh. That is so paranoid. I mean, if you pray to Jesus, He’s not going to send a demon. That’s just stupid.”
“Exactly right, thank you Thomas. Many of us . . . many of those who have been practicing these methods of silence and contemplation for years also disagree with that statement. Contemplative prayer is not dangerous, and it is for everyone. The Bible says to ‘be still and know that I am God.’ If we don’t silence our minds, how else will we hear Him in our busy lives, amid the constant barrage of noise from televisions, CD players, and a myriad of other electronic gadgets? In order to really know God, you have got to have an inner stillness.”
No sooner had Ms. Jasmine finished her sentence, than the ring tone of a cell phone chimed from someone’s bag, throwing everyone in the lecture hall into fits of laughter.
“Thank you Amanda. That was perfect timing. The point is, one will hear different views on the subject of listening prayer, but one must always go back to the tried and true, the experiences of the early church fathers and mothers, to whom we owe so much. Why else would their writings still be in print to this day if God did not want us to learn from them? Why would they be given doctorates by the church, even years later, if what they practiced and taught was not from God? Isn’t that what you meant, Thomas?”
Thomas nodded his head and leaned back in his chair grinning, proud to have Ms. Jasmine’s approval.
“Now, let me ask how many of you are going home for Christmas?” Almost everyone raised a hand. Ms. Jasmine twirled her marker back and forth between her fingers. Her long pink nails made a rhythmic clacking noise on the pen. Tessa couldn’t help but think it was to the same beat as, “Oh what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh . . .”
How Tessa had wanted to go home for Christmas and see Sassy and of course, Gran and Gramps too, but the roads were bad with a blizzard in the forecast, and a plane ticket was out of the question. Besides, she’d had a sore throat and thought it best to stay in Flat Plains and catch up on her assignments. She hadn’t been feeling well these last few weeks and could use some peace and quiet, especially if her roommate was going to be away. There were other students staying in her dorm who couldn’t afford to travel either, so Sonya had invited them all to spend Christmas Day with her family, who lived only forty miles away in what was rumored to be a very big mansion. When Elise told Tessa that Sonya’s home was as big as a castle, that it had many guest rooms filled with tapestries and antiques from Europe, she immediately accepted Sonya’s invitation. How could a girl with a weakness for castles miss an opportunity like this?
“Class, can I be honest with you?” Ms. Jasmine asked, a very serious look on her face as the room grew quiet. “When you go home, your families and friends may view you in a different light now that you’ve learned new things in this class. For example, if they notice you practicing your daily lectio divina readings, they may try to persuade you that the old-fashioned religious ideas they learned are the only right ones. This may even spark controversy within some of your relationships. But remember, the ancient disciplines you have learned were around long before they were. Fundamental Christians who have grown up with a certain narrow brand of religion can’t help it—they just don’t know any better. If they don’t understand, teach them to listen, as you have learned. Remind them that even Jesus retreated to places of solitude and silence to find union with the Father. Tell them that this is why Christmas has come, that the light may be found in each one of us!”
Tessa glanced at Elise. She was closing her eyes and smiling. Ms. Jasmine is right. Gran and Gramps really are old-fashioned and narrow-minded in many of their views. Better to spend the holidays here with some of her friends in a modern-day castle.
“I’m sure you are all anxious to get going before the snow gets too deep, but as you leave, come to my desk and pick up your marked papers. I’ll stay for half an hour to answer your questions. For those who need to go, have a peaceful and divine Christmas! And be careful if you are driving. It’s a blizzard out there! (from Castles in the Sand)