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Theatre of the unspeakable

· Bernini’s Saint Teresa and mystic art ·

In the experience of saints both in the Old and New Testament, sublimity shines out, something difficult to translate into words or images. Isaiah sees “The Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” surrounded by seraphim who proclaim “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Is 6:1-3), and Ezekiel, “a great cloud, with brightness round about it, and fire flashing forth continually”, and in the midst of it, “as it were gleaming bronze” and burning coals of fire like torches glowed, as well as four living creatures each with wings and wheels that moved in four directions (cf. Ez 1:4-17). Daniel “had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in his bed” (Dan 7:1), in which he saw, among many other things, the Ancient of Days seated on a throne, “his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire” before which was presented “one like a son of man” and to him was given “dominion and glory and kingdom” over all peoples, nations and languages – “his dominion is an everlasting dominion” (cf. Dan 7:9-14). John, the author of Revelation, likewise sees “one like a son of man,” whose hair is “white as white wool, white as snow” (Rev 1:12-14).

The texts that relate these experiences are often difficult – even incomprehensible in terms of logic alone – because human language cannot communicate the reality contemplated by the saints. Of one of his mystical experiences, St Paul writes: “ I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (cf. 2 Cor 12:2-4). However, there is one lawful “word”, entrusted to man to give voice to the prayerful contemplation of God, and that is Christ himself, the perfect expression of the Father.

Not surprisingly, the first Christian mystical experience, the vision had by the deacon Stephen while he was offering up his life for Christ, was the banner of this “word” who is Christ: Stephen “full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56). This very word, this name (or, better, the title of “Christ” associated with Jesus), was intolerable to persecutors, who, “cried out with a loud voice,” to drown out the sound, “stopped their ears”, and killed him who said it (Acts 7:57). Saying the name of Christ is already prayer, in fact, and various ecclesial traditions call us to mantra-like repetition of this name, in which man, the sinner, is saved.

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