First Thoughts on Sixteenth Century Spanish Mysticism and the First Quakers: Communion with The Light in Early Modernism

By Alvin Joaquín Figueroa.

This article is a preliminary draft of a more ambitious project. It is a skeleton and a brainstorming process of some ideas I have been examining for a while. I would like to study the relationship, and points of convergence and divergence, between the religious discourses of Spain’s most important mystic figures in sixteenth century, vis-à-vis the mystic language of George Fox and the early Friends in England’s seventeenth century.

Trying to analyze the production of these discourses is not an easy task, especially when one is searching for a missing link between apparently opposite religious ideologies. Nevertheless, the literary art of the Counter-Reformation and the first theological writings of the Quakers, who constitute the far left of the Radical Reformation, present some points of unity and divergence that cannot be left unresearched.

My personal opinion, and I am talking as a man of Galician and Cantabric descent who is probably suffering from Hispanophilia, has been that every attempt to establish a discourse around the figure of George Fox has been fundamentally Anglocentric. It is as if there is no reality beyond the English language and its closest Continental relations, and Fox’s was an isolated prophetic experience. As a Quaker I truly believe that our Meetings for Worship are a non-formal way of receiving the Body of Christ and that our gathering in stillness is the purest form of the Eucharist. I think that we have to bring Quakerism out of England for a while and see what others were doing in terms of a spiritual experience before Fox’s time. Before there was Fox, there was St. Francis, St. Clare, Thomas Á Kempis – and also Ignacio de Loyola, Teresa de Ávila, Juan de la Cruz, Fray Luis de León.

I subscribe to Ann Riggs’ theory that the Religious Society of Friends (RSOF) is a religious community, or an order (such as the Carmelites, the Franciscans and the Benedictines) within the Christian Church in its most extensive sense.1 It is my contention that we, as a religious community, have more in common with the contemplative and mystical traditions of Spanish Catholicism than with Protestantism per se. The very articulation of the ideas of early Friends is a sort of counter-reformation within the Reformation. It is from this point of departure that I want to start my analysis.

If it is true that Quakerism is a formal denial of rituals, dogmas, creeds and holy orders, I also concur with Howard H. Brinton when he affirms that “Protestant worship, as compared with Catholic worship or Quaker worship, is more like that of the synagogue than that of the temple.”2 Upon comparing both forms of worship, Quakerism is, according to Brinton, a figure of the Jewish temple, and our worship the communion with the Body of Christ. In this particular point, Catholicism and Quakerism intersect in the same spiritual space:

Catholic worship is a form of temple worship in the sense that Divinity is felt to be present at a particular time and place. At the Elevation of the Host, when the miracle of transubstantiation is completed and the bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Christ, there is a brief period of silent waiting, the only conduct appropriate in the very presence of the Divine. For the same reason, the Reserved Sacrament is worshipped in silence. Catholic worship resembles Quaker worship in this fact that Divinity is felt to be present. 3

It is not my intention to compare the structural aspects of Quakerism and Spanish Catholicism, but to comment on the spiritual approach of both theological spaces during a time of enormous religious change in the history of Europe. Our Meetings for Worship, at least in classical Quakerism, are a communion without forms. It is precisely this sacramental aspect that saints like Teresa de Ávila and George Fox share in common, in spite of their differences.

Further, the fact that religious discourses of Teresa and Fox were articulated during a time when their respective nations were world super-powers is not a coincidence. After all, their theological languages can be seen as a reaction of the inner person against the futility of their nations’ splendors, something rather common in the history of humankind. The super-Catholic Spanish kingdom and its Anglican counterpart left a lot to be desired from a spiritual standpoint in an era of great changes and political divisions. Religion has always been an autonomous territory of politics, but nevertheless it is a part of its larger realm. In the history of the western world, figures like Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis and Saint Clare, just to mention a few, have been exceptions to this dichotomy, obeying to a higher source of power. Teresa de Ávila, Juan de la Cruz, Fray Luis and George Fox form part of this group. Their contribution to the world: the emphasis they placed on the immanence of the Divinity, the discovery of the Christ Within. In this sense, Fox was as much a mystic as Santa Teresa de Jesús (her religious chosen name) and the other Spanish mystics.

Spain was the first modern super-power in Europe’s history. The Age of Discovery and the transference of value systems to the Americas was a Spanish enterprise, and to date the American hemisphere is basically a Spanish-speaking world, where the United States has become the third largest “Spanish-American” nation.4 In a country where a significant number of states bear Spanish names (Florida, Texas, Colorado, California, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico), this should not be a surprise. The Spain of Charles I and Phillip II, “where the sun never set,” became the first imperial exercise in the modern world. Portugal, England, France and the Netherlands (once the latter liberated itself from Spanish rule) followed.

While the rest of Europe was experiencing a religious revolution that started with Luther in 1517, Spain was sacking the Americas, and along with slavery and new diseases, it exported its religion. The kingdom, after becoming unified with the taking of Granada in 1492, expelling the Jews in that same year and the Muslims a little later, and after expanding geometrically its territorial space with the “discovery” of the Americas, became the epitome of Roman Catholicism. After the Council of Trent established its ideological parameters, Spain became the right hand of Rome.

But while the Church was structuring and imposing its power, at home there were some voices that were uttering different words, and more than once with a critical discourse. Sixteenth century Spain saw the emergence of the most important voices of its literature. This was the era of Quevedo, Góngora, Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina. This is the time and place where Miguel de Cervantes gave birth to the first modern European novel. This was also the era of the great writers of Spanish mysticism: Santa Teresa de Jesús, Fray Luis de León and San Juan de la Cruz. These three voices gave the kingdom its most beautiful works of poetry, making Spanish mystic literature one of the most important artistic expressions in the world.

If we take into consideration texts like Las moradasCastillo interior and Camino de perfección, by Santa Teresa, we will find very clear points of convergence between them and the first queries of the early Friends. These texts constitute both rules and advices for the Carmelite sisters as well as sources of profound mystical insight. They are, after all, a sort of catechism that provides spiritual and practical guidance to their respective communities. In Ann Riggs’ well-presented article, she offers a comparison between the first Advices and Queries of Britain Yearly Meeting, the Benedictine Rule and the Spiritual Exercises of San Ignacio de Loyola. All established an ordering of time, responsibilities and virtues through which our communities would acquire a sense of belonging. There are indeed outstanding similarities between these texts.

However, the mystic articulation of a figure like Santa Teresa is not presented with the same intensity in the order rules texts as in her non-referential writings. Teresa de Ávila’s gift to the world was her poetry; by the same token San Juan and Fray Luis gave us the most sublime poetic presentation of the encounter between the soul and the Divine through their art. And I believe that this is where the difference between the mystical language of the Spaniards and the English lies: George Fox’s discourse tried to be referential, that is, it was not a poetic utterance. In fact, Fox’s insistence on the experiential aspect of the spiritual union with the Seed sheds more light upon the idea that religion could be empirical. Santa Teresa’s language, on the other hand, is poetry in the best sense of the word, and there is an auto-consciousness of the nun’s métier. Notwithstanding this difference, both Santa Teresa and George Fox are aspiring for the same thing: a direct communication path with the Light.

For me, the basic difference rests upon the way they utter their longings. For Santa Teresa, as well as for San Juan, the Soul, a feminine entity in Spanish, longs to join Jesus in a sensual if not obviously erotic way in the spiritual realm. Here is another difference: the Spanish mystics are writing their bodies, a tradition that comes directly from the Hebrew Scriptures and perhaps from eight centuries of living and fighting with Islam. Teresa de Ávila uses the Song of Songs as a literary intertext in her poem Dilectus Meus Mihi:

Cuando el dulce Cazador
me tiró y dejó rendida,
en los brazos del amor
mi alma quedó caída,
y cobrando nueva vida
de tal manera he trocado
que mi Amado es para mí
y yo soy para mi Amado.
Ya toda me entregué y di,
y de tal suerte he trocado,
Que es mi Amado para mí
y yo soy para mi Amado.

Hirióme con una flecha
enherbolada de amor
y mi alma quedó hecha
una con su Criador:
Ya yo no quiero otro amor,
pues a mi Dios me he entregado,
y mi Amado es para mí,
y yo soy para mi Amado.

When the sweet Hunter shot and wounded me
My soul rested upon Love’s arms.
And regaining a new life
I have changed in such a way,
That I am my Beloved’s
And my Beloved is mine.

I have surrendered to Him
And to such a great extent
That I am my Beloved’s
And my Beloved is mine.
He wounded me with a love arrow
And my soul became one with her Creator.
I do not want any other love,
For to my God I have surrendered.
I am my Beloved’s
And my Beloved is mine. 5

The possessive insistence of the soul upon reclaiming her space of love for Jesus is Santa Teresa’s main poetic image. Longing for death and despising life itself, the soul is constantly asking the Beloved (Jesus) to finally wed her and not let her be abandoned. Teresa´s poetic voice is enamored of the very idea of death, a characteristic we see very clearly in her poem Vivo sin vivir en mí (I Live without Living in Me) and other artistic compositions.

In a different way San Juan de la Cruz experiments with a linguistic gender change by assuming the space of the soul who has joined the Beloved in La noche oscura del alma (The Dark Night of the Soul):

Y El mi pecho florido,
que entero para Él solo se guardaba,
allí quedó dormido
y yo le regalaba,
y el ventalle de cedros aire daba.
El aire de la almena,
cuando yo sus cabellos esparcía,
con su mano serena
en mi cuello hería,
y todos mis sentidos suspendía.
Quedéme y olvidéme,
el rostro recliné sobre el Amado,
cesó todo y dejéme,
dejando mi cuidado
entre las azucenas olvidado.

Upon my flowery breast
Kept wholly for Himself alone.
There He stayed sleeping,
And I caressed Him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted His locks;
With His gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my care forgotten among the lilies. 6

San Juan’s poetic voice longs to join Jesus in sensual terms. In his poetry he also scolds a god who has abandoned him, and he is constantly asking to let his presence be known and finally join his soul and love her in a rather romantic encounter. I am using the term romantic in its contemporary sense, not the nineteenth century’s. This is love poetry, but addressed to the Divinity, not to a human entity. And it is the body that speaks asking Jesus to make himself present and join the earthly lover. Part of Ascent of Mount Carmel, the Dark Night of the Soul is a mystic treatise explaining the path followed by the soul in its journey to join the Divinity. Nevertheless, it is one of the most sensual poems of the Spanish language.

Fray Luis de León, whose poetic language really longs for a space of silence and solitude, and whose poems sing the communion between the soul and nature is probably the less sensual poet and mystic of the period. In Vida retirada (Retired Life), Fray Luis wants to break with the world to attain inner peace:

¡Qué descansada vida
la del que huye del mundanal ruido
y sigue la escondida senda
por donde han ido
los pocos sabios que en el mundo han sido!
YVivir quiero conmigo,
gozar quiero del bien que debo al Cielo
a solas, sin testigo,
libre de amor, de celo,
de odio, de esperanzas, de recelo.

Oh what a relaxing life
Has he who flees from worldly noises
And follows the hidden path
Walked before by the few wise men
The world has known.

I just want to live with myself
And enjoy the Good I owe Heaven,
Alone, with no witnesses,
Free of love, jealousy,
Hatred, hopes and suspicion. 7

A beginning – the question that remains unanswered and that constitutes the core of my research is this: to what extent are Spain’s sixteenth-century mysticism and England’s seventeenth-century mysticism comparable? The goal of every mystic is the same: to establish a path of communication with the Divine without external interventions. For both the early Friends and the Spanish poets of the Counter-Reformation, this articulation brought them many enemies. Early Friends broke with everything that the Reformation could not change, and were eventually persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics. The Spanish poets of the Counter-Reformation were subjected many times to the Inquisition tribunals. Fox followers despised the rituals that Christianity had established before. Santa Teresa, on the other hand, had pledged that one of her ministries was to convert “Lutherans,”a term freely used to refer to the “Protestant Heresy”. Notwithstanding the differences between Catholic and Reformers, their language aimed to reach that space where most have not arrived: the dwelling of the soul. 8

Another difference is the space of the body. For our first theologians, the message was less form, more spirit. The body does not have a place in the discourse of Fox, Barclay, and Penn. A meeting for worship is a suspension of the senses where we are waiting upon the God/ess to attain a unity with the Spirit. Nothing can be further from this type of theological articulation than Bernini’s orgasmic representation of Santa Teresa, wounded by the angel. After all, Bernini’s sculpture tries to point out the erotic aspects of Santa Teresa’s mystic poetry. Yet, the Spaniards, too, write of slipping away from the world to God:

“With His gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended,”

writes Juan de la Cruz. The early Quakers, maybe influenced by Puritan decorum and other cultural influences, articulated their mystic language with another voice. To what extent there was a poetic production by Quakers during the seventeenth century, and what type of poetic language it composes is another territory I have to explore. However, given the aversion to art that early Friends showed as a rejection of everything formal, I doubt about its existence. To what extent might Fox and other early Friends read directly or known indirectly the works of the Spanish mystics of the previous century, which were well published all over Europe?

Again, this essay is a sketch, a preliminary study, and an outline of a future project that promises to be interesting and rewarding. Exploring the religious discourse of the first world super-powers of modernity needs to be done by establishing a sociological and political frame in order to examine written material and study some referential and poetic texts of both spaces. It becomes more complicated when we have to deal with two different cultures and two different languages. As a Hispanic man, I feel less nervous with the Spanish texts. They are part of my heritage. As a non-Anglo Quaker, it represents a new realm of possibilities, a territory of which I am a solitary explorer.

Way will open.


1. Ann K. Riggs. “The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) as a Religious Community. Quaker Theology, Issue I, Autumn 1999, pp. 31-54.

2. Howard H. Brinton. Friends for 300 Years. Wallingford: Pendle Hill, 1994, p. 2.

3. Idem., pp. 3-4.

4. According to the last count, the nations with the most Spanish-speaking people in the world are Mexico, Spain, the United States, Argentina and Colombia.

5. The translation from the Spanish original is mine.

6. Translation by E. Allison Peers.

7. My translation.

8. Walker Lowry. Teresa de Jesús. A Secular Appreciation. Stinehour Press, 1977.

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