Michael Kinnucan

Self-Destruction as Spiritual Practice


Read afterthoughts to this piece from Lara Bernstein.

Sculpture of Saint Teresa of Jesus, Convent of Saint Teresa in Ávila, photo by Håkan Svensson and licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported via Wikimedia Commons

Theoretical Introduction

In his later works, Foucault elaborates a flexible and suggestive framework through which to think the history of ethics. He suggests that we analyze ethical experience along three axes: the relationship of the ethical subject to truth, his relationship to himself, and his relations with others. A few examples will help to show both the breadth and the complexity of this framework.

Consider the ethical constitution of a typical American upper-middle-class youth, one who seeks to find happiness through self-fulfillment in productive work and loving relationships. Such a subject has a particular relationship to a form of truth which is ethically operative: he must discover the nature and value of his desires and talents insofar as they orient him toward a way of life which will bring him pleasure, fulfillment, and “meaning.” He might spend a good deal of time wondering about himself and what he really wants, or seek out a variety of experiences in order to discover his place in the world. The truth he seeks here, however, is subordinated to the task of cultivating himself as a good and happy person, the effort to develop his talents and achieve his goals. His relations with others, too, gain their particular ethical weight in the context of this self-cultivation: as an intimate space, a private sphere in which he can achieve self-expression—and not, for example, as a locus of duty or even of etiquette—these relations attain an important but subordinate place in his ethical project.

Now consider the ethical experience of, say, a Marxist revolutionary. For a Marxist, the relation of self to others attains pivotal ethical importance, but this relation in no way resembles that of the subject of self-fulfillment to his friends: the relation of self to others here is political. The Marxist aims to transform society, and his efforts to provoke others to political consciousness orient his ethical subjectivity. This effort, however, is inextricably linked with a particular, ethically significant truth: the truth of the immanent contradictions within bourgeois society, along with the dangers and opportunities these represent. This truth in turn polarizes the relationship of self to self: the self is to be understood as a historically determined and potentially political being, and its significance or lack thereof is thought within the vast nexus of economy and history.

In an ethics of self-realization, the relationship of self to self might be called primary (though such a relation is unthinkable without the orientation it takes from self-knowledge and the manifestation it seeks in relation to others); in the Marxist experience, the relation of self to others rules (though not without the particular truth which gives it content or the self-understanding which orients it). These examples are thus almost wholly heterogeneous: they differ not only in the nature of each axis (truth of self vs. truth of history, others as intimates vs. others as humans, self as “true self” vs. self as partisan) but even in the relations among the axes. A theory which sought to explain both of these forms of experience would be entirely devoid of content.

Foucault’s framework is not a theory, however; it is a method. As such, its purpose is not to contain the heterogeny of ethical experience but to render this heterogeny visible. It seems natural to write the history of ethics as a series of theories of the human good or of moral obligation together with the practice determined by such theories; Foucault suggests that such a history would render invisible the most profound events in the history of ethics because it would take the relationship of the subject to truth as a primary given and leave it unthought. Yet even in the brief examples above, we can see that this constant is illusory: the Marxist and the seeker of fulfillment differ not merely in which truths they believe but in what kinds of truth they take to be ethically active and how these truths orient the individual as ethical subject. A history of ethics, before it is a history of this or that truth about man’s estate, must seek out, within a given culture, the nature and function of ethical truth as such.

Foucault’s framework provides us with the questions and distinctions with which to recognize and preserve radical heterogeneity in the history of ethics. A history which fails to recognize this heterogeneity risks reading modern ethical experience backwards and forwards into eternity; it likewise necessarily fails to grasp the specificity (the singularity and strangeness) of the present. To comprehend this specificity is perhaps the primary political function of history.

Most of Foucault’s published work in the last years of his life focuses on Stoic and Epicurean ethical practices in the ancient world, which take as their task the “care of the self.” In these practices, self-knowledge is practiced in the interest of reason’s sovereignty, which is held to promise freedom and happiness. These practices are at once very far from us and oddly familiar; we, too, seek happiness through knowledge and sovereignty, though the sorts of knowledge and happiness we seek are very different. Below I will offer a brief analysis of an ethical practice which is much closer to us historically: the method of prayer practiced by Saint Teresa of Avila. If Stoicism, as “care of the self,” seems deceptively familiar to us, St. Teresa’s ethic should appear much less comprehensible: for her, prayer as proper care of the self is the practice of self-destruction.

Section 1

St. Teresa of Avila was born to a well-off family in Spain in 1515 and died in 1582, a Carmelite nun and a famous mystic. Hours after her death, her followers began to divide up her corpse; fingers, feet, elbows and eyelashes were shipped off to the four corners of Europe to sanctify cathedrals with their presence. Her followers’ devotion may appear rather pagan to Protestant sensibilities, but they were quite logical on their own terms: they believed Teresa’s flesh could make a place holy because they thought she touched God when she prayed.

Today, we understand prayer as a request the believer addresses to God. But in Counter-Reformation Catholicism, the practice of prayer meant something quite different: it was not a way of gaining the favor of God but an elaborated method of meditation aimed at opening the soul to the Word. As such, this practice attained central importance in the contemplative religious life of the regular clergy; monasteries were organized around it, books were written on it, various strains of it were deemed eminently valuable or dangerously heretical. St. Teresa was both one of the most famous practitioners and one of the most influential theoreticians of this practice.

But what, precisely, is the goal of prayer? What does it mean to open the soul to God’s truth? Prayer does not, of course, arouse belief in the subject; profound, unequivocal faith in God is not a consequence but a presupposition of this practice. Contemplative prayer rests on the understanding that such faith is insufficient—or rather, that something in the subject is profoundly resistant to it. Prayer seeks to make the subject adequate to this truth.

The stern Christian doctrine of the Counter-Reformation may be summarized in three points:

1. The sole good for humanity is to love God and obey His commandments. All else is vanity. Absolutely nothing of this world is of value; work, family, worldly honor are at best tests for one’s faith in God. The ideal life is the monastic one because it is farthest from the so-called goods of this world. The ideal Christian, as St. Teresa never tires of repeating, despises this world.

2. Despite the nothingness of the world, humans are intrinsically too weak to abandon it. We cling to its petty nothings, seek a happiness we won’t find and ignore God. Humans are too weak to despise the world and ought for this reason to despise themselves as selves.

3. Despite the vileness of humanity, God continues to love us and desire our happiness. Therefore He sent his Son to die for us, for the sins that we have already committed and those that we will continue to commit. His terrible and blameless suffering is the price of our sins.

The problematic of truth in this strain of Christianity is already obvious: faith is at once the one thing needful and essentially unobtainable by the human insofar as he is human. Humans are subject to the delusion that their lives have merit, likewise to the delusion that worldly happiness exists. We are blinded to God’s truth by our very selves; to believe in oneself, to like oneself, to be a self is quite simply to turn from God. The truth—the nothingness of the self, the all-ness of God—is one which, as selves, we cannot attain. We are all too at home in the world. Contemplative prayer aims at this truth; as such, it aims to destroy the self. This is an impossible, or rather an infinite task.

Section 2

St. Teresa’s fullest expression of her practice comes in her autobiography, written on the instructions of her confessor for the benefit of those who would follow her path. She describes the path of prayer here by means of an elaborate metaphor:

The beginner must think of himself as of one setting out to make a garden in which the Lord is to take His delight, yet in soil most unfruitful and full of weeds. His Majesty uproots the weeds and will set good plants in their stead. Let us suppose that this is already done—that a soul has resolved to practice prayer and has already begun to do so. We have now, by God's help, like good gardeners, to make these plants grow, and to water them carefully, so that they may not perish, but may produce flowers which shall send forth great fragrance to give refreshment to this Lord of ours, so that He may often come into the garden to take His pleasure and have His delight among these virtues.

Let us now consider how this garden can be watered, so that we may know what we have to do, what labor it will cost us, if the gain will outweigh the labor,and for how long this labor must be borne. It seems to me that the garden can be watered in four ways: by taking the water from a well, which costs us great labor; or by a water-wheel and buckets, when the water is drawn by a windlass (I have sometimes drawn it in this way: it is less laborious than the other and gives more water); or by a stream or a brook, which waters the ground much better, for it saturates it more thoroughly and there is less need to water it often, so that the gardener's labor is much less; or by heavy rain, when the Lord waters it with no labor of ours, a way incomparably better than any of those which have been described.

The four stages of prayer correspond to these four ways of watering the garden. This metaphor contains a strange and telling reduplication of the self: the religious seeker is at once the soil in which flowers will grow for the Lord’s pleasure and the gardener responsible for watering these flowers. Yet the flowers themselves are planted, not by the seeker, but by God: we do not choose the good, and cannot do it, without his help. The self, then, is not precisely the garden but the rocky soil which God will cause to bear fruit.

But the self has another role, too: as the gardener who waters the flowers. She does not possess the land and does not grow the flowers for her own sake, but she retains an obligation for their well-being. What does she aim at, what does she prepare for in this role? She aims for her own disappearance: for the form of prayer which is like rain soaking the ground of its own accord. In the progress of prayer, the subject as agent disappears step by step until nothing is left but the now fruitful soil, soaking in the water of the Lord.

Teresa goes on to explain that the water is our tears.

Section 3

Let us examine the stages more closely.

1. Mental prayer. This form of prayer consists in the sustained and methodical contemplation of the Passion of Christ. For such contemplation, elaborate methods were developed in Renaissance Christianity: the faithful were advised to imagine the sights, the smells, the despair of the stages of the Cross, to learn which bones and ligaments in Christ’s hands were torn when he was nailed to it. This is the entry into prayer for Teresa, too: she has a vision of Christ on the Mount of Olives and falls at his feet, sobbing at her own wickedness.

The contemplation of the suffering of Christ always interpellates the believer doubly. On the one hand, we are asked to recognize Christ as our ideal: Teresa recommends that the believer should desire nothing more than to assume his Cross and bear his burdens, and she herself often longs to die a thousand deaths in his name. But Christ, of course, is suffering for us: the paradox of God’s death is the horrifying mirror in which we see our own sin. To be worthy of this sacrifice, to accept a gift already given, is the task of the Christian. Or rather: to encounter his unworthiness, to live with this terrible guilt in one’s mind at every moment, is the task of the first stage of prayer.

In the first stage, he seeks to teach himself (a) that he is miserable; (b) that he is worthy of his misery; (c) that he is incapable of deserving better. This is perhaps the singular contribution of Christianity to the long, strange history of ascetic practice.

2. The Prayer of Quiet. Teresa recommends that the beginner ought to be fully satisfied with the first stage and should by no means seek anything higher than impotence. What is higher? The prayer of quiet begins when the subject’s straining is suddenly taken away because God relieves him (temporarily, alas!) of his will. The other faculties, imagination and the intellect, continue to operate, distracting him—but he no longer needs to make the choice to contemplate God; God is his only desire. The gardener’s work grows easier.

3. The Devotion of Union. In this stage, the will’s disappearance is accompanied by that of the imagination, memory, and intellect; the self dissolves into God. Teresa says this very sweetly of memory: “So the restless little moth of the memory has its wings burned, and can flutter no more.” The third stage is perhaps the sweetest. Teresa cannot comprehend it, but she tells us that God has explained it to her: “[The soul] dissolves utterly, my daughter, to rest more and more in Me. It is no longer itself that lives; it is I. As it cannot comprehend what it understands, it understands by not understanding.” The soul attains the joy of a resonant and glorious silence.

Such union cannot last, however; it too utterly erases the subject, and as such it is misleading. The promised identity between believer and God cannot occur among the living; the highest understanding of truth to which a living human can attain is the experience not of peace but of exile.

4. The Devotion of Rapture. Teresa describes rapture as an unimaginable suffering: the experience of the world itself as absolutely empty of warmth and value, combined with the knowledge that one is abandoned there. To be raised to this height is to be “crucified between earth and heaven,” or rather (as St. Paul describes it) to be “crucified unto the world.” In this stage, “God so strips [the soul] of everything that, strive though it may, it can find no companion on earth. Nor indeed does it wish for one; it would rather die in its solitude.” The very desire for companionship is a product of weakness: “By speaking of its pain, and complaining and seeking distractions, the soul is endeavoring to live, though much against the will of the spirit.”

But to be so utterly filled with a longing for that which one can never attain—Teresa’s story of her life reads at times like a love letter.

“O supreme cunning of the Lord, with what delicate skill did You work on Your miserable slave! You hid Yourself from me, and out of Your love You afflicted me with so delectable a death that my soul desired it never to cease.”

St. Teresa had many visions—she lived for weeks at a time in certainty of Christ’s bodily presence—but her most famous is this one:

It pleased the Lord that I should see this angel in the following way. He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire. They must be those who are called cherubim: they do not tell me their names but I am well aware that there is a great difference between certain angels and others, and between these and others still, of a kind that I could not possibly explain. In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one's soul be content with anything less than God. It is not bodily pain, but spiritual, though the body has a share in it -- indeed, a great share. So sweet are the colloquies of love which pass between the soul and God.

The highest form of prayer is this sweet and endless suffering. It is said that in her raptures, St. Teresa would be lifted on the ground and suspended in mid-air. Many nuns witnessed this and confirmed these stories. I do not think that she really levitated, but I am sure that those who said they saw it were not lying.

Section 4

Relation to Truth

It is oddly easy to forget that Christian ethical thought is oriented entirely around the subject’s relation to truth—that faith is the one thing needful. In St. Teresa’s thought, right action (duty) and happiness (eternal bliss) maintain significance not as goals to be sought in their own right but as consequences of right worship. The endless task of prayer is to comprehend God’s love and the subject’s perfidy; all else falls by the wayside.

Yet this very practice of prayer, through its inwardness, its exclusive relationship to the subject’s knowledge and salvation, begets a secondary elaboration of the relation to truth: a hermeneutics designed to guarantee the authenticity of the knowledge and experience developed in prayer. After all, nuns went into hysterics all the time in the Middle Ages, and the Catholic clergy were keenly aware that not every fainting fit came from God. Some were mere madness, others heresy; during St. Teresa’s lifetime, women were burned at the stake for professing to have experiences very much like her own. She is terrified that her visions may be temptations from the Devil. Such a risk was  all the more pressing because some of them made her happy: Why, indeed, should God favor her? She could not doubt her visions, but neither could she guarantee them on her own authority: the truth they seemed to reveal was not her truth but God’s. Thus a religion of inwardness, of a faith which addresses the individual in his radical solitude, generates a network of social relations designed to authenticate individual experience.

Relation to Others 

St. Teresa lived her life in a nunnery, under the absolute authority of her prioress and her (male) confessors. When she first began to see things, she waged a long and disturbing battle with her confessors on the subject. She could not believe that such things could come from the devil, but they were convinced of it. She won—her canonization, a mere 40 years after her death, is evidence enough of this. Under what conditions was it possible to mediate between the absolutely universal dictates of the church and the radically singular, even incommunicable, experience of the rapture? There were three such conditions:

1. Confession. Given that human beings, such as they are, are inadequate to the truth, constantly deceived by pride and vanity, confession plays a central role in Catholic mystical practice. The individual may be deceived, but his confessor cannot be because Confession is a sacrament: it is guaranteed by Christ himself. St. Teresa won her cause in large part because she convinced her confessors.

2. Virtue. In St. Teresa’s writing, good works and the care of souls are thought not as the center of ethical practice but as a sign of its progress. She asks—how could the Devil send visions which make me act more righteously, or which allow me to show wicked men the light? “You shall know the tree by its fruit.” Yet prayer is not oriented toward such good works; to save one’s soul is an end in itself. Good works—the entire edifice of human relations—have value primarily as signifiers.

3. Dogma. Teresa says again and again that if her visions were to contradict Church dogma in the least detail, she would know them as Satanic right away. Christ himself cannot (or rather, would never) contradict the teachings of his church. We forget what dogma meant in Catholic Europe; we forget even the possibility of an ethically obligatory limitation on thought.

Relation to Self

Dogma, confession, and works provide the necessary link between the truth of individual experience as revealed in prayer and the Word as it is written. This dogma underlies what we might call the two antinomies of Catholic ethical experience.

The first of these, the antinomy of freedom, might be expressed as follows: the subject is always sovereign enough to sin, but never free enough to do good without grace. Catholic dogma constitutes the subject as ineradicably guilty, and such ineradicable guilt is unthinkable—or rather, not to be thought. Whenever St. Teresa describes herself doing something good—breaking off a distracting friendship, say, or eliminating a bad habit—she thanks God for granting her the strength to do it; yet when any evil befalls her, it is she herself who must bear the blame. If the Devil himself tempts her, he is permitted to do so because of her sins. The subject’s sovereignty, evil as such, can do nothing but evil.

The second antinomy is that of humility. St. Teresa distinguishes between “true” and “false” humility, and inveighs against the latter. This false humility is not what we might guess from our own experience, the nasty habit of priding oneself on one’s self-effacement, but something stranger. In her youth, St. Teresa was tempted to cease practicing prayer because it gave her too much pleasure, more than a sinful creature like her could ever deserve; this, she says, is false humility. The falsely humble woman believes herself incapable of receiving God’s grace. This, even though the true humility—the belief that one is unworthy of God’s grace—is the primary condition of salvation. The faithful must never believe that they have earned grace, yet they must always be ready to receive it.

These paired unthinkabilities—the absolute wickedness of man as free, the absolute love of God for such creatures—orient a spiritual practice aimed at the erasure of the subject. The gardener has absolute responsibility for the garden which he tends so poorly—but only as a caretaker awaiting the rain which will replace him.


Our culture has forgotten Christian mysticism, almost entirely and surprisingly quickly. Perhaps we should congratulate ourselves. Our ethical practices, in their teeming variety, aim one and all at happiness in this life, and they mostly seek it through an apotheosis of selfhood; to become what one is in the time that one has is our goal, and even our Christians expect a reward for their efforts. But we should not forget that Kant had the judgment of twenty centuries behind him when he wrote: “If we calculate the value of a human life in the pleasure it gives to the one who lives it, its value will be less than nothing.” The experience of Teresa of Avila, morbid and frightening though it is at times, speaks to a very old human desire: the will to be freed from the sorry shell of selfhood, to be penetrated and consumed by the divine.

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