Saturday, July 3, 2010


[monastery in Rytwiany, a  small town in the Mountains of the Holy Cross region in central Poland; Hermitage of the Gold Forest]

This is not a Carmelite convent, but it's Carmel that has always fascinated me, its contemplative concentration. I have read three biographies of St. Teresa of Avila. One time I had a trance-like vision of her and heard the one-sentence message she spoke to me. It was a time when my interest in poetry was waning, and I wondered if I should give any more of my time and life to it.  But it wasn't really a matter of poetry, I later came to understand; it was about being a writer in the larger sense. I was not to be silent, bashful, withdrawing my voice from the concordance. 

No Te Calles
Do not be bashful with God.
                                   ~ Teresa of Avila

She scribbles with a quill, bent over her desk –
her slim escritorio in heaven,
if that’s what these drifts

of white around us mean – clouds, winds.
Glances at me, says, No te calles.
Resumes her writing. Is erased.

It means, “Don’t fall silent.” Yes.
Her whisper like a hawk cry across the city:
Enter your own Carmel.

With my sensuality? Yes. I know Teresa’s
secret: she’s in love. He stands among 
the lilies. In the doorway. By the side 

of her narrow bed. I know the nun’s 
secret, the soul of any saint,
because I have two voices, two selves:

one higher-pitched, Hispanic, sailing west.
My other self is an atheist. Yet I shiver
every time I hear the word “Carmel.”

My low-pitched self, my bashful dove,
you’re safe – all houses full. She writes,
“If, after the second time, you still

look forward to the visit from your family,
then the life of the soul is not for you.”
I would not be looking forward.

Family – lost keys to forgotten doors.
But friends, my living rosary of friends –
and morning glories’ crumpled

trumpets at my window,
and the Castilian lisping in the sway
of a eucalyptus grove – why forsake

the only paradise I have? She says,
“If only we took care to remember
what a Guest we have within,

we would not abandon ourselves
to the things of the world.”
But the lilies, are they not the smile of God?

I say “Madre mia, I don’t even know
how to pray.” She says, No te calles.
And again the shiver, though I know it

can’t be true, when she died,
the room filled with the scent of flowers.


On a personal note: I got interested again in my maternal grandmother's maiden name, Rytwinska. For years I kept wondering if that's perhaps a polonized form of Ryvin, the "t" being a spelling error of some provincial clerk. But going by my mother's statement that it comes from a place named Rytwiny, I finally (!!!) googled Rytwiny. It's a village not far from Zielona Gora -- the "Green Mountain" in my dream, the dream where I saw Cecilia on the tower, calling to me across the ocean and two continents that she found the one place in Poland that was not stained by the shadow of the war.

True, Jews were often called after a place  -- many had "habitational names" -- so there is still some possibility of a Jewish connection, but it's tenuous. "Rytwiner" wd be definitely Jewish, but Rytwinski sounds simply Polish. One might as well posit minor nobility, also typically named after a place, esp a rural place that could indicate an estate. The name isn't common, but it's not exactly rare either. Assuming a spelling error, it's possible that the name was once Rytwianski, derived from a little town in the Holy Cross Mountains in Central Poland (this small range includes the Bald Mountain, the site of witches' sabbath). This leaves my plausible but non-traceable Jewish ancestry a mystery as always, but it matters to me less and less. Culture trumps genes, and Catholicism left an indelible imprint. 

Saint Teresa of Avila had Jewish ancestry (Saint John of the Cross had both Jewish and Arab ancestry) -- does it matter? Did it matter to them? If so, it probably made them feel all the more close to the whole Judeo-Christian tradition. In the case of San Juan de la Cruz, we know of his great love for the Song of Songs, which inspired his own famous canticle from The Dark Night of the Soul.  I especially love the ending, the last three lines of the last stanza

all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

Stanzas of the Soul

1. One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
-- ah, the sheer grace! --
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
-- ah, the sheer grace! --
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
-- him I knew so well --
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

    ~ San Juan de la Cruz
Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, revised edition (1991) [ Copyright ICS Publications. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, if this copyright notice is included. Maintained by the Austrian Province of the Teresian Carmel ]

Beautiful church and I enjoyed the history that follows the name of your grandmother. Makes me wish I knew more of my ancestors, especially those that migrated from Scotland. But genealogy is such a task and my time is devoted to poetry.

There is a family disagreement about the  family name. some say it was MacNichols, shortened to Nichols. How much we are influenced by those who were before us.

If only we had listened more diligently to the stories of our elders but when I was a child visits were rare because of travel. It took much longer to get from place to place than it does now. My father had a Model T and later a Pierce Arrow and even later a Willy's with a rumble seat.

I was very struck by your statement, 

How much we are influenced by those who were before us. The material and spiritual foundation they laid, the way their molded their children's character. And we don't even know. Before my grandmother, I have only a hint of the family's tragedies and triumphs. I can sense the flames in that sepia light. 

I certainly wish I'd asked more questions while my parents were still alive. And I wish I didn't carelessly lose the little piece of paper where I wrote down the family names that went back as far as my mother could remember. It just wasn't precious to me at the time. All I wanted to think of was the future.

My paternal grandmother had an odd name, "Miazek" -- possibly a misspelling of a French-Belgian name (she did not look Slavic, either, but she didn't look Jewish either -- it was something different). My father, in a jocular way, talked about his Napoleonic ancestor, just as my mother, half-believing, I think, talked about her medieval Spanish ancestor, who allegedly rendered some services to the Polish king. She herself was puzzled over her possible/probable Jewish roots. It wasn't denial, but plain ignorance. Every relative she knew was a Catholic.

Still, my mother did get stopped and interrogated by the Nazis at various times, and had to prove that she was Catholic. One time she was asked, "How many gods are there?" – as if Judaism weren’t monotheistic. This was the time she liked to recall, because she could laugh about it. In fact her appearance made it particularly dangerous for her to be a member of the Resistance.

To come back to that “legendary” medieval Spanish ancestor, my almost equally legendary great-uncle Klemens, an old bachelor, a self-taught intellectual and amateur scholar whose most treasured possession was an etymological dictionary, claimed that “rytwiny” was a name for a piece land given by a king in payment for special services. I never had the motivation, time or resources to try to verify this. Besides, the alleged Spanish ancestor seemed less real than Don Quixote to me. Then one of my cousins married an erudite former Jesuit priest who specialized in old Latin documents and manuscripts. And behold, he said he’d traced the family back to the Middle Ages.

You’d think I’d be excited. But I felt, “What else is new?” And even then, I failed to ask questions, and only now I regret it. I guess it’s a sign of having become more American than I’d like to admit, this curiosity that so many Americans have about their ancestors, having been cut off from those countless European cemeteries, ancestry being everywhere and commonplace. It seemed strange to me at first, this American fascination with genealogy – almost like adoptive children searching for years, sometimes their whole life, for their biological parents.

How do I pull together this post that tries to weave together Carmel, my Spanish ancestor, and even Great Uncle Klemens? Well, my grandmother’s mother was a lay nun. Being married, she could not be enclosed in a convent as a bride of Christ, but in her way she tried to be a saint (ambition runs in my family). Each evening she walked from neighbor to neighbor, asking if she perhaps offended them, and if so, asking forgiveness. She would not go to bad until she felt forgiven and forgiving, blessed and blessing others.

As for Antonina's rather wild hat, the tendency to wear strange headgear also seems to run in the family. But look at the passion in those eyes. I think she has entered her own Carmel



  1. I like everything about this post! I once tried to connect with St Teresa through poetry--came up with a series, "Inside Teresa's Castle," based on her "Interior...but clearly I lack the connection that you have. The poem is wonderful. I've tried to connect with Saint John of the Cross, too, but I think I've come to believe that even though I am a totally non-observant Jew, I still want to tell all those cloistered folk--why don't you just find a nice Jewish boy (or girl) and settle down to kids and family. And yet, there's still a resistant strain of Catholic spirituality within me--and thanks for helping to bring it out here.

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  3. Yes, "if you want to bear the cross, get married." Oh well, everyone has two selves, each dreaming of a secret third. There is no removing the Catholic imprint. And now I am glad . . . it makes me feel richer.

    Saint John of the Cross committed a crime, out of piety of course: in the name of detachment, he burned all the letters he'd received from Teresa. But this he did only toward the end of his life, admitting it was a very great attachment.

    Catholic spirituality, in the sense of being a "deep Catholic," has little to do with church Catholicism -- except for that wonderful radiant dusk that old churches have. But I am thrilled at how many-stranded the emerging new spirituality has become. We no longer have to try to fit into any narrow doctrine.

  4. Addendum: After reading Mark Salzman's "Awake," I am completely cured of my fantasies of entering Carmel (in the literal, not metaphorical sense. The book presented daily life in the convent, and my constant response was "the horror, the horror." It's a very poetic, gorgeously written book, and yet -- it entirely cured me of my fantasies.