(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Little is known of the author of a work that was to influence one of Spain’s most famous mystics, Saint Teresa of Ávila, and through her, countless others. Francisco de Osuna was ordained about 1519-1520 and three years later entered a Franciscan monastery, where, as a guide for meditation, he formulated maxims and arranged them in alphabetical order. He composed three such alphabets, each with twenty-three distichs to correspond with the twenty-two letters and tilde of the Spanish alphabet, and later glossed them as treatises on the Passion (1528), prayer and ascetic practices (1530), and recollection (1527). A total of six alphabets appeared, though not all follow the alphabetical format: Ley de amor (1530; law of love), fifty-one rules of love; Norte de los estados (1531; the North Star of ranks), advice to people in all social ranks on Christian ideals; and Gracioso convite (1530; gracious banquet), on the Eucharist. Osuna’s life was devoted to preaching and writing in both Spanish and Latin during a time of religious renewal and ferment in Spain. His work in the Franciscan order took him to France, Belgium, and Italy.

Osuna wrote during a fertile yet dangerous time in Spain. Mysticism was in the air in the sixteenth century, fostered by translations in Spanish of the writings of early and later mystics such as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart, Bernard of Clairvaux, and John Gerson; translations of the New Testament; the ideas of Desiderius Erasmus and interiorized Christianity; and the practice and teaching of mental prayer in and out of monasteries. In the forefront of the push for a Christianity purified of extraneous external practices were laywomen who, with laymen and religious, especially Franciscan priests, inspired small gatherings for the purpose of prayer. Among the charismatic women leaders were Francisca Hernández and Isabel de la Cruz, both of whom were brought before the Inquisition on charges that included teaching quietist doctrines.

The practice that was sure to arouse the suspicion of the Inquisition was mental prayer, which, defined briefly, is to think about the meaning of words that are said, whether aloud or silently. On the basis of this definition, mental prayer sounds innocent, but when some advocates professed their utter inability to do anything whatsoever in prayer except abandon themselves to divine grace, the ranks of the prayerful split and the stage was set for the Inquisition to attack. On one side were the advocates of dejamiento (abandonment), who went so far in the abandon to God’s grace that they denied the efficacy of virtuous deeds, vocal prayer, external devotion, penitence, and even the Eucharist, claiming, in the last instance, that the Eucharist was more effectively present in the heart than in a bit of bread. Opposing them were the defenders of recogimiento, or recollection, who accepted the sacramental and devotional life of the Church while nourishing an inner prayer that at least in the beginning stages required mental effort.

Osuna clearly was in the camp of the second group; his Third Spiritual Alphabet is not only a personal statement of belief in the prayer of recollection but also its most eloquent description and bold defense. To appreciate the vigor of the treatise and its author’s courage, we need to remember that only two years before its publication, the Inquisition had made its first public statement against the alumbrados (enlightened ones), condemning their practice of dejamiento.

The twenty-three treatises of The Third Spiritual Alphabet trace the journey inward in terms of recollection. The initial five treatises are a preparation for the journey, which is to be made primarily through the heart....

(The entire section is 1558 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Beaumont, David Joseph. “Prayer and the Contemplative Life in Francisco de Osuna’s Third Spiritual Alphabet.” Master’s thesis. Berkeley, Calif.: Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, 1988. A rare study of the work, by a student of the Dominican order.

Calvert, Laura. Francisco de Osuna and the Spirit of the Letter. Chapel Hill: North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, 1973. A careful and illuminating study.