There is a story that a young novice once approached an elderly monk, asking if he could speak with him about his prayer and his life in the monastery. The old man consented. Things had not been easy, the young man admitted. His prayer often felt aimless and dry, he had underestimated the challenges of living in community, and he was struggling with loneliness and countless distractions. “Ah yes,” said the old monk, “the first fifty years or so are the hardest, but it gets easier after that.”
St Teresa of Avila, whom we remember today, might well have understood the old man’s words. Born in 1515, she entered the Carmelites when she was twenty-one years old – a decision motivated, she later recognized, much more by the fear of purgatory than by the love of God. For several years she struggled with a severe illness, but then seemed to settle into the life of the convent. Her life there was unremarkable. She seemed cheerful and content, although later writings reveal the torment and dissatisfaction of her inner life during this time. Looking back on her first twenty years in the convent, she described it as a time when she constantly failed God, and was buffeted on “that stormy sea, often falling in this way, each time rising again, but to little purpose, as I would only fall once more.”[i]
She spoke candidly about her difficulties in prayer:
“Over a period of several years, [she wrote], I was more occupied in wishing my hour of prayer were over, and in listening whenever the clock struck, than in thinking of things that were good. Again and again I would rather have done any severe penance that might have been given me than practice recollection as a preliminary to prayer. Whenever I entered the oratory I used to feel so depressed that I had to summon up all my courage to make myself pray at all.”[ii]
Her words offer comfort and hope for those of us who have attempted to pray in a disciplined and regular way, and who can relate to her struggles.
“Her progress was not helped by the lax conditions of the convent. [Robert Ellsberg tells us in his book, Blessed Among All Women] The strictness of the original Carmelite rule had been so mitigated over the years that the convent in Avila had come to resemble a boarding house for wealthy maidens more than a house of prayer. The enclosure was not seriously maintained, and the nuns spent much of their time in the parlor entertaining visitors and gentlemen callers.” [iii]
Teresa loathed the mediocrity of her spiritual life, and realized that she was “torn between God and the world.”
“At the age of thirty-nine, however, [Ellsberg reports], Teresa had an experience of conversion. It was sparked when she happened to glance, one day, at an image of the suffering Christ on the cross. Instantly she was filled with loathing for the mediocrity of her spiritual life, and she determined to devote herself more seriously to a life of prayer. Almost immediately upon this resolution she began to experience the sensation of God’s love, transforming her from within.”
Three years after her conversion,
“she decided to establish a new reformed Carmelite house, returning to the spirit of the original primitive Rule of Carmel… Her new community was known as the Discalced (or ‘shoeless’) Carmelites. In fact the nuns wore hemp sandals, but their name referred to the strict poverty that was a feature of Teresa’s reform. Her nuns were to seek no endowments but to live entirely by alms and their own labor. A strict enclosure was to be maintained, along with a vegetarian diet and a rigorous schedule of prayer.”[iv]
The reform spread, as did Teresa’s reputation. Ellsberg describes her as “one of the towering figures in Christian history”:
“She was a mystic, a religious reformer, the founder of seventeen convents, the author of four books, and one of the outstanding masters of Christian prayer. In light of these accomplishments it is not surprising to learn that she possessed a vivid and charismatic personality. She could be at turns charming, imperious, irreverent and impossible, depending on the circumstances and the provocation. But there was little doubt among any she encountered that her courage and wisdom were rooted in a special relationship with God.”[v]
She also began to experience visions, moments of intense awareness of God’s deep and abiding love for her. One of her most powerful visions took place in the year 1559, in which she experienced the spiritual wounding, or “transverberation,” of her heart.
“At her left side Teresa beheld an angel who held a golden spear with a flaming tip, with which he pierced her heart again and again. Teresa later wrote that each time the angel withdrew the spear she was ‘left completely afire with a great love for God,’ and knew that her soul would ‘never be content with anything less than God.’”[vi]
Teresa was a great lover of God. Her life became a passionate love affair with the Most High. When she was about 60 years old, the spiritual leaders of the Carmelite order asked her to write a book on the subject of prayer. Teresa talked about how intimidated she was to be writing on such an expansive topic, but she was given a vision of how prayer could be explained and proceeded with the assignment. The book, The Interior Castle, was published in 1577. In it Teresa uses the analogy of a castle to describe the depths of intimacy with God that the human spirit passes through over a lifetime dedicated to prayer and contemplation. Drawing from her own experience, she describes seven levels, referred to as ‘mansions’ or dwellings, each one closer to the heart of God and further from attachment to the things of the world, each one involving both blessing and struggle.
The first three dwellings, or “mansions,” have to do with the initial stages of prayer, in which we are converted and initiated into the spiritual life, gradually learning the ways of God, until we are established in the faith and have become fruitful in serving others. In these stages, we sense God’s presence in our lives, we find worship and Christian fellowship meaningful, and we are engaged by God’s call to serve. For many Christians, this is as far as the journey goes; they learn to become productive and faithful servants of God in the Church and in the world – and this is good.
But Teresa describes ways in which some souls continue to grow in intimacy with God. In the remaining four “mansions,” Teresa describes an awakening in God’s love that prompts both a desire for more of God and feelings of dissatisfaction or even frustration with our previous spiritual practices. We undergo a transition, moving from “doing” to “being,” in which there is a growing desire for silence and solitude, and an ever-deepening yearning for God. The soul becomes dissatisfied with how little it loves God and feels the pains of growth; it longs for a greater union with God. We find ourselves willing to abandon things previously valued, but that now seem to stand in the way. Finally, in the Seventh Mansion, the soul is united to God, and abides in God with an attentive, trusting silence. It has lost its self-awareness and is more teachable than ever. The desire to identify with Christ enables it to embrace life’s suffering in a new way, with joy. “God Alone” has become its sole focus.
We may inhabit these various dwellings for periods of time, moving backward at times and forward at other times. Gradually the One who is Love draws us onward, and eventually we are united with God in such a way that we can say, as Paul says, that “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
United with God the soul is at rest. Teresa, from this place of stillness, filled with a deep and abiding love for God that trusts God completely for all things, is able to offer this advice:
“Let nothing disturb you, nothing dismay you. All things are passing, God never changes. Patient endurance attains all things… God alone suffices.”
This is the perspective of those who rest in God. No matter what their outward circumstances might be, their minds and hearts remain in peace, because they are stayed on God, because they trust in God. Inspired by Teresa’s teaching as well as by her example, we “press on,” as St Paul says, “suffering the loss of all things” for the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus (our) Lord” (cf. Phil 3:7ff). May God grant us all the grace to persevere in this desire to see him, to know him, and to love him, with all our hearts.
[i] duBoulay, Shirley; Teresa of Avila [quoted in Celebrating the Saints: Daily Spiritual Readings for the Calendar of the Church of England; (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1998), p.376].
[ii] Ibid, p.377.
[iii] Ellsberg, Robert; Blessed Among Women: Women Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; (New York: Crossroads Publishing Co., 2005); pp.124-5.
[iv] Ibid, p.125.
[v] Ibid. p.124.
[vi] Reynolds, Stephen (compiler); For All the Saints: Prayers and Readings for Saints’ Days According to the Calendar of the Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada; (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1994); p.304.
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