Romans 8:22-27; Psalm 42:1-7; Matthew 5:13-16
Today in the calendar of the church we remember the sixteenth-century nun, abbess, and mystic Teresa of Avila. Born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada to a family of partly Jewish ancestry, she lived at a time of incredible persecution of the Jews known as the Inquisition. Educated by Augustinian nuns, she began to feel called to the consecrated life and joined a Carmelite Order. She eventually became distracted by the mollified Rule of the Order and set out to found a reformed Order called the Discalced Carmelites. The word ‘discalced’ is derived from the Latin word meaning ‘without shoes.’ Throughout the course of 25 years, she traveled frequently establishing 17 convents of the reformed Order. She wrote many letters, poems, books on the religious life, as well as an autobiography: The Life of Teresa of Jesus.
While it would be easy to project a certain saintly color of piety on Teresa, her autobiography proves her to have been very unconventional for what we imagine a contemplative nun to be. She is said to have been a very passionate person, describing in her autobiography mystical visions, highly erotic in nature. She writes viscerally of one of these visions in which an angel repeatedly thrusts a golden lance into her heart: ‘I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.’ We can hear overtones of the Song of Solomon that seem to mix the essence of eros and agape, that is erotic love and Godly love. In her vision we experience her desire to be one with God.[i]
While she initially enjoyed a fruitful prayer life in her early religious vocation, she testifies to having entered a period of aridity lasting almost a decade during which she avoided intimacy with God. She writes: ‘I was more anxious that the hour I had determined to spend in prayer be over than I was to remain there.’ But counter to the human instinct for frequent stimulation, she remained committed to abiding with Jesus through the aridity, realizing that she was unable in and of herself to still her mind. In her faithfulness in prayer she found that the stilling of her heart and mind was a result of the intervention of God who then took possession of her. She was very mindful of the need for spiritual direction and sought out the advice and instruction of several directors during her lifetime, some who were very helpful and few her were not so much. When describing her experience of prayer to one such director, he became attracted to her erotically, eventually confessing to his own trouble with celibacy. It was through a Spiritual Director with good boundaries, the Jesuit Diego de Cetina, who suggested that her prayer be placed on a foundation of Jesus’s humanity. She began to experience Jesus as a companion: she companioned Jesus in the trials of his life, and He in turn companioned her.[ii]
She herself became a skilled instructor of prayer which emanated from her own prayer life, that which had been abundantly rich as well as boring and dry. She likened the life of prayer as tending a garden which delights God. She writes: ‘Beginners in prayer are those who draw up the water out of a well: this is a very laborious proceeding, for it will fatigue them to keep their senses recollected, which is a great labor because they have been accustomed to a life of distraction.’[iii] I have to admit this sounds like the experience of a modern day American, bombarded with stimuli: work, responsibilities, social media, advertising, and a promise that a better life is the result of what can be achieved, bought, won or conquered, rather than cultivating the gifts of the inner life. She continues: ‘Beginners must accustom themselves to pay no heed to what they see or hear, and they must practice doing this during hours of prayer; they must be alone, and in their solitude think over their past life—all of us, indeed, whether beginners or proficient, must do this frequently. Then they have to endeavor to meditate upon the life of Christ, and this fatigues their minds. Thus far we can make progress by ourselves—of course with the help of God, for without that, as is well known, we cannot think a single good thought. That is what is meant by beginning to draw up water from the well—and God grant there may be water in it! But that, at least, does not depend on us: our task is to draw it up and to do what we can to water the flowers. And God is so good that when, for reasons known to His Majesty, perhaps to our great advantage, He is pleased that the well should be dry, we, like good gardeners, do all that in us lies, and He keeps the flowers alive without water and makes the virtues grow.’[iv]
I cannot help but to hear her voice in the words of our own Fr. Congreve SSJE when he said: At times, when we have to wait and have nothing to do to occupy ourselves with, Oh! then it is not wasted time if we have thought of God in it, if we have looked into the face of Jesus. Then anything that we do at the end of such waiting times we do with a glory and a power to witness to Jesus which is, indeed, a precious result. Everything should become by degrees and act of communion with God.[v]
It was through the acknowledgement of her desire and thirst for God that Teresa was able to cultivate her spiritual life with Jesus as her companion, grounded incarnationally in a shared humanity and dependent on a recognition of God’s faithfulness in times of spiritual fatigue. It was this commitment to companioning Jesus that she found the strength and fortitude to help foster and develop the prayer lives of so many others who sought her for direction. Perhaps we too can glean wisdom from her example by naming a relationship with Jesus to be the one desire of our heart and to help cultivate that relationship by faithful tending of our spiritual gardens through prayer. When that prayer life seems arid and dry, then pray the words of the Psalmist: ‘As the deer longs for the waterbrooks, so longs my soul for you, O God.’ [vi] Then hold out our hands and receive a morsel of bread and a sip of wine, nourishment for the next step in our journey with Jesus. Teresa of Avila, 16th century nun, abbess, spiritual director, mystic, and lover of Jesus whom we remember today.
[i] Admin. “Sexuality and Spirituality: Bernini and the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.” Pneuma, 8 Nov. 2017, www.pneuma.org.uk/art/sexuality-and-spirituality-bernini-and-the-ecstasy-of-saint-teresa/.
[ii] O’Rourke, Christopher. “Not to Go without So Great a Good.” Presence, Ed. Nick Wagner. Bellvue: SDI, 2017. 6. Print
[iii] The Life of the Holy Mother Teresa of Jesus, Written by Herself, Chap. XI; in Complete Works, trans. Peers, vol. 1, pp. 65, 66-67, 70
[v] Woodgate, M. V. Father Congreve of Cowley. London: S.P.C.K, 1956. Print.
[vi] Psalm 42:1
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