Celebrating an anniversary, particularly a significant 500 years, makes us recall the blessings that flow into our lives in its wake. St Teresa certainly made a mark on history and she loved to celebrate. She captivated many hearts across the centuries and presented prayer as a desirable and sure way to live in the joy of God’s unfathomable love, pointing the direction and opening a gateway to a spiritual treasury. From her own deep experience she shared the wisdom she discovered in the depths of her heart and encouraged us to do the same. With Teresa we discover the value of contemplative prayer in our lives for the Church and the world; it expands the mind and heart to make men and women bearers of light within history.
Today St Teresa invites us to walk her Camino – not by foot and mule cart, but a Camino in spirit, an interior journey with her, as she steps out of the pages of history and forges a path to union with God in prayer mapped out in her writings. We shall meet her as a joyous and loving person, a woman of prayer, of wisdom with the ability to understand and explain her experiences, generous and warmhearted, confident in trust, noted for her humility and truth, her honesty and candour, perceptive and vivacious with a wit that charmed and won others for God. These are the gifts she shares with us in her writings which place her among the greatest of Christian mystics. Her books are brilliant revelations of spiritual teaching, though she was a reluctant writer occupied with the daily business of her monasteries yet always pressing on to new horizons and further foundations.
As she took up her quill pen to begin the Story of her Life words spilled over in prayer: “May God be forever blessed! … We hope to see more clearly the great things He has done for us and praise Him for ever!” Her life focused on God, always committed in faith, confident in love. 500 years later we celebrate with her in joyous gratitude, warmed by the ardor of her love and friendship with God which she shared with others so generously.
The more deeply she entered into God’s love the more Teresa’s heart expanded in prayer and in her Carmelite calling her love embraced the world. Love will not be idle, and prayer is not idle. It was urging her to reach out to others and bring them into the ambit of God’s plan by opening their lives to grace and contemplative prayer which is the deepest source of energy and compassion for a needy world.
So began the adventures of her Foundations – a story that brings us to the present day. Her first venture was in inauspicious circumstances when she moved secretly from the large Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, to live her Carmelite life of simplicity and poverty in a humble little house with four young Sisters in this same town. Not only did this cause an uprising of the local population and a heated law suit, but Teresa had to return to the Incarnation and await the verdict until she was permitted to return to her four orphan sisters. Her faith prevailed and her work continued.
It would be a challenge to set off in her company along the Camino she travelled in 16th c. Spain by hot dusty roads, in bumpy wagons to inhospitable rooms at the end of the day but on she went to make 17 new foundations, from Avila to Medina, Toledo to Salamanca and much further in those last 20 years of her life, despite wretched health and with limited means. Convinced it was in the Divine plan she sought light in prayer and hastened on.
To be fully human is to be at home with God who dwells within us and draws us into the mystery of love. Teresa is recognized as a teacher of mystical prayer, the first woman to be declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970 and so in this introduction we open our hearts and minds to walk with her in spirit along paths of prayer and learn more of her teaching from some of the main themes of her writings. Fresh and inspiring as ever, these classics of spirituality are still studied for the wealth of wisdom they contain, particularly the four major works, The Life, The Way of Perfection, The Interior Castle and The Foundations.
Each reveals rare treasures of the spiritual life and shows us how to find Christ in prayer – but be warned! Before we can arrive at the goal we must build foundations on a life of virtue. Teresa, the realist, writes of real proven love for one another, of the detachment that makes us free and of humility which is truth. She seems to converse, spontaneously and intimately, her vital personality shining through the homely digressions. How much poorer we would be without the personal account of her spiritual journey, written in her original, inimitable prose, with interruptions and repetitions. The freshness of her creative imagination impresses lively images and authenticity.
Time was a luxury for Teresa even in the 16th century, but she continued to write hundreds of letters long into the night, instructing, enquiring, requesting, nursing her newly-founded communities with a mother’s concern. She was a leader who inspired others besides being the astute business woman with an eye to quality. Usually she was discerning of character though sometimes she was disappointed, as her letters make obvious.
In the ‘Book of her Life’, an early spiritual autobiography intended for her confessors, Teresa describes her mystical experiences with clarity and frequently addresses the Divine Majesty as if in colloquy. It is reassuring for us when she explains: “Mental prayer is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time to be alone with him who we know loves us.” (Life 8:5) This invitation is for all and no one is excluded. Grace is God’s gift of Himself, His presence in our lives. “God’s gift of All gives meaning to the Nothing that we are.” (Ascent 11:v) The motivating force of her life was pure and constant fidelity to her Divine Lord and this friendship animated all her relationships so that she could give others ‘the look of love they so much desire.’ Strangers became friends, for all received genuine care and consideration.
She was absorbed in Christ, the intimate companion Teresa found as she lived the Gospels. She liked to place herself in scenes where she could be close to Him, like that other great lover, Magdalen, and this was often her habit after Communion. She wanted to be faithful to the end and to greet him, the living and Risen One, after the Resurrection in the joy of Easter dawn.
She had an affection for the Samaritan woman and would imagine herself at the well asking for that living water to satisfy her thirst for love so that she would have more to give to others. (L.30:18) The image of water fascinated her: we can think of the flowing fountains and aqueducts in Moorish palaces, cooling waters which refreshed the arid landscape of Spain.
In one of her most famous allegories she describes the stages of prayer as four ways of watering a garden. In this case the garden is the soul and it is the Lord who is cultivating a beautiful creation, where seeds of virtues are planted and tended for His pleasure. There are four different ways to water this garden. Water can be drawn up from a well laboriously or it may be brought by means of a water wheel and irrigation channel with less effort. It may flow from a river or stream more plentifully or, best of all, the rain falls and soaks the ground without any labor of ours and the garden flourishes.
In the early stages of the spiritual life one must apply oneself to become recollected. We tire easily but with ‘determined determination’ must persevere until the season when the gardener is ready for new growth. Where the streams flow there is great reward until eventually the rain falls abundantly and freely. The Prayer of Quiet leads to the Prayer of Union. It is sheer grace we cannot earn but which brings forth fruit and flowers to the delight of all. (Life Ch 11-22)
She loved to pray the Our Father, given to us by Our Lord Himself. In the Way of Perfection she advises on how to proceed gently, remaining in the Lord’s company, praying slowly over the words and pondering them as we are moved. Thus vocal prayer leads to contemplation. (WP Ch 27-37) She herself had extraordinary experiences which are not given to everyone and there was an intensity about her spirit, a quality often found in those who must go ahead and lead others.
Towards the end of her life after 15 intensive years of travelling and setting up foundations, she found herself back in Toledo in 1577. Time was running out and Fr Gracian requested her to write more about the ways God leads souls since the earlier Book of her Life was not accessible while it was under examination by the inquisition, wary of holy women who might stray from straight paths. Remember it was the period of the Council of Trent and Spain under Philip 11 took up the task of reinforcing the Church and unifying the Catholic kingdom. (The Book was nevertheless declared to be free of errors) The fact that she was a woman, not an educated theologian, caused suspicion, but Teresa had learned from life’s experiences and her observations are so acute that she saw beyond narrow walls to authentic and lasting values.
So came about her masterpiece, the “Interior Castle”, written in great haste between journeys, interrupted for several months. Of all her works it is the most coherent and organized. Teresa encourages us to explore the richness of our own interior depths which she compares to a magnificent diamond or crystal of many facets, reflecting light and inexhaustible wonders. The soul is like a castle of many rooms which fascinate and draw us inwards, where we are free to wander at will. The further we go the more we discover. The Spanish word, ‘moranas’, is more comfortable than mansion, which suggests grandeur and pretentious wealth. It seems that St Teresa had in mind the 14th chapter of St John’s Gospel: “There are many rooms in my Father’s house” and “All who love me will keep my word and my Father will love them and we shall come to them and make our home (our dwelling) with them.” (Jn 14: 2, 24) As we read further we recognize ourselves and patterns of behavior which help or hinder progress for Teresa was a realist with a practical genius, for all her mystical gifts. For us, God, the Supreme Being and most profound mystery, has a name. We know him in Jesus, his Incarnate Word, the Beloved who shows us the Father’s love and gives us His Spirit. In fact God lives within us unbounded by space and time; as St Paul taught: “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
When we come to the Third Dwelling there is more security and in the Fourth the Lord takes over more of the work as we are drawn to be more still and silent. Gradually a transformation is taking place and the soul enters into more delicate awareness of its relationship and encounter with the other. “We can suffer any disquiet,” she says, “if we find peace within” (IC iv, 1,12)
She is always full of surprises:-
One of Teresa’s most brilliant illustrations appears in the Fifth Dwelling. She thinks of the silkworm growing from a minute seed, (the egg), feeding on the mulberry leaves and then spinning for itself a cocoon where it will enclose itself and die. Eventually it will emerge, a small fragile butterfly with wings and now it can fly. It has newfound freedom and beauty. A wondrous transformation has taken place. Teresa likens this to our dying to self and rising with Christ, as we live the Paschal mystery through suffering to the glory of Resurrection. Can you believe it? Just look at creation.
The culmination of the mystical journey upon reaching the Seventh Dwelling is Spiritual Marriage when the soul is totally at one with the Beloved sealed in a permanent union. As rain falling into the river becomes that river or the stream flowing into the sea or light streaming into a room from separate windows cannot be separated. Truth enlightens all and the three persons of the Trinity communicate love and peace in silent embrace. God is both Noun and Verb.
What is more, to have participation in the life and love of the Trinity means that one can share that life with others without it diminishing in any degree, for those who draw near to God do not have to withdraw from real life but rather become truly close to others. The harmony within opens the person to compassion and unselfishness and enables that one to grow as a person, being totally at peace with itself and the world. ‘This is the reason for prayer…the birth always of good works…’ (IC VII 4:15) Let us not underestimate the influence we have on each other because it is in the here and now that God becomes present to us. Our companions on the same journey might even be other little Thereses, unrecognized and unappreciated! Indeed both Teresa and Therese discovered that “The Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our works as at the love with which they are done.” (IC VII 4:15) Above all she had a relationship with Christ that enabled her to overcome obstacles and accomplish so much. Christ is her ‘Living Book’, the source of her generous life of love.
Teresa, that ‘undaunted daughter of desires,’ ever open to God’s stirring in the human heart, was transformed with sanctity and the radiance of her intimate friendship with God. This is ultimately the essence of her lasting attraction. This is our deepest desire too, yet it is a rare gift to find someone who can communicate it with Teresa’s sincerity and candor.
As we celebrate and rejoice in the blessings that have come to us personally and the far-reaching graces across the centuries through the fidelity of this great friend of God, we can go forward in confidence knowing that Our Incarnate Lord has come to meet us. When we dare to go beyond our own narrow boundaries true love flourishes and light shines, revealed in the Gospels when we listen attentively and ponder them faithfully.
Pope Francis gave us the Gospel of Joy, ‘Evangelium Gaudii’ so that we encounter Christ in a joy that frees and illuminates us. St Teresa shows us how we can live in that joy which enriches our lives and inspires heroism to overcome obstacles, surmount barriers and experience supernatural grace capable of transforming the whole being. The Carmelite Way, St Teresa’s Way, gives everyone the encouragement to cultivate the contemplative dimension which holds the promise of the past, the passion for the present and the courage to look to the future, as Pope Francis has suggested. (cf. EG 199 & Homily 16.12.13) Thus we return to our Carmelite tradition and see Love as “Allegiance to Jesus Christ”, and taking up Teresa’s desires, treasure the beauty of intimate friendship with the One who loves us into being and transforms our lives to be prophets of hope in our 21st century. Teresa beckons - her Camino leads us to live love to the full and carry it to our world.