Sr. Teresa Jerome OCDM delivered this paper on Friday morning the 22nd of May as part of the Symposium conducted by the Carmelite Centre to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of Saint Teresa of Avila
We are honouring the 500th birthday of St. Teresa, for us Carmelites she is our Holy Mother who has left us and the whole Church a great heritage. I would like to begin with a quote from her birthday poem, a few selected lines, which I think capture in Teresa’s poetic words some of the special moments of grace in her life. I have chosen three sections, the early years leading to her conversion, then establishing the reform and how she envisaged life in her Monasteries, and something about her writings.
I am Yours, born for you
What do you want of me?
If You will, give me prayer,
Or let me know dryness
Or darkness or sunlight.
Move me here or there.
Give me Calvary or Tabor,
Desert or fruitful land,
Sorrowing or exulting,
You alone live in me.
Yours I am, for You I was born
What do you want of me?
As Teresa’s life unfolded she found what God wanted of her, but like so many of us, she too had to search for her way, face the highs, the lows of her indecision, and she has passed her story on for us, the story of God’s work in her soul, God drawing her to holiness.
Teresa was an extraordinary woman – born in a Spain that was trying to close its eyes and ears to the religious and political upheaval that was smouldering in the European countries – the Spanish rulers were trying to control the Church and State of Spain in a firm and rigid grip with the Inquisition as watchdog over both the written word and the prayer of Spain’s saints!
Teresa of Avila came from a persecuted Jewish family, she broke out of the rigidity, simply by living, by developing and using her great gifts.
So much was against women, yet Teresa was able to write books which still speak to us today – she lamented being a woman because she was deprived of doing things for God which men were free to undertake, but her work has endured for centuries. She could not speak in the Church, yet she is an acclaimed Doctor of the Church with a world-wide audience, she was the foundress of a Reform within the ancient Order of Carmel, giving to her Monasteries the stamp of how she understood the Carmelite vocation and which has now spread to so many countries in the world—we might be different in culture, language, liturgy, but we can recognize each other as Carmelites, daughters of St. Teresa, our Holy Mother, a simple, joyful, friendly smile is a good sign!
What do you want of me? It took Teresa time to find what God wanted of her. When writing of the period of her life before deciding to enter the Incarnation she asked friends to pray that she would do God’s Will. There were really only two options for a young woman of her background, marriage or religious life. Marriage did not appeal to her, perhaps seeing her mother bearing nine children and dying at 33 was not a good role model. Neither did religious life appeal to her, and she tells with no hesitation that it was the fear of hell that pushed her decision to become a nun. But once she had decided and told her father, she said that nothing would make her change her mind. “I was so persistent in thoughts of honour”. –no going back on her “life decision” (a very different attitude to life decisions of today) She was a very strong, determined Spanish young lady, preserving her honour, and with plenty of umph and character! The reason for her choice? The Monastery was a safe place to save her soul. As she said herself, she was moved by servile fear, not by love. Her great desires to serve God and the Church would come later, after her conversion.
If You will give me prayer
Or let me know dryness
Or darkness or sunlight –
So Teresa went through all these landscapes of the spirit as she set out in her long struggle of almost twenty years with prayer – to live her life with integrity and truth as the Rule of Carmel challenges all of us to do – its call to silence and recollection, to live in allegiance to Our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in continual prayer. Teresa’s battle with prayer during these early years as a nun is a hard read. We can feel the tension and anguish, even as she recalls it, years later. It was a battle between friendship with God and friendship with the world, her friends, her attachments. She received graces, calls within herself from Our Lord, even what she would later realize were real encounters, mystical graces, to live a more radical, true following of her vocation. She had great desires to serve God but not having the firm purpose of will to give all to the inner call. “All the things of God made me happy; those of the world held me bound ....my spirit was not proceeding as lord but as slave”. They were hard years to live through and even for the reader today, the wonder is that she could keep on going, falling back and trying again; her determination well in evidence! I think that we have to remember that this is a mature Teresa writing, a holy woman, graced by God, looking back on her early life, judging herself from a new perspective – the kind of self-judgement we make during life, the opportunities we too have missed for a deeper “conversion”, that deeper turning to God, which we try to live each day.
Teresa knew dryness, darkness and moments of sunlight, before her agonized prayer to the suffering Lord, won her the grace to let go the “frivolities” of her friendships, the attachments that distracted her from total commitment to God’s Will, distracted her from a life of prayer with all that it demands. Teresa never set down a strict form of prayer, but she tells what she did, how she recollected herself, centred herself in God’s presence; her carefully worded definition of prayer in Ch 8. of The Life gives us an understanding of how she herself prayed. “Mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us”.
The Way of Perfection sets the foundation for prayer. Teresa states strongly that vocal prayer does not hinder mental prayer. All prayer is addressed to God. We must come to both mental and vocal prayer, the prayer of the liturgy, with the awareness to Whom we are speaking, reverence in God’s presence. No just saying words, thoughtless recitation, all should be addressed to Our Lord with reverence and respect. Those who read Spanish tell us that Teresa always addressed God and Our Lord with the formal Thou, while St. John of the Cross used the intimate You. ( It looses bit in the English but we get the idea.) While Teresa had great friendship and intimacy with Our Lord, she also had great respect. She reminds us to come to prayer with self-awareness, facing and acknowledging our own sinfulness, our brokenness and bringing to God our need for His loving mercy and forgiveness. In an attitude of reverence we praise, adore, offer our words of love and desire – share all with this Friend. Teresa allows us to share her own intimate colloquies with Our Lord which flow through all her writings.
While Teresa leads us into her way of prayer she is also adamant about building the solid foundation for prayer, the practise of the virtues – all the ascetical endeavour that must go into growing in “friendship with God”. She will repeat continually when teaching her nuns, the need to develop, strengthen the virtues ....detachment and humility (which always go together in Teresa’s teaching,) self-knowledge, charity, obedience, forgiveness. We must make progress in these virtues, her warning. “don’t stand still, don’t be dwarfs”!
Teresa gives instruction and encouragement all through The Way of Perfection. Her commentary on the Our Father, is an insight into how Teresa herself came to this prayer and what she could draw from her meditation. She does not “push” her reflections onto us, there is a great freedom and space in all her teaching, but she gives guide lines, suggestions. Her desire is that all will reach the prayer God is offering. As she said, “the complete gift of ourselves to God, the surrender of our will to His and detachment from creatures” This is the ideal and challenge she puts before her nuns, and indeed all of us. Not all of us will receive the extraordinary graces, they are not the important part, they are “extra”. If God gives them O.K. but the criterion for holiness is doing God’s will, love of the neighbour, charity. Teresa often stressed that holiness, depends on that, and holiness is what we are all called to, not just religious, it is the call addressed to everyone.
Teresa knew the sunlight of the wonderful mystical experiences she had of God’s love, the locutions, ecstasies, raptures that poured into her soul at the period before the Reform, these mystical graces that were preparing her for the mission she would have in the Church. It was a time of grace, but also a time of suffering, because grace always costs; she herself was amazed at the development of the virtues in her soul during this period.
Fr. Kavanagh writes in his introduction to The Way of Perfection, “Teresa never received revelations for the Church.....(he noted that many saints did) Her mystical life consisted in an inner experience of the content of Revelation” She was tireless in checking that all her mystical experiences were recounted to her confessors and were in conformity with Sacred Scripture - this gave her peace and assurance. Anything not valid, “tear it out, burn it” she begged those who censored her writings.
Move me here or there
Give me Calvary or Tabor.
When Teresa undertook the work of the Reform of Carmel she was aflame with desires to do great things for God but as she wrote in The Way of Perfection, “I realized that I was a woman.....and incapable of doing any of the useful things that I desired to do in the service of the Lord....as a result I resolved to do the little that was in my power”
The Church in 1562 was in a process of reform. The Council of Trent was in its final phase; the Reformation was in full swing and echoes of it reached Spain in some form which greatly disturbed Teresa. The Reform was to give her the opportunity to do something. Teresa and her friends were finally able to set up the small Monastery of St. Joseph’s in 1562. It is a long and interesting story but I would like to talk about what were Teresa’s hopes for the Monastery.
In setting up the Reform of Carmel Teresa’s ideal was to return to the original Rule of Carmel—to the life lived by those unnamed hermits on Mt. Carmel in the 1200s. In all the upheavals Carmel has been through during the centuries, the life had changed from the eremitical to the mendicant form of life...but in the heart of every Carmelite there lives the desire for the solitude and space of our early hermits, who left us a Rule and way of living that they treasured and which they brought to Europe when they were really squeezed out of the Holy Land—in the time of the Saracens.
Teresa’s desire was to recapture the spirit of the hermit way of life, to value silence and solitude and to live in continual prayer as the Rule enjoins us to do. Her genius was that she could build the life of solitude into community living. So, how did she envisage the way of life? The important emphasis was on prayer, the liturgical prayer of the Church, and time and space for mental prayer, a more contemplative approach to prayer. What was her purpose? We must all have a purpose for what we do. To pray for the Church; by prayer and sacrifice, by following the evangelical counsels, by a cloistered life of solitude and silence, she sought to support the Church, the leaders, the teachers, the whole mission and life of the Church. This was her purpose, what inspired her. St. Therese of Lisieux understood all this profoundly.
Teresa emphasised small in number. She wanted her nuns to be friends with each other, “in this house ...all must be friends, all must be loved, all must be held dear, all must be helped”. Teresa recognized that this was a big challenge; she knew that it is not always the holiest one in the community who is the easiest one to get on with, but, “no one is to be excluded, or feel excluded”. In Spain all were not equal. Teresa was well aware of exclusion in communities and made a strong point that this was not to be the case in her Monasteries. She wanted her nuns to be united in their love of God, in their prayer for the Church.
Community life is built and strengthened by time together, and Teresa introduced a period of recreation into the daily horarium. This also was an innovation and Teresa was adamant that all participate in this time together. She herself made this an entertaining time, the nuns enjoyed her company, her stories, her experiences with the foundations, and of course she expected that they too shared their conversation with each other, and that they had peace and joy in community. I think Teresa always communicates joy, joy in living, “God preserve us from sorry saints”.
Give me Calvary or Tabor.
A Tabor moment at this time was the visit of the Carmelite General to Spain in 1566. Teresa had been living at St. Joseph’s for two years; this was the first visit of a Carmelite General for over a hundred years, (they just never got around to getting over to Spain!) and Teresa was justifiably anxious. She a Carmelite nun setting up a “reformed house” and actually living in it, with a group of women she was directing, while she was still under obedience to the superior of the Incarnation. She had established a Monastery, St. Joseph’s, outside the jurisdiction of the Order, under the Bishop of Avila. The Bishop of Avila explained all and asked the General to visit the Monastery. Teresa said she spoke openly to General Rossi, telling him the whole story of the foundation, her hopes and her prayer.....as Fr. Smet writes in his Carmelite History, Rossi “was captivated by his vivacious daughter” and he approved the Monastery and asked her to found more! He visited Teresa a number of times to speak about prayer. Teresa always held General Rossi in high esteem and even when the troubles in the Reform broke out and Rossi was given false reports of Teresa, his disapproval was a great sorrow for her but her affection and gratitude to him never wavered.
Sorrowing or exulting
You alone live in me.
St. Thomas said that it is grace to receive mystical experiences and it is another grace to be able to describe them. Teresa could recount her story and also do something more – she inflames us with the desire to enter the world of the soul, where God dwells, where he draws us. I remember when I was novice and after hearing some pious talk saying to the Novice mistress, with a good amount of fury, I don’t want to be holy, I can’t stand this, someone’s idea of what holiness is”... I was expecting big trouble! Mother laughed, “go out to the garden, dig your patch and see if you can remember what St. Teresa says about gardening”.....I got the message, I was enthused! We all know what it is like to dig, to carry the bucket of water, put the thirst plant under a dripping tap, the good fortune to find a spare hose ....and then the relief when the rain does come....a blessed relief all we Aussies from the out-back country know. It is not hard to translate all that into life in the spirit!
The Interior Castle, the masterpiece of the interior journey by which God led Teresa to union with the Divine Lover; the long hard road that led to the transformation of the caterpillar into the beautiful butterfly. What I love are the images that Teresa uses, they seem to capture and carry her story – like poetry – we don’t have to understand everything but there is a beauty and wonder in her images, she tells us that “we could never imagine the beauty of our soul” Her amazing crystal castle, the castle that we all have, with its millions of rooms, spaces of prayer, suffering, challenges, where the soft whistle of the Shepherd reaches through the spaces, the distractions, it reaches to the soul, drawing it towards Our Lord and the mystery of the Holy Trinity. There are the serpents, the darker areas that must be recognized and taken along on the journey to transformation.
Teresa reached her centre – and she didn’t go off into a life of ecstasy and contemplation, but rather, the enormous, arduous work of the foundations; 17 convents, going from one end of Spain to the other in a mule cart! All kinds of problems, accidents on the road, frightened, terrified nuns! law suites, litigation, letter writing, troubles that seemed as though all her work would be undone; and through it all, her poor health. Reading her I certainly tend to forget that it is an elderly lady with very frail health telling this incredible story, doing this amazing work for God. I think St. Teresa would say to us, after the time of prayer, “ my daughters , Good Works, God wants Good Works”!
She could surely say at the end of her life to Our Lord -- to His Majesty – “Yours I am, for You I was born.. You alone live in me. I’ve tried to do what You wanted of me”!
Thank you dear St. Teresa for all that you did with such love for God, for the Church and which continues to live and reach us today in Carmel. A very Happy 500th Birthday. May I ask you for a special blessing as I share your date .....but my years look very insignificant beside your 500!