Monday, 22 September 2014

Saint Teresa of Avila -- Listening to her story

 This month Adrian Jones gave a presentation at the Spiritual Reading Group, held at the Carmelite Library, on the ‘Vida’ or ‘Life’ of Saint Teresa of Avila. Here are some of Adrian’s words, written in reflection at home after the session.

We have come to value the telling of story. We realize that it is in hearing the life journey of one another that we can know the person and the source of their wisdom. While Teresa of Avila has written such classics of the spiritual life as The interior Castle (seen as her masterpiece), and The Way of Perfection (written primarily for her sisters) a study of her Life or Autobiography will lay out for us her journey of transformation. Teresa, in prose that at times is difficult to follow, tells of her struggle with herself, with God and with those who were suspicious of the story of her surrender to the intrusion of God into her life.


Teresa’s autobiography was written just before 1565 but the original version has been lost. The book consists of four parts: Chapters 1-11, are mainly biographical; Chapters 12-22 give a description of the life of prayer using the imagery of watering a garden. Chapters 23-31 speak of her experiences with God and what she sees as teaching us about progress in spiritual life and Chapters 32-32 give the history of the reform of the Carmelite order in Spain as led by Teresa. The Life was actually written in stages. The biographical part was written first and later parts were written at the suggestion of her spiritual advisors as something of an apologia for her chosen life of reform and her prayer experiences.


The third child of her father Alonso’s second marriage, Teresa grew up in a prosperous family where she was happy. Hers was a family in which her religious sense was encouraged. She had a strong personal awareness of the humanity of Jesus Christ which stayed with her throughout her life. She was a lively social girl and young woman who in the vibrant spiritual climate of Spain in the 16th century felt the call to religious life. When at the age of 20 she joined the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation in Avila in 1535, her joy in doing so was mixed with sadness, sadness at leaving her father especially and unhappiness because he was not happy with her choice of vocation. As we shall see Teresa’s strong attachment to her father contrasted with what almost amounted to pity for her mother, had interesting effects on her life’s journey. She saw her mother’s lot as restricted to one of bearing children and Teresa was not greatly attracted to such a married life.
 Teresa’s social nature along with her felt love for God prospered for a few years in the regime of the convent of the Incarnation at the time. The convent lived the medieval life of liturgical prayer and communal life. There was not the strong emphasis on private prayer and its forms which was growing at that time in Spain.
From 1538 Teresa began to feel dissatisfaction with how her life was going. She felt pulled in different directions and being someone of strong affections the dissatisfaction grew. Her father died in 1543 and because of her strong attachment to him the event added turbulence to her unsettled life which expressed itself in an illness severe enough that she went to live with her uncle to recuperate. . As often happens, one of the side effects of such an event was that he introduced her to a book by the Spanish Franciscan Fra Osuna called The Third Spiritual Alphabet. The core of this book was a call to practice what was called the prayer of recollection a way to find the God within. There was a call to just be in the presence of God and this exposed Teresa to be open to the direct invitation to be familiar with God. Teresa continued to be encouraged by the wisdom of this book over the next 20 years of her life.
The way in which Teresa lived through the period from 1538 till 1556 seems to exemplify the mid life experience of many. We have developed a way of living, a career, but there are stirrings within us inviting us to go deeper to live more from what we might call our centre, from who we are.
The challenges for Teresa were found in her gifts. She was a lively outgoing person who had rich and varied relationships. She felt strongly about the people she loved and the people with whom she lived. However given the choices she had made in her life, she was torn in her relationships between the God who was calling her to life through being a Carmelite nun and the rewards and demands of the relationships with others. In her Life (Ch. 7, 17) she speaks of living a burdensome life, “because in prayer I understood more clearly my faults. On the one hand God was calling me; on the other hand I was following the world. All the things of God made me happy; those of the world held me bound. It seems I desired to harmonize these two contraries- so inimical to each other-such as the spiritual life and sensory joys pleasures and pastimes.”
We need to understand Teresa’s language and how she saw the human person. The prevailing philosophy saw us compartmentalized. Our outer layer was seen as the sensory layer through which we took all we knew of our world. The next layer was the soul layer where we functioned psychologically. We would say it is our life as managed by our persona or ego. The inmost part was the spirit, the deepest part of our life and the place where we meet God intimately.
Teresa saw her life as burdensome because she was trying to hold a middle road to control from the place of the ego the pull of God and the attraction and demands of others and life in general. She sought to have an EFFECTIVE detachment from others, one which she could control and then she could live her life in peace. She came to realize after the long struggle of 18 years that what was needed to live at peace was AFFECTIVE detachment. This was not a denial of herself or the giftedness of relationships with others and our world. What was called for was that she be IN TOUCH WITH HERSELF and what was her heart’s desire. This came to her the more she allowed herself to become IN TOUCH WITH GOD.
Teresa speaks of the value of praying to develop our being in touch with God. She says (Ch.8, 2) “though we are always in the presence of God it seems to me the manner is different with those who practice prayer for they are aware he is looking at them.”
She also says in the same chapter (No. 12) “I did not put all my trust in His Majesty and lose completely the trust I had in myself. I searched for a remedy, I made attempts, but I did not understand that all is of little benefit if we do not take away completely the trust we have in ourselves and place it in God.”
Teresa needed to have the whole of her experience brought to her depths so that she could live out of that place and not from the half way house of the control of her ego.
We again need to understand Teresa’s language here. When we hear her speak of ‘losing complete trust in myself’ she is not speaking about a person’s proper self esteem. We have learnt in our own times of the barrier that poor self esteem can be to personal and indeed spiritual maturity.  However when we look to theories of personal maturity we note that a sense of self esteem is hopefully gained reasonably early in life so that in the later stages of life we can be called beyond ourselves to have intimate relationships with God and with others whom we are called to serve.
What happened for Teresa was that when she finally became overwhelmed by the love of God in her life, she saw herself, others and her world in a new light.
Conversion for her amounted to a powerful experience of God at the centre of her life and an awareness that the rich life of creation and relationships which she loved and lived could only have meaning in the light of God at the heart of the person. Her immediate life of interest was understandably the life of the Carmelite. She wanted her sisters to live as closely as they could the life of the early Carmelites of Carmel. The ideal of these men choosing to live in the presence of God spoke to her profound discovery of God at the centre of her life. This prompted her to seek to live a reformed life based on the original rule of the Carmelites who lived on Mount Carmel. This she attempted to do with the founding of the convent of St Joseph in Avila in 1562.

Selected Readings

The following selections from Teresa’s autobiography might flesh out the brief sketch of her life above:

Ch 7: 16-19 her experiences at a significant time in her life

·         How to live at such times, e.g. death of loved ones, stirrings for change from within, when because of how we are feeling we are tempted to give up on the practices which we have known have been life giving for us.
·         She was surprised that in her time of felt inadequacy, sinfulness before God, God showed her with gifts and she found this harder to accept than she would some kind of correction.
·         (7:20 value of  friendship/spiritual direction at this time to discern how to respond to and handle our experiences)

Ch.14:9-11, ch.15:1-4       Giving oneself over to God.

·         14:9 God leaving the person humbled to understand that progress is based on God’s gifting the person
·         14:11 She realized that she had been ‘carried out of her soul’ to praise God better. She notices change the beginnings of the prayer of quiet.
·         14:12 Looking back on one’s life in the light of the experience of God’s grace
·         15:1 won’t be able to sustain this state ourselves because it is purely the gift of God.
·         15;2 many achieve this state but few pass beyond. She also seems to refer to the sadness of those who have experienced these gifts and then for whatever reason,  given up.
·         15:3 Don’t abandon prayer if challenges, ‘serious faults’(15:2) come to the fore to discourage us.
·         15:4 the challenge for us of seeking the delights of this kind of prayer.
o   The delight from God will be notices no matter how small it is.
·         15:5 The importance of getting some understanding of God’s gifts to us and responding as ‘good friendship’ requires.

Ch 22 9-18 the importance of living close to the humanity of Jesus

·         22:1 Speaks against the discouragement of ‘corporeal images’ i.e. reflecting on Jesus in his humanity.
·         22:3, 22:5 speaks of the importance of her experience and her reflection on it that taught her of the value of meditating with Jesus about his life experience.
·         22.9 The difference between God taking away the consolation of meditating on the humanity and our deciding not to do it. Also understand that we as humans need human support.
·         22.10 Christ sustaining us in times of busyness or dryness
·         22.11 whole groundwork of prayer based upon humility. Also the importance of not forcing oneself to think about God when God is inviting us to respond to his movement. Maintain that poverty of spirit that keeps us focused on God and not on our own efforts worthy and all as they may seem.
·         22:12 ‘walk along this path of freedom placing himself in the hands of God’.
o   ‘God is more careful than we are and He knows what is fitting for each one’.
·         22:14 ‘Let us strive to keep this divine love always before our eyes and to awaken ourselves to love’.
·         22:15 God enables and calls forth growth in virtue the more we are encouraged by this enduring sense of his presence. This underlines the importance of prayer for our living as we want to.
·         22:16 The ‘food’ for those granted the state of union is no different to that of beginners. The difference is in the person allowing God to share more with us. It is the taste of God granted by God. If we can become more detached from our wishes we can thus allow God to give us more.
·         22:17 Teresa speaks of God testing people. This seems to presume that the person and God have a familiar relationship. So God invites and says ‘see what I give’, ‘do you want more?’. The choice is ours.
·         22:18 The importance of the ‘spiritual person’ for a companion on the journey. ‘Experience and discretion are important in this matter’.

Ernest Larkin O.Carm. has been the person who most encouraged me to immerse myself in the writings of Teresa. Another helpful commentator has been Rowan Williams. I conclude with two brief quotes from his book:  Teresa of Avila, Rowan Williams, 1991, Outstanding Christian Thinkers Series (Ed. B. Davies O.P.)

“The life therefore is anything but an anecdotal compilation of rare and interesting experiences; Teresa’s has a perfectly clear apologetic purpose. She has to show that she cannot be an alumbrada enthusiast because she wants only what God wants, and more specifically, what God wants through the mediation of the teaching church.” (P. 44)

“To understand the Life then, we need to read it as the story of a twofold victory. On the one hand it is about the triumph of discipline, about the shaping of a Christian discernment by reading, friendship and conversation, sacramental practice, the candid and unsparing exposure of what might have been and exciting ‘private’ world of experiences to the common speech and culture of the church; the triumph of discipline over plain idleness, over the obsessive concern for status and reputation in Teresa’s society, over the construction by the self of an identity that is ‘holy’ or ‘special’. On the other hand it is the story of God’s triumph even over the disciplined spirituality of a loyal catholic- the triumph that makes it possible for a disciplined and loyal catholic to be also a prophet and critic. Thus the main interweaving themes in the life are Teresa’s willingness at every point to submit her experience to the judgement of others (though not necessarily to submit in the sense of accepting their judgement) and her inability to resist the disturbing impulsions coming to her in prayer. The Life is centrally and basically about struggle and conflict- Teresa’s struggle for acceptance and legitimacy, and God’s struggle to be present to Teresa.” (P. 44-45)