Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Jesus Christ, Teresa's True Friend and Companion



A paper by sister angela ellwood ocdm given at the SYMPOSIUM ON SAINT TERESA OF AVILA commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of her birth – 1515.
THURSDAY 21 – SATURDAY 23 MAY 2015 at theCarmelite Centre, Middle Park


Jesus Christ, Teresa’s True Friend and Companion[1]

Her Definition of Prayer



Teresa, as a member of a converso family in the Spain of her day, had a deep loneliness and profound longing for truth—longing for God.[2]  Her passionate longing for love and wholeness –her search for God– took her beyond the tenets of society’s conventions and constrictions with their obsessive concern for status and reputation.  Through her struggle for inner truth, integrity and wholeness (a struggle fraught with conflict) she was led into an intimate friendship of love with the Risen Jesus, who freed and transformed her.
Behind Teresa’s loneliness and vulnerability, was the fact that she belonged to a marginalized group.  There were three areas in which she had constantly to battle:
1.       She was of Jewish blood and belonged to a converso family: this was a deep secret shared in the intimacy of the family.  Yet, the old aristocracy keenly suspected or knew, “who was who” — conversos were ostracized and not really accepted by them.  Rowan Williams says they had become “objects of continuing hatred and suspicion from both the lesser gentry and the population at large.”[3]  Converso families longed for acceptance and Teresa struggled with these anxieties and fears for years – from her teens onwards.  It was only in 1554, with the grace of conversion, that healing and freedom from these anxieties began.
2.       She was a woman in a society which extremely distorted and devalued the female sex.  There was great mistrust of women’s virtues and capabilities.
3.       She was a woman who had ecstatic experiences, practised interior prayer and authoritatively wrote books on it.  This, together with the founding of San José in Avila, brought her into the public forum. All of these points were closely watched by the Tribunal of the Faith.
Rowan Williams says, any one of the above qualifications would have been sufficient for the society and Church of her day to see her as a “threat and a pollutant.”[4]  Therefore, he says, she had to live and “negotiate her way in an almost entirely suspicious environment.”[5]  She faced enormous obstacles.
Nevertheless, in the midst of the all-pervading presence of the Inquisition and the pernicious reigning climate of suspicion, mistrust and fear, Teresa courageously pursued her goals with the utmost determination and shrewdness, her eyes fixed on Jesus Christ.  For authentication, we know that she consulted the best theologians of Spain’s Golden Age of theology.  Because, before all eyes she had to show that she wanted only what God wanted— what God wanted through the mediation of the teaching Church.[6]
Prior to her conversion in 1554, Teresa (because of her converso origin and her warm, affective personality) longed for acceptance, legitimacy, love and affection.  That was the mine field in which she “struggled” and in which God “struggled” to be present to her.  Yet, she often tells us in the early part of the Life that she was greatly loved.  She possessed a warm, extravert, human personality — she longed to love and had a profound capacity for love and friendship.  However, within these great qualities was her “shadow” or dark underside in which she lived ‘outside’ herself, caught in crippling, dependant relationships, where she lived on the periphery of life.  This prevented her from surrendering herself more completely to God.
Daniel Chowning says, “Love is the most important key for understanding her life and message and also for explaining the intimate conflicts that she suffered for many years.[7]  In fact, she defines prayer in its terms: “an intimate sharing between friends — with Him, who we know, loves us”[8] — frequently and secretly communing heart to heart with Him, in the intimacy of love.  For Teresa, it was “a loving friendship that grew in intensity and presence and transformed her entire life”[9] — her whole human personality caught up in Christ.

The question of Teresa’s formation in Christology:
1.       According to Tomás Alvarez, Teresa had the fortune of a rich and complete formation in Christology, both in childhood and as an adult.
2.       As a child she read the Flos Sanctorum, texts of the Passion according to the four Gospels.  The illustrated vignettes would have had a powerful impact on the young Teresa.  One really impressive drawing was Jesus praying in the garden.[10]
3.       As an adult, Alvarez says Teresa’s real manual of Christological formation was a four volume work of 1320 pages, The Life of Christ by the Carthusian, Ludolph of Saxony.  It contained an “immense Christological spirituality.”[11]  This comprehensive life of Jesus was one of her favourite books for meditation and a rich source of Scripture — it was “the equivalent of one of our intense biblical courses.”[12]  [Scripture otherwise, was only available to Teresa in Latin and she didn’t know Latin.]

Teresa’s quest for the Lord began in childhood.
Even as a small girl she sought solitude for prayer.  When her Mother died, Teresa was still a young adolescent girl of 13 years.  Bereft, vulnerable and lonely, she was led to the practice of prayer – prayer as friendship with Jesus, the God-Man.  Most nights, for many years, before she went to sleep, she would look at Our Lord’s solitary suffering in the Garden.  His loneliness cried out to the Motherless girl.  She began to look at Him in the forsaken moments of His life – when He was alone and afflicted.  He was someone like herself, who needed companionship and compassion.  She felt that if Jesus was a person alone, afflicted and needy, then He had to accept her in her brokenness and poverty.  And so, she would remain there with Him in faith, as His companion — consoling Him by her compassionate and loving presence.[13]  Teresa says she gained a great deal through this custom.  It became so habitual that she did not abandon it.[14]

When Teresa entered the Monastery of the Incarnation, she threw herself into religious life with all the intense enthusiasm and religious fervour of the Castilian character.  And so very early in the Life, she says:
I tried as hard as I could to keep Jesus Christ, our God and our Lord, present within me, and that was my way of prayer.  If I reflected upon some phase of his passion, I represented him to myself interiorly.[15]

Later in the Life she continues:
This method of keeping Christ present within us is beneficial in all stages of the spiritual journey – beginning, middle and end.... It is what we of ourselves can do.[16]

Presence to Jesus living within her — that was her method of prayer.  This means drawing near in faith and love — to Jesus living within us.[17]  “I am not asking you to do anything more than look at Him,”[18] she says.  To look at Jesus, means to study with the heart all the movements and sentiments of His person,[19] so that the truth that he is will be imprinted in us.
In the Life, Teresa writes:
If we are able, we should occupy ourselves in looking at Christ who is looking at us, and we should speak, and petition, and humble ourselves, and delight in the Lord’s presence.[20]

Later in the Way she instructs her nuns to look at the life of Jesus, no matter what psychological state they experience.[21]
Every human emotion and situation, from pain and sorrow to joy and ecstasy, finds an echo in the historical life of Jesus.  By relating our lives to the mysteries of his, we establish a relationship with Jesus, and will find renewed meaning, hope, and transformation.[22]

Ways in which Teresa maintained her presence to Jesus:
1.       She would identify with those characters of the Gospel, with whom she could relate out of her own weakness and struggling humanity and/or who stood in need of conversion.  For instance, Mary in her desolation at the foot of the Cross, the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalene, St Paul at the moment of his conversion, St Peter in tears after denying Christ and St Augustine.  Their prayer, their difficult situation, their struggle, their longing for freedom and healing became hers.  The Samaritan woman especially, was dear to Teresa.  When Teresa prayed she would often identify with this woman’s longing and with her, ask for the living water which Jesus promised — that living water which alone slakes the thirst of the human heart.[23]
2.       “The moment after receiving the Eucharist was the privileged time for Teresa.”[24]  She would free herself from all exterior things, so that she could enter within herself and be lovingly present to Jesus, her divine guest living within her.

But silent prayer was not the only means by which Teresa encountered the presence of Christ.  When reading the Life, we find that it was especially in and through her experience of human limitations, crises and conflicts, that Teresa was led to discover the transforming presence of Jesus in her life.[25]
Teresa’s first years in religious life were marked by intense religious experiences.  YET despite this, her spiritual ascent stalled.  For almost twenty years, her journey towards inner freedom involved an intense battle and conflict between friendship with God and friendship with the world.
Her overwhelming need to receive and give love, although a God-given gift in itself and a sign of her capacity for the infinite, ran the risk of living perpetually outside herself in others, in a state of dependency and restlessness –mediocrity.  It clashed with her spiritual longings for God.[26]  She was unable to integrate her affective relationships with her relationship with God.  Because of her charming, outgoing personality, obedience required that she be deeply and constantly involved with the city’s prestigious families — soliciting funds for the monastery.
The same personal conflicts which gave rise to her vocational crisis at boarding school still divided her — God and the world (but then, the world was her family, friends of childhood, and father).  That affective crisis was the beginning in embryo of the long battle and conflict to overcome her inordinate or dependant relationships.[27]  In the Life, Teresa describes the state of inner conflict and fragmentation which held her captive and unable to surrender herself more completely to God.  She likened it to “voyaging on a tempestuous sea.... a war so troublesome.”[28]  Many times she searched for a remedy, but to no avail — she felt she was struggling with a shadow of death.  It was a major crisis — “the life I was living,” she said, “was not life.”[29]
When she reached the point of complete powerlessness, she let go of the trust she had in herself and placed it in God.[30]  God’s healing love would set her free and transform her.  She was aged 39 when she experienced a profound conversion.  It was the decisive turning point — after which her life began to change, to that, which she says, God lived in her.
One day in Lent 1554, she entered the Oratory and was overcome by an image of the wounded Christ — an image which bore the realistic and bloody appearance, so typical of Spanish devotional art.  The sight of Jesus’ wounds, his neediness, loneliness, and brokenness, undertaken for love of her, struck a deep chord within her.  Overwhelmed by a sense of her own sinfulness and “with the greatest outpouring of tears” she surrendered herself before the power of the Risen Jesus.[31]
This grace, together with another in 1556 (under the direction of the Jesuit Father Pradanos) liberated her from her unchanneled affectivity.  Her act of surrender was paramount in her discovery of Christ.[32]  It opened her heart to her loving Saviour, who was at work healing and transforming her.[33]  Rowan Williams says Teresa’ conversion was her discovery of being desired by God in her entirety, as she was.  She was ‘needed’ by Christ and she had a gift to offer God and his people.  She found an integrating reality for her life, and thus a spring of motivation not dependent upon her social and ecclesiastical context and its immediate pressures.... She was set free from the constraint of needing to be approved.[34]
Her capacity for love and friendship was integrated and channelled, because it was rooted in Jesus Christ, Love Incarnate.  In him alone she would find satisfaction of heart.[35]  Her love was more refined, more mature and free from egotistic demands.
Out of Teresa’s long crisis and arduous struggle with friendships, there emerged an experiential knowledge of Jesus as the true friend, who accompanies us in all our undertakings and remains loyal to us when all others fail.[36]  The title of Jesus as friend is central to her experience of him and permeates all her writings and understanding of the Christian life.  She conceives of the Christian life as a journeyin the company of our good Friend Jesus who leads us to union with the Father and with one another.[37]
Whoever lives in the presence of so good a friend and excellent a leader, who went ahead of us to be the first to suffer, can endure all things.  The Lord helps us, strengthens us, and never fails; he is a true friend.... God desires that if we are going to please him and receive his great favors, we must do so through the most sacred humanity of Christ, in whom he takes his delight.... This Lord of ours is the one through whom all blessings come to us.  He will teach us these things.  In beholding his life we find that he is the best example.  What more do we desire than to have such a good friend at our side, who will not abandon us in our labours and tribulations, as friends in the world do.[38]

Eamon Carroll tells us, “When Teresa speaks of the ‘humanity’ of Jesus,” she means, “the whole Christ, including all aspects of His human life, crowned by the Resurrection.”[39]
Teresa’s human need and search for redemption and liberation made Jesus above all her liberator and friend.[40]  We also see that paralleled in the Gospel stories and in the New Testament.
For Teresa, the discovery of the human condition of God, i.e., the humanity of Jesus, was the most transforming experience in her life.[41]
No longer would her search for God seem in opposition to daily life or her humanity.  Rather, it would be integrated into concrete bodily existence, for in Jesus, God has entered fully into human life and has become one of us.[42]

She discovered a friend, who would satisfy all her desires—Jesus the God-Man.  She found him fully human, praying and struggling with God's will.  And she never tires of reminding us that he lived with trials during his entire life.[43]  She says in the Life:

Christ is a very good friend because we behold him as man and see him with weaknesses and trials–and he is company for us.[44]

Teresa, looking at human nature, realized how much we need the humanity of Jesus.  Although propelled towards the infinite, we have bodies and live in a world where we must eat, sleep and deal with our limitations and material realities.  We are not angels, but human beings who need human support.[45]  The body has to be integrated in our search for God.  For this reason, we need the company of those who had mortal bodies in order to learn how to please God and work for God.  She says, “A good means to having God is to speak with his friends.”[46]  But then she continues, how much more necessary is the Sacred HUMANITY of Jesus, from whom we learn about God and how to do God’s will —what it means to be totally directed towards God, as well as to be fully human.[47]
Teresa experienced that life is hard and we need the example and companionship of one who has gone before us, so as to better support our human weakness.[48]  She writes in the Interior Castle:

Life is long, and there are in it many trials, and we need to look at Christ our model, how he suffered them, and also at his apostles and saints, so as to bear these trials with perfection.  Jesus is too good a companion for us to turn away from him.[49]

For Teresa, Jesus supports us because he is fully human.  He entered our human condition completely and experienced human reality with all its brokenness, limitations, and weakness.  Jesus’ solidarity with us in our human condition is the basis of our confidence and trust in him.  She says, this makes him our friend, brother, and companion in life:
A much greater love for and confidence in this Lord began to develop in me when I saw him as one with whom I could converse so continually.  I saw that he was man, even though he was God; that he wasn’t surprised by the weaknesses of men; that he understands our miserable make-up, subject to many falls on account of the first sin which he came to repair.  I can speak with him as with a friend, even though he is Lord.[50]

As Jesus plunged Teresa ever more deeply into this world of flesh and blood, life and death, joys, sorrows and instabilities, so did he empower her to EMBRACE REALITY with confidence and trust in his faithful and enduring love.  This accompanied her in the midst of all life’s complexities and difficulties.[51]  The presence of the Risen Jesus thrust Teresa into the heart of life.  He freed her to live more fully in the here and now.
In conclusion, Teresa’s charism is thoroughly incarnational.  “It involves obedience to life under God’s conditions.”[52]  Through all the obstacles, crises and difficulties, the only way she could carry out what she perceived to be God’s work, was to “Fix her eyes on Jesus.”  She put all her gifts of personality and grace at God’s disposal in accomplishing that.  The will of the Beloved had become her sole compass.





[1] In this essay I acknowledge the debt I owe to Daniel Chowning ocd in his two articles: “Jesus Christ, Friend and Liberator: The Christology of St Teresa of Jesus” in Kevin Culligan ocd, ed. Carmelite Studies X: A Better Wine: Essays Celebrating Kieran Kavanaugh ocd (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2007), 3–61 and St. Teresa of Avila: Her Way of Prayer: Fix Your Eyes on Christ (Washington, DC: ICS Publications Audio Cassettes).  Readers familiar with Chowning’s work will notice how much in debt I am to him.
[2] See Rowan Williams, Teresa of Avila in Outstanding Christian Thinkers Series, edited by Brian Davies OP (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1991).  Under the heading, “Honour: ‘The Greatest Lie,’” 18-25, Williams makes some interesting observations regarding acceptance depending on fraud or secrecy.  [We find] e.g., “... roots of protest against a dishonest social order, an interest in virtue or moral achievement in its own right, and a high valuation of situations and persons that could make honesty possible, that could lift the burden of concealment.  Converso society would be interested in value, weight, meaning beyond the realm of social appearance, which tells us something of why New Christians showed interest in radical religious movements that stressed interior truthfulness and purity, and the conflict between inner promptings and social networks of convention,” 21.
[3] Ibid, 13.
[4] Cf. Ibid, 37.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Cf. Williams, 44.
[7] Daniel Chowning ocd, St. Teresa of Avila.  Her Way of Prayer: Fix Your Eyes on Christ (Washington, DC: ICS Publications Audio Cassettes).
[8] Life 8:5.
[9]    Chowning, audio cassette, Fix your eyes on Christ.
[10] Cf. Tomás Alvarez ocd, St Teresa of Avila: 100 Themes on Her Life and Work, trans. by Kieran Kavanaugh, ocd.  (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2011), 439.
[11] Ibid, 198.
[12] Ibid,200.
[13] Cf. Chowning, audio cassette, Fix your eyes on Christ. See also, The Book of Her Life, 9.4.
[14] Cf. Life, 9.4
[15] Ibid, 4:7
[16] Ibid, 12:3.
[17] Cf. Chowning, audio cassette, Fix Your Eyes on Christ.
[18] Way of Perfection, 26, 3.
[19] Secundino Castro, "L’humanité du Christ selon Ste. Thérèse d'Avila," Carmel 33 (1984), 41.  Cited in Daniel Chowning, ocd, “Jesus Christ, Friend and Liberator: The Christology of St Teresa of Jesus” in Kevin Culligan ocd, ed. Carmelite Studies X: A Better Wine: Essays Celebrating Kieran Kavanaugh ocd (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2007), 3-61 at 40.
[20] Cf. Life, 13:22.
[21] Cf. Way of Perfection, 26.4-5.
[22] Daniel Chowning, ocd, “Jesus Christ, Friend and Liberator: The Christology of St Teresa of Jesus” in Kevin Culligan ocd, ed. Carmelite Studies X: A Better Wine: Essays Celebrating Kieran Kavanaugh ocd (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2007), 3-61 at 35.
[23] Chowning, audio cassette, Fix Your Eyes on Christ.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Cf. Ibid.
[26] Cf. Chowning, “Jesus Christ, Friend and Liberator: The Christology of St Teresa of Jesus,” 22-23.
[27] See discussion of Daniel de Pablo Moroto, Santa Teresa de Jesús, doctora para una Iglesia en crisis (Burgos: Editorial Monte Carmelo, 1981), 47-52, cited by Daniel Chowning, ocd, “Jesus Christ, Friend and Liberator: The Christology of St Teresa of Jesus,” op. cit., 58, footnote 15.
[28] Life 8.2.
[29] Life 8.12.
[30] Ibid.
[31] See Life 9.1.
[32] Chowning, audio cassette, Fix your eyes on Christ.
[33] Cf. Ibid.
[34] Cf. Williams, op. cit, 54.
[35] Cf. Chowning, “Jesus Christ, Friend and Liberator: The Christology of St Teresa of Jesus,” 23-24.
[36] Cf. Ibid, 24.
[37] Cf. Ibid.
[38] Life, 22.6-7.
[39] Eamon R. Carroll, “The Saving Role of the Human Christ for Teresa” in John Sullivan ocd, ed., Carmelite Studies 3 (Washington, DC: ICS, 1984), 133–151 at 137.
[40] Cf. Chowning, “Jesus Christ, Friend and Liberator: The Christology of St Teresa of Jesus,” 3.
[41] Chowning, audio cassette, Fix your eyes on Christ.
[42] Chowning, “Jesus Christ, Friend and Liberator: The Christology of St Teresa of Jesus,” 25.
[43] Life, 22.11.
[44] Life, 22.10.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Way 7.4.
[47] Cf. Chowning, audio cassette, Fix your eyes on Christ.
[48] Ibid.
[49] Interior Castle, 6 M7.13.
[50] Life 37.5.
[51] Cf. Chowning, ocd, “Jesus Christ, Friend and Liberator: The Christology of St Teresa of Jesus,” 47.
[52] Ibid, 53.

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