A paper by Sister Paula Moroney OCDM given at the Symposium to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Saint Teresa of Avila at the Carmelite Centre in Middle Park in May 2015
“Send her forth from the holy heavens,
and from the throne of your glory send her,
that she may be with me and toil,
and that I may learn what is pleasing to you;
for she knows and understands all things,
and she will guide me wisely in my actions
and guard me with her glory.” ( Wis.9: 9-11)
St Teresa was gifted with remarkable wisdom which illuminated her life and vision; it moulded a discerning heart on fire with love and is passed on to us in her writings still precious and vibrant today. It is a gift she earned by her constant fidelity, not without struggles, in prayer and it led her to loving intimacy of friendship with God. It is the harmony of knowledge and understanding acquired in life adding a deeper dimension to her thought.
At once noble and ennobling, “The wisdom that comes from above is marked chiefly by its purity, but also by its peacefulness…” (Jas 3:17-18) In Teresa we recognize a transparent purity of light and truth with the peacefulness of trustful confidence and hope. Throughout her writings we find wisdom gathered from the prayer of life; she listened to the voice of God in her heart then took counsel. For all her gifts, extraordinary as they are, Teresa becomes more human, warmhearted, for she had discovered a wonderful friendship with God which so enriched her life that she longed to share it. Now she could live on a mystical plane and see things as God saw them; she conversed constantly with her Beloved in prayer and she wanted to show others that this way was possible for everyone. The peace of mind it brought showed all things in their true value. She was at once practical and idealistic, feminine and strong, living simply and poorly while appreciative of beauty and quality; she was immersed in the business of this world and aware of the needs of others while her heart was always open in prayer. She found wisdom in the byways of life to walk the common way divinely.
Teresa was thus enabled to accomplish a work in the Church which still flourishes after 500 years and her teaching on prayer continues to transform ordinary lives. When she stepped beyond the bounds of convention to travel and set up her monasteries she gave herself unreservedly. The books she wrote on the spiritual life and the letters that flowed constantly to her communities reflect a heart aflame with love. She communicated with people of all ranks of society from the King to merchants, comfortable with them all. Teresa’s attractive personality and skills, her glowing, ardent spirit, her high aspirations and matching courage, her ready generosity to others, shine through her writings in words of wisdom and wit full of insight and intuition. Today we treasure these classics of spirituality as guides to prayer and sublime union with God.
What she received freely Teresa passed on magnanimously, while she laboured at daily tasks. Fortunately for us hundreds of her letters have survived so that we have intimate communications with family, Sisters and friends as well as complex business dealings.
Teresa lives for us in her books. She engages in conversation with us as she writes and sometimes it is difficult to keep up. The Book of her Life was begun at the request of her confessors and she describes with detail and accuracy her spiritual experiences showing genuine self-knowledge and humility. Already she had entered into deep prayer and she pondered God’s ways which caught her unawares at times but made her desires burn more intensely.
After 1562 when she made the first foundation at St Joseph’s in Avila where a little group could live according to the spirit of the original Rule of Carmel dedicated to prayer and contemplation, she was asked to write something more teaching her nuns about prayer. The book we know as the Way of Perfection shows Teresa’s perceptive knowledge of human nature and community life and leads to a wonderful treatise on prayer and its benefits as she guides her readers through the Our Father.
The first half of the book deals with our preparation to receive God’s grace. Because “prayer is the most important aspect of the Rule,”(WP 4, 2) she insists on the practice of virtue refined to a high degree and that “determined determination” to persevere in it. She focuses on three essentials of love for one another, detachment and humility. Mutual fraternal love is no passing emotion. In her mature wisdom Teresa perceives that there is a lesser love that can distract us from our goal. She goes to considerable length to show that pure love is without self-interest, does not seek gratification, does not lower itself to win approval and has no pride. La Madre knew the hidden suffering brought about by class distinction and exclusion and she wanted her houses to be communities where all were loved and held dear, all were equally favoured. (WP 4,4 ) This is where Christ is found, this is the love wisely sought in the pure of heart.
Then began the adventures of her Foundations scattered across Spain. By 1573 she found herself in the university city of Salamanca with her companions looking for a suitable house when she was urged by her Jesuit confessor to continue the account of her work. She did so reluctantly for time was precious and her health was wretched, but since it was for the glory of God she made a beginning and how grateful we are for her faith, because her writings extended across the years with her labours.
Later, in 1577, after many more travels and foundations, when challenges were at their height, she undertook the writing which sums up her spiritual teaching, the Interior Castle. Centered on the image of a castle of many dwelling places or a multi-faceted, lucid diamond, the book describes the singular beauty of the soul so richly endowed. The reader is invited to discover these riches within, where God reveals treasures in the course of the inner life of prayer. His Divine Majesty has led Teresa through these lights and fires to know his intimate presence.
This is the wisdom she desired to share so that others could also discover the joy of a love which fills a whole life and colours all relationships. This all-embracing love draws us into the fullness of God, the mystery of the hidden depths within, where we find grace and peace, those most precious gifts bestowed by God’s Spirit. The mystery of the Divine Indwelling means that God, the Trinity, is always to be found in the human heart. Faith leads us through darkness to the light of understanding, to seeking and to finding…”For love you were fashioned”. (from her poem) That is why Teresa urges us to prayer, to loving companionship with Christ who walks with us through life then to share that love around us as we journey.
The Interior Castle gives a synthesis of growth in the spiritual life, to its culmination in joyous love of Christ her Lord. It is a welcoming hearth where one lives in the presence of the Divine Majesty, where God makes His home with us and where we will always know His company. The Spanish word Teresa chooses, ‘Moradas’ suggests, not remote grandeur, but a place of familiar homeliness. We think of the 14th Chapter of St John’s Gospel where we read: “If anyone loves me they will keep my word and my Father will love them and we will come and make our home with them.” (Jn 14: 23)
We are invited to follow Teresa through the numberless rooms and discover for ourselves the beauty of divine life within us which does not take away our freedom but captivates the soul with fresh encounters. “To know the love of Christ that is above all knowledge.’’ (Eph 3: 19 )
Her journey shows a way to the highest mystical states of union, spiritual betrothal and marriage which Teresa received humbly, forgetful of self. She seems quite unselfconscious as she describes the movement of grace flowing gently and sweetly without her deserving, to satisfy her desires. She believes “it a slight lack of humility to think that our wretched services can win so great a reward.” (IC IV, 2,8) She wants to go further and tell more of this sublime calling but hardly dares express herself except to say that love is complete in giving itself and serving.
No matter how impossible the task there is an answer in prayer, Teresa’s source of strength. Imagine what it must have been like with Mother Teresa during that turmoil of 1577. If we feel overwhelmed by our burdens, look at Teresa’s circumstances. She was in Toledo, having been denounced, scrutinized by the Inquisition, called a “restless gadabout”, ordered to remain in one place while the Order was in confusion on the brink of collapse. She began writing this finest masterpiece as an act of obedience. It was the feast of the Trinity in June and she wrote in great haste but was only up to the fifth dwelling places when recalled to St Joseph’s in Avila to clear allegations made against Gracian. To her dismay the nuns at the Incarnation attempted to elect her Prioress amid great strife and disagreement, even excommunication for those who voted for her. Only in October back at St Joseph’s was she free to take up the manuscript again and she stole time to write at furious pace, often after Communion and late into the night, so that it was completed by the end of November.
Perhaps she shared thoughts with John of the Cross; certainly she always liked to consult learned and spiritual masters and he was her “Little Seneca”. A shrewd judge of character she appreciated holiness and intelligence in others. The first time she met him she recognized his potential, his courage and sincerity and saw in this small, slight, newly-ordained friar the high ideals which she needed for a foundation in the spirit of the primitive rule. She was not disappointed and he was the one she chose as spiritual director for her nuns.
There are remarkable similarities in their understanding of these profound mysteries. He writes in his commentary on the Spiritual Canticle, of the Soul, the most beautiful of creatures, where God chooses to abide, and of the infinite value of this pure love in the life of the Church. (Ct 1,7 & 29,2) She tells us of the capabilities of the human spirit to enter deep within and there discover priceless treasures with glimpses of eternity. Both understand that a profound transformation takes place as the weakness of our humanity is touched by the Divine.
A few days after she completed her work he disappeared, arrested in the night, causing her great distress and concern. Then on Christmas eve she fell down a dark staircase and broke her left arm. Her only comment: “The devil might have done worse with me!”
How do we know this? There is no hint of it in the greater writings but we have her Letters which naturally are personal and private because they are written for particular individuals and not intended for publication. These valued letters preserved by her friends enable us to meet her in day-to-day life with its ups and downs, its hopes and disappointments, and we see how she reacted, we learn how she handled difficult problems, how she achieved impossible dreams. She even wrote to King Philip 11 in her anxiety for John of the Cross and later concerning Padre Gracian’s reputation. She also wrote to her brother Lorenzo suggesting that “the Lord would desire your health rather than your penance,” when he became overzealous. (L 1,185.6) Often she sent letters to the charming but impulsive Gracian, hoping for consoling support; frequently to Maria de San Jose, the clever new Prioress of Seville where there were problems with repaying the large sum of money owed to Lorenzo. These letters full of motherly advice to many different people are usually on a light and friendly note and show another aspect of her rich personality. Hers was the wisdom of everyday common sense and compassion.
An avid reader herself she reproduced her world in technicolour. There is plenty of humour but much sadness too as we encounter the people she trusted yet who still let her down and left her lonely. She relished the dainties sent to her from Seville and asked for more of that perfumed Orange-flower water - if only Maria would repay the large debt she owed Lorenzo on purchasing the house. Teresa must often have reflected on those words, “Let nothing trouble you…God alone suffices.”
The Letters and Book of the Foundations are brimming over with lively descriptions of those who shared her work and this is where we come to know Teresa in real life. This is Teresa giving herself wholeheartedly to others, laboring for her communities and her mission to serve Christ in the Church and establish houses of prayer where His Divine Majesty would be honoured. For Teresa there was no conflict between her inner life and her activities because all was one. As she lived the Gospel in constant awareness of the presence of her Beloved, her philosophy was essentially simple, uncomplicated.
If she saw foibles that marred the virtues of her friends she looked beyond to see God’s design and to draw good from these situations. It was so important that her Sisters live in friendship and show mutual esteem and affability because that was the best way to grow in friendship with Christ. Spiritual friendships built communities where friends helped one another, supported one another and encouraged one another in holiness.
Teresa sought in prayer and found enlightenment to see God’s all-pervading presence and power at work around her. This true contemplative was firmly planted in this busy world of affairs and committed to the needs of others because she was already united to the Incarnate Lord who chose this world for his dwelling and revealed his presence, where life is touched by love, and suffering becomes redemptive through Him. For her it was “to know Christ and the power of His Resurrection”. (Phil.3:10)
In one of her poems she had written: “Seek yourself in me; seek me in yourself”. We all have this capacity for deeper life of the spirit; we all have the opportunity to find the divine within our very selves. We have an inner life hidden from the world where we can commune with the Lord and know sublime truths, where goodness and beauty bring joy to share. Teresa’s spirituality was always part of her humanity, incarnational in the sense that she was transformed by her love to reflect the life of the Risen Jesus, and fully alive with an energy that kindled others with the same desires for love.
The years of perseverance enabled her to map a future journey for others. By writing with delicate detail of her interior experiences she explained clearly in her lively style how she discovered new depths of human capability that led to union with God. She clarified understanding and confirmed others on their path with a certainty learnt from experience, tested by fire. Weary travelling, risky ventures, unending writing, were all for Christ’s sake. Everything had value since it showed that prayer is at the heart of energy and gives meaning to life; prayer unites us to our Divine Lord in a love that transcends time. Love at the beating heart of the universe enables us to participate in the power of the Resurrection.
At the end of that last great work, the Interior Castle, with clarity, vision and mystical insight Teresa could again encourage her readers to embrace a full life of prayer and contemplation, practicing the virtues, building on humility, courageous in suffering and showing attentive love caring for one another, delighting in each other’s company as friends. It is not the greatness of the works that counts but the love with which they are done. (IC VII 4,15) The holier the person the more human they become.
Teresa found joy in life, in the grandeur and beauty of creation, in wonder and amazement at the silkworm and butterfly, even the tiniest ant. She rejoiced to discover God’s grace everywhere. Truly “the joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” ( EG 1,1) Pope Francis’words confirm and encourage our faith today:
“Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world…it is an irresistible force. In the midst of darkness something new always springs to life… Each day in our world beauty is born anew, it rises transformed through the storms of history…such is the power of the resurrection.” ( EG 4, 1)
She too felt the urgency to work for the mission of the Church in a period when “the world is in flames.” (q. from the WP 1:5, in Letter of P.Francis, 28.3 15) Fervent contemplative prayer channeled her missionary zeal in the service of all people. Opening new horizons of the spirit she calls us to dare this great enterprise of seeking and loving Christ in His Mystical Body. Gathering communities united in heart and mind to bear witness to genuine love she shows how each one, each of us today, can “place what we are at the service of others” caring of all needs. She saw each person as being gifted individually and having a unique role. Teresa shows us that even in weakness gifts increase and bear fruit when they are freely shared: the more we give the more we receive. When we reach the ultimate goal, the final dwelling place, love of God and love for one another are inseparable. With greater awareness we see God in all things and all things speak of His glory:
To “see His blood upon the rose
And in the skies the glory of His eyes.
…All pathways by His feet are worn.” (J.M.Plunkett, 1916)
Of lights and fires, of wisdom and love, Teresa made her life a gift to God and also to us, for still she inspires us to seek God in living love. Her great spirit lives on, lighting up our spiritual path, encouraging us to meet Our loving Lord in trust and find beauty and truth in such companionship. Mother and Friend, St Teresa, let your wisdom be with us today to guide us in our actions and guard us in her glory.