2 Timothy 4:1-8; Mark 4:1-9
Avila is a mountain fortress city whose grim medieval walls speak of strength, fortitude and determination. For centuries it was a frontline post in the Spanish struggle between Christianity and Islam and even the Cathedral, built into the walls, is more castle than house of prayer.
It was here, in 1515, in this masculine and martial city, that Teresa, founder of the Discalced, or ‘Unshod’ Carmelite Order, and prolific spiritual writer was born. Columbus had only recently discovered the New World and Luther was yet to initiate the Protestant Reformation when the twenty-one-year-old Teresa ran away from home to enter Avila’s Carmelite Convent.
Having seen her mother die in childbirth delivering her eleventh sibling and being far too independent spirited to be subservient to a husband, Teresa saw convent life as her future.
Despite the soft lifestyle convents then afforded – her father paid for her to have a suite of rooms, kitchen, oratory, guest room, servants and companions – she struggled with both ill-health and her prayer life.
Eventually, when in her forties, Teresa felt called to found a new convent, returning to the primitive Rule followed by hermits on Mount Carmel in the Middle Ages. She devoted the rest of her life to creating a network of convents following this simple Rule and focussed, through prayer, poverty and obedience, wholly on God, recruiting the much younger St John of the Cross to carry these reforms over into the monastic side of the Order.
Even while she was traversing Spain, battling with ill health, ecclesiastical authorities, the Inquisition and fellow religious reluctant to give up their comforts, she was writing – hundreds of letters and many books.
On her death in 1582 these letters and manuscripts were preserved by the recipients and her Order, giving us the opportunity to be enriched by her deep and immensely practical, searching and humorous teaching on prayer.
Her autobiography famously begins: ‘Having virtuous and God-fearing parents would have been enough for me to be good if I were not so wicked.’ She also wrote:‘A sad nun is a bad nun. I am more afraid of one unhappy sister than a crowd of evil spirits. What would happen if we hid what little sense of humour we had? Let each of us humbly use this to cheer others.’ Her oft quoted words: ‘From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.’ are found no where in her writings, but give an accurate flavour of her humour and her groundedness.
Teresa’s writings on prayer are marvellously inventive and innovative. They are not very systematic because they are written to encourage and instruct different communities in different situations.
She breaks of from the narrative in her autobiography to describe prayer in terms of making and watering a garden for God. Without water the garden would not flourish – but where does the water come from? It can be drawn by hand from a well, which is very hard work. It might be supplied by an aqueduct or water-wheel, or from a stream flowing right through it or directly from heaven, from the hand of God. Each of these waters she uses to illustrate a different form of prayer.
In the Way of Perfection she explores the Lord’s Prayer line by line and shows how it is not just a prayer but an aid to prayer, a means by which Christ shows his nearness to us, how ‘thy kingdom come’ is relevant to us here, now.
And in her masterpiece, The Interior Castle, she uses the image of fortifications like those guarding Avila, exploring some of the many rooms, gardens, mansions, spaces that go to make up the whole community of God with the King of Glory dwelling in the centre.
Growing up in a well-to-do household, then, before she began her reforms, spending twenty years in a convent that replicated all the comforts of home,meant that Teresa was profoundly aware of the stresses, strains and temptations in the world around us that can all too easily choke our prayer life and distract us from focussing on God. She understood only too well how the good seed of God’s love can wither for lack of attention.
Which is perhaps why, in her book Way of Perfection she starts with three driving principles: Love of Others, Detachment and True Humility. Practising these three gives us a clear path for focussing on God. Love of others requires piercing the façade of appearances to discover the Lord who dwells in everyone’s heart. Those who love God care deeply about others, they want goodness for them, they are not shocked by faults or put off by discourtesy. We are asked to love others as God loves us.
Teresa admits that Detachment is easy to talk about but hard to do. It is about valuing the freedom to love God above everything else in life. That’s not just material things, the thorns that grow up around us obscuring our view of both the world and God, it also requires being detached from our own selves.
This is where True Humility comes in. If our first concern is for ourselves then we can never be free to fully serve God. Teresa reminds us that ‘People wrapped up in themselves make an unattractive parcel.’
Practising Love of Others, Detachment and True Humility enables us to discern the truth that Teresa finds at the heart of prayer – God is very near us. She reminds us that ‘All harm comes from not understanding that He is near.’ In the Parable of the Sower the sower is Christ himself, broadcasting God’s word into our hearts. When we hear the Gospel read in Church or receive Holy Communion we are reminded not only that Jesus is very close to us, but also that the good seed of God’s love has been sown inside us.
For Teresa one key sign of how that good seed had taken root in us is the way we treat others. Love of Others is not just a starting point for God-centred prayer, it is also a fruit of that prayer.
For some, the Marthas, the active ones, it might also be their chief form of prayer. In another place she uses Martha as an example of someone who wasn’t contemplative, but who used her practical skills to greet the Guest who is Jesus. By service Martha was living prayer, working it out in the world.
And this brings us to the famous saying:
‘Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
he looks with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.’
Despite the fact that she is known as a mystic – one who focusses on heavenly things – Teresa very firmly concentrated on the Incarnate Christ. Jesus walking this earth and taking part in life was key to her faith. Jesus still walking this earth, in the Spirit and in us was also vital to her. Prayer and action are integrally bound, how
we treat others, the world, ourselves, is prayer and is informed by prayer. In the parable of the Sower the birds that take the seed from the path are like those who deprive others of the possibility to grow, to be fulfilled, to hear God’s word. We are called to be the opposite. Prayer should not just enable us to be filled with God’s love, it should help us to spread that love through our engagement with the world.
But the nearness of Christ that Teresa calls us to recall is also a reminder of how to pray. Because one of her key insights is that we should pray as if we are talking to a companion. Prayer then becomes not a list of wants but a dialogue, a conversation with a friend in the same room as us. We speak to our friends often, we make mistakes with them and we try again.
Prayer is like that – sometimes it feels as if it has landed on stony ground and been burnt up, sometimes it gets lost among the mess of the day, sometimes we feel too busy or too ashamed of ourselves to see our friends. But Teresa tells us to keep trying. God’s friendship is constant – as the prayer she wrote on her bookmark reminded her – God will listen and forgive whenever we make the effort to get in touch.
The oft told story that illustrates Teresa’s own companionable relationship with Christ involves a mule that unseats her into a stream in front of a party of nuns, When Teresa complains to Jesus ‘What did you do that for?’ he responds ‘That’s how I treat all my friends,’ to which she swiftly retorts ‘No wonder you have so few, then.’
St Teresa, along with St John of the Cross, was made a Doctor of the Church in the twentieth century. Both achieved this title because in their lives and in their writings they sought to draw others into God’s presence.
Teresa, like John Wesley, who echoes her words ‘I am all yours Lord, dispose of me according to your desire’ in his Covenant Service, lived a life of ceaseless journeying to reach as many people as possible and sow the love of God in their hearts. She saw, in Paul’s words to Timothy, herself ‘being poured out as a libation’.
But all she did was about laying the foundations for the next generation and the next and the next, right down the line until us, to continue to both walk with Christ and walk as Christ in the world and to keep broadcasting the seed that is God’s word, God’s presence among us, until the whole of creation is drawn into companionship with the One who is always waiting for us. Keep at it, she says, keep trying, and the God who walked this earth as Jesus will be your constant companion on the Way. Amen.
St Teresa’s Bookmark
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.
If you would like to make an initial exploration of St Teresa I would recommend the following books:
A Month with St Teresa of Avila, Ed Rima Devereaux, SPCK, 9780281079049;
My Life – My Prayer: The Autobiography of St Teresa of Avila for everyone, Elizabeth Ruth Obbard, New City, 9781905039302;
St Teresa’s WAY OF PERFECTION for everyone, Elizabeth Ruth Obbard, New City, 9780904287783;
TRAVELLING INWARDS: St Teresa’s Interior Castle for Everyone, Elizabeth Ruth Obbard, New City, 9781905039210.
For deeper reading the Classics of Western Spirituality translation of the Interior Castle is still one of the best, Kieran Kavanaugh’s introduction is excellent: Paulist Press, 9780809122547.