Saint Teresa, born in the town of of Ávila in 1515, came from a noble Spanish family. Like many such families of her time, it was known to have Jewish roots which were no longer admitted to publicly.
Such families lived with a real sense of insecurity, and that contributed in some ways to the person she became as she grew up and developed; she knew she had to be strong in herself in order not to be put down by others. And to be able to deal with the suspicions of the Inquisition.
A Carmelite nun, prominent Spanish mystic, religious reformer, author, theologian of the contemplative life and teacher of prayer, in 1970 she was declared a Doctor of the Church, the first woman to be so recognised in the Roman Catholic Church. . During the time of reform in the Catholic Church which paralleled the Protestant Reformation, Teresa reformed the Carmelite Orders of both women and men. The movement she initiated was later joined by the younger Spanish Carmelite friar and mystic John of the Cross. It led eventually to the establishment of the Discalced Carmelites, those of the strict observance ( discalced meaning “without the wearing of shoes.” Teresa and her followers made do with sandals. )
Conflict and Reform
Teresa was at the centre of deep ecclesiastical controversy as she took on the laxity in her order against the background of the upheaval of the Protestant reformation and of the Spanish Inquisition asserting the control of church discipline in her home country. In the course of her determined campaign for establishment of Carmelite priories of the strict observance, she made powerful enemies who colluded against her with their contacts in the Church hierarchy. Fortunately as a noblewoman, she had her own friends in high places as well.
One papal legate described her as a “restless wanderer, disobedient, and stubborn and troublesome woman who, under the title of devotion, invented bad doctrines, moving outside the cloister against the rules of the Council of Trent and her prelates; teaching as a master against Saint Paul‘s orders that women should not teach.”
Her visions and spiritual raptures
Around 1556, some of her friends suggested to her that her newfound knowledge was diabolical, not divine. But her confessor, a Jesuit, reassured her of the divine inspiration of her thoughts. Then there were the visions and the ecstasies; the visions came to her over a period of more than two years. In one vision, a seraph drove the fiery point of a golden lance repeatedly through her heart, causing an ineffable spiritual and bodily pain as well as ecstasy : this vision was the inspiration for one of Bernini‘s most famous works, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa at Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. While this sculpture scandalised the minds of northern Protestants, who could admit no connection between eros and agape, the way of Teresa and of John of the Cross was to make the journey from love to love, recognising that love has a bodily as well as a spiritual nature, and that God works through all that he has made.
In Saint Teresa’s teaching about prayer, she writes of the progression through four stages of the spiritual life towards perfect union with Christ. She writes :
: “Contemplative prayer , in my view is nothing other than a close sharing between friends. It means frequently taking time to be alone with the One whom we know loves us.” Alive to the beauty of God moving through all creation, Teresa speaks of the watering of our garden as a representing of what mystical prayer is about.
Rowan Williams writes : “ Ultimately, understanding Teresa as the kind of theologian she was, means understanding what it meant to her to be a contemplative, which she saw as essentially a matter of the sustained awareness of living within the movement of God’s love into creation, through the life and death of Jesus Christ. That understanding, to borrow one of her memorable phrases, depends on the “living book” , consisting of lives lived in the Christian tradition of love and compassion. A written text can tell very little. “
A story and two poems
Revd Mervyn Puleston has brought the following story to my attention :
Teresa used to travel all over Spain visiting various convents. One day she was on her donkey crossing a river full of icy water from the melting snows. In the middle the donkey bucked and threw her into the water At this point, lying in the icy water she had a vision of Christ : “Lord, why do you treat me thus?” she cried. The Lord answered “I treat all my friends like this.” “No wonder you have so few of them”, she replied.
And then the prayer poem known as St. Teresa’s bookmark, a helpful prayer for the times we find ourselves in :
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices.
Our final poem does not come from Teresa’s writings, but is attributed to her, and is felt by many to express her message for us today; these, therefore, seem fitting words with which to conclude :
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks 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.”
Through Christ our Lord, Amen
Postscript Poem AJA
The eye of a needle
The eye of a needle
is just not for me
with all my bulk:
not just well-fed
but with all my baggage:
of self-righteous justifications
my array of hallowed opinions;
after a struggle
I can just about fit into
the wedding garment of grace
that makes the impossible possible;
discarding on my way
so much I thought
I needed to take with me;
And suddenly I realise
the needle’s eye is now behind me
and I am thankful for the peace
that by-passes my self-understanding,
the tormented arguments
of the rational mind.