The saints have left us a legacy of wisdom, inspiration and challenge. I often browse through readings by the saints and find myself enthralled in the words, wondering what in their lives prompted the words they have written. Most often, there is a back story that offers a glimpse into their lives.
One of the saints that calls for my attention is Teresa of Avila. I became especially interested in her life during the years our progressive Baptist church worshipped each week in the chapel of Carmel of Saint Teresa of Jesus in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was the pastor of a church where Baptist congregants worshipped in a beautiful chapel cared for and consecrated by Carmelite Sisters, thirteen of them at that time.
How rich an experience it was for us! As we lived out our spiritual commitments in the world, we were blessed immeasurably by the inner life the Sisters modeled before us . . . a life of silence, reverence, prayer and contemplation.
Recently I came across a quote by Saint Teresa of Avila, also known as Saint Teresa of Jesus, that touched my heart.
Close your eyes and follow your breath to the still place that leads to the invisible path that leads you home.
Those words were intriguing to me, calling me to a still place. Calling me to allow my breath to lead me to the still place on the invisible path. I contemplated the meaning and what the meaning might say to me. I could not help but wonder what prompted Saint Teresa’s words. And then I looked at her back story.
It seems that Teresa of Avila was a reformer of the Carmelite Order. The movement she initiated was later joined by the younger Spanish Carmelite friar and mystic, Saint John of the Cross. It led eventually to the establishment of the Discalced Carmelites. A formal papal decree adopting the split was issued in 1580. Throughout her life, Teresa founded several new reformed Carmelite Orders.
Saint Teresa experienced years of excruciating pain and serious illness. Her spiritual life was one of dreams, visions and mystical experiences. Unfortunately, when her mystical experiences, including visions, became widely known, she was treated with ridicule and even persecution. Her religious ecstasies caused jealousy and suspicion. She lived in the period of the Spanish inquisition, a time in history when any deviation from the orthodox religious experience came under strict observation and scrutiny.
So her experiences of spiritual ecstasy subjected her to the investigations of the Inquisition. In 1576, a series of persecutions began on the part of the older observant Carmelite order against Teresa, her friends, and her reforms. Pursuant to a body of resolutions adopted at the general chapter at Piacenza, the “definitors” of the order forbade all further founding of convents. The general chapter condemned Teresa to “voluntary” retirement to one of her institutions.
But prior to her forced retirement, Saint Teresa devoted her life to traveling around Spain setting up new convents based upon ancient monastic traditions. Her travels and work were not always greeted with enthusiasm, as many resented her reforms and the implied criticism of existing religious orders. She often met with criticism, including the papal nuncio, who used the rather descriptive phrase “a restless disobedient gadabout who has gone about teaching as though she were a professor.”
Saint Teresa of Avila most assuredly had a great deal to teach us about the importance of an inner life of deep contemplation and an outer life of immersion into the hurt of the world. What a lesson we could learn about doing the inner work that enables us to do the outer work in a suffering world!
So the one who spoke those words about a “still place” had so much more to say when we readthe entirety of her writings. The following are but two small glimpses into her depth of devotion.
This magnificent refuge is inside you. Enter. Shatter the darkness that shrouds the doorway. Be bold. Be humble. Put away the incense and forget the incantations they taught you. Ask no permission from the authorities. Close your eyes and follow your breath to the still place that leads to the invisible path that leads you home.
Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world.
Saint Teresa was a contemplative mystic that showed us a life of silence and prayer. But she was also a brilliant revolutionary in the best sense of that word. We would do well in our quest to follow God to emulate her life that spoke so eloquently of our hands and feet being those of Christ on earth. She showed us deep contemplation and revolution. Our world needs both.