Teresa of Avila

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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.

 

 

God is Nowhere and Everywhere!

Life seems to be a marathon search for God, a search that never ends, but rather continues unrelenting in the soul. It is no secret to realize that the soul has need of God. Or perhaps it’s better that I speak for myself: My soul has need of God.

But the God I need is not the “God of our Fathers.” That God is not big enough, complete enough, for me. I long for another presence of God in my soul. I long for a God that I can experience as both father and mother.

In my defense, there are hints throughout early Christianity and in Holy Scripture that God transcends “male” and “female.” 

In Genesis, for example, women and men are created in the “Imago Dei,” image of God, which suggests that God transcends socially constructed notions of gender. 

In the oracles of the eighth century prophet Isaiah, God is described as a woman in labor and a mother comforting her children.

And the Book of Proverbs maintains that the feminine figure of Holy Wisdom, Sophia, assisted God during the creation of the world.

Clearly, limiting God to masculine pronouns and imagery limits the countless religious experiences of billions of Christians throughout the world.It is probably best that we heed the words and warning of bishop Augustine, who once said, “si comprehendis non est Deus.” 

If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God.

But getting back to my own search for God . . . In the over-used saying about “searching in all the wrong places,” we might find more truth than we expect. God as male; God as female; God as Spirit. Does it really matter so much? Regardless of our God image, we all search.

Some people search the heavens to find God, studying the constellations for a glimpse of the Divine. Others are certain that they find God in nature. Others scour the Scripture for God. Others are convinced that their own devout meditation and prayer will reveal God. Still others count on the religious rites and sacraments of their faith traditions.

The reality is that God seems to be nowhere and everywhere, waiting for me to find my own unique way of connecting. In the end, it is likely that I will not find God through my search, but rather come to the deep conviction that God was never lost to me in the first place. Saint Teresa of Avila may well have said the truest, purest words on this idea of searching for God.

We need no wings to go in search of God, but have only to look upon God present within us.

— Saint Teresa of Avila

 

I Need No Wings

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When accusers declared that the thoughts of Joan of Arc were figments of her imagination, she frequently answered them with this shrewd and sensible retort: “How else would God speak to me?”

This is one of the BIG questions most of us have asked ourselves again and again: How does God speak to me? 

And these big questions follow:

How will I know when it is God who is speaking?
Could this strong intuitive thought inside me be God speaking through my inner self?
Can God speak to me through other people?
How do I find God, hear God, feel God?

Richard Rohr, arguably one of the wisest thinkers of our time, wrote this in response to some of our big questions about God:

Intuitive truth, that inner whole-making instinct, just feels too much like our own thoughts and feelings, and most of us are not willing to call this “God,” even when that voice prompts us toward compassion instead of hatred, forgiveness instead of resentment, generosity instead of stinginess, bigness instead of pettiness.

Rohr goes on to explain that mystics like Augustine, Teresa of Ávila, Thomas Merton, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Thérèse of Lisieux, and so many others seem to equate the discovery of their own souls with the very discovery of God.

But to be honest, this post is more about me than it is about the people I admire as spiritual giants. This post is about me making hard life-altering decisions. I admit that making decisions frustrates me, especially at the most critical turning points in my life when I have felt most intensely the need for God’s guidance in the decision. It was easy, as a younger minister, to be confident that whatever I was thinking was “God’s will,” that God had complete control of my thoughts, decisions and actions, that every sermon I preached came “from God’s own lips.”

The passing years brought doubts, questions and the determination to hear God ever more clearly. In the past few years, my most daunting decision was whether or not to have a kidney transplant. My thoughts fluctuated between deciding to leave well enough alone and live my remaining years on dialysis or taking a risk on transplant surgery that has the potential of either making me worse or making my life infinitely better. This has felt like a life or death decision, and I prayed many times, “God, you have to tell me what to do this time. I don’t trust my ability to make this decision.”

Which brings us back to the BIG question: How will I know when it is God who is speaking?

How will I know when “God has spoken” about this decision? 

So let me go ahead and say this out loud in the vernacular of my Bible Belt inspired religious training . . . How will I know “God’s will?”

Now it’s out there where I can really see it. I can theologically skirt around it, but the bottom line is about that errant teaching ingrained in me that if I try hard enough, I will know God’s will about every important matter, and even about not-so-important matters, i.e., “We both wore blue today. It must have been God’s will.” And then there’s the other faith statement declaring that one has (spiritually) reached some decision, a much better statement actually: “I have a peace about it.”

Running as fast as I could from such theological beliefs, I ran way past a simple, quiet faith in a God who wants only my best. I ran past the faith that once told me not to let my heart be troubled or afraid and that the grace-gift I had received was a Comforter who would be with me forever. I ran past the simple truth that I really can have peace about a decision. I ran past the promise of Jesus:

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another comforter . . . to be with you forever. You know him, for he lives with you and will be in you . . . You will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.  (From John 14)

I’m still not certain I have mastered all the questions on the matter of hearing God. And I definitely do not have all the answers. But relying on the promise of scripture is a start. And listening in on the experiences of holy people — people who seem to have a more direct line to God than I ever hope to have — is of immense value to me. The beautiful Carmelite saint, Teresa of Avila, is one of my go-to holy people. This is one of her thoughts that speaks to me powerfully in times of indecision and confusion, times when I doubt my ability to discern God’s direction, times when I wonder if God even hears my prayers.

However quietly we speak, He is so near that He will hear us: we need no wings to go in search of Him but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.   — St. Teresa of Avila

I need no wings to go in search of God. 3B5858AA-997E-4D5C-8695-5D41049B2B90

When I can sense God present within me, I can believe in my own decision about a transplant, and any other decision for that matter. But I know that it takes a lifetime, and a lot of life experience, to be able to trust in a spiritual — perhaps mystical — union with the mind of God. It takes a lifetime of relationship for most of us to trust our intentions and our purity of heart enough to believe that our thoughts are God’s thoughts, that our decisions and actions are God’s. But when that day comes, I have an idea that it will feel like a “peace that passes understanding,” like a calm ability to quietly trust myself and trust God at the same time. 

May God’s Spirit make it so in me.

Amen