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St. Teresa of Avila: Suffering and Divine Love

St. Teresa of Avila: Suffering and Divine Love

If you have God you will want for nothing. God alone suffices. St. Teresa of Avila

There is so much about Christianity that is counter intuitive.  Give up your own self protection to obey. Give up your freedom for servitude. And now, give up the normal happiness of the world for suffering.  Today we celebrate the memorial of St. Teresa of Avila, Nun and Doctor of the Church. But she isn’t alone, and it isn’t only women. St. Francis for example. And St. John of the Cross, who was Teresa’s friend and spiritual companion. Some people today experience that closeness, even union with God, a passion, ekstasis, and presence so overwhelming that the fear and love are beyond description. But it isn’t a very modern way of being, so it is often discounted as a fantasy or delusion, or attempts are made to discredit it as a psychiatric disorder.  But it is a real and genuine path to a union with God, or at least as much of a union as we humans can fathom or endure. And it is good to reflect that many, if not all, of these mystics also led a worldly and often political life as they worked though the Church, or fought the Church, to be heard and to establish their insight and discernment as part of the overall wisdom of the Church. Some suffered at the hands of the Church, and some died for their gift.

Teresa came from a family that had worked very hard to become influential and respectable. Teresa’s maternal grandfather had been one of the Jews who was forced to accept Christianity (marrano), and often, as in his case, accused by the Spanish Inquisition of secretly reverting to Judaism.  He survived. Many did not. Teresa spent a lot of her life and vocation in that shadow. Close to her mother, she was raised on spiritual literature and romantic tales of chivalry. When her mother died, she was sent to an Augustinian convent for her education. There she had access to the mystical literature of the day, including Francisco de Osuna’s Second Spiritual Alphabet which teaches self examination and mental, or contemplative, prayer. During this time Teresa had periods of severe illness, and experienced her first ecstatic prayer. She learned that only total obedience to and dependence on God was the way to God. Her companion Sisters decided that her spiritual experiences were of diabolic origin, but she was blessed to have the Jesuit Saint Francis Borgia as a spiritual director who assured her that her visions were valid and from God. We often picture Sister Teresa as depicted by Bernini in his statue The Ecstasy of St. Teresa with its orgiastic inference, and insofar as she was a Bride of the Bridegroom that is valid. But in her intimacy, Christ was her teacher, and led her to her vocational discernment. And what she came to discern was that the life of the Carmelite community, in which she was then living, was not faithful to the Gospel. In many ways it was no more than a women’s social club. She was determined it was God’s will to reform the order. The first change was to take off their shoes, or be discalced, and to live a life of poverty and prayer, especially contemplative, or silent, prayer to join with the spoken prayer of the monastic offices.

We would not consider that radical today, but in the oppressive world of the Spanish Inquisition this was more than suspect. Didn’t Luther say that grace alone was the door to salvation? And silent conversation with God was not controlled by the authority of the Church. Who knows where it would lead. There were already a growing number of mystics in sixteenth century Spain. John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola and several of the Ignatian First Fathers, and many more. And then there were the Alumbardos, who, like the Lollards and Beguines before them, were unsupervised lay communities of faith. This had to be stopped. And why was a woman writing theology?  For she had begun writing as a way of fulfilling her vocation when preaching was out of the question. Although it is said she knew no Latin, she knew Scripture and referred to more than the limited scripture of the catechism. Her autobiographical Vita has a history that exemplifies the suffering she experienced with the Church.  It was censored, even self-censored, repeatedly redacted, and rewritten. Finally it was taken from her, although copies had been made and widely distributed.  Furthermore, the great classics of mystical literature had been banned by the Valdés Index of Forbidden Books, including Osuna’s seminal work. It was now imperative that Teresa teach what she had learned from others, and directly from the Holy Spirit in prayer and penance, as the way toward union with the divine. This did not sit well with the Church and the Spanish Inquisition. As an example, she wished to open a Discalced convent in Madrid, but was ordered to open it in Seville. She said, “I can be deceived by revelations, but never by obedience,” and opened in Seville. Seville was a major financial center and run by powerful interests that didn’t like the Gospel message of poverty the Discalced sisters witnessed. Her judgment was correct, and she and her sisters were accused of a range of heresies to the Inquisitors. She survived.

Teresa continued to write throughout her life. The Interior Castle describes the process of self denial necessary to place oneself entirely in the hands of God, step by step, until, by God’s will the penitent is brought into divine union. While she accepted the outward self punishments typical of her time, her focus is on the inner punishments of self denial, acceptance of humiliation, rejection of pride, embracing the humility and the suffering of the Lord as one’s own. Madre, for by then she was superior of her order, Teresa was named a Doctor of the Church in modern times, not merely a woman in passionate love of God, but a great teacher.

We don’t like words like “obedient,” “humility,” and we distrust “passion.”  We are much more comfortable with “justice,” “protest,” “resist,” which certainly have their place. But subjection to God also has Gospel approbation, and obedience and discernment ought to precede action or a contemplative life.  Inner prayer is a hard way, one of constant self examination, repentance, and confession. But perhaps it is the formation practice into imitation of the life of Jesus. What happened to Jesus wasn’t just or fair, but it was the way of Salvation. We face Teresa’s tension. For us the power of the Church now resides in the State, and we still struggle with discernment. But it is harder now to quiet the voices outside our heads which want to send us down the path of active rebellion. But the path of humility and obedience, however unpopular and painful, offers a path to peace beyond words, and a friendship with and passion for our Lord and our God beyond anything which the world offers.

Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.



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