In 16th century Spain, men were accustomed to thinking of their wives as “slaves valuable for breeding.” In fact, when a wife wrote a note or letter to her husband, the closing would often read, “ Your wife and slave.” A widely read spiritual author of the time, Fansicso de Osuna, recommended to men, “the moment you see your wife running back and forth on pilgrimages and devoting herself to sanctimoniousness, close the door of your house. If that should fail, then break her leg, that way she can limp from her house to paradise.”1 Homebound, barefoot and pregnant was a good Spanish wife: devout enough to want to go to mass and obedient enough to stay home.
Teresa was beautiful. She had a flawless figure, expressive black eyes, and splendid hair. She was charming, intelligent; she “turned every head.” Maybe a wife’s job description did not suit her; at twenty she joined a Carmelite convent. For years she struggled, to stay focused during mass. She grew more focused on the clock which would free her from prayer than any whisper from God she might hear during prayer.
I’ve heard it said that we humans have a limit. We can only live so long in the tension when our inner world and our outer worlds are in conflict. When our values and our behaviors do not coincide, eventually, one or the other must change. Either we will change our behavior, or we will reassess our values. Perhaps that’s what happened to Teresa. For eighteen years, she was a good ‘average’ nun by all outward appearances; inwardly, she longed for something more. Finally, she broke; her mind and her body quit. She had a nervous breakdown, followed by seizures. When she fell into a coma, they began to dig her grave. Slowly, her spasms stopped; she did not die, but she lay paralyzed for three years. She was 40 years old when her limbs began to move again. For three years she lay immobile, when we read her autobiography we must wonder if she ever rested again after that.
She changed. She no longer went through the motions of life; she didn’t go along with the flow of things. Convents of her time were more like sororities than religious orders. There were parlors for rendezvous with the local gentry. Nuns entertained nobles of the city, wore expensive jewelry and lived in elegance. Teresa saw the shallowness of what was to have been devotion. She wanted monastic reform to return their lives to simplicity, prayer and service. Under the cover of darkness, she and four other sisters left their convent one night and set up a new one in a tiny house. The escapees were fetched back by their mother convent. She did not stop. After nine months of petitioning and pleading, she was allowed to open a private convent. She did not stop there.
One by one , they began planting new convents. Creeping into towns at night, creating a chapel by light of candlelight, by sunrise there was a chapel open for prayer where there wasn’t one the night before. Teresa drew up building plans, sewed habits, scrubbed and hammered, wrote begging letters, negotiated with authorities, all this with her chronic sickliness: headaches, fevers, rheumatism, kidney troubles, gall bladder problems, a weak heart. Others would have spent their life in sickbed, but not Teresa. Well or ill she was determined; she would pick up a tambourine, dance, and sing composing silly song. She never let up, and it never got easier.
When a new leader came into papal power, it only got worse. He denounced Madre Teresa. He took over her reformed convents, excommunicated those who would not give up her ways. The 63 yr old Teresa was old and tired, but she fought for her work. She never gave up. She planted new convents based on simplicity; she raised funds, and she wrote. In all the day to day work, in all the administrative work, in all the physical and political work, she also wrote five spiritual classics and her autobiography. When people asked her how- how she survived, how she accomplished so much, how she kept going, her answer was “prayer.” “ Prayer when it seems impossible, prayer when others do everything to dissuade you and shake your confidence in it, prayer when you are not sure whether you are being led by God or by a devil. Never stop praying.”2
Teresa used two primary metaphors for prayer: one of a garden and one of a mansion. Gardens need water. Teresa compares the maturity of prayer to the many ways that gardens are watered. First our prayers are undertaken with great effort: like carrying water in a bucket from great distances. When we get past the struggle, she compares it to having a pump carrying the water for us. She identifies a stage of dryness and finding that the water need not be drawn or pumped at all because there is a hidden river present all along. Finally, our spiritual maturity is like experiencing God’s grace pouring out upon us like a bountiful rain.
Her second metaphor views our soul as a castle within us. Growth in prayer takes us into many rooms of the mansion until we finally enter into the very center where the Holy Trinity, God of Love resides. Teresa speaks of our spiritual journey, our prayer life, as a path of union with the Holy. She sounds like what John is saying, “23Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. She sounds like what the Gospel of Thomas announces, “the kingdom of God is within you.”
Our purpose, our passion, our source for all living is union with divinity that brings us into life with one another. Teresa taught: never stop praying, never forget that no two of us ever travel exactly the same spiritual path, and never expect an easy journey.
God was the key to Teresa’s life; Friendship with God was her strongest longing. God was her fiery lover and a good friend, and for her the right way to pray was nothing but “a conversation with a good friend, with whom we get together often and gladly, so as to talk, because we are sure that he loves us.” This God “ can be spoken to at all times” Teresa says, ‘you will finally mange to live in identity with yourselves and in friendship with the Other. For friendship with heaven changes the earth.
People of faith change the world. The change that we make in the world reflects the change that takes place in us. We know this is truth. It was not just Teresa of Avila, but perhaps we understand Teresa of Calcutta’s strength and inspiration. Prayer and spiritual maturity changes our world. Maybe not toppling all empires but certainly engaging in resistance of them.
A few years ago, Roy Bourgeois spoke with us here. He shared a video, “ Pink Smoke over the Vatican” and his work for reform in the Roman Catholic church, most notably for ordination of women. In Nov 2008, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered Father Bourgeois to recant his public support of women priests and refrain from further advocacy. He maintained that would be a betrayal of his conscience. In November of 2012, Bourgeois was informed by the Vatican that he had been expelled from his Maryknoll community of forty-six years and from the priesthood.3 That which had been his home exiled him, but his work for women’s ordination continues. The system did not silence him. He came to understand that silence is the voice of complicity. His strength to carry on: prayer, scripture, devotion.
Our world is not perfect, our nation is not perfect, our church is not perfect – perfect being perfectly loving with God’s all encompassing love, perfect being perfectly just where all are treated as beloved children of God, sacred beings of God’s delight, perfect being perfectly compassionate where no one is marginalized or left hungry or poor. Those who follow God’s expectation “ to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God” have much left to do. Those who follow Jesus and join ourselves to his mission “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to those who can’t see their way, to let the oppressed go free” have more to do (Luke 4:18).
Best not to attempt it on our own and best not to take to our sick beds distraught at the seemingly impossible. The only way we can do as we are called; the only way we can BE as we are becoming is in union with God. Intention and attention to our journey is vital to each of us and to the world around us.
Best to discern (pray, meditate, spiritual advisors, join in holy conferencing) and connect with God’s Spirit that resides within us to guide us, empower us, strengthen us.
Best to remember Jesus who gathered his friends around the table on his last night with them. He took bread, gave thanks, blessed, broke, gave telling them, “take eat, do this, remember…. I am with you always.” And when the supper was over, he took the cup. He gave thanks and gave it to his friends saying, “ drink from this all of you. This is a symbol of the new covenant of love poured out for you and for all. Do this whenever you gather, and remember.”
In praise and thanksgiving for the mighty acts in Jesus Christ, and in communion with the saints of all and the holy company of heaven, we proclaim the mystery of our faith…
1 Christian Feldman. God’s Gentle Rebels: Great Saints of Christianity.
2 John Kirvan. Let Nothing Disturb You: A Journey to the Center of the Soul with Teresa of Avila.
3 Fr. Roy Bourgeois. My Journey from Silence to Solidarity.