mystic in mission: st teresa of avila

Today – October 14 – is the Feast Day of St. Teresa of Avila, a Spanish saint and Reformer.  But why should I care?  I’m a Protestant.  Even more, I’m Reformed.  Even more, I’m an evangelical.  I ought to be writing about the evils of Feast Days!

Teresa has become something of a hero to me, though.  She’s one of two “lost Reformers” along with St. John of the Cross.  Her name ought to be up in lights among Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, and the others.  

Teresa was a mystic in mission.  

But her real ‘reform’ efforts didn’t start until she was 43 years old.  Indeed, she is a living picture of someone who transitioned well into her “second half of life,” having spent much of the first half performing and comparing, concerned more about image than depth, guilt-ridden by all she’d not done rather than freed to live and love.  16-year old Teresa was beautiful and impulsive and earthy, engaging in typical adolescent sexual carousing.  It was not the first time her socializing with men would be seen as seductive, something that followed her well into her 60’s in and through her relationship with St. John of the Cross.  In her early years, she struggled to pray like the rest of us, and wondered if her life would amount to anything – “My imagination is so dull that I had no talent for imagining or coming up with great theological thoughts.”  With the other nuns of her day, she lived life in a convent that looked more like a freshman girls dorm, where boys would sneak in and out, and where Teresa’s friends would waste much of their time spending money on expensive jewelry to spruce up their nun-wear (imagine that…fashionable 16th century nun-wear!)  At the same time, she’d feel wholly inadequate among the “good girls” in the convent who seemed to do their daily prayers and experience God in a way she hadn’t.

I’m particularly drawn in by this at the age of 43, myself, as she challenges me to reflect on my own “first half of life” successes and (even more!) stumblings.

As a nun, she witnessed and participated in the 16th century vanities and excesses of the Roman Catholic Church, and after a bout with malaria gained new perspective on her life.  Indeed, pain became a pathway to intimacy with God, a new and vibrant intimacy which often led her into moments of timeless contemplative union with God.  She was a “daughter” – and she could rest in that identity, an identity that transcended whatever version of sin-management or God-pleasing she’d tried.  Tasting union, she couldn’t help but see that the Church in her day was a mix of pious and moralistic religiosity, on the one hand, and blatant excess and abuse on the other.  She determined to be the difference.

As a member of the Carmelite Order, she sought reform rather than outright rebellion.  She championed a return to prayer, to humility, and perhaps most apt for a Reformer – to GRACE – as the pathway to intimacy with God.  And she (along with her greatest student and fellow Reformer – St. John of the Cross) would pay dearly for their efforts.  She traveled the Spanish countryside, politicking brilliantly, as God brought her extraordinary emotional and social intelligence (and penchant for seductiveness) into the redemptive work of Reform.  Wherever she went, she was challenged and maligned.  Being a woman made her all-the-more a target, and yet Teresa could engage the abuse with her own endearing self-deprecation, needing only to give God the credit.  She’d write, “But what do I know? I’m just a wretched woman.” – and these words did seem to satisfy some who’d pursue on account of her gender. Teresa didn’t have a chip on her shoulder.  She didn’t need to demand respect.  Her presence invited it. As she said, “Anyone who truly loves God travels securely.”

And her teaching came with power and theological wisdom.  Imagine how bold it would be for Teresa to call her sisters (and brothers within the order) back to their baptismal identity:

May you be content knowing that you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into our bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. 

Indeed, her themes parallel the Reformers.  She begins where Calvin began in his Institutes – with interiority – a call to know ourselves in a such a way that we can discover both the depth of our depravity, but marvel at the beauty of God’s image-bearing dignity renewed in us.  Read the Interior Castle, particularly Mirabai Starr’s translation.  In it, she sees our spiritual journey in seven stages – a journey from fragmentation to wholeness, from displaced desire to unified desire in God, from an identity in things and people and possessions to an identity in God.  Fr. John Welch does an excellent job unfolding this in his YouTube talk here.

The mystic-in-mission started 14 new convents where she’d herald grace and faithfulness and mission.  She wrote four books.  All the while, she battled illness which took her to the brink of death, and abuse which tarnished her reputation but failed to touch her spirit.

Today, I find myself longing to live into this extraordinary paradox of contemplation and action.  Maybe you do, as well?  There is something so appealing about a human being who models such profound interiority and intimacy, while at the same time accomplishing so much for the sake of the Gospel.  Indeed, I’ve often said that while I cherish my tradition, its confessions, and its founders, I find a deeply lived GRACE and UNION with God in the lives of the Spanish Reformers Teresa and John.

I’ll be tweeting all day today – October 15 – at @chuckdegroat with the hashtag #teresa.  I invite you to contribute to the collection of wise sayings from Teresa at that hashtag, and offer your own thoughts on this remarkable mystic in mission.  In the meantime, enjoy these works for further reflection:

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– My favorite biography is by Cathleen Medwick – Teresa of Avila: The Prayers of a Soul

– Teresa’s autobiography is The Life of Teresa of Jesus, and I enjoy E. Alison Peers edition/translation.

– Check out Mirabai Starr’s translation of The Interior Castle.  The first paragraph of her introduction is worth the price of the book.

– Fr. John Welch – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZAuzHICX4A

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