I love St. Teresa. I often joke that she’s my favorite 16th century “Reformer,” particularly when I am around friends and students from the Reformed tradition. St. Teresa lived south of Calvin and Luther in Spain during the tumultous 16th century, and her “reform” – while vastly different in form and content than the others – nonetheless was a profound invitation to grace, to freedom, to becoming unshackled during a time of exteriorized, shallow, ritualistic religiosity.
If you read my first blog in this series, I mentioned resources (see below) for you to use to journey with me and others (mostly, a brave group of students at Western Theological Seminary) currently engaging Teresa’s life and journey. In these resources, you’ll read short bio’s of Teresa, and discover that she was no stoic nun.
Teresa was a fierce and wild soul.
As a child, she would have preferred chasing the Moors out of town to studying and playing the role a young woman in a patriarchal Spanish society. She was often brazen and flirtatious, so much so that life in a convent seemed to her father to be the best container for her. But though religious life would change it, it never tamed her.
In fact, her remarkable inner life (seen most imaginatively in her work The Interior Castle) is, well…all the more remarkable…when you consider that it was cultivated during a time of conquest, polarization, and segregation. Consider the fact that she was a woman in a radically patriarchal society, that she was of Jewish ancestry during the Spanish Inquisition (when Jews were being hunted down), and a “reformer” of the order when a counter-Reformation was afoot and you’ll see that she was not your ordinary dull monk. Truth be told (and it’s not a pleasant truth), she might have preferred joining her brothers on their explorations of the new-found-land overseas, as at heart she was an adventurer. And while I have no reason to believe she would have or could have endorsed the genocidal mission they were on, she nonethless took her own journey of ‘conquest’ to her interior world, leaving us a map for our own journeys from slavery to freedom.
In coming blogs, I’ll elaborate more on this. For now, it’s important to see that she is inviting you and me on a journey. A vast “interior castle” is the primary metaphor she uses, and the journey from outside the castle (where many dangers lurk) to its deepest inner center, where God dwells in Christ and by the Spirit drawing us in, ever more intimately, to union. You see, Teresa sees herself (and us) in peril. She sees us living in a world of illusion, of falsity, of appearances but no substance. She does not see the world, itself, as evil, but (like CS Lewis) she sees us desiring far too little. This is, after all, a journey of desire, and she invites us out of our numbing addictions, our anesthetic attachments, and our dumb idols into the “boxing ring” of the interior castle, where we’ll do our real wrestling with God.
You see, the problem is that we’re not in the ring. Teresa sees us fiddling with all kinds of things that capture desire, refracting it in a thousand directions other than the one intended. She sees us as fractured, fragmented, divided. Don’t you feel that way sometimes? Perhaps, she’d see me checked out all weekend on my couch captured by the substitute drama of football and say, “Chuck, looks like’s a perfectly fine sport to me, but it has captivated your whole attention and rendered your heart numb.” St. Teresa becomes our kind, but honest, spiritual director. She calls us out of the illusions and into the depths.
And it is an adventure. You see, the interior journey she invites us on is not about hyper-therapeutic navel-gazing or inner peace. Those are the carictures of those afraid to take inner journeys. No, this journey is central to the mission for Teresa. She did not sit in a room staring into the sky. No, Teresa was often on-the-road, putting her own health in peril, strategizing and conferring in order to build a movement of women and men radically committed to being fully alive, wholehearted. A woman in a man’s world, she conferred with governers and the political elite, often charming her way into good deals that landed buildings and land for her movement. So, let’s dismiss any notion that this journey is anti-missional or new-agey. No, this is an inside-out affair.
It is a journey of desire…from the little-d desires which hijack our attention to Big-D Desire…union with our Beloved. Thoroughy Augustinian, she believed that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.
This is what I deeply long for. You?
Are you ready for the adventure?
Resources for the Journey
Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila translated by Mirabai Starr (I love Starr’s translation of Teresa, John, Lady Julian, etc. She is a fresh new translator of these classic works. Her introduction alone is worth the price of the book.)
Entering the Castle, Caroline Myss (this book is the cheapest investment in your own therapy you’ll ever experience, though the emotional and spiritual investment may be costly!)
Into the Silent Land, Martin Laird (this is best accessible introduction to the purpose and practice of contemplative prayer I know. Laird is an Augustinian priest teaching early Christian studies at Villanova U.)