Saturday, 15 October 2005

Feast of St Teresa of Avila -- 15 October 2005

Readings: Romans 4:13,16-18; Luke 12:8-12 (Week 28 (Year 1), Saturday)
Homily at the Mass of Thanksgiving of Fr Paul White OP

I am very pleased to have been asked to preach at this Mass of Thanksgiving just a week after Father Paul’s ordination to the priesthood. The day chosen is no accident: I knew already of Paul’s devotion to St Teresa of Avila. He is not the first Dominican to be devoted to her. One of her best friends and key advisers was Domingo Banez one of the greatest of the 16th century Spanish Dominican theologians who helped Teresa find her way through mystical experiences, defended her before the Inquisition, and saved the Carmelite reform from ruin. There were quite a few other men in Teresa’s life too (after Jesus of course). Her flirtation with some young fellow at the age of 16 brought shame on the family (by the standards of 16th century Catholic Spain) and led to her being sent away to a boarding school. She was fondest, it seems, of Jeronimo Gracian, thirty years younger, the first provincial of the reformed Carmelite friars. Another great ally was St John of the Cross, the man with whom she is most often remembered, whom she greatly admired, but whom she found just a wee bit intense and humourless. Not at all like our Father Paul then who, nevertheless, has quite a few rivals for the great lady’s affection.

Teresa’s conversion to a serious following of Christ coincided with a midlife crisis. She had been plagued by illness and frustration throughout her twenties and thirties, finding life in the convent not that much different from life in the world outside. The sisters seemed more concerned with social status and the political interests of their families than with building spiritual companionship, which was what Teresa understood a religious community to be about. She could point no fingers, however, because her own life of faith and prayer was dry and dreary, and conditions in the convent were not helping her to move forward.

Reading Augustine’s Confessions, and seeing a particular picture representing the sufferings of Jesus, opened things up for her. We can think of her moving from a notional to a real assent, to use Newman’s terms, from a sincere acceptance of the truth of the Gospel that nevertheless left her lethargic and depressed, to a real acceptance of the truth of the Gospel that filled her with energy and zeal. Such a real acceptance is, of course, not the outcome of human effort alone but part of the teaching that the Spirit effects in those seeking to follow Christ (Luke 12.12).

Teresa’s account of this change is given in her Autobiography, a book read by Edith Stein during the course of a single night in 1921, bringing about her conversion to the Catholic faith, awakening her vocation to the Carmelites, and opening for her the way of perfection. It is never perfect human beings that Teresa has in mind when she talks, as she does often, about perfection. She had plenty of experience of religious life, after all. That which is perfect is the love of God revealed in Christ and transforming us by making us thirsty in a way that will never be completed, never perfected, in this world. The encounter between great Christians like Augustine, Teresa, and Edith Stein reminds us that the entire community of the Church, not just religious communities within it, ought to be a place of spiritual companionship, a friendship established on the deepest thing we can share, what St Paul in the first reading describes as ‘the righteousness of faith resting on grace’ (Romans 4.13,16).

Teresa then spends the second half of her life here, there and everywhere in Spain, founding monasteries, negotiating with bishops, coping with problems in the communities, and writing great works like The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle, works that remain among the wisest and most accessible guidebooks to the ways of prayer.

It is in the Book of her Foundations, though, that Teresa’s personality shines through most clearly. She is witty, shrewd, down to earth, sincere, full of fear, full of courage, single-minded in her love and service of Christ. Far from being a retiring and diffident contemplative, she is fully occupied with people and with business, showing remarkable political skill in handling the many problems connected with her foundations – the legal processes of buying property, the patience needed to deal with townspeople, benefactors, and bishops (one bishop quipped that ‘through her friends become enemies’), the prudence needed to choose suitable women for the new communities and especially the prioresses (some of them are very holy, she says, and not suited to being prioresses), the rivalry of other religious orders, the resentment of the other Carmelites, the brooding presence of the Inquisition. As regards the last, in introducing one of her writings she says, ‘I ask God to give me the grace not to say anything that might merit my being denounced to the Inquisition’ (A Satirical Critique). She seemed so hemmed in and pinned down by practical worries and temporal responsibilities that her freedom in following Christ in all of this, and in spite of all of this, is all the more striking.

Because a sense of humour is one of the surest signs of a real assent to the existence of God, it is not surprising that there is much humour in the life of Teresa of Avila. A herd of bulls comes between the sisters and their convent one night and they barely manage to slip in unnoticed. Teresa is highly amused by this turn of events but neither she nor any of the other sisters is tempted to become Spain’s first matadora. On the sisters’ first night in another foundation they discovered that they had brought five clocks but no bed. One benefactor insists that the chapel he has paid for should also have a font containing orange-flower water, and Teresa is somewhat bemused by this.

Encouraged by Banez, her Dominican confessor and director, she is famously sceptical of mystical experiences in spite of having a few remarkable ones herself and she warns people constantly about putting any store by unusual experiences in prayer. It is more through ordinary events, favourable and unfavourable, that she sees the will of Christ and the opposition of the devil manifesting themselves. Banez was a renowned theologian of grace and we can perhaps see his influence in the way Teresa talks about the relationship of body and soul, of temporal and spiritual. The soul can do nothing, she says, except abide by the laws of the body and all its needs and changes (Foundations, 29.2). She is not sure whether her advice about prioresses is ‘spiritual or temporal’ but it does not matter since what concerns her is the way temporal matters affect spiritual good (Visitation, 2 and 10). Love is not seen if it is kept hidden in corners, she writes, but love is seen ‘in the midst of the occasions of falling’ (Foundations 5.15). Rules and regulations are necessary in the same way that houses are, to shelter the work going on inside them. Constitutions should be agreed on quickly so that people can get on with living, and she found the protracted disagreements among the friars tedious.

On John of the Cross’s more austere spirituality she says that ‘seeking God would be very costly if we could not do so until we were dead to the world’. ‘God deliver me’, she says, ‘from people so spiritual that they want to turn everything into perfect contemplation, no matter what’. Nevertheless we should be grateful to John of the Cross, she says about one piece of his writing, ‘for having explained so well what we did not ask’ (Satirical Critique 6-7). Perhaps she was a little jealous of little John!

Teresa of Avila remains an inspiration and a trustworthy guide for all who try to persevere in prayer. She is a Doctor of the Church of whom the liturgy says that God inspires us by her holy life, instructs us by her preaching, and gives us His protection in answer to her prayers. I have offered some thoughts here about her conversion, about her understanding of the Christian way as one of shared friendship and love, and about her freedom and energy in the service of Christ and the Church. One of her own poems has become well known and is a fitting conclusion, offered especially to Paul as he begins his priestly ministry:

Let nothing trouble you,
Let nothing scare you,
All is fleeting,
God alone is unchanging.
Everything obtains.
Who possesses God
Nothing wants.
God alone suffices.

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