Conversations with a Carmelite

When I chose the name Teresa of Avila for my Confirmation name during my freshman year of high school, I didn’t know what an important, meaningful decision I’d made.

I picked her because she founded the Discalced Carmelites, a group of sisters I had grown close to in Indianapolis and admired for their contemplation, simplicity, and intellect.  Living in Spain during the 16th century, Teresa was a prolific spiritual writer and was eventually named a “Doctor of the Church” for her contributions to Catholic thought. She was a mystic, something that at the time sounded pretty darn cool, even though I didn’t really understand what it meant.  And—most importantly!—Teresa’s life is celebrated on October 15th, the day before my birthday. 

Since picking the name Teresa, I have—without knowing it—grown closer to her.  As I started to read bits of her work, I noticed that we share more than a love for writing and a common day (give or take) for celebrating our lives. I see my own experiences mirrored in hers, and I’m also struck by the way she challenges me to go deeper in living my relationship with God.  I’m currently taking a class on medieval women mystics because I wanted to be forced to read Teresa.

I’d like to share a few excerpts from her work that are particularly powerful for me, in the hopes that they will be edifying for others.

Finding God Within 

Mystics across all religious traditions share an understanding that God can be found inside the heart.  It’s a radical and powerful assertion that often challenges our usual notions of a distant God.

It is an ennobling thing to think that God is more in the soul of man than He is in aught else outside of Himself.  They are happy people who have once got a hold of this glorious truth.  In particular, the Blessed Augustine testifies that neither in the house, nor in the church, nor anywhere else, did he find God, till once he had found Him in himself.  Nor had he need to go up to heaven, but only down into himself to find God… 

You need not go to heaven to see God, or to regale yourself with God.  Nor need you speak loud as if He were far away.  Nor need you cry for wings like a dove so as to fly to Him.  Settle yourself in solitude, and you will come upon God in yourself.  And then entreat Him as your Father, and relate to Him your troubles.  Those who can in this manner shut themselves up in the little heaven of their own hearts, where He dwells who made heaven and earth, let them be sure that they walk in the most excellent way… 

He sits on the innermost seat of your heart, and holds it to be His best and bravest throne. 

Prayer as Love and Relationship

Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstacy

Teresa is known best for her writings on cultivating an interior prayer life.  She experienced an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus, and often reported visions and moments of ecstasy and union with God.  This is why Teresa is also known as St. Teresa of Jesus.

Prayer is an act of love.

For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us… The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. 

She had candid, often humorous conversations with Jesus.  When she asked Jesus why her friends and others showed her hostility, Jesus said to her, “Teresa, that’s how I treat my friends” and she responded, “No wonder you have so few friends.”

But it took her a long time to develop this close relationship.  She writes that she tried unsuccessfully for eighteen years to converse with Jesus.

The Importance of Action

Teresa understood that prayer meant nothing if it wasn’t tied to action. Christ’s love, she recognized, can only be expressed through our human activities.

Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world. 

Like all of us, Teresa was a busy, overworked woman.  She founded a new order and was busy instructing sisters, writing, and fending off the Inquisition.  But she, like St. Ignatius, practiced ‘contemplation in action.’

If you [God] want me to remain so busy, please force me to think about and love you even in the midst of such hectic activity. If you do not want me so busy, please release me from it… I know that you are constantly beside me, yet I am usually so busy that I ignore you.

Intent on doing God’s will, she offered up her entire being for God’s service.

I am Yours and born of You,
What do You want of me?

In Your hand
I place my heart,
Body, life and soul,
Deep feelings and affections mine,
Spouse — Redeemer sweet,
Myself offered now to you,
What do You want of me?
 

Give me then wisdom.
Or for love, ignorance,
Years of abundance,
Or hunger and famine.
Darkness or sunlight,
Move me here or there:
What do You want of me?

Be I Joseph chained
Or as Egypt’s governor,
David pained
Or exalted high,
Jonas drowned,
Or Jonas freed:
What do You want of me?

Islamic influence

Living in a country steeped with Islamic thought, Teresa was influenced (consciously or not) by Islamic mysticism, Sufism, and contemporary theologians have argued that this influence is reflected in her writing.

My own spiritual life has also been shaped by Sufism, particularly by the poetry of Rumi, and thus this point of connection between Teresa and I was initially surprising and comforting.

≈≈≈

My choice of the name Teresa illustrates the way in which God works through even the most mundane or careless of our actions. Though I had no idea of the name’s significance at the time, God did.  God wanted me to draw closer to Teresa, so I could draw closer to Jesus and find him in myself and in those around me.

It seems appropriate to end with this prayer from Teresa, a prayer I wouldn’t be surprised to find in a book of Rumi’s poetry.

Let nothing trouble you,
let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing;
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.

St. Teresa of Jesus, pray for us.

Two of my friends who also share the confirmation name Teresa!

For Teresa’s feast day, I made oatmeal CARMELitas for my friends at Mass!

Lessons from Good Pope John, Part 3: Detachment and trust

This is the last post in a series about the exemplary life of Blessed Pope John XXIII, whose feast we celebrated on October 11.  Today’s post is on detachment and trust.

John allowed God to carry him through life, just as his father carried him on his shoulders when he was a boy. His motto was “obedience and peace”—he was always conscious about the need to be content following God’s will for him.

John wrote often about the need for detachment and trust in God during his time as a young man in Bulgaria, where he was stationed as a papal ambassador.  He didn’t want to go, and called Bulgaria his “cross.”

He wrote: “I’m sincerely ready to stay here until I die, if obedience wants it. I let others waste their time dreaming about what might happen to me.  The idea that one would be better off somewhere else is an illusion.”

He also wrote: “Once you have renounced everything, really everything, then any bold enterprise becomes the simplest and most natural thing in all the world.”

This attitude was one he carried with him as he called the Vatican II council, when many doubted his ability to carry out such a large task—councils require the coordination of 2,500 bishops.  John didn’t let others’ negative opinions hold him back, nor did he let his old age keep him from starting a new project.

John knew he wouldn’t see the end of the council, not to mention its effects in the world.  Just a month before opening the council, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.  He died a year later in 1963; the council concluded in 1965.

But as John told his good friend and secretary, “it is an honor just to begin.”  He knew that the mission of the Church, that God’s will, was bigger than himself.  “If I die, others will come,” he said.

And many have come after, continuing the work that John began. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, we are reminded of our call to do that in our own ways.

Most saints, or those deemed “blessed” like John, are celebrated on their death day.  But we don’t celebrate John on June 3, the day he died.  Instead, we remember him on the date of Vatican II’s opening, October 11th.

And I think that’s how John would want it.

Check out Parts 1 and 2 on humor and humility and compassion and courage.

Lessons from Good Pope John, Part 2: Compassion and courage

This post is the second piece in a series about Pope John XXIII, who opened the Vatican II Council on October 11, 1962.  I hope we can celebrate the 50th anniversary of the council, and live out its mission, by following the example of the Good Pope.

John’s motto for his papacy was “pastor and father.”  He didn’t just preach about unconditional Christian love, but he lived it by intimately engaging with people, even when it was unpopular.

Like a loving grandfather, John encouraged parents to “give their children a kiss from the pope,” and every day would pray the rosary for all the babies born in the world that day.

John with a little girl in her First Communion outfit.

He could easily empathize with others, and, while working as a military chaplain during World War I, wrote, “It often happened—permit me this personal memory—that I had to fall on my knees and cry like a child, alone in my room, unable to contain the emotion I felt at the simple and holy deaths of so many poor sons of our people.” As a diplomat in Europe during World War II, John worked secretly to save Jews by forging birth certificates and marriage papers.

John constantly practiced and encouraged aggiornamento—updating or renewal—during a time when the Church, for so long, had refused to engage with the modern world.

He not only pushed the Church toward aggiornamento by calling the Council, but he also sought to redefine his own position as pope. He took the name John upon ascending to the papacy, despite the fact that the name was considered “unsalvageable” after the militaristic John XXII had tainted the name.  The Good Pope reclaimed the name and transformed it.

John visits prisoners on Christmas in 1958.

John broke with the papal tradition of seclusion and made the world his home.  In a radical move, he celebrated his first Christmas as pope at a local prison. Upon meeting the prisoners he said, “You could not leave to see me so I came to you.”

Only days into his papacy—which many had assumed would be a short-term, transitional period, given John’s old age—John announced he plan to call a council.  It came in a “flash of inspiration” from the Holy Spirit, he said, and took swift action to make it happen.

John addressed the fears of Church leaders and laity who were wary about a council, and about bringing the Church into the modern world that it, for so long, had pulled away from.

In his opening speech at the council, John said, “We must disagree with these prophets of gloom,” who could only see the destruction and corruption of modernity. “We must recognize here the hand of God,” John asserted, understanding the good that modernity could do for the Church, and the good that the Church could do for modernity.  John quickly published an encyclical addressing all people (not just Catholics), which spoke about imperialism, just wage, social justice, human rights, relations with the Jews, liturgy, and religious freedom.  Speaking in modern terms about modern crises, he wanted all the world’s people to know how much he loved them.

Yesterday, I wrote about John’s humor and humility.  Tomorrow, I’ll discuss John’s attitude of detachment and trust.

Lessons from Good Pope John, Part 1: Humor and Humility

Today, we celebrate the life of Blessed Pope John XXIII, who opened the Second Vatican Council—arguably the most important religious event of the twentieth century—on October 11, 1962.

Much has been written about the council on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, and I hope to contribute to that body of work in the coming weeks and months.  But today, on his feast day, I’d like to reflect briefly on the life of John XXIII—the Good Pope, as he was called.

A few weeks ago, when I was preparing a presentation on John to deliver for a class on Vatican II, I was struck by his humor and humility, compassion and courage, and detachment and trust.  I’d like to share a few quotes and anecdotes about John’s attributes, in the hopes that we can carry on the mission of the Second Vatican Council by following his example.

Today’s post speaks to his humor and humility.  I’ll post about compassion and detachment on Friday and Saturday.

Humor and humility

John, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, came from a humble farming family in Northern Italy, and he used humor to remind himself of that.

When a little boy asked him once if he too could one day be pope, John replied: “Anybody can be pope. The proof is that I have become one.”

“It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it.  Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope!” John was so concerned about helping others that he often forgot about his own prominent position.

Some other great John jokes:

Reporter: “How many people work at the Vatican?”
John XXIII: “About half.”

Head nun at the Hospital of the Holy Spirit in Rome: “Welcome, Holy Father, I’m the superior of the Holy Spirit.”
John XXIII: “You outrank me. I’m only the Vicar of Christ!”

Parts 2 and 3 will be posted in the coming days.