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
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,
Or exalted high,
Or Jonas freed:
What do You want of me?
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.
For Teresa’s feast day, I made oatmeal CARMELitas for my friends at Mass!
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.
(My spring break spent in Jerusalem and Galilee provided me with many images that I hope to share through my Peeling Oranges series.)
Outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, I sulk in a mix of frustration and guilt, wanting to participate in the centuries-old traditions and services that originated in this city. On Palm Sunday, why can’t I find the leafy branches that laid across these stone roads two-thousand years ago? Why can’t I find a Catholic Mass in this city of churches?
Momentarily distracted from my anxiety as I pass a group of young Palestinian children climbing on rocks, I wave as they yell, “Photo, photo!”
Discovering that I speak Arabic, they clamber down the ruins to shout out their names and ask mine. The four girls pose for a photo, as the boy, Muhammad, stands shyly to the side. In the clearest, highest Arabic I’ve ever heard, a girl with hair as blonde and eyes as blue as mine asks who my Arabic teacher is, and a girl with freckles on her forehead wonders if I pray. I receive hugs and kisses on my cheek as I leave, waving goodbye to catch up with my friends.
But the blonde girl runs after me, calling, “Are you married?!” I laugh at her question, which to her seems so important and to me so trivial. After another round of embraces from the group, tears nearly slip down my cheek, where the coldness of their kisses lingers on my skin.
Once again, God is reminding me that it’s his people, not simply his traditions and rituals, where he can most easily found. He has answered my prayer in a way I didn’t expect, substituting palms and incense with kisses and laughter.