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!

A bit disappointed; Jon’s brilliance; and our Sufi allies

A bit disappointed with Brian, Harry, and Barack

A segment on tonight’s NBC Nightly News urked me a little bit.  The segment was about Obama’s statements regarding the construction of the Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan, and how Muslims have the same religious rights as anyone else.  When introducing the story, Brian Williams describes the situation as a “fight” into which Obama waded.  Why use this word?  True, combativeness does hike up ratings, butit does not help us to better understand the nuances and details of the situation.  It further perpetuates the simplified “us vs. them” mentality that infects important and complicated political, societal, and cultural debates happening within our country.

As the piece continues, the “mosque” in question is not referred to correctly.  It is not simply a mosque–and even if it was a mosque, big deal!  The Cordoba House (it is hardly referred to by its proper name) is a cultural and community center, dedicated to bringing people of all faiths together, as well as providing swimming pool, workout facilities, and a place of worship.  Basically, it is a beefed up YMCA or JCC open to anyone.

Major news outlets must begin referring to this place as the Cordoba House.  Generalizing the Corboda House as a “mosque” or “Islamic center” only mystifies it and allows people to place their own views or ideas onto it.

I am also sad to see that Harry Reid is against the Cordoba House.  Many Democrats look up to him for guidance about their political and social views, and his denouncement of the Cordoba House encourages more Americans to do the same.

I was initially thrilled with Obama’s remarks at the White House Iftaar this past weekend.  (An iftaar is the meal with which Muslims break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan.)  But since he expressed his support for the Cordoba House and received backlash from some politicians and pundits about it, he has moved backward on that statement of support.  Obama has tried before to distance himself from the Muslim community when conservatives claimed he was Muslim during the 2008 election.  That was an opportunity to have an important national discussion about Muslims in America, and he failed to take it.  Again, Obama is missing an opportunity to play a key part in a dialogue that must happen in our country.  I am disappointed by his choice to back-off his support of the Cordoba House, and I hope he chooses to reverse that position soon.  If he truly wants to see Americans’ religious rights protected, he must step in.

Jon’s brilliance

The Daily Show recently did an awesome segment about the opposition to mosque construction in the U.S.  I’ll let the video speak for itself.

Our Sufi allies

This op-ed contribution discusses how as Americans we must work with those within Islam, particularly those in the Sufi tradition, to fight extremism.  One of these Sufis is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Muslim whose initiative is building the Cordoba House. Sufism is a version of Islamic mysticism, not a separate religion.

16th-Century Miniature Painting Depicting Dancing Dervishes, Image by © Archivo Iconografico, S.A./CORBIS

This line of poetry, written by the famous Sufi saint, Rumi, is crucial for us to remember and implement during this time.

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

In today’s America, those barriers are fear and misunderstanding.  Only when we recognize them can we begin understanding, befriending, and loving our neighbors.