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!

Empty plane seats

This post goes along well with my last post “Returning to the river,” in that it expands on the importance of trusting in the divineness of our own imaginations.

On each of my three flights to Amman during January, I had an empty seat next to me.  This made the plane rides relaxing and enjoyable, but not simply because I could stretch out and didn’t have to squeeze by someone on my way to the bathroom…

~~~

Before I left for Amman, I was concerned about how I would transition, how I would feel navigating a new home alone.  Because I am so close with my family and friends and talk to them often, I was uncomfortable with the thought that my contact with loved-ones would be less frequent, and that I’d feel more isolated.

But then the most basic and yet profound thought struck me over the head: I won’t be alone.

This idea seems unsurprising.  Of course, God is with me and is in everything I encounter (I’ve talked about that much in recent posts).  But this insight was different.  I realized that I not only can find Jesus in the people and places around me, but I can find the person of Jesus—the physical, social, emotional human being—around me as well.  I can picture Jesus doing everything with me.  I can talk to him, be held by him, and share my excitement, anxiety, and sadness with him.

This understanding brought me so much peace, and my concerns seemed to slip away.  Navigating this journey would be so much easier, since I had someone doing it with me.  Though I didn’t know yet what life in Amman would be like, I had already started imagining Jesus there with me.

I prayed this prayer the night before I left for Amman:

Dear God,
Help me let you be my companion.
Walk with me in the streets.
Sit and drink tea.
Lay down next to me as I read your book.
I know I don’t need to ask; you’re already there.
Just give me a wave in the face if I forget you’re with me*.
Amen

(*This is a reference to “On Religion,” an excerpt of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet.)

The day of my departure to Amman arrived, and I boarded the plane in Indianapolis to Toronto to find that the seat next to me was empty.  When I sat down on my London-bound plane, the chair beside me was again unoccupied.  And a third time, when I boarded for Amman, the seat next to me wasn’t filled.

But I quickly realized that these seats weren’t empty—someone was sitting there.  It was like God the Father had booked the seat for his Son.

I imagined Jesus there, next to me.  Barely able to contain my excitement after speaking in Arabic with one of the Canadian flight attendants, I gave Jesus a fist bump.  In an airport bathroom, I looked over at him as we washed our hands.  (Apparently Jesus is the only man allowed in the women’s restroom.) When I went to sleep and stretched across the seat, I rested my head on his lap.  Jesus’ presence tempered my anxiousness and brought comfort.

For me, one of the many beauties of Christianity is the way it embraces the physical, human, and historical world.  The person of Jesus inhabited time and space many years ago, a fact that allows us to bring him into this world again.  (It’s hard for me to explain my understanding of this fully.  It’s a combination of personal revelation and Church theology I’ve learned.  I need to do more reading on this in order to better articulate the more visceral understanding I have.)

Since I’ve been here, I’ve often found Jesus beside me, participating in my life.  He lounges on my host sister’s bed as I write this post, or squeezes in on the couch with my host family while we watch Arab Idol.  When I start feeling sad or uncomfortable or nervous here, I realize it’s because I haven’t been bringing Jesus into the picture.

A few weekends back, Jesus sat with me for a long time on the mountain where John the Baptist was executed.  I looked over, up the hill a bit to where he was sitting, and when we made eye contact, he scooted across the edge of the cliff down to where I was. I could hear the gravel pulling on his clothes as he shifted down the hill.  I remembered the Bible passage in which Jesus sits alone after hearing the news of John’s death, and I felt like we were experiencing that moment again together.  He didn’t have to be alone in that pain, just as I never have to be alone either.

Mukawir, the mountain on which John the Baptist was executed.

What do I call moments like this, I’ve wondered, when I see so clearly my Lord with me?

I think they are visions.

That may seem like a gutsy thing to claim.  Heck, I’m not Moses or Juan Diego, who saw God in a bush or Mary on a rosy hilltop.

But I think claiming to see visions isn’t the scary—or outright crazy—thing it initially seems to be.

During the last several years, a few friends of mine have told me they had visions, and I completely believed that they had.  But I wondered how they came to them? I thought, how could I ever receive a vision?, as if visions are things that come to us from the outside.  As if we have no control over the images that are presented before our eyes by God.

But from my own experiences, imagining Jesus with me, I understand now that visions don’t come from without.  They come from within, from inside our own hearts and minds.

Ignatius vision of Jesus at La Storta.

Mystics like Teresa of Avila (whose name I took at my Confirmation), Ignatius, and Rumi didn’t receive external images, ones imposed on them from the outside.  They simply trusted their imaginations, and realized that God was in the images and the stories they created.

When I think back on my own visions, it feels like the line between God’s work and my own has been blurred, and I know that’s because God’s divinity resides in me.  My creation is His, and His is mine.  I can trust these images and find meaning in them. I can intentionally bring Jesus into a situation, but that doesn’t make his presence any less holy.

~~~

All around—in the crowded coffee shop, inside the dry cleaners in my neighborhood, and on the crumbling, terraced hills of Jordan—empty seats are reserved, waiting for me—for us—to fill them up.

“Of course it’s happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
—Dumbledore to Harry, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling