Saint Teresa de Jesus / of Avila - Statue from the Basilica of Saint Peter's in the Vatican

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Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown at Mass to Celebrate Birth of St. Teresa of Avila

«Saint Teresa is and was a surprisingly modern woman, challenging the dominant ideologies of her own time and of ours»

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This homily was delivered in Saint Teresa’s Church in Dublin, today, at Mass to close the year of events to celebrate the birth of Saint Teresa in 1515. Today is the feast of St. Teresa.

* * *

In his amazing first encyclical, published almost 10 years ago Deus Carritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI used a phrase that has stuck with me. He described the interactions between God and the human race as the love-story recounted by the Bible.[1] The saints are those who allowed themselves to be fascinated by that love story. They are those who have believed that human history is not primarily about the boardroom and the battlefield but about the divine project to heal the broken heart of the world. Father Eugene McCaffrey put it succinctly. 

The saints are not saints because they turned away from the world but because they embraced it, saw it as God’s handiwork and were captivated by the love story of creation.[2]

This year, on the anniversary of Teresa’s birth, we celebrate a remarkable woman who – not because she sought power or fame, but because she was convinced in the depths of her humanity about the love of God – left an indelible mark on her time and on subsequent centuries.  When you have glimpsed the touch of the artist’s hand in your life — It is hard to say nothing when you have experienced in the depths of your being what Saint Teresa herself called 

the surpassing sweetness of this excessive pain .. I could not wish to be rid of it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.[3]

This woman was courageous, not because she was angry but because she was in love with the Lord. She could face anything for her Lord and could pray regularly,

Let nothing disturb you/ let nothing frighten you. Whoever has God lacks nothing

And she needed great courage and calm in her life as she faced much opposition – from ill health, from many of the ecclesiastical powers of her time and from the simple fact that she was a woman, living through the turbulent years when Martin Luther and John Calvin were preaching elsewhere in Europe and overturning the old order. But Teresa remained faithful to her own Reformation movement in Spain – but succeeded in keeping that change within a united Church.

Can I suggest three things that are part of her legacy – and are relevant for the Church today as we seek to discern God’s way forward?

Firstly, she ensured that a feminine experience of God and of Church was mainstreamed and accepted as being as true as any male perception. That is not something new. Great saintly woman have played key roles in speaking a distinctive and prophetic voice into the discourse about God. St Catherine of Siena was not afraid to speak bluntly during the scandal of multiple popes during the Avignon exile. And Saint Clare of Assisi, speaking of her love for Christ her Spouse, wrote to Blessed Agnes of Prague that “I will run … until your left hand be under my head and your right hand happily embrace me and you kiss me with the kiss of your mouth.”[4] The woman at the well also met Jesus in her femininity and exclusion. 

That perception is not widespread in our day. Pope Francis put it bluntly while chatting with journalists on the way back from WYD in Rio. He said,  I believe that we have not yet come up with a profound theology of womanhood in the Church[5] A church without structures that reflect that diversity is failing in its mission.

In her renewal movement with Saint John of the Cross, Teresa showed how the distinctive male and female perspectives are complementary and enrich one another rather than being mutually exclusive. As someone proud to be a woman, she would struggle with the idea that gender is mainly a social construct – or that the presence of male and female figures is insignificant in the education of children. The Church has a huge job to do in learning to celebrate the male and female experience of the divine. But it would be strange if Church was being pushed in this direction by a civil society which increasingly downplays the reality of such complementarity! Saint Teresa is and was a surprisingly modern woman, challenging the dominant ideologies of her own time and of ours.

Secondly, she was and remains a strong voice for the role of the Transcendent in the healthy individual and a healthy society. She was clear that the God in whom she believed ‘walks among the pots and pans.’[6] Religious faith in the footsteps of the Incarnate Jesus does not shy away from encountering the concrete realities of daily life. That closeness of the divine is a core part of traditional Irish spirituality, to be seen in phrases such as “Is gaire cabhair Dé na an doras.” That is the divine wisdom, so lauded in our first reading.

It is strange that the modern move away from belief in God was supposed to help us focus on humanity. The end of our addiction to the opium of the masses would focus on this world and its real concerns. Today the great and good line up to profess their faith in unfaith. However, it seems to me that, with the removal of God from the picture, centre stage has now been taken, not by the welfare of the human race but by the wishes of the adult. That was the original sin of Genesis, putting beyond question the passing wishes of the adult. Thus the proposed change to the Eighth Amendment wishes to prioritise the adult will over all else. Saint Teresa would certainly have understood the difficulties of human life. But the presumed infallibility of the adult ego is a shaky basis on which to decide all truth.  In that context, a want becomes a need and a right. Teresa the woman would have found that very strange.

Those who champion the role of the divine may well be much more human than those who divinise the infallible and unquestionable wish of the self-defining adult. Of course, as Saint Columbanus said more than 1400 years ago, Si tollis libertatem tollis dignitatem – if you take away freedom, you take away dignity. However, for those who believe in God, freedom is a gift that enables us to seek the best that we can be. Like Adam and Eve, we can choose to do stupid things. The search for the knowledge of good and evil separate from God can take lead us to sacrifice many things on the altar of the God-Me.

Saint Teresa’s concrete spirituality would also point out that the marginalisation of transcendence leads us to neglect of the inward journey and to an excessive focus on the external. Thus, far from being encouraged to undertake the risky inwards journey, we are told that ‘life is a beautiful sport’ (Lacoste) or to seek wholeness in the phrase “Let’s feel good.” (Boots). Salvation from a bottle or from a sparkling trinket is a poor substitute for the deeply human search that is a profound, concrete spirituality. The true humanist makes space for the divine Spirit, speaking in our hearts.

Pope John Paul II, speaking in Germany in 1980 is quoted as saying that, ‘Our culture tends to declare human weakness as a fundamental principle, and so make it a human right. Christ, on the other hand, taught that a person has above all a right to his or her own greatness.’ [7] As Father Eugene McCaffery writes about Teresa, contemplation is by its very nature subversive.[8]Enslavement to consumerism may suit the market but it starves and warps the human heart that wants to dream and to believe that each hu
man life is precious. We need more contemplatives, not fewer so that we do not become enslaved to those whose baubles attract the eye but fail to nourish the heart.

And thirdly, Teresa championed the importance of community in our growth as human beings. Her individuality thrived in the context of belonging. It is a predominantly Western idea that – as Descartes suggested ‘I think, therefore I am’. But other philosophies have different assumptions. For the African idea of ubuntu, I belong, therefore I am.

In this year of Consecrated Life, the idea of a lifelong commitment to a community seems as strange to many as a lifelong commitment to marriage. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote from a Nazi prison camp to his niece who was getting married, It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.’[9] Belief in the capacity for faithfulness is a liberating conviction and not an enslaving one. The ability to share our lives/journey with human others is a sign of maturity, not of weakness.

Commitment to community can be profoundly liberating. Commitment to others can offer the freedom from slavery to self and to my own little world. The Copernican revolution was taking place during Teresa’s life. That led us to recognise that the earth was not the centre of the universe. Perhaps our modern society needs a new Copernican revolution, driven by the theology of Teresa, to point out that – despite a senior politician’s quaint phrase – things in the world are not all about you![10] I am not the centre of the universe. The emphasis on the transcendent rescues us from the deceptive tyranny of ego-centrism. We can learn from her that I am not at the deluded heart of my own universe, but that I can bask in the sun of the divine, reflect it and blossom in it.

The anniversary will pass without much public attention, unlike many centenaries that will receive public recognition in these years.  But what would happen if we were to adorn our lives with not just with events that recall conflict and suffering, nor with adulation of transient heroes from popular culture or sport – but also with references to people whose crazy idealism, generosity and self-sacrifice helped tame the raging heart of bitter times?   What would happen if we helped our children to dream of interior castles in their hearts rather than venerate monuments to wars? Who benefits from offering the gruel of harsh stories from a past rather than feeding us with chicken soup for the soul?

Teresa of Avila was fascinated by God and that inspired her to love the world in all its messiness. Her invitation to the transcendent, to femininity and to community remains as vibrant and relevant in our own fraught age. Those who celebrate her memory today have much to be proud of.

+ Donal McKeown

Bishop of Derry

[1] DCE, para 17

[2] McCaffrey E.,  Let Nothing Trouble You, Dublin, Columba, 2015, p20

[3] Teresa’s Autobiography, Chapter XXIX; Part 17,

[4] From the fourth letter of St Clare to Blessed Agnes of Prague, used in Office of Readings for the Feast of St Clare, August 11. Cf First Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague  

[5] Quoted in Pope Francis and the Family, Dublin, Veritas, 2015, p.86

[6] Attributed to St Teresa in many places – though I cannot find the source.

[7] Quoted in Rolheiser, R., Forgotten among the Lilies, New Yord, Doubleday,  2005, p45.

[8] Op cit, p.110

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