The Uniqueness of St. Teresa, in Her Day and Ours

Homily to Initiate Celebrations of 5th Centenary of Her Birth

Here is the homily given today by Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin at St. Teresa’s Church in Dublin. Today is the feast of St. Teresa of Avila. She was born in 1515, so the Mass initiated celebrations for the fifth centenary of her birth.

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I think all of us who love the Church know that she needs to be renewed. The question is whether we are willing to undergo a personal conversion in order for that to happen.The process of renewal is challenging and it takes time.  Like prayer it is a mixture of God’s gift and human effort.

Saint Teresa of Avila tends to be associated in the minds of many people, with mystical experiences, with great spiritual struggles and with consola­tions in prayer.  This image of her is true, but even a casual glance at her letters makes it clear that she was also a very practical woman. While living an enclosed contemplative life, she was actively concerned with the well-being of the sisters in monasteries spread across Spain, and she was not by any means removed from the concerns of the world around her, outside the monastery.  I must say that has always been my experience of her sisters in Ireland and elsewhere.  In keeping with the charism of Carmel, their contemplative life is not removed from what the Second Vatican Council would call “the joys and the hopes, the grief and the anguish” of the people of our time. (Gaudium et Spes, 1)

As with many of the great saints, there is the risk that we think of Saint Teresa as so different and so other-worldly that we could never hope to live as she did. Saint Teresa herself would say that the only thing she did in her life which was of any special significance was to try and allow Christ to be at the centre of everything – and even that effort itself was God’s gift. She would say that intimacy with Christ is not just a possibility for every Christian, but a fundamental need. This is why, alongside the Friars and the nuns, we also have the Carmelites of the third order, members of the lay faithful who seek to follow Saint Teresa in placing Christ at the heart of their lives.

It is easier to understand Saint Teresa, if we try to place her in her historical context. She was born in Spain in 1515, just three years after Michelangelo completed the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. It was just two years before Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of Wittemberg Cathedral, setting the stage for the Protestant refor­mation. It was less than twenty-five years since Columbus had set sail in search of the new route to India. During Teresa’s life-time the Church in Europe was in turmoil and the Inquisition was an important force to be reckoned with in Spain. The Refor­mation was the cause of so much dissension and suspicion in Europe at the time, that it took considerable courage to start talking about reform of the religious life in Spain, and even more so to start putting it into practice. Even when Teresa reluctantly began to write about her own spiritual experience, in obedience to her spiritual director, her writings were very closely ex­amined by the Inquisition.

What makes Saint Teresa unique, not only in her time but also in our time, is that she wasn’t one of those angry reformers whose only interest is to change everybody else. She understood that any institutional reform had to begin with personal conversion. She was already living a committed religious life at the convent in Avila, but she became increasingly conscious of the difficulty of finding intimacy with Christ among the distractions of a busy convent, where doing might seem to be more important than being. A large community, in her view, led to a weakening of the bonds of love, and gave rise to the development of class distinctions. In spite of the basic goodness and holi­ness of her community, Teresa felt that she had been living her religious life with a degree of half-heartedness, and without the care that would lead her closer to God. She wanted to turn to Christ with all of her being, and that is the real meaning of conversion. To use her own words:

I am yours, you made me.

I am yours, you called me.

I am yours, you saved me.

I am yours, you loved me.

I will never leave your presence.

She sought a smaller, quieter place, and a simpler life-style which she felt would be more in keeping with the Carmelite hermetical tradition. Eventually she moved out of the convent in Avila and, with some others, established a smaller community nearby.

Prayer

For Saint Teresa, prayer is essentially conversation with Christ.  Everything else that we do at prayer is to facilitate that intimate conversation. In her writing about prayer, Saint Teresa expressed the conviction that our own poor efforts cannot, of themselves bring us into communion with Christ (cf Interior Castle 5.I,10). The good news is that it doesn’t all depend on us.  As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading today, the Spirit comes to our help when we cannot find the words to pray.

In describing what happens in prayer, Saint Teresa often used the image of water. She speaks of tow troughs, one of which is filled with water through an aqueduct and the other which is filled directly from the source. I had come across this image before, but I never really understood it until I walked the Camino across the North of Spain with a friend of mine. There, on the high meseta, in the intense heat of summer, we saw long networks of aqueducts carrying water for miles through the vineyards to bring life and fruitfulness to the vines. In places I noticed that the aqueducts were broken or collapsed and the vineyards were abandoned. What a great symbol for the challenges we face in our own efforts to pray; the time constraints; the distractions and interruptions.

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus explains to the Samaritan woman that, instead of worrying about buckets, she needs to turn to Christ, who is himself the source of life. In much the same way, I think Saint Teresa meant us to understand that if we are to engage in conversation with Christ, we need to draw close to the source, so that there is nothing to prevent the living water from flowing directly into the trough of our hearts, which are in need of being renewed. We do this, among other things, by constantly practicing the presence of God, turning our hearts to him regularly during the day. This means that, when we come to our longer times of prayer, we enter more easily into conversation with him, because he is not a stranger. (cf. Interior Castle 4.II,3)

“If you are able” she said, “you should occupy yourself with looking at Christ, who is looking at you, and you should speak, and petition, and humble yourself and delight in the Lord’s presence, and remember that you are unworthy to be there.”

What I love about Saint Teresa, however, is that she had no time for false humility. To focus exclusively on our own smallness, would be to focus exclusively on ourselves. To be truly humble is to see both our own smallness and the greatness of God’s mercy, who reaches down to us. (cf. Interior Castle 2.II,9)

Authentic Living

Prayer is not about thinking much but about loving much. Perhaps, for that reason, the Teresian conversion includes recognising that one of the fruits of prayer is authentic living. When, in prayer, we really place Christ at the centre of our lives, this overflows to transform our way of being and acting in the community.

I had a meeting with the priests in Elphin the day after my appointment was announced and I told them that there would inevitably be some changes, but that I would be the first to be changed. I meant it as a joke, but the more I think of it, the more I realise that, if I am to be an agent of renewal in the Church in Elphin, I must allow myself to be reformed and renewed by the Spirit of Christ.

I think all of us who love the Church know that she needs to be renewed. The question is whether we are willing to undergo a personal conversion in order for that to happen. Putting Christ at the centre of things is not just about prayer. It is also about allowing Jesus to inspire the way we live in our religious communities and in our parish communities. Prayer and apostolic action have to go hand in hand.

There is a story told about a parish priest and his curate who often didn’t see eye to eye on the pastoral strategy to be followed in the parish. In the course of one of their many arguments, at the Parish Pastoral Council, the chairperson asked, rather innocently “what do you think Jesus would do?” The two priests looked at her in amazement and then the parish priest said, “don’t mind Jesus; what are we going to do?”

What Purpose to Our Existence?

Saint Teresa lived at the end of the later mediaeval period. Up to that time, people for the most part acknowledged God to be the one who gave meaning to the universe and to human existence in particular. He was the ultimate end towards which every human life was directed for its fulfilment.

The Reformation broke down the unity of faith in Europe. The modern period, beginning with the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment gradually gave rise to a new way of looking at the relationship between God and man.

The new focus on science and mathematics, together with the enthusiasm for voyages of discovery, gave rise to a new confidence in the power of human reason. Gradually a new world view began to develop. There was no longer any truth, other than scientific truth; everything else, including faith in God, was just opinion and of course everyone was entitled to his or her opinion. People began to think that it was human beings who gave meaning to their own existence. God was relegated to a spiritual world which was quite separate from the world in which people lived and worked. But, as Pope John Paul explains, “This truth, which God reveals to us in Jesus Christ, is not opposed to the truths which philosophy perceives. On the contrary, the two modes of knowledge lead to truth in all its fullness”. (Fides et Ratio 33). There is no conflict between faith and science. They both seek the truth. Faith simply deals with that truth which is beyond the scope of science – what we call metaphysical truth. (cf. Fides et Ratio 42). It is in prayer, as the first reading suggests, that wisdom is given to us.

Focus on Self

I was in Rome recently and I noticed that the street vendors were selling something that looked like those tools that the park wardens use to pick up litter. I wondered why they were for sale on the streets. Then I saw someone using one. It had a clip on the end into which you could insert your iPhone and there was a trigger which made it possible to take long range selfies. It says something about the focus on self which is so much a part of our society.

That tendency to focus on oneself as the centre of the universe has a darker side. We have seen it in the economy, where the thirst for excessive profit leaves many people homeless and unemployed. Respect for the life of a human embryo depends, not on what it is, but on how I feel about it. Marriage is redefined as a faithful relationship between any two people, irrespective of gender, until one or other of them decides to walk away. The wasteful use of non-renewable resources places future generations at risk. It is all about me.

Nearer Home!

We need to be honest, however, about our religious communities and our parish communities and ask ourselves how much that same spirit of individualism has touched the way we live as Church. Are we prepared as priests and religious to exercise our ministry in communion with one another and in communion with the lay faithful, or are we too preoccupied with our own agenda. As lay people, are we willing to accept our responsibility for the mission of the Church, or are we sometimes more like religious consumers, with a regular routine that cannot be disturbed? When we invite people to join us in priesthood or religious life, is it because we have vacancies to fill, or because we actually believe passionately in this way of life?

Perhaps Teresa of Avila, already in the early sixteenth century, saw the seeds of individualist humanism in the lives of some of her sisters and in the society of her time. She certainly recognised that, if human life was to have any meaning, it must be directed to an ultimate end or goal. That ultimate end is Union with Christ. Teresa’s appeal to place Christ at the centre of things did not meet with universal acceptance in her time. Neither will it be easily accepted in our own time.

We can be sure of this, however, nothing has replaced Christ at the centre of our lives that is capable of making sense of our existence. Saint Teresa’s appeal is just as relevant and just as urgent today as it ever was. The process of renewal is challenging and it takes time. Like prayer it is a mixture of God’s gift and human effort. Teresa would not have wanted us to be discouraged, but simply to keep trying and to keep up the conversation with Christ. The bookmark found in her prayer book after her death reads:

Let nothing worry you

Nothing dismay you

Everything passes

God does not change.

If you have patience you can do anything

Those who have God want for nothing

God alone is enough. (Saint Teresa of Avila “Bookmark”)

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