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Teresa of Avila: Witty Lover of God

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1 John 4:

She was born Teresa Ali Fatim Corella Sanchez de Capeda y Ahumada in Avila, Spain.   We know her as Teresa of Avila or Teresa of Jesus.  When she was seven years old, she convinced her older brother that they should run away and “go off to the land of the Moors and beg them, out of love of God, to cut off our heads.”   Some people consider the fact that she was willing to be martyred at age seven to be an early sign of her sanctity and spirituality, while others consider it to be “an early example of her ability to stir up trouble.”[1]  Her mother died when she was fourteen, which led her[2] “to embrace a deeper devotion to the Virgin Mary as her spiritual mother.”  At the same time, she became convinced that she was a horrible sinner.  After all, “she cared only about boys, clothes, flirting, and rebelling.  When she was 16, her father decided she was out of control and sent her to a convent.  At first she hated it but eventually she began to enjoy it—partly because of her growing love for God and partly because the convent was a lot less strict than her father.”[3]

She reports that she had a difficult time choosing a religious life when the time came because “being a nun didn’t seem like much fun.  When she finally chose religious life, she did so because she though that it was the only safe place for someone as prone to sin as she was.”[4]

She struggled with prayer and for many years did not feel like she got results.  Part of the problem was that the convent was not the spiritual place that she had imagined it would be.  “Many women who had no place else to go wound up at the convent, whether they had vocations [callings] or not.  They were encouraged to stay away from the convents for long period of time to cut down on expenses.  Nuns would arrange their veils attractively and wear jewelry.  There was a steady stream of visitors in the parlor and parties that included young men.  What spiritual life there was involved hysteria, weeping, exaggerated penance, nosebleeds, and self- induced visions.”[5]  Then Teresa got malaria, and people were so sure she was going to die that they dug a grave for her.  She was paralyzed for three years and sickly for much of the rest of her life, but that didn’t help her spiritually; instead it became an excuse for why she couldn’t pray.  She said she would rather do a heavy penance than pray.

One of the reasons I have enjoyed studying the mystics is because we tend to think of mystics and saints as these deeply spiritual people who have visions of Christ over breakfast, who constantly feel God’s presence and who could never understand our spiritual struggles.  But then we had Gertrude the Great who paid no more attention to her interior spiritual life than she did to the interior of her feet.  And now we have Teresa, who would rather do penance than be forced to pray.

But then she began meditating on a book called The Third Spiritual Alphabet, which included directions for how to examine one’s conscience, and instructions on concentration and contemplation.  Somehow this led to the breakthrough she had been seeking, and she began to have visions.  We are told that “God gave her spiritual delights:  the prayer of quiet where God’s presence overwhelmed her senses, raptures where God overcame her with glorious foolishness, prayer of union where she felt the sun of God melt her soul away.  Sometimes her whole body was raised from the ground [in levitation]. . . .Teresa felt that the best evidence that her delights came from God was that the experiences gave her peace, inspiration, and encouragement.  ‘If these effects are not present I would greatly doubt that the raptures come from God; on the contrary I would fear lest they be caused by rabies.’”[6]

She was inspired to bring about reform within the convent and the order, believing that the lively social scene of her current convent limited the nuns’ ability to be close to God.  So she traveled around to start new, stricter convents.  One might think that the church powers would applaud this attempt at reform, but that was not the case.  She was called “a restless disobedient gadabout who has gone about teaching as though she were a professor.”  “When her former convent voted her in as prioress, the leader of the Carmelite order excommunicated the nuns.  A vicar general stationed an officer of the law outside the door to keep her out. . . .She often had to enter a town secretly in the middle of the night to avoid causing a riot…. In 1582, she was invited to found a convent by an Archbishop but when she arrived in the middle of the pouring rain, he ordered her to leave.  ‘And the weather so delightful too’ was Teresa’s comment.  You know that joke “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition?” She did.  When she wrote her autobiography, she knew it would be either clear her or condemn her, so she protected herself with a form of verbal camouflage.  She would follow a profound thought with the statement, “But what do I know. I’m just a wretched woman.”  She also famously said, “May God protect me from gloomy saints.”  In spite of all the resistance, she founded sixteen convents.

I’m not done preaching yet, but I want you to turn with me to page 433 in your red hymnal.  You’ll see that the words are attributed to St. Teresa of Jesus, more commonly called Teresa of Avila. Let’s sing them together.

Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting.

Nothing can trouble., nothing can frighten. God alone fills us.

Here’s how one of my favorite writers describes Teresa of Avila:  “attractive, expansive, sociable, incisive, mordantly witty, shrewd and tenacious, possessed of a bottomless capacity for intimacy and an equally bottomless capacity for self-doubt and loneliness. . . .Single-mindedly resolute (‘I have,’ she said, ‘a very determined determination’), she bent many to her will, even God. . . .She was unswerving in hope while enduring monstrous headaches, stomach disease, and crippling depression.  In her day, many believed her to be a vile menace to the Church.  Many others believed her to be its shining savior.  To this day, she pleases no one who clings piously to the belief that saints are actually holy.”[7]

Teresa could teach us many lessons, but her greatest lesson is love for God.  “You’d be hard-pressed to find a saint more in love with God than Teresa.  While Spain’s top bishop did time in the Inquisition’s jail for preaching that Christians could be friends with God, she was practicing spousal mysticism [being married to God], exposing flustered nuns to the Song of Songs, and frightening confessors with reports of angels penetrating her heart . . . with hot flaming darts.”[8]  She loved God passionately, indelicately, body and soul.

“She was never convinced that trust, obedience, and service cover the whole territory of love.  To love by doing good was essential, but by itself it was too small an ambition for people who have been saved by God’s passion.  So she taught the nuns also to love God explicitly, to unleash their hearts.  To be sure, she also taught them humility, theology, and discernment; and she created a demanding communal life and required obedience to the hierarchy—all traditional safeguards against self-deception.  But the most important thing she taught them was not to be afraid, not of feelings for God, not of feelings for each other.”[9]

On the flip side, “In good monastic fashion, she taught that you can’t build anything sturdy on the base of experience alone.  Feelings are fickle, easily induced and easily manipulated.  Experiences are overrated, a dime a dozen.  Whenever one of her goose-bumpy novices, languid with love and hoping to levitate, tried making permanent camp in the chapel, a no-nonsense Teresa laid down the law—nix the theatrics, eat something solid, and go help out in the laundry.”[10]

So Teresa of Avila taught that both action, or service to God, and personal experience of God were required, but what was behind both was love.  Of course, many of us have trouble knowing how to love God.  The common question is “How can I love God if I can’t even see God?”  I think it’s easier to love God if you get visions of flaming darts entering your heart.  Teresa would say that how you learn to love God is through prayer.  This from the woman who, at one time, would rather do hard penance than pray.  Somewhere along the line she learned the key to prayer.  She wrote:

“Prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with [the One] 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.   Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything.”  “Prayer is an act of love; words are not needed.  All that is needed is the will to love.”

Now let me break down a couple of those.  Taking time to be alone with God.  If we want to feel God’s presence, we need to spend time in God’s presence—in silence, in meditation, in waiting.  That’s no guarantee we’ll hear God speak.  But if we never stop rushing, we can almost guarantee that we won’t.

Next she tells us to do that which best stirs us to love.  Think of it in terms of a marriage or other intimate partnership.  If we want to bring back the romance, for example, we don’t focus on what bugs us.  We do things that remind us of the feelings we once had—we watch our wedding video or look through our photo album or reminisce about that trip we took or that time we laughed so hard over something silly.  We do that which stirs us to love.  The same can be true in our relationship with God.  What stirs you?  Is it nature?  Music?  I enjoy talking to God in song.  That will stir me and bring me closer to God far more often than reading scripture.  What stirs you?

Third, she says that love is not great delight, but desire to please God.  In other words, we don’t know that we love God because we feel delight in God.  We know that we love God because we want to please God.  Again, compare it to an intimate relationship.  I don’t always feel lovey-dovey.  Sometimes I feel like my spouse is getting on my last nervy-wervy.  But I still want to please her, to bring her joy; I still want her to be happy.  If we love God, we want to please God.

And finally, she says that prayer does not require words, which is great comfort to those of us who struggle to know what to say.  Mary Luti, a UCC minister, retired seminary professor, and exquisite writer, has this to say about loving God: “I’ve learned that great lovers of God tend to have imagination and a lot of cheek.  They create conditions of possibility for love, waving their arms in God’s face, as it were, so there’ll be no mistaking a potential target for grace.  Believing themselves unworthy and incapable, nonetheless they expect God to draw them into intimacy.  They put themselves in the way of every kind of beauty, knowledge, person and pain, developing reflexes of awe, reverence, compassion, gratitude, zeal and delight.  They meditate on the gospels, exposing themselves daily to the ambush of Jesus’ appeal.  They hang around God’s likely and unlikely friends—the precious folks . . . in whose presence you sense that what God promises is possible and in whom you catch a glimpse of life as it was meant to be.  And if it seems like they’re getting nowhere, God’s lovers don’t quit; they fake it if they have to, knowing that God deserves even an “as-if” love arising from utter incapacity.”[11]  Love God. Or fake it ‘til you make it.

Please join me again in singing hymn # 433.

Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting.

Nothing can trouble., nothing can frighten. God alone fills us.

God alone fills us. May it be so. Amen.

[1] http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=208

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Luti, Mary. https://sicutlocutusest.com/2015/10/15/teresa-of-jesus-1515-1582/

[8] Luti, Mary. https://sicutlocutusest.com/2013/07/23/keping-the-great-commandment/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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