March 28, 2015

Saint Teresa of Avila's Way - on the Quincentennial of her Birth

"When our actions and our words are one, the Lord will unfailingly fulfil our petitions.  He will give us His kingdom and help us by means of supernatural gifts...which the Lord bestows on our feeble efforts." Teresa of Avila, Way of Perfection, Chapter 37

Today, Saturday, March 28, is a great day of rejoicing for Carmelites everywhere and for the whole Church.   Five hundred years ago the daughter of Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda and Beatriz de Ahumada y Cuevas, in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula, in the province of Avila, in the small town of Gotarrendura, she became a pioneer in the renewal of contemplative prayer that swept through Spain in the 16th Century.  In her work, Way of Perfection, she offers a meditation on the Lord's Prayer.  For her, this prayer aims towards the heights of mystical contemplation, but starts in the simplicity of a humble petition.

Teresa is convinced that the prayer that Christ commanded us to say demands the same humble movement of faith whether from the simple minded or else the most genius, the most disciplined or the least. Only as the disciplined realize the insufficiency of their own efforts do they glimpse the spiritual logic that she contemplates in this Gospel message. Only as a great mind humbly bows down in wonder can it begin to explore the pathway to perfection that she sees in these seven petitions entrusted to us by the Lord.

The pathway to the progress that she sees in this prayer revealed by the Word of the Father is the way of authenticity, the alignment of what we say with what we do.  We are so out of harmony with ourselves, with each other and with God that only God Himself can bring us back into tune.  She herself knew from first hand experience how His saving intervention comes in the nature of a gift that we welcome by humble efforts informed by living faith. Her encounter with the Man of Sorrows in her convent in Avila helped her understand that this saving gift is the heart piercing realization of how much He loves us, a consuming desire to contemplate the suffering love by which He contemplates us.

She suggests in so many ways that the Lord is never indifferent to even the most tepid efforts of devotion if only we will trust Him and not lose heart.  What starts as a spark becomes a consuming fire.  What seems to take so much effort at first soon washes over the soul like a refreshing rain.  The silken cocoon of good works we make by God's grace but with great difficulty becomes a transforming place of new spiritual freedom.  She describes a quietness of soul filled with the fulness of God, a sacred stillness exploding like a fountain of living water.  Although bringing the way we live into harmony with those noble intentions the Holy Spirit has stirred in our hearts may seem impossible, she insists every act of devotion exposes us to these splendors of heaven...provided we keep our hearts fixed on His great love.

What amazes me is her confidence in God.  She is acutely aware of human weakness and our capacity for self-deception. She knows how given we are to self-torment.  She is no stranger to the host of irrational anxieties that can assail a soul. She is even more aware, however, of the astonishing immensity of God's love.

On this great day in the life of the Church, Teresa helps us consider how the Lord permits himself to be bound by our love.  It is love that makes our prayer authentic, God's love at work in us that brings into harmony what we say and what we do.  If however our efforts to repeat what the Lord has told us to say move in our hearts in even the most subtle of ways, it is only because the Holy Spirit used our frail efforts to blow new life in us.  This is the Kingdom of Heaven that the wisdom of Saint Teresa of Avila sees coming, and today, on the threshold of Holy Week, may we all come to see it too!

For more on this Doctor of the Church, I recently published a book with Dan Burke that provides meditations on a selection of Teresa of Avila's letters, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila through Emmaus Publishing.