A Mystic for Our Times
Today’s article is by Mirabai Starr (March 2017 eNews)
What can Teresa of Avila offer us five hundred years after her death? Teresa models the living balance between action and contemplation, serving others and developing an interior life, engaging in passionate human relationships and surrendering to the divine mystery. She was an ecstatic mystic and skillful administrator, a fool of God and an insightful psychotherapist, a penitent when she needed to be and an epicurean when she could be.
Teresa of Avila was fully, deeply, unapologetically herself. If she had written a letter to which her correspondent had not replied, she did not hesitate to write again, demanding, “Why haven’t you answered my letter? Don’t you love me? Do you have any idea of the pain your silence is causing me?”
Nor was she reluctant to talk back to God. In the midst of harrowing external trials, Teresa’s first response was to withdraw to a quiet place and go within. There, she would confront her Beloved: “What’s going on here, Lord?” One day, the divine voice answered, “This is how I treat my friends.” To which Teresa responded, “Well, then, no wonder you have so few!”
She was keenly discriminating about spiritual phenomena. When her nuns prayed so fervently they gave themselves nosebleeds, she would send them to bed with a sweet cup of tea and a soft blanket and forbid them from entering the chapel for a few days. “God save us from sour-faced saints!” she would say about the self-important clerics who felt it was their job to uphold orthodoxy while never having held the Holy One in their arms and rocked him all through the night, as she regularly did.
Teresa challenged every vision and replayed every spiritual voice until she could be certain it was real. Once, when she was about to bustle down the steps on some administrative errand, she saw a small boy standing at the bottom of the stairway. “Who are you?” he asked her. “I am Teresa of Jesus,” she answered, rather imperiously. “And who are you?” “I am Jesus of Teresa,” he said and vanished.
Through her many writings, Teresa of Avila openly shares her humanity with the world. There were times when she was paralyzed by fear of rejection and others when she was so courageous in the face of what she knew to be her sacred destiny that she risked being executed as a heretic. She made mistakes, as we all do. Some she apologized profusely for; others she refused to admit to until years later. Like us, she was petty or generous, irritable or unconditionally loving, attributing everything to her progress along the path of contemplative prayer. But she never ceased showing up for the spiritual work.
Teresa celebrated form and accepted formlessness. When her beloved friend John of the Cross chided her about her attachment to images, she stripped the walls of her cell, tearing down her cherished pictures of Christ, his Blessed Mother, and the saints. Miserable, she knelt in the oratory and tried to connect with the transcendent God. Silence. Then a voice spoke to her and said, “Anything that reminds you of me is good, my daughter.” Relieved, she rushed to her room and put all the images back up.
She used form and imagery as a doorway to the ultimate reality that transcends all form. She would meditate on Christ’s anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, and this would break down the walls of her heart, allowing her to slip into the place where the boundaries of self and God melt. And she would remain in that sacred emptiness until it was time to cook dinner.
From Mirabai Starr, Saint Teresa of Avila: Passionate Mystic. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc., 2013. Used by permission.