This reflection appeared first in The Church World, the diocesan weekly of Maine.


© copyright 2003 by S. Margaret Dorgan, DCM


      St. Teresa of Avila, whose feast day is October 15, was the first woman to be named a Doctor of the Church. She joined the exalted ranks of learned theologians even though in her writings, she rushed ahead without bothering with capitals and periods. Better-educated priest advisors put in the punctuation marks.

      Her family was wealthy though newly so, with a fragile hold on patents of nobility they had purchased. Teresa's paternal grandfather was Jewish. We would consider her education deficient, yet it was appropriate for a daughter of prosperous parents in sixteenth century Spain. Her prose is so lively that perhaps we can be grateful she was not trained in the philosophical systems of her time.

    The depth and perception of Teresa's spiritual treatises have influenced almost all subsequent writings on prayer and mysticism in the western Christian tradition. This is an outcome that would have amazed the very practical foundress of the Discalced Carmelite Reform. It certainly would have given her great delight. She wrote as she talked, offering advice, considering objections to what she was saying, urging greater progress in praying even while she reflected with regret on her own earlier lack of generosity in God's service.

    We call Teresa an exalted mystic, but she would probably prefer to present herself as patroness of those who hesitate to give themselves wholly to God. Early on as a nun she was torn between an invitation to union with God and those secular enticements offered by the social scene in Avila. Relatives and friends brought her all the current gossip for discussion in the relaxed atmosphere of a convent parlor. Teresa was a woman who wavered. She tells us in her Life , “For more than eighteen years, I suffered this battle between friendship with God and friendship with the world.”

    Hers was the struggle between the call of Christ and the glamour of self-centered goals. Surrendering to mediocrity, she knew the persistent temptation experienced by those who long not only for God but for so many other things besides. They say: let's postpone this decision to be wholeheartedly Christian. We won't be great sinners, but neither will we work too hard at being saintly. Teresa wrote: “All the things of God made me happy; those of the world held me bound.”

    Today we live in a culture where freedom is a primary value. Windows have opened to allow greater liberty, but they have brought in more than sunshine and fresh air. No one wants to embrace the rigid “flight from the world” of earlier decades. Legitimate pleasure and worthwhile secular pursuits are part of our Christian life. But when does self-fulfillment become obsessive self-aggrandizement? When does satisfaction turn into indulgence? Can the call to warmth and intimacy lead to a plunge into deep waters that drown our moral sense?

      Teresa struggled with these issues as everyone serious about full human living must. She gives a vivid description of her frustrating effort to cut entanglements that held her bound, tying her to a lackluster striving for holiness. Reading her words, we recognize the vacillation that goes nowhere but only round and round. Her insights into this process can be as valuable as her explanations of high religious experiences.

      At last her decision was made to walk steadfastly in one direction: toward God. The exhausting zigzag route—a few steps to one side, a few to the other—was left behind. New energy broke through with the collapse of defenses that had sucked her will power. Her release she saw as the work of grace. She sang a song of liberation, “I have recounted all this at length so that the mercy of God might be seen.” A nun of four centuries ago has given us a description of conversion, not a turning away from serious failings, but a conversion all the same.

      When reflecting on the decisive move to take hold of her life in a responsible way, she stresses two important factors assisting the process: prayer, which she views as friendship with God, and human friendship. She writes in the Way of Perfection , “A good means to having God is to speak with His friends, for one always gains very much from this.” We derive confidence and hope from the support of others who also want to follow Christ. In an often hostile world, these are fellow travelers who affirm our choice of God. When the journey is rough going, they are beside us to arouse our lagging spirits, to help the embers of love flame up when they seem ready to go out. They affirm our worth when we lose confidence in ourselves.

      We are members of Christ and do not walk alone in isolated self-reliance. In Him, we join a community where we are aware of the needs of others and know they in turn are sensitive to ours. Each one's unique gifts are not just for self-enrichment but for sharing. And in that sharing these gifts are never diminished but expanded. Human friendship is a strengthening and supportive force for advancing spiritually.

      Teresa advises us, “I would counsel those who practice prayer to seek friendship and association with other persons having the same interest.” She urges that “a person beginning truly to love and to serve God talk with some others about his joys and trials.”

      The great Spanish mystic has left us pages that reveal someone eager to help us in our everyday life of human choices. She doesn't speak to us from a distant height with exalted phrases. Hers is a down-to-earth vocabulary. It has been said she writes in the speech of the Spanish marketplace. The marketplace is an apt image, for Teresa has wares to sell. She reaches out to us, clutching us by the sleeve. She doesn't want us to go away until she has shown us some of the treasure that has enriched her own life. And her message is persuasive. We too, can hope for all that has been given to her.

      She takes us by the hand and says in the Way , “That you might so walk along this path of prayer so you do not go astray, let us deal with how this journey must begin.” She tells us we need determination,   but if we “do no more than take one step, the step will contain in itself so much power” that we will move forward and will be “very well paid.”

      Famous for her explanations about the stages of prayer development,   La Madre (the name she is known by in Spain) wants to spend time with us at the earliest stage of wanting God but so much more as well. Stuck as we may be in the mud of our own ambivalence, Teresa comes to us with the consoling assurance that she has been there and has found her way out.

              Sister Margaret Dorgan, DCM  


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