Stories Seldom Heard – October 2017
Stories Seldom Heard
219th Edition October 2017
Saint Teresa of Avila and Other Mystics
Welcome to “Stories Seldom Heard.” I would like to especially welcome the parishioners of St. Veronica’s Catholic Church, Cincinnati, Ohio. Last month we began a series on “Hidden Figures.” The Shunamite woman is certainly one of those figures. She is not very well-known. Yet, she is a powerful example of biblical hospitality. She is a woman who responds to the needs of a stranger, Elisha. She builds a room onto her house for him, but more importantly she makes room for him in her life. In other words, she accepts him just as he is. Her return is great. The stranger, Elisha, turns out to be a prophet of God and blesses the woman with the one gift she desired: a child. (II Kings 4:8- 37)
During the month of October, we will celebrate many saints. Even though some of them are well-known, there are parts of their lives that are hidden. St. Therese of Lisieux, or St Teresa the Little Flower as she is sometimes known, is one of them. Her title “the Little Flower” is misleading if we think of her only as a fragile flower. She is anything but that. She is no wilting violet. She describes herself in her autobiography as a woman with a will of steel.
In the middle of the month, October 15th is another great feast day. It is the day we celebrate St Teresa of Avila who, in 1970, was named the first woman Doctor of the Church. Along with St. Catherine of Siena, who was also named a Doctor of the Church in 1970, Teresa’s life and writings reveal a deep spirituality and mystical insights. It’s too bad that she is so often pictured as looking out into space with dreary eyes and a strange expression on her face. When most of us see saints portrayed in this manner we realize that whatever the person is seeing or experiencing can never be ours. In fact, some of us wonder what the artist is trying to describe. What feelings, thoughts and prayers are they trying to evoke in us?
What a shame that the saints are so often portrayed this way! The paintings of them and their poses are often distracting and unattractive. However, when we study their lives we realize that they lived rather normal lives in the context of their own culture and times. There is no doubt they were extraordinary women and men, but it is also true that many of them were common people like us. Perhaps what separates them from us is not so much their relationship with God, but their awareness of that relationship. Holiness is not an exclusive gift from God. God invites all of us into a deep relationship. That’s the hidden secret the saints share with us.
Teresa of Avila is called a “saint” and a “mystic.” Now, if we were only talking about “saints” many people we know would come to mind. But when we add the word “mystic,” we begin to back off. We become less sure of whom we are speaking. We think the word “mystic” is reserved for only a few special people. Ordinary folks like you and me don’t seem to fit into that category. Yet, there has always been a movement in the church that wants to re-evaluate what it means to be a “mystic.” So I pose the questions. Could we, ordinary people, have mystical experiences? Before we decide the answer to that question, let’s explore it further.
Since it’s Teresa of Avila’s feast day this month, let’s begin with her. She grew up in Avila, Spain in the 16th century (1515-1582). There is no doubt that she was extraordinarily gifted, but life wasn’t easy for her. Her mother died when Teresa was only fourteen years old. When Teresa wanted to enter the convent, her father refused to let her go. So Teresa left for the Carmelite convent in Avila without her father’s permission or blessing. While Teresa was there, she became very ill and had to return home. During part of the three-year period she was sick at home, she was also partially paralyzed and seemed at times close to death. (1)
After recovering from her illness, she thought more about her experience in the Carmelite convent in Avila. Her reflections revealed how superficial the “cloistered” nuns’ prayer life and spirituality had become. Slowly she realized that the convent in Avila had become more like a boarding house for wealthy women, than a place of prayer. In fact, when she was living in the convent, she, like the other nuns, spent almost every Sunday afternoon in the parlor discussing the issues of the day with the affluent influential people of the town. Teresa had enjoyed these social times and the people who came to visit. Yet, in retrospect, she knew she often chose the interaction and stimulating conversations in the parlor, rather than spending time at prayer in the chapel or in her room.
As Teresa grew in maturity, she became more attentive to her prayer life. Then, one day, as if out of the blue, something unexpected occurred. Teresa passed by the crucifix she had seen in her home for many years, only this time, something extraordinary happened. As she looked at the crucifix, she became profoundly aware of God’s love and her need to change. It was a moment of clarity, a moment of conversion for her. From that time forward her life began to change choice by choice, inch by inch.
In 1562 she founded the first of seventeen new reformed Carmelite monasteries. They were called Discalced meaning “shoeless,” because the nuns wore sandals instead of shoes. This was only one of the signs of the major reform she initiated. No longer could the women bring dowries with them or have their families support them. Instead, the nuns were to live a common life based on the generosity of others and the hard labor of their hands. Along with external disciplines, Teresa emphasized the importance of prayer, meditation and spiritual practices.
In spite of Teresa’s reputation as a spiritual leader, she was not free of criticism or suspicion. She lived in a time, perhaps not that different from our own, when women’s voices and insights were not always readily accepted by church or civic authorities. She was also plagued by illness and the physical trials that accompanied most everyone who lived in those days. In fact, while she was traveling the countryside her donkey cart overturned. Finding herself in the shallow part of the river she complained to God. Then an inner voice seemed to say to her, “This is how I treat my friends.” Her response was, “Yes, my Lord, and that is why you have so few of them” (2).
Teresa’s response is not only witty, but also it exposes a side of Teresa that is most endearing. She is an intelligent, vivacious and creative woman. She is a woman of great strength who lived in stressful times. She is very human, not aloof, a person in many ways like ourselves. And she is a saint and mystic. Teresa describes prayer as conversing with God: a conversation with the One who loves us. For her, prayer is opening a hospitable space for God – a place of welcome and receptivity.
Dorothee Soelle, a German theologian who died a short time ago, also speaks about prayer. She suggests four characteristics that are often experienced during prayer or as a result of prayer: peace, harmony, wonder, exuberance. This deep sense of joy and awe she identifies as a mystical experience (3). Even though the world around us has not changed, we’re convinced that ultimately “all shall be well.” These times don’t always happen during formal prayer times. They can sweep over us as we sit quietly before the setting sun, listen to a mourning dove or watch a newborn baby begin to focus on bright objects. Moments like these interrupt our usual thought patterns. They make us aware of the unfolding mysteries that surround us.
Soelle invites us to ponder the possibility that each of us has had experiences like these. Even more, she encourages us to examine our own lives for times when we have felt a profound closeness to God. Some people’s first thoughts go immediately to childhood – to a specific time and place when they felt a peace or a sense of wonder. Others of us might tend to identify more recent times when we have experienced a profound sense of unity with all creation.
Soelle names a variety of people who have not been canonized by the church, but who nonetheless have lived insightful, holy lives. She tells the story of C.S. Lewis, an English author, who describes his experience of oneness with God. He said he felt like a snowman who at long last had begun to melt. The drip by drip process began first with his shoulders and then continued through his back. A woman describes her experience as feeling totally connected with ourselves. She was at peace: no divisions or contrariness.
I hope these reflections will help us become more sensitive to the mystical stirrings of grace that are awaiting our attention: Love, Compassion, Mercy, Joy, Acceptance and Forgiveness. All these words are names for God. None of them are enough to encompass God or name God fully. Thomas Merton said it well: “What a relief it is to discover that no idea of ours, let alone any image of ours could adequately represent God.”
There is nothing in our faith that indicates that God wants to have a hierarchy of favorites. There is everything in our faith that indicates God’s desire to become one with us. Could we be mystics in the disguise of an ordinary person? If Jesus took on our flesh to become one with us, wouldn’t God want to communicate with each of us on a personal and ever-deepening level? As we face into autumn, it might be the perfect time to become more aware of the mystical moments that surround us each day. It might be in this season of our lives that we too claim our mystical calling.
- Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses For Our Times, the Crossroad Publishing Company, 370 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10017
- Ellsberg, p. 450
- Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, Augburg Fortress Press, Germany, 2001, p 21 -26.
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article. “Stories Seldom Heard”(SSH) is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, California. This service is offered to the Christian community to enrich one’s personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for individual or group reflection. If you would like SSH sent to a friend, please send a note to “email@example.com“. If you would like to support this ministry, please send tax deductible contributions to Dominican Sisters of San Rafael, c/o Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P., St. Dominic’s Convent 2517 Pine Street, San Francisco, CA, 94115 Thank you.