In all my rummagings and unpacking I found various things I thought long lost. This is one of them. It’s a talk I gave at St. John’s college at morning prayer somewhere in 1993, I think. I remember I ad-libbed quite a few extra bits and all the words by St Teresa herself I delivered in as broad a Yorkshire accent as I could manage. She seemed somehow more northern than Spanish.
“I have desired to go
Where springs not fail
To fields when flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb
And out of the swing of the sea.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins “Haven Haven ~ a nun takes the veil”
These are the words I think of when I consider the enclosed religious life, a view from my generation where to choose the cloister is a considered, much thought-out decision, from a deep inner call that cannot be put aside. And yet Teresa of Avila did not willingly become a nun. In sixteenth century Spain only two options for a respectable life were open to the women of rich and noble families: marriage or the convent. Marriage frightened her, having seen her mother, worn out with child-bearing, retreat into a fantasy world of romantic make-believe. Having no other real option, Teresa took herself to the convent at the age of twenty one, to a life which on the whole bored and depressed her, and was, despite romantic images of enclosed piety, really rather shallow.
At forty three, the idea of reform came to her and she left to found a convent, St Joseph’s. She was to found seventeen convents in all. For an enclosed nun, Teresa spent remarkably little time living the enclosed, contemplative life, a fact which irritated many of her contemporaries. She strikes me as an intensely practical woman, both in her actions and in her spirituality. She wrote, “Do not imagine that one should never think of anything else – that if your mind wanders, all is lost.” (Interior Castles)
Her most well known saying, emblazoned on many tacky little plaques and spoon-rests, is, “God walks among the pots and pans,” (which always explains why guests in my kitchen don’t go down with food poisoning) is often misunderstood as setting up ‘active’ life as superior to the contemplative life. She writes, “If contemplation, mental prayers, vocal prayers, caring for the sick, serving in the house and working at the lowliest tasks of all are all ways of attending the Guest who comes to stay with us, eats with us and relaxes with us, then what matter whether we do one task or another.”
And yet the practical woman had her mystical side, not welcome really but rather the opposite at times. In one of her letters she writes, “I’ve had the raptures again. They’re most embarrassing, several times in public – during Matins for instance. I’m so ashamed I simply want to hide away somewhere.” She wrote much sensible advice on assessing mystical experiences and was rather humorously sceptical about the experiences of others. Of one of her nuns, she wrote, “If I’d have been there, she wouldn’t have had such a while of experiences.” Teresa also had an amazing understanding of the physical and emotional causes of some experiences: “Isabel de San Jeronimo will have to be made to eat meat for a few days and give up prayer. She has an unstable imagination which makes her believed she actually sees and hears the things she meditates on.”
Teresa seems a woman of paradoxes:
An enclosed nun who spent much of her life travelling.
A great writer on prayer and the spiritual life who admitted freely to her brother Lorenzo that sheer pressure of work had made prayer, in the formal sense, impossible.
A mystic who saw visions and yet who treated such things with sense and caution, “Though some such phenomenon may be genuine, I am sure it is best to regard them as of no importance…even supposing they are genuine, nothing will be lost.”
A great saint, who wrote six years before her death, “I beg you, Reverend Father, to ask God to make me a true nun of Carmel! Better late than never.”
A human being in touch with God and with the earth: “WE are not angels. We have bodies. To want to be angels here on earth is absurd, particularly if you are as much a part of the earth as I am.”
These words were found in her breviary after her death:
Be then by naught perturbed
of naught afraid
For all things pass
Who does not change.
Be patient, and at last
Thou shall of all
And naught shall fail thee
For he alone is all.
Teach us to love the paradoxes within ourselves
Teach us to love the inconsistencies of others
Teach us to love the complexity of creation
And to accept the simplicity of God