Heaven-Haven ~ the life and works of Teresa of Avila

 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

Save God

Who does not change.

Be patient, and at last

Thou shall of all

Fulfillment find.

Hold God

And naught shall fail thee

For he alone is all.

A prayer:

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

The Parable of the Goldpanner

The Parable of the Goldpanner

 

 

  Once upon a time there was a young man who ran away to seek his fortune. He had heard that men could get rich by mining for gold and so he travelled to the gold fields only to be told that the mines were all but exhausted of gold but he could still find gold by panning for it in the streams that flowed from the mountain. Much gold still remained inside the mountain; indeed, far more remained than had ever been taken out but it had become too dangerous and expensive to go any deeper into the mountain and dig for gold and so men contented themselves with the gold that washed from the heart of the mountain. Indeed, this gold was known to be purer and need less processing before it could be used. In ancient times, the nuggets were simply taken and washed before being skilfully beaten and shaped into rings and cups of astonishing beauty. Now, gold that had been mined had to be crushed and heated and treated with dreadful chemicals to extract the pure gold and by the time the finished product was ready it had cost almost as much to produce as it was now worth.

   On his first day the young man stood knee deep in the icy waters that rushed from the heart of the mountain and panned and panned till his back ached and his feet and legs became numb with the cold. All the while he squinted into his pan and every so often he would shout out with excitement and pick out something and stuff it swiftly into his leather pouch. At the end of the day, he ran, tired and cold as he was to the Valuer’s tent and poured out his day’s finds expecting to go home to his family that day, rich beyond belief. A long silence followed that was followed by a low rumble of laughter, first from one man and then from all the men present.

  “Why are you laughing?” he asked, bewildered and angry that they should mock him so.

  “Because all you have found here is Fool’s Gold,” said the Valuer, wiping his eyes of tears of mirth. “Every man here did this on his first day. Until you know what gold really looks like, you will think that this mineral here is it. Let me show you.”

  The older man pulled from his pocket a small leather bag and extracted from it a small rough lump that shone like the morning sun rising above the hills. It was brighter and somehow purer in colour than the iron pyrites that he had shown the Valuer, and instantly the young man knew what it was he was actually looking for.

  “The old man who taught me gave me that lump so I would know what I was looking for and not be misled by fakes and forgeries. And now I am giving it to you because sometimes when the winter sun fails to shine and you are cold and miserable, you will need to look at the true gold so you can remember what you are seeking,” said the older man. “And one day, you will pass this nugget onto someone else so they too know what they seek.”

  So the young man returned to his icy stream bed and began again. Sometimes he would see a gleam that made his look again but it only took a second before he knew he was once more looking at Fool’s gold and he would sigh and carry on.

  Weeks passed and then months and all the time he carried on looking, his small reserve of money dwindling each day that passed until one day he had no money left to buy food. He looked at the gold nugget the Valuer had given him and considered whether he should sell that so he might eat that day, but after looking at it, he realised that he would maybe one day forget what true gold looked like and be led astray once more. So he put the nugget away and carried on swirling the water and sediment in his pan and suddenly, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, he saw first one and then another tiny lump of pure gold. All that day he worked and when he trudged back to camp, he had enough gold to sustain him for weeks.

  As the years passed, the young man accumulated gold, and slowly and steadily he grew richer and older until one day, standing knee deep in the water of his stream, his bones started to ache with cold and tiredness like they had never done before and he waded back to the banks of the stream and sat down.

  “All I have had of this stream, I have spent and enjoyed so very little,” he said to himself. “I have bought food and only the necessaries of life. Maybe it is time I began to enjoy the gold I worked so hard for.”

  So packing up his kit he walked back to the camp, which by now had become a small town, and went to the Valuer’s tent to say goodbye to his old friends.

  “I’m going back home,” he told them. “I have enough now that I can support my parents and maybe even marry my sweetheart and start our own family.”

  As he started to leave the tent, a second young man came in. His eyes were filled with feverish excitement that the first young man recognised at once.

  “I’m rich, I’m rich,” shouted the new arrival, pouring out on the Valuer’s table the spoils of his first day’s work.”

  The laughter that had seemed once so mocking now seemed friendly and rueful, the recognition of a mistake the men had all made in the past. The new youngster’s face became red and angry and he seemed almost in tears with frustration.

  “I’ve never seen gold before,” he admitted, sweeping his pile of Fool’s Gold to the floor in his disappointment. “How am I supposed to know if no one has ever shown me?”

  The first young man, no longer so very young or so very foolish, went over to the other man and put his hand out.

  “Here,” he said. “This might help.”

  In his hand was the gold nugget he had once been given to help him know what true gold is.

  “But don’t you need it any more?” asked the newcomer.

  “No,” said the first young man. “You see, after all this time, I think I will always know gold when I see it. And I have found enough gold of my own now to be able to be sure I will always know how to find more if I need it.”

  And so our not-so-young man walked away, and went home to his family richer and dare I say, wiser than when he had set out years before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meditation…

I am aware I need to meditate more.

I am also aware that sometimes the classic meditation style simply doesn’t work for me and it often doesn’t work for a lot of people. My husband and I (now don’t that sound grand and almost royal!) used to teach meditation and I also used to hold meditation groups in our home, but mine were a bit different…and I was very careful who I asked along.

What people often complain about is the mind wandering, while trying to meditate, or unwanted thoughts popping in or even simply falling asleep. I’m not going to go into the ways round these issues, as it would take too long, so I’m just going to introduce my way of getting my head straight enough to get into a deep meditation when my “bee in a bottle” is going ballistic.

I drum.

Simple, really. I have a collection of frame drums(there’s a pic of some of them in my archive here, I think) and I start out with a steady rhythm, and focus on keeping the beat steady. Then I vary the rhythm. In the end I have a beat that matches my heart rate, and that’s when some peace comes.

It’s one of the oldest methods of brain entrainment in the world and it has beneficial effects I can’t even begin to explain here. Sound therapists use drum beats to help heal.

The only snag is the fact that you can’t do it at three in the morning  (unless you live alone and have NO neighbours) and you can’t do it at work or on the train. But you can buy some excellent drum recordings to put on an mp3 player; I have several now on mine and that can really help on a stress filled day or an overseas trip.

If anyone is interested, please let me know and I can put a list of some of the CDs I use, plus suppliers of decent drums.

Just don’t tell the neighbours I told you to do it!

The Road of Bones

The Road of Bones

 

There is a zone between here and there,

Where few would choose to tread.

The baking ground shines bright

With the teeth and bones

Of those who lost their way,

Wandered long without a map,

And starved and lonely lay down to die.

The clean white bones, picked bare

Of flesh by wily carrion birds,

Lie as their owners fell.

And if you can but bear to look,

To stare long at the path they make,

The way ahead comes clear.

My path is made of ancient bones,

Holding still their unspoken words,

Waiting for kind and patient hands

To lay their jumbled lives anew

And read the way their bodies made.

I cannot tell which way to go,

Which path to follow, where to roam.

Beneath my feet is only sand

That’s made from bones returned to dust,

Gleaming silver under noonday sun.

No limbs stretch out, no fingers point,

No laughing skull grins at me;

Just pure white sand of powdered bone,

Stretched out till sky meets earth.

The sun is hot, the nights are ice,

But while the sand beneath my feet

Remains this eggshell textured sand,

Then I will know that others long ago

Have trod this road and lie here still,

Guiding my witless feet from harm.

The road of bones leads surely on

To what end I cannot guess;

Its end in sight, then I myself

Will lay my bones along the road,

To mark the way, while I go home,

On silver sand and joyful feet,

And leave the road of bones behind.