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

A Candlemas Sermon- the great hidden in ordinary, hidden in plain sight

Another “guest post” from my husband. If you wish, skip through the readings (in brackets)  to the sermon itself. 

 

{Malachi 3.1-5: 1 ¶ See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. 5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. 6 For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.

 

Hebrews 2.14-end: 14 ¶ Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

 

Luke 2:22-40 – the presentation of Christ in the temple.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23. (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24. and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25. Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28. Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30. for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31. which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32. a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33. And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35. so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36. There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37. then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.}

 

Today we look forward to Wednesday – to the presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas as it is usually known. We are about at the end of Epiphany but we have a little more to learn about the sharing of God’s love with the whole world. A little more before we start the Sundays before Lent.

So what to we know. Well we know that Mary and Joseph were not rich. You see, the Old Testament law says that Mary should have brought a yearling lamb and a pigeon or a turtledove. It was only if she could not afford a lamb that she could bring two turtledoves or two pigeons, instead. Mary brought two pigeons and I don’t believe she is someone who would short-change God, so she and Joseph must not have been able to afford a lamb. 

So, this poor couple enter the great temple carrying their little baby. There was nothing obvious to mark them or Jesus out as special. And yet Simeon instantly recognises this little baby as the promised Messiah, the Christ. He picks Jesus up and we have him recorded as saying the wonderful words we know best as the Nunc Demitis, “Lord now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word………..”. A prayer that I have recited so often at the graveside. It is a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to a God who is faithful and keeps his promises. It is also an acceptance of death as part of God’s plan for humanity – a theme for another sermon perhaps. Simeon embraces his death and praises God.

Now we have a poor couple, with a little baby. Who at the same time are the ones carrying the hope of the world in their arms. Hope that makes an old man to praise God for his coming death. The wonderful power and majesty of God hidden in the ordinary, the normal. This great moment when Jesus is brought to the Temple, and no one notices. No one sees anything special until Simeon steps out from the crowd. Then there is Anna the daughter of Phanuel, an old woman who has been a poor widow for most of her adult life. Again she sees what the priests and holy men cannot. She takes Jesus and praises God.  

The great hidden in the ordinary. Hidden in plain sight. 

I recently heard a story about the growth of two monasteries that I know and treasure. One is Mount St. Bernard in Leicestershire, whose monks helped to me to keep my sanity while training for the priesthood. And the other is on Caldey Island off the Welsh coast; that one I have visited but do not know so well. Both were in serious decline and both now have new novices and a new vibrancy about them. This made me think about another story about a failing monastery.  

Story of the failing monastery (thanks to Anthony DeMello!): This monastery had once been full of song and praise. A centre of learning and teaching and encouragement. But like so many things the monastery’s glory began to fade, novices were first rare and then gone altogether. Leaving the abbot and just a few ageing monks.

Now obviously the abbot knew that something had to be done. So, they prayed for growth. They tried modernising, they tried new services, they tried everything that they could think of to become more relevant, and successful once again. But after slight, brief successes, all their efforts failed again and again.

 And the monks kept getting older. Finally, the abbot knew that this task was beyond him. Something was wrong, and the monks prayers were not being answered. Worst still, the sense of community, the one thing the abbot thought the monastery had left, even that was starting to go. Under the pressure of failure, of rising bills and few people, tempers were starting to fray. Arguments were starting. The brothers were finding faults with each other. They started to grumble at brother cook about the quality of the food. Brother cook lost heart and the food did become worse. Discontent was growing and growing fast. 

In desperation the abbot called another meeting for them all to pray about the mess they were in. At that meeting one of the monks mentioned a hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert who was becoming widely regarded as a holy man. A modern day Christian prophet. So they prayed some more and decided to use some of the little money they had left and send the abbot to see the hermit.  

The abbot finally reached the hermit, who was sitting in silent prayer by a remote cave. The abbot shared the peace and solitude and prayer of the hermit for several days before the hermit asked why he had come. The abbot explains about the mess in the monastery and asks what he can do. The hermit prays silently for another few days and then declares that all will be well with the monastery. — One of the brothers will one day be recognised as a great saint who will guide them all back to their vocations. But the hermit could not say which of the bothers was the saint. God has disguised the saint. He is hidden from them but he is there.  

So the abbot returns to the monastery excited and tells all the brothers. Who become excited themselves. A great saint, a saint who will be famous …… and in their monastery. Eating food with them. Working with them. And they begin to look around could it be brother cook, of course not he was prone to depression and couldn’t even cook any more. Could it be the abbot: how could it be, under him the monastery had declined to almost nothing. And so they went through each of the remaining brothers. None of them seemed like great saints. But was that just God’s disguise? It could be any of them.

 So, without noticing it, they started to treat each of there brothers as the hidden saint, just in case. And they began to realise that the hermit was right. They began to feel better about their monastery. Brother cook was praised and the food improved. An atmosphere of quiet holiness started to cover everything they did.

 Visitors began to notice, or rather feel, that there was something special and holy about that monastery. Something saintly. Visitor numbers grew. Novices began to arrive. People started coming for spiritual support and advice. Until the monastery became a famous centre of learning, and teaching and encouragement.

 You see, that simple apocryphal story is about God, majestic and mighty, hidden in plain view. But present all the same. And no less powerful for being hidden. That is how God works.

 That is how God the creator is hidden in his own creation. How God the mighty and powerful became a little baby, born to poor parents. That is how he could come to the temple and almost no one recognised him. 

That is how God is here now in this church. How God is here in each of you. And me, I hope. God is here and it is the holiness of our lives that will attract people here. It is the way we love and care, for one another and for those we meet. It is in all of these little things that God hides himself: God hidden but still felt. 

God is hidden but God is felt in the way we treat one another. In the way we care and respect one another. God is more often in the places that normal wisdom would never consider. Like a king in a manger. A holy and successful church in a little place like this. And holy saints in ordinary bodies like yours.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

Nun better

In another life, I would have become a nun. Years back I gave God an ultimatum: unless You point the right man in my way, I have every intention of becoming a nun.

My life didn’t go that way. But if it had, the good ladies in the following clip are what I would like to have become:

  http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/video/2009/oct/30/stanbrook-abbey-eco-friendly-nuns?CMP=AFCYAH

Heaven-Haven

 24-01-08_1503

This poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins has spoken to me ever since I first read it when I was 17.

Heaven-haven

(a nun takes the veil)

I HAVE desired to go
      Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
    And a few lilies blow.
 
    And I have asked to be         5
      Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
    And out of the swing of the sea.

 

It speaks to me of a mind and heart that seek sanctuary from itself and peace where peace inside cannot be found.

I’d like it read at my funeral.

by Viv