Saints and Sinners – Thursday 15th October

St Teresa of Avila,
teacher of the faith, 1582

Psalm 90.12
(Common Worship Daily Prayer)

Teach us to number our days,
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.

Reflection

Teresa of Avila
Teresa of Avila

St Teresa of Avila, mystic and teacher, was born into a noble family in Avila, Spain, in 1515. Her mother died when Teresa was in her teens, and her father had exacting religious standards. Teresa decided to enter the local Carmelite convent at the age of 20, where life was probably more relaxed and worldly than her previous life at home!

She fell seriously ill soon after entering at the convent, with malaria, and was almost completely paralysed, taking three years to recover. She suffered from ill health throughout her life, and later wrote an autobiography, giving such close detail that physicians have been able to study her symptoms. Some have concluded she may have had temporal lobe epilepsy.

Teresa started off with a relaxed attitude to faith, but soon began to devote herself more and more to prayer, and was graced with visions and spiritual experiences. Through the practice of contemplation, she underwent a conversion experience, a spiritual awakening.

In the face of much opposition from the establishment, she set out to reform the Carmelite Order by founding the Convent of St Joseph at Avila, the first community of Discalced Nuns. Discalced, derived from Latin, means “without shoes”.

In the age she lived in – one of Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition and Counter-Reformation – what mattered to Teresa was a return to basics: devotion, austerity, strict poverty, the cultivation of the interior life – listening to God, gazing upon the face of His Son Jesus, attaining “perfect love which casts out all fear” (1 John 4.18).

Despite difficulties, she went on to found sixteen of these reformed convents, and later teamed up with fellow mystic, St John of the Cross, who opened monasteries for men in a similar vein. St Teresa died on either 4th or 15th October 1582 – more likely the 15th. The calendar was changing from Julian to Gregorian, so the dates 5th – 14th October were lost that year!

The writings of St Teresa are many, and her two seminal books are The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection. In this quotation from the Interior Castle she reminds us that prayer is about intimacy with God, it is about loving:

Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything.

The Way of Perfection, written for her convent sisters, takes its cue from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. In it, she looks at the practice of meditative prayer. This is what we might call Christian Mindfulness in our culture.

St Teresa also wrote a poem which means a great deal to me. There are many versions of it in English, and I have adapted a translation as below:

Let nothing disturb you,
let nothing dismay you,
all things pass,
God never changes.
Patience attains
all that it strives for.
If you have God
you find you lack nothing:
God along suffices.

I believe God drew my attention to St Teresa, and to her poem, to help me cope with a family tragedy which occurred a year ago. A group of us used to meet regularly for Morning Prayer at All Saints Church, Hindley. On 15th October, we were looking at the biography of St Teresa, as it was her Holy day.

God led me to go straight to the internet when I got home, where I found this very poem, when I was looking up things to do with St Teresa. A few days later, my brother died suddenly, from temporal lobe epilepsy. It was not a co-incidence, but a God’s Incidence, that he led me to this poem, and to this saint, and I knew he was looking after me in my grief.

In her poem, St Teresa calms us, telling us not to be disturbed, not to fear. In my bereavement, I was comforted, knowing God was with me, and my brother was safely in his hands.

St Teresa points us to Love – the Psalm points us to Wisdom. Both head and heart. One without the other is not enough. So this is where Psalm 90.12 comes in as well:

Teach us to number our days,
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.

The exhortation to number our days reminds us that we will all die one day. As we mourn the death of our loved ones, so we hold on to the mystery, that life in this world is not everything: eternal life awaits the Lord’s faithful servants, “promoted to glory”.

You will find the music to the Taizé Chant, Nada te Turbe at the YouTube link below. This is also based on this wonderful poem by St Teresa. A translation of the Spanish, which fits the music, goes like this:

Nothing can trouble,
nothing can frighten,
those who seek God shall never go wanting.
God alone fills us.

Collect

Merciful God, who by your Spirit raised up your servant Teresa of Avila
to reveal to your Church the way of perfection:
grant that her teaching
may awaken in us a longing for holiness,
until we attain to the perfect union of love
in Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Rachel Martin
Reader (Chapelfields Hub)