Teresa of Avila & John of the Cross
Today is the remembrance of Teresa of Avila, and of St John of the Cross – two 16th Century contemplatives. We are using the readings and prayer for Teresa, but we keep in mind also her friend and follower John of the Cross. From the companion to our readings we are told that Teresa of Avila was a Spanish nun of the sixteenth century whose visions of Christ and gifts as a spiritual director have placed her among the greatest of all Christian mystics. She was the only daughter of a minor nobleman and entered the Carmelite convent in her native town of A’vil-a when she was twenty-one. Over the next two decades she endured many illnesses, one of which left her paralyzed, and also a nagging sense that in her prayers and devotions she was doing nothing more than “treading water.”
Then, in answer to her despair, she began to have visions and hear “interior voices.” The most famous of these experiences, known as “transverberation of the heart,” took place over a number of days in 1559. At her left side Teresa beheld an angel who held a golden spear with a flaming tip, with which he pierced her heart again and again. Teresa later wrote that each time the angel withdrew the spear she was ‘ ‘left completely afire with a great love for God,” and knew that her soul would “never be content with anything less than God.”
Three years later, in obedience to another vision, Teresa left her convent with thirteen other nuns to observe the primitive constitutions of the Carmelite Order in all their strictness. Despite fierce, sometimes violent opposition from the Carmelite establishment, Teresa eventually founded sixteen other Reformed Carmelite houses.
In the midst of her other concerns Teresa also found time to write a number of books, which reflect her holiness, wisdom, and sense of humour; and through them she has become one of the most widely loved saints in the Church, attractive even to those who have not shared
Then of John of the Cross we are told he was the greatest Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, and his writings still nourish modern Christians in their hunger for true experience in the spiritual life. John was born in 1542 and became a Carmelite friar at the age of twenty-one. Four years later he met Teresa of Avila and joined in her reform of the Carmelite Order, serving as confessor to Teresa’s nuns. His prominence in the reform-movement made him a target of intrigues; twice he was abducted and imprisoned. After Teresa’s death he also suffered vindictive treatment at the hands of his own superiors in the Reformed Carmelites, and their harshness contributed to his death in 1591.
Through all his trials John was sustained by an intense mystical love for Jesus Christ. Like Teresa, he experienced the presence of Christ in “intellectual visions.” His reflection upon these experiences issued, first of all, in poetry of extraordinary power and beauty. At the urging of his disciples, he selected a number of his poems and produced prose commentaries on them, which have become classics of mystical theology. John united the vocation of a theologian with the experience of a mystic, and his writings are the supreme example of theology as the fruit of prayer.
What bound these two together, and the reason we mark both at the same time is this common thread of prayer. And that prayer is sometimes dangerous, disturbing, powerful, filled with unfilled and fulfilled longings and hopes. Even sometimes filled with visions… And sometimes filled with nothing.
Often when we hear of Elijah’s journey into the wilderness – his fearful flight from king Ahab and the king’s murderous rage. We focus on the still, small voice at the end of Elijah’s vision but we forget what brought Elijah to this place – the fear, the anxiety, running from his home and from all that was his. We forget that he needed sustenance for his journey – provided miraculously by the angel in the story. We forget he was so tired he lay down under a tree and slept – then we forget that before he got to the place of the still, small voice he had to pass through ‘the earthquake, wind and fire’. Considering all that he was going through, that’s a pretty terrifying experience, if you think about it.
Theresa’s vision wasn’t a pleasant one – as we hear it today we are perhaps slightly shocked by the idea that she had her heart pierced by an angel again and again… sometimes called the Dart of longing love… but that on the other side of that vivid vision, experienced over days, came an overwhelming desire to know, to feel, to engage with the presence of God.
From John of the Cross we gain that powerful and painful image of the ‘dark night of the soul’ – an experience he had, and that expresses the feeling that many people have – of a spiritual emptiness even whilst seeking God in prayer and contemplation. It is the title of a prayer by John, talking of the soul’s journey towards God and the hardships one faces in that spiritual journey.
We often, I think, take prayer for granted – we have words provided for us by our prayer books, and we have the prayers of the people, we have spiritual songs and hymns that give voice to our hopes and longings and fears and triumphs. We have an extensive vocabulary.
But these two mystics teach us that prayer is so much more than that. Prayer is exposing ourselves to the divine, being vulnerable to God. It is being willing to discipline ourselves in prayer, to being silence, to seeking God in the difficult parts of life, to clinging to the faithfulness of God no matter what is happening to and around us.
Prayer is painful. To truly journey to the heart of God is not a pleasant experience – because in doing so we confront ourselves, and we touch something greater than we can ever comprehend. When we are open to God in prayer we take away all other supports and all of the things we rely on to make us comfortable, we are willing to bear the spiritual wilderness and face up to our fears, even to death itself. In order that we might find our way to resurrection.
We are encouraged to not let our hearts be troubled, to hold fast to the knowledge of Christ’s faithfulness even in that face of death – to cling to the one who is the way of truth and life. But when we find ourselves stripped before God we might not feel that sense of reassurance that we long for.
That’s where the examples of those through the ages who teach us about God being in the midst of the darkness, the God who is there when we don’t feel she is – the God who is faithful – this is where their examples can bring us encouragement. To hold on, or as John Bell Scottish writer and member of the Iona Community once said ‘we grasp God, that we may be grasped by God in return’.
These faithful pilgrims, our sister and brother in faith, encourage us to be faithful ourselves in whatever situations we find ourselves. They encourage us to travel deeper into faith, even when the way seems frightening and desolate. They remind us that God is not easily found in comfort and complacency, but in struggle and discipline. They remind us that faith is risky, and that prayer is dangerous.