Church Mother Letter T: Teresa of Avila

Church Mother Letter T: Teresa of Avila

James 1:1-8

by Daniel Harrell

I imagine it must have been tough growing up with Jesus as your older brother. First you’d have to listen to your mother tell that angel and manger story over and over again. He probably made good grades in school—in the only account we have of Jesus as a student he’s teaching his teachers. He probably built the best furniture in his dad’s carpentry shop, and likely lettered in every sport he played. As seminarians, I remember us quizzing our theology professor over whether the Son of God could ever miss a jump shot. Things must have become unbearable for James, the brother of Jesus, once Jesus started calling God Father and saying they were mostly the same. The gospels report how his brothers didn’t believe in it and thought Jesus had lost his mind.

But then James changed his mind. James opens his epistle by describing himself as “a servant—a slave—of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Resurrection changes everything. Now, instead of anxiety and despair in the face of life’s trials, James considers it joy. Why? Because his faith is being proven and strengthened. “Bring it on” he seems to say. He now knows what true and what’s right. “Let endurance have it’s full effect,” we read, “let perseverance finish its work” so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

Moreover, if you do lack wisdom—if you don’t understand why God would ever allow trouble and trials—just ask. The trials James to which James alludes are specifically the troubles that come when you get serious about following Jesus—when get serious about telling truth and loving enemies, when you hunger and thirst for righteousness, when you give expecting nothing back and turn the other cheek and other such silliness, like humility and patience, kindness and gentleness, gratitude and forgiveness and love—a vanishing breed of virtues. 

Wisdom from God will do nothing to alleviate trouble. James couples it to endurance. Basically its the capacity to go out and suffer more. 

But you do have to want it. “Ask in faith and not doubt.” There’s a kind of conviction and assurance of calling required. You have to want it enough to put in the work. There are exemplars of history who have exhibited such assurance, people we call “heroes of faith.” For twenty-one summers I’ve been preaching sermons on such heroes, in alphabetical order. This year has brought me to Letter T. Last Sunday Tertullian, among the earliest Christians on record outside the Bible whose commitment to prayer and patience was unsurpassed. He understood endurance in the old King James language of long-suffering. Long-suffering begins as an attribute of God, the chief characteristic of love. “By his own patience God disparages himself,” Tertullian wrote, suffering long on a cross for love’s sake.

Centuries later, Teresa of Avila, this Sunday’s Letter T, likewise understood long-suffering as love. We may not think we can want it, but that’s only because we’ve not fully experienced it. We get close through prayer and spiritual disciplines, through our doing the work—but eventually something has to happen to us, something hard that tests us and opens us up—that cross in our life that crucifies our old self, gives us a taste of sweet resurrection and changes everything.

Teresa was a mystic—people like St. Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart and Brother Lawrence, Catherine of Sienna, Hildegard, Julian of Norwich, and Teresa’s contemporary, St John of the Cross. Mystics all narrate being sold out to God, totally immersed and overwhelmed by the Spirit, blown away and overcome, willing to suffer for Jesus whatever. Mystic language is always somewhat loopy and weird, they come off a little crazy. Fall in love and go a little crazy. Fall in love and your whole world becomes beautiful—your food tastes better, your burdens lighten, your worries ease, you’re kinder to others, nothing bothers you, even world peace seems possible. Without any seeming effort, your mind fills up with thoughts of your beloved, they’re all you think about and all you want to think about. When you wake up in the morning, when you go to sleep at night, at work, at play, there they are—a constant presence in your life, a source of endless wonder and delight. Of course, you can’t stop working or doing all the tedious chores you have to do every day; but suddenly these things seem less tedious, less stressful, because now everything is emotionally shared.1 This was the mystic trick: they all fell in love with Jesus.

Love isn’t something we generate on our own. It happens to us when we dwell in its presence. Teresa said, “All you need to do is look at Jesus.” To see Jesus is to love Jesus. Fall in love and there is no doubt, no double-mindedness, no uncertainty. You’re a little crazy, yes, some might say out of touch with reality, but you don’t care because you’re so happy about it. It’s all joy. “Nothing perturbs you, nothing frightens you,” Teresa wrote. “Whoever has God lacks nothing. God alone suffices.”

Teresa was a nun twenty years before she first fell in love. She’d done all the right things. Born in Spain, she entered the convent at age 21, and for the next twenty years went about her religious business—a Christian life she described as “a tempestuous sea” of “rising and falling” with little to show for it. But then one day, while walking a hall of her convent, her eyes captured afresh a statue of the wounded Jesus, and his long-suffering love for her finally hit home. This experience uncorked a series of further mystical encounters, resulting in a burst of remarkable spiritual growth and activity that marked the rest of her life. These experiences, she wrote, “would come upon me unexpectedly so that I could in no way doubt that Jesus was within me or I totally immersed in him.”

Teresa wanted this to happen. She’d done the work. For her the work was a kind of prayer she called “recollection”—“not something supernatural,” she wrote, but a desire and a practice that entails “collecting ourselves,” our attentions, our occupations, our worries, our delights and bringing them all before Jesus, over and over. She compared it to honeybees who go out and bring back nectar and pollen to the hive, patiently and persistently, no matter the weather, collecting and recollecting, little by little over time, all the time, until the sweet honey happens and we get fed with the only food with no expiration date. Honey, like love, never fails.

“This Beloved of ours is merciful and good. He so deeply longs for our love that he keeps calling us to come closer. This voice of his is so sweet that the poor soul falls apart in the face of her own inability to instantly do whatever he asks of her. And so you can see, hearing him hurts much more than not being able to hear him… For now, his voice reaches us through words spoken by good people, through listening to spiritual talks, and reading sacred literature. God calls to us in countless little ways all the time. Through illnesses and suffering and through sorrow he calls to us. Through a truth glimpsed fleetingly in a state of prayer he calls to us. No matter how halfhearted such insights may be, God rejoices whenever we learn what he is trying to teach us.”

Teresa’s spirituality has inspired so many, though her experience seems out of reach. Ours is a cynical culture with faith on the ropes, bereft of wisdom and long-suffering, suspicious of virtue and of anybody who gives away or gives up too much. Sacrificial love is in such short supply; moral fortitude so scare. 

Yet Teresa insisted you can still fall in love, by the favor of God, though it might take some time. “Let endurance have its full effect,” as James put it, “and you will be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” Teresa didn’t write her most memorable work, The Interior Castle, until she was in her sixties. Teresa narrates her own trials and troubles, but then shows how they translate to joy, the spiritual outcome of long-suffering love. Love “lessens the difficulty of things that seem impossible,” she wrote, effort becomes effortless. We surpass our own human nature and inhabit the nature of God. Having completely, and gladly surrendered, we’re caught up in the full life of God in eternal community, Father, Son and Spirit, an never-ending relation of overflowing love—which is important. Falling in love is not just all about us.

The value of one’s spirituality before God is measured not by the loftiness of one’s experiences but by the quality of one’s love. “Martha and Mary must join together;” Teresa wrote, her reference to the two sisters devoted to Jesus. Martha was the doer and Mary the hearer and the pray-er, and both matter. Teresa said, we should “desire and be occupied in prayer not for the sake of our enjoyment but so as to have this strength to serve.” As James most famously put it, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

Teresa was an ardent doer and reformer of monastic life. She established fourteen convents so that women could pursue deeper lives of prayer and devotion. She pressed against resistance from old-timers, and from those who questioned whether the Lord would ever use a woman so powerfully (obviously forgetting that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection; unlike the men, they didn’t run and hide). Contrary to those who viewed monastic devotion as detachment from the world, Teresa saw devotion to Jesus as deep engagement. “The Lord doesn’t look so much at the greatness of our works as at the love with which they are done,” she wrote. “It is love alone that gives worth to all things.”

Ours is a cynical culture with faith on the ropes, bereft of wisdom and long-suffering, suspicious of virtue and of anybody that gives away and gives up too much. But that just means we need it more than ever. I finally got around to seeing the movie “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I mentioned last month. Fred Rogers died back in 2003, but his rare brand of radical kindness is enjoying a resurgence. (Tom Hanks is scheduled to play him in another movie next year.) It was such a beautiful and poignant film;  so significant in a day when distrust and hatred have been normed. Mister Rogers might have been the last of his kind. We sat with about fifty others in the Edina Theater and cried our eyes out. 

Many of us either grew up watching or watched our children watch Mister Rogers on PBS—though I’ll admit I was more of a Captain Kangaroo guy. Mister Rogers seemed kind of goofy to me, a little weird, what with the silly songs and sweaters and hand puppets, his long silences and piercing eyes, and all his talk about love: How “everybody longs to be loved and the greatest thing we can do is help somebody know they are loved and capable of loving.” Watching the film as I was working on this sermon made me wonder whether Mister Rogers was a mystic.

Mister Rogers was also Reverend Rogers, which I guess made him a televangelist too—though without all the drama, one who never asked for money and actually practiced what he preached. His advocacy of love endured through many changes in children’s television, too many tragedies in American society, so much criticism against his unconditional acceptance of others and insistence on each person’s worth. In the movie, his son growing up said it was like having Jesus as your dad. 

You may remember me recounting the famous story of his asking a young boy with cerebral palsy to pray for him. The boy was blown away—nobody ever asked him to pray for them. But Fred Rogers did. he remarked, “I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God.” This is true gospel: deep faith is childlike, the sick are closer to God than the healthy; the poor are richer than the rich and the marginalized nearest to the kingdom, the last are first and only the lost are found.

Troubles will come. James reminds that the question is not why do they happen, but what happens to you when they do. Teresa prayed, “Lord, let me suffer all the trials that come to me and esteem them as a great good enabling me to imitate You. Let us walk together, Lord. Wherever you go, I will go; whatever you suffer, I will suffer.”

“The closer one approaches to God, the simpler everything becomes,” she said. And I think she was right. Jesus called it childlike faith. We make life so difficult and we worry so much—“driven and tossed by the wind.” We clutch our money and things because we’re so scared that too much won’t be enough. We complicate relationships, withhold forgiveness and nurse offenses, both real and imagined. We justify our bad choices and the pain we cause others; edging ourselves away from the ways of the Lord—stiffly resisting God’s grace, out on the margins, just out of reach—where Jesus patiently endures with a long-suffering love and finally lures us back to our childlike faith. Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Our Interior Castle:

… a secret place. [Teresa called it.] A radiant sanctuary. As real as your own kitchen. More real than that. Constructed of the purest elements. Overflowing with the ten thousand beautiful things. Worlds within worlds. Forests, rivers. Velvet coverlets thrown over featherbeds, fountains bubbling beneath a canopy of stars. Bountiful forests, universal libraries. A wine cellar offering an intoxication so sweet you will never be sober again. A clarity so complete you will never again forget. This magnificent refuge is inside you. Enter. Shatter the darkness that shrouds the doorway… Believe the incredible truth that the Beloved has chosen for his dwelling place the core of your own being because that is the single most beautiful place in all of creation.2

1Maas, Robin. Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church (Kindle Locations 5499-5503). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition. 

2 Mirabai Starr (translator). The Interior Castle. Riverhead Trade; Reprint edition (July 6, 2004)

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