When Love Grows Cold

St Teresa de Jesús, more often known as St Teresa of Avila
St Teresa de Jesús, more often known as St Teresa of Avila

Hardly a phrase one would associate with St Teresa of Avila, is it? But if one looks at the divisions in the Church, the sorry state of British politics or the sheer ugliness of much of which passes as ‘international relations’, one could surely be forgiven for thinking we have all gone mad. But it is more than that. I think, quite simply, we have forgotten how to love. We are all too busy pressing our own agenda — often, let it be said, an apparently good and worthwhile agenda — to notice that the well-spring of our actions isn’t, as we would like to think, love, but something much closer to selfishness. We are not good at self-knowledge and tend to hide the truth from ourselves. ‘The lie in the soul is a true lie’ is utter nonsense. A lie is a lie is a lie. So, is there a remedy? I think there is, and one of which St Teresa is herself a great exponent: prayer.

People often ask what prayer is (which makes a nice change from those anxious to tell me what prayer is) as though it were some strange activity in which one may occasionally indulge, but only as a last resort. My answer, that prayer is allowing God to love us and loving him in return often seems to disappoint. It is like Naaman being told to bathe in the Jordan to heal his leprosy — too simple, too easy. I smile a little smile at such times and think, ‘You try it, and you’ll soon see!’ For, of course, to pray perseveringly, day in, day out, not just when the mood seizes or when one feels the need, is a form of asceticism, properly understood — and how few are willing to submit to such a discipline!

Most of us are quite good at recognizing what is wrong with the world and we take to Social Media or blogging to share our insights (criticisms) with others. I wonder how many of us take to our knees instead or as well? St Teresa’s great work for her Order and for the Church rested upon her largely unseen life of prayer. We read her letters or pore over The Interior Castle and think how wonderful she was and how attractive the way in which she teaches us to pray, but at five o’clock on a cold winter’s morning or after a hard day at work, the enthusiasm drains away, and who can blame us?

Today’s challenge, therefore , is simultaneously hard and easy: it is to resolve, yet again, to make time for prayer and stick to it — not prayer as endless petitions; not prayer as flowery phrases or telling God what he already knows; but prayer as allowing God to love us and loving him in return. The prayer of love and silence comes to us as sheer gift but it transforms life because it leads to Life himself.

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St Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church

St Teresa of Jesus, usually known as Teresa of Avila, the ‘great’ Teresa as distinct from the ‘little’ Thérèse, the eagle not the dove, is one of those saints whose character seems forged by the landscape and townscape in which they lived. The stony beauty of Avila — its cold, clear light in winter and its burning, intense sunshine in summer— have always struck me as factors in Teresa’s strength of purpose, her passionate love of God, and her equally passionate but commonsensical approach to life. The intelligence, the drive, the shrewd understanding of what makes people tick and her ability to win over opponents with flashes of humour bespeak her Jewish ancestry (her grandfather was a converso or convert from Judaism). I find her both engaging and mysterious: a saint who attracts but who is also, in some measure, alien, ‘other’.

If you want to learn about contemplative prayer, read Teresa, not John of the Cross. She misses nothing out and takes her readers stage by stage, through mansion after mansion, until the seventh is reached. Her letters, too, are full of wisdom. Today, at Midday Office, we’ll read one in which she teases her sisters about their dislike of choir, their feigning of excuses, little headaches and so on, that prevent their serving His Divine Majesty. But it is her actions that make me realise what a very different world Teresa inhabits from the one in which I live. When, as children, she and her brother set off to meet martyrdom at the hands of the Moors, she displayed a zeal, a fervour I find completely alien. The nearest we come to it today is among those young men and women seduced by Islamic extremism who set off to fight in the ranks of IS or Boko Haram. Is it the same impulse at work? I don’t think so; but I also hesitate a little because the explanation I would give will not make sense to everyone.

St Teresa of Avila is a very great saint; and she is great not because she was fervent or full of zeal or reformed the Carmelite Order but because she loved much — both God and her fellow human beings. As her friend and confidant St John of the Cross remarked, ‘At the end of the day, it is by the quality of our loving that we shall be judged.’ Teresa of Avila has been judged and not found wanting. May she pray for us who go along but limpingly in the way of holiness.

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St Teresa of Avila as Religious Reformer

I wonder how many of St Teresa of Avila’s admirers realise what a radical person she was or how much hostility she endured from others because she did not conform to their ideas of what a contemplative nun should be? We have a tendency to sanitize the history of the saints. Whatever hardship or opposition they endured in life becomes after death a demonstration of their triumph over adversity, an expected hagiographic trope. The opposers are either written out of the narrative or relegated to a footnote. Thus, the opposition to her reforms that Teresa encountered from within the Carmelite Order tends to be glossed over today because we see the fruits of those reforms in the abundant holiness they have produced. In 1576 the outcome was far less certain. People genuinely questioned whether St Teresa’s contemplative insights were from God or the devil and worried that her reforms would destroy, rather than purify, the Order.

Religious reformers in every age come in for their share of misunderstanding and opposition. What I think is striking about St Teresa is the way in which, after she had identified her goal, she secured the support and interest of others and waited patiently, though never passively, for any opposition to disappear. She never wavered, either in her determination or in her obedience. The explanation, I suspect, is to be found in that intense life of prayer that characterised her. Perhaps those who feel called to be religious reformers in our own day would do well to reflect on that. Prayer, discipline and sheer hard work, allied to fidelity to the Church’s teaching and tradition, can indeed achieve wonders; but only prayer can keep all the others in harmony, for it is not only the expression of love but its origin and source. Without prayer to keep us ‘in touch’ with God, every activity tends to go astray. May St Teresa teach us how to keep our focus.

Note:
Earlier posts on St Teresa may be read here and here. Others may be found by using the search bar on the right.

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Blaming God

Does God ever chuckle at our extraordinary ideas about him? Recently, I received the nth email in which ‘your god’ was blamed for just about everything, from sexual abuse of children to train crashes, acne and the writer’s apparently disastrous love life. (Possibly the acne and the latter were connected, but a suggestion that he visit a pharmacist wasn’t going to endear me, was it?)

I do wonder, sometimes, why people think God is responsible for everything they do not like or find difficult, but never, apparently, for those things they find good or beautiful. Perhaps it is because we perceive certain events to be tragedies and we want someone to blame, someone to pay for them, more than we want someone to thank or praise for what is good. Not all tragedies can be blamed on human beings, so if there is no-one else we can reasonably pin responsibility on, we accuse God. Religious people do this in one way; those who are hostile to religion do it in another; the net result is the same: God comes in for some pretty rough treatment.

Probably some readers will find this idea shocking. They would never, ever blame God for anything and always resign themselves utterly to the divine will. Such people are almost beyond sanctity, for very few of the saints were so restrained. They told God exactly what they thought while they obediently got on with whatever was required. The great Carmelite, St Teresa of Avila, is an excellent example of this, shrewdly remarking to the Lord that it was no wonder he had so few friends since he treated them so badly. That is not the same as blaming God, for she never insulted him or reviled him. She simply spoke her mind with infinite trust and confidence in God’s goodness and love.

I think a little more honesty with God about our feelings and reactions to events might be a good thing. A little more trust in God might be a good thing, too. Blame is pointless. God does not will harm to anyone. It is contrary to his nature as God. But, continuing this week’s theme of dipping into the dictionary, you may find something to ponder in this thought. The word ‘blame’ derives from a popular variant of the Latin blasphemare and Greek blasphemein, meaning to revile, reproach . . . blaspheme. So, when we blame someone for something for which they are not responsible, we are blaspheming God. That might just make us think before we utter.

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The Importance of Asceticism to Prayer

The feastday of St Teresa of Avila has sent my mind wandering down slightly different channels today. There is so much I could write about her, but I know others will do so better. For today, I’d like to offer a single thought: the importance of asceticism to prayer.

Asceticism isn’t fashionable, and I suspect it never really was; but we live in a society where the idea of ‘having it all’ has become commonplace, even in the Church. We can be ‘monastics’ without taking on the disciplines of monasticism; we can be great contemplatives without accepting the renunciations implicit in an ascetical way of life. That would have seemed absurd to Teresa.

The Greek roots of the word asceticism link us to the idea of monasticism and exercise. How much Greek Benedict knew is debatable, but he talks of training in monastic life being a form of exercise. We are exercised in virtue, so to say; we are exercised in obedience. All the other disciplines of monastic life — the regular prayer, the fasting, the renunciation of private ownership, single chastity — are ordered to one end only: the seeking of God; and God is the goal of all true asceticism.

St Teresa’s reform of the Carmelite Order tends to be seen as secondary to her great works on prayer, but perhaps the great works on prayer could not have been written without the underpinning of Carmelite observance. Still today Carmelite nuns are known for their cheerfulness and their ascetical fervour. We can all learn from them.

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St Teresa of Avila

St Teresa of Avila did everything wrong. By the standards of her day, she was not what a nun should be. To begin with, there was the question of her origins, which appeared to include some converso blood; then there was the fact that she entered the monastery mainly because she thought it the safest course rather than because she had a compelling sense of vocation; once there she had a far from untroubled course learning how to pray; and when she set about her reform of Carmel, she not only travelled the length and breadth of Spain in a way that would have been impossible a few years later, she encountered and faced down an enormous amount of opposition.

In spite of all, she is one of the most engaging of saints, whose teaching on prayer continues to be an inspiration to many. Her writing is intensely personal, practical and wise. She is one of the first two women to be declared a Doctor of the Church and, a reflection of her own trials in the matter, the patron saint of headache sufferers. I rather think St Teresa would have smiled over the latter, especially as she had some frank things to say about nuns who excused themselves from choir, pleading the excuse of a headache. Although I myself have never felt the slightest attraction to Carmelite life, I can’t help thinking St Teresa of Avila did everything right: she is an encouragement to everyone who seeks to know the Lord better.

Christian New Media Conference
I’m participating in the Christian New Media Conference at City University, London, today. If you don’t already have a ticket, why not come along and get one at the door? Registration begins at 9.30 a.m. You can also follow on Twitter, using the hashtag #cnmac11.

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