This Saturday, March 28, marks the 500th birthday of St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church. She is not only one of the most remarkable women of the Christian tradition but also one of its greatest theologians of prayer. Her focus on friendship with God, nurtured through an ordered inner life of prayer is well known. Less well known are her views of the corporate worship life of the church. Teresa’s world offered her a conflictual context for her reflections. Religious renewal movements at the time advocated interior prayer, mystic contemplation, and a critical indifference vis-à-vis liturgical forms and vocal prayer. Not surprisingly, many of these movements attracted the sustained suspicion of the Spanish Inquisition. Teresa lived and wrote in this context. With male confessors and the Inquisition looking over her shoulder, and with male clerics and theologians insisting that contemplative prayer was dangerous particularly for women, Teresa knew well the objections to her chosen life of prayer: “it’s not for women, for they will be susceptible to illusions”; “it’s better they stick to their sewing”; “the Our Father and the Hail Mary are sufficient” (Way of Perfection 21:2).[i] Yet Teresa herself never denied the importance of formal liturgical prayer (although that prayer came in a language, Latin, in which she herself probably was phonetically literate only). Teresa insistently wove formal liturgical prayer and contemplative prayer together by depicting formal prayer as open to and indeed embedded within, contemplative prayer. Moreover, Teresa’s writings are filled with references to frequent confessions, devotion to the saints, feast days, penances, novenas, and all the other forms of devotion to be expected from a sixteenth-century nun. She wrote poems and songs for liturgical occasions, and urged her sisters not to neglect the divine office, since it rendered the sisters available to hear God’s call. Furthermore, Teresa developed her theology of prayer through an interpretation of formal prayer, namely the Lord’s Prayer (after insisting, with strategic humility, that she only reflects on minor details of the life of prayer, leaving a real theology of prayer to learned men). And there are numerous passages in Teresa’s writings which link formal prayer or liturgical moments with mystical experiences. Teresa’s first ecstatic experience occurred when intoning the hymn “Veni Creator” (Book of Her Life 24:5-7). Praying the rosary brought her to the heights of mystical experience, and while reciting the office she heard the Lord audibly speak to her (Book of Her Life 38:1; 19:7). During a festive mass she had an ecstatic experience of being clothed in a white vestment (Book of Her Life 33:14). Of all liturgical moments, receiving communion was especially important to Teresa: God’s presence became tangible as nowhere else, and Teresa describes an almost unspeakable desire to receive the Eucharist (Book of Her Life 39:22). Quite a number of her mystical experiences occurred precisely at this point.
Yet although Teresa cherished formal prayer as a site of encounter with God, she also relativized that site. She knew well the liturgical constraints on women’s ministries. She hints at not having the freedom, as a woman, to preach and hear confession, but instead has to be satisfied with decorating images (Book of Her Life 30:20f). Yet from Teresa’s subject-position at the margins of ecclesial power grew a particular insight, namely that the ultimate point of liturgy lies beyond liturgy. This insistence was a crucial corrective to a tradition which linked grace strongly to the performance of particular rites. Ultimately, Teresa re-assigned the place of the liturgy in the lives of women by placing it within broader possibilities of the encounter with God. She famously challenged a sister who wanted to pray rather than labor in the kitchen: “the Lord walks among the pots and pans!” (Foundations 5:8). That is to say, God is present in the menial domestic work usually assigned to women. The everyday lives of women, so often trivialized, and the liturgical practices of the church are both sites of encounter with God.
I think that even in 2015 this continues to be good news.
PS: And if you want to see how Carmelites today honor St. Teresa of Avila, check out this virtual choir of Carmelites singing “NadaTe Turbe”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nr8SCvWfbL4
[i] All quotations are from the 3 volumes of The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1976-1985).