Arriving in Avila, encountering Teresa
We set off from Oxford at what felt like the crack of dawn. Once in Gatwick the pilgrims that came from other parts of the UK joined us and we gradually got to know each other. Somehow the hours went by and I barely noticed them. Somehow half the day had gone by and though the early rise did make me sleepy I didn’t feel the type of exhaustion I can sometimes feel when travelling. Expectation, curiosity, and good company contributed to this.
We are staying in the birth house of St Teresa, the home of the oldest congregation of discalced friars. The Monastery church is built on top of Teresa’s paternal home, our rooms overlook the courtyard.
The gospel for today was from Luke 18:9-14; it spoke of how the tax collector and not the pharisee went home justified. Fr Matt led us in a meditation of this passage bringing our attention of how at the root of it the parable was speaking of prayer and maturity in the faith. Both the publican and the pharisee came to God, seeking a relationship with Him, but each with a very different type of prayer, which reveal where each one was in their faith. The publican, though in outer appearance seemed the weaker of the two was in fact the one who’s prayer revealed a mature faith. The pharisee’s prayer revealed his still had much to learn and grow. St Teresa reminds us that a mature faith is one rooted in self-knowledge and it is self-knowledge, which allows the type of mature prayer that we witness in the publican. St Teresa paints a very clear picture of how self-knowledge is key to prayer and a mature faith. She uses the image of bread. In Spain all meals are accompanied by bread and it is common to hear that a meal without bread is not a meal. So is self-knowlege is the bread of the spiritual life, which can only come from our relationship with God and is key to a mature faith.
After mass Fr Matt spoke of how for St Teresa said that once a mass had been celebrated together, those that had shared in it became a new community. Evening prayer followed and then we had dinner. As we sat first in the chapel and then around the dinner table with as new friends I understood what she meant. We were receiving the sustenance of life, spiritual and physical together. We had shared in the mystical encounter that is the Mass and that had bound us to each other in a way that only God can. So ended our first day, in expectation of what is come, aware that we are travelling together through whatever the Holy Spirit has prepared for us and that makes this evening particularly sweet.
Of Tea and Friendships
On our first night here as we discussed over dinner the following day, Audrey asked about tea and where the kettle was. I realised then that this one cultural difference had been forgotten, Spanish homes don’t usually have kettles. Most people drink coffee cooked on the stove in a mocha (think Italian espresso but larger) rather than tea. The British love of proper tea, similar to the Latin love of coffee, meant a mission was set: Audrey set out yesterday in search of a kettle. Later we set out for the Monastery of the Incarnation where St Teresa lived for 30 years of her life and where she had her conversion. The topic of love kept coming up and it all seemed so very connected.
The first reading this past Monday was from Ephesians 4:32-5:8, in which God calls us to be friends with each other and to love one another as God has loved us. For St Teresa, friendship was fundamental to the spiritual life because of our relationship with God is a deep friendship that gives birth to all of our human friendships. The friendship with God is one of profound love and this love then radiates out to others.
God is Love itself and St Teresa experienced how God’s Love is beyond all human description. Love spurs us in efforts that we possibly never thought we would undertake. It spurred St Teresa on to reform her order so as to live ever closer to God. St John Paul II commented on the fruits of this Love when he visited the Monastery of the Incarnation. He said that there at the Incarnation, where Teresa had had her conversion and experienced total consecration to Christ has been a place that had irradiated new monastic foundations and had been the seedbed for the contemplative life.
At the Monastery of the Incarnation, a Chapel with the Blessed Sacrament has been built over St Teresa’s cell where she experienced the transverberation. This moment in her life has been made especially famous by Bernini’s sculpture in the Santa Maria Vittoria in Rome. Fr Matt pointed out that the sculpture picks on an important point, which is that the experience of God that Teresa had had became part of her consciousness after she had experienced it. The angel in the sculpture is holding the arrow after it has pierced her heart. Teresa wrote about this experience after it had happened and this is the only way that any of us can be conscious of our experience of God. The direct experience of God is not something we are aware of at the time, much less are we able to articulate it into words. We become conscious of it afterwards as it bears fruits and it is only in these fruits that some words can be used. St Teresa made it clear in her writing, God’s love was something that went beyond human comprehension and language. Human language is very really cannot express it and will always fall short but it can find an expression in how we love one another.
Audrey amazingly found a kettle and it made me wonder, how much our love of something or of someone will motivate us into action. Imagine what the experience of God could do to us, what it could spur us on to, the peace that could reign in the world if we gave ourselves to God’s love as wholeheartedly as Teresa did.