Lessons from Theresa of Avila

(On this Sunday – February 26, 2023 – I had the opportunity to preach the first in a series of sermons that Heidelberg UCC, York, PA is doing on the mystics. Today’s focus was on St. Theresa of Avila and what we can learn from her. Below is my sermon)

Theresa of Avila

What we can learn about how to have an authentic personal relationship with Christ, how we can connect to the Holy Spirit outside of traditional spaces and structures, how we can engage spiritual practices to make faith more relationship oriented that performative.  How can we empower folks to engage God creatively, personally, and relationally?

The core question – what does Theresa of Avila have to teach us today?  A woman born in the early 1500’s, The founder and reformer of a Carmelite order nuns in Spain.  A Mystic.  An avid writer.  A woman who saw visions.  A strong willed and confident woman of her time.  Someone who whose life we claim was very different from our own.   What in the world would she possibly have to teach us? Right?  

Before we get to Theresa of Avila specifically, we need to deal with a more central question – why look at the mystics at all?  

Who are the mystics? – they defy logic and reason.  They are individuals who have direct communication and encounters with the divine or experience spiritual ecstasy.  This is important because we are in a society that has an over emphasis on the left hemisphere of the brain when it comes to religion, politics, education, and more. 

(Below is a summary of information from “The Lost Art of Scripture” by Karen Armstrong, pg. 5-6)

The Left hemisphere has empirical and objective insights.  It has offered immense benefits for humanity.  It dramatically enhanced our understanding of the world.  It greatly reduced human suffering.  It has heavy focus on sciences.  The left hemisphere is by nature more competitive and overconfident.  It is concerned with certainties.  With being right.  It is essential for our survival and enables us to investigate and master our environment. 

The right brain by contrast has a more comprehensive view of reality, more embodied, and more physical in nature.  It is less self-centered.  It has the ability to hold different views of reality simultaneously.  It is focused on relationships.  It is the seat of empathy and justice.  It inhibits our natural selfishness.  

What does this all mean?  When we take a look at religion and faith, we’ve been very left brain focused for the last 500 years in Western European Christianity.  We’ve been really concerned the literal interpretation of words, and making sure we’re right, and you better be right too.  Or else.  Correct Dogma.  Fights over who has the correct belief about God.  Head knowledge. 

Where does that leave room for actually encountering God?  The mystics are a response to the left-brain focus.  

Today’s person of interest and focus – Theresa of Avila – Historical Background

  • She suffered a variety of illnesses as a child and throughout her life.  Serious illnesses.  She was near death a few times.  She suffered what was believed to be heart attacks and other serious illnesses.  She was bed bound for long periods of time. At one point she was bent over from her illness.  It took her years to recover from her illnesses and she was always weak.  This is a common theme among mystics.  In the Catholic Church she is known as the patron saint of those who suffer from headaches and for those who suffer migraines since it’s believed that she suffered plenty of them in her life time.  
  • She had a period of 15 years in which she just stopped praying.  But that was not the end of the story.  It was just a period of time, one that she never forgot.  
  • She had multiple ecstatic experiences of Christ – visions that shaped her theology and life and relationship with God.  It drove her to the reforms of her religious order.  And that’s what I want to focus on.  Not the visions so much as what we learn from her. 

The core theme/takeaway from Theresa is this – God is very approachable.  We see this shine through in the lessons we can take away from here.  We see it in her approach to prayer.  We see it in how she approaches life.  And because God is approachable – she is able to be confident in who she is.  It sets the foundation for everything else in her life.  It’s not a head knowledge for her, but about how she encounters God.  It’s how she embodies faith.  It’s a lived faith.  

Lessons from her for us. 

1 – The importance of prayer – “We must have a determined determination to never give up prayer.”    What is prayer?  This is how she defined prayer:  Prayer is nothing more than spending a long time alone with the one I know loves me.”  Prayer isn’t something you do.  It’s something you are open to that God does to you.   

Lessons from The Interior Castle – It’s a book about diving deeper in prayer.  And the deeper we go, it changes.  She writes about the metaphor of the soul as if it were a crystal castle and we move towards the center where the light that shines through the entire crystal.  The center is Jesus.  You move inward through prayer.  In the outer layers, prayer is a lot of effort like drawing water with a bucket.  There is more concern about avoiding offending God and worry about worldly concerns and distractions.  And as you move deeper inward in the castle, prayer changes.  There is detachment of the self, less concern and craving for earthly things, easier access to quiet and solitude.  And as you move towards deeper regions of the castle, you finally become fixed on God so much so that you experience a type of union with God, caring little about earthly matters which become a burden.  Wounding of the heart to be separate from God and in experiencing the world and its pain.

2 – Love of Jesus through suffering – this is a common theme of mystics.  Most likely going back to their own suffering and pain and illness.  They connect what they have experienced to Jesus.  They usually are able to make larger connections in the world and theologically.  For Theresa, she had visions.  She saw Jesus with his crowned head and his moved her to a greater love for Jesus.  She spent much time meditating on the humanity of Jesus and his suffering.  

3 – Trinitarian prayer – to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Which broadens our perspectives and relationship with God.  Remember about holding different views of reality simultaneously?

4 – Spiritual Direction – She had spiritual directors to help her.  She did not go it alone.  And they brought a diversity of theological perspectives.  St. John of the Cross (Carmelite), St. Francis Borgia (Jesuit), St. Peter of Alcantara (Franciscan), and Jerome Garcian – a well known Dominican scholar and theologian.  St. John of the Cross had this to say about spiritual direction – “He who has himself as guide has an idiot as a disciple.”  

5 – Conversion and reform are a constant need – starting with ourselves.  She was a reformer of her order, but it started with herself.  

6 – her writings are spiritual masterpieces about prayer and growing deeper until one arrives at a mystical union with Jesus.  The four writings are “Her Life,” “The Way of Perfection,” “The Interior Castle,”, and “Foundations.”

7 – she was attacked – The way of the cross is the way of being attacked.  Her health was fragile always.  And because she was trying to carry out reforms of the Carmelites, she suffered constant attacks and persecutions from nuns and church leaders who preferred more comfortable lifestyles.  Instead of being discouraged and losing heart, she trusted in God all the more.  She was patient, forgiving, and had a sense of humor. 

She was traveling to one of her convents and she fell off her horse while crossing a cold stream.  The current was so strong, she lost her footing and was almost carried away.  When Theresa complained about the constant trials in her life, the Lord replied, “Do not complain daughter, for it is ever thus that I treat my friends.”  Well, Theresa, known for her sense of humor supposedly responded back to God something to this effect, “if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”

Teresa knew the spiritual value of forgiving one’s injuries. She once wrote: “To ensure that persecution and insults should bear good fruit and profit the soul, it is well to consider that they are done to God before they are done to me, for the blow aimed at me has already been aimed as His Majesty by sin.

A prayer that Theresa of Avila wrote:

Let nothing disturb you, 
let nothing frighten you, 
all things will pass away. 
God never changes; 
patience obtains all things, 
whoever has God lacks nothing. 
God alone suffices. Amen. 

Questions to relate to today – how does all of this connect with us today?  

  1. It’s not about what we know about God – head knowledge wise.  How have you encountered God?  How is God approachable?  How do you know God this way?  
  2. How has your own suffering and illness taught you about Jesus?  
  3. How have you experienced prayer as something besides just a task to be done?

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