The world of Teresa of Avila (1515-82) was vastly different from our own. Conscious of the need for caution as a message crosses time and place, and aware that her words carried meanings for the people of her day that we, in another age and culture, cannot fully comprehend, we may still benefit greatly from the insights of this intelligent and deeply spiritual woman who shared so generously and frankly her experience, and the wisdom it brought her.
Deprived of wings, yet she soars
Last week 16th century woman speaks to our time looked at how mutuality in friendship is an integrating theme in Teresa’s life. A second dominant theme in Teresa’s life and writings is experience as the source and means for knowing and understanding, and entrusting oneself to, the ways of God.by Alison Healey
Paul VI proclaimed Teresa a Doctor of the Church – the first woman to be honoured with this title – in 1970. In 1974, Otger Steggink, a Carmelite professor of spiritual theology at the University of Nijmegen (Netherlands), wrote an article on Teresa aptly titled ‘The Doctorate of Experience’.
To understand the significance of this phrase, we need to know that Teresa lived at a time when a fatal separation had occurred between scholastic theology on the one hand and living piety, or experience of faith, on the other. The academic theologians distrusted the mystical life of the espirituales, or ‘experienced ones’. ‘By the mid-16th century, the tension between hierarchy and charism, between institution and freedom of the Spirit and the Gospel, … was converted into a fanatic, and apparently irreconcilable opposition’.
The majority of women were illiterate and Teresa herself could read only the vernacular. Teresa's way – and the way she recommended to women who wanted to live ever more truly in the love of God – was to open herself to God in prayer, to be whole-hearted in her life, to subject her experience to appraisal and judgment and progressively discern her path forward. Although there were times when Teresa lamented being a woman, it is clear that she prized this way of experience:
‘May it please the Lord to favour me, so that I may understand by repose what repose is, by honour what honour is and by delight what delight is – not the reverse’ (Life: 25,22).
I find myself recalling Sydney Carter’s Songs of Faith and Doubt. They came out of 20th century Britain, a far cry from 16th century Spain, but there is one song, ‘Present Tense’, which makes a call to Christians that, I think, expresses well what Teresa understood her mission in life to be. It goes like this:
‘Your holy hearsay is not evidence;
Teresa did not share Carter’s doubts, but she would endorse his words: ‘The living truth is what I long to see...show me how the Christ you talk about is living now’.
‘To walk in the truth’, writes Steggink, is a ‘very Teresian expression, used by her in her autobiography to indicate the ideal, to live an unmasked and transparent life’. Teresa writes that, when she was deprived of books, God promised to be ‘a living book’ for her. And indeed that was her experience. In her daily life and communion with God in contemplation and prayer, her insight and understanding deepened, she grew in love and she came to know what decisions she needed to make and what actions to take. And she, in turn, set out to be a living book for others and to create communities of women and men who would embody the good news of Jesus Christ in their daily lives.
While those who put all their trust in academic learning may have scorned her capacities, Teresa put a high value on their education and knowledge and constantly submitted her experience to the judgment of ‘learned men’ whom she respected. There were times when she was tortured by massive self-doubt: Was the guidance she received in prayer genuinely from God, or was she deluded, and so, deserving of ridicule? At other times she felt assured by experiences of deep peace and consolation in prayer and acted with firm conviction. But she was constantly asking scholars to check her experience against Scripture. This was, for her, the test of its authenticity.
Being a woman
Teresa - reflecting on her experience of being a woman and appraising it in the light of the Gospel - was, at times, depressed about being a woman in her society. She has an unforgettable line in The Book of her Life that rings with vivid clarity across the centuries: ‘Just being a woman is enough to have my wings fall off…’ (Life 10,8). In a plaintive but assertive prayer - it is how Teresa often spoke to God - she contrasts the experience of women in her society with that of women in the Gospel stories whom Jesus encountered:
‘You, Lord, when you walked the world, did not despise women, rather you always, with great compassion, helped them. And you found as much love and more faith in them than you did in men… Is it not enough, Lord, that the world has intimidated us, so that we may not do anything worthwhile in public or dare to speak some truths that we lament over in secret – isn’t this enough, without you also failing to hear our just petitions?
‘For the world’s judges – all of them men – there is no virtue in women that they do not hold suspect…I am speaking this because I see that these are times when it would be wrong to undervalue virtuous and strong souls, even though they are women’. (Way 3,7)
Teresa urged her nuns not to be ‘womanish’ (Way, 7,8). She knew well how women were regarded in her society, and, as a result, how most of them regarded themselves. Being womanish in those times meant being ignorant, weak in all respects, unsteady and unreliable, dangerously susceptible to illusions, a burden on resources and of little intrinsic worth.
She wanted her nuns to be the opposite of all these things, as she knew they could be.
Church authorities and the Inquisition
In such turbulent times, how did Teresa fare with church authorities and the Inquisitors?
She met an enormous amount of disparaging criticism and opposition, but she escaped anything worse for several reasons.
In her dealings with powerful people, Teresa communicated and acted with an extraordinary mix of courage, even daring, intelligent insight and argument and sensitive diplomacy – all directed to forwarding and protecting her work and the welfare of her sisters. As she testified time and again, her spirit found the creativity, energy and confidence she needed in the assurance of her friendship with her Lord.
Teresa was in very frequent dialogue with theologians of high repute, giving them an account of her religious experiences and asking for their appraisal and counsel. In other words, she was constantly bridging the divide between experience and academic learning and argument.There were other clerics, too, who, at different times, were her confessor. Among all these men some became trusted and effective friends, who watched over her, mediating between her and powerful opponents and encouraging and assisting her foundations.
As Teresa opened herself to the judgment of the ‘learned men’, she began to teach them and guide them along the path of personal spirituality in friendship with God. Describing an occasion when she sought counsel from one such man, she writes:
‘He assured me very much and, in my opinion, it benefited him. For although he was very good, from then on he dedicated himself much more to prayer and withdrew to a monastery of his order where he could practise prayer better…
‘He made such spiritual progress that he told me when he came back that he wouldn’t have given up going there for anything in the world. And I was able to agree because previously he had assured me and consoled me only by his learning, but now he did so also through his spiritual experience’. (Life, 33, 5-6)
Dominic Banez, a Dominican who was one of the most distinguished theologians of the 16th century, was deeply influenced by her. He first met Teresa as her confessor and continued as a strong friend and advisor until her death.
Teresa was never censured by the Inquisition. When TheBook of her Life was denounced to the Inquisition by a rich woman who had turned from friend to foe and sought Teresa’s downfall, Banez was the Inquisitor.
The two themes in this presentation, friendship and religious experience, were two powerful currents in the flow of Teresa’s life, propelling and directing what she became herself as a person and what she achieved – friendship with God and human friendship, displacing false notions of the rights of status and power; experience, recollected and appraised, as the source and means for deep understanding, spiritual insight and growth and discerning the way forward.
Perhaps, they don’t sound so extraordinary to our ears today? In 16th Century Spain they were revolutionary.
How appropriate it was that Paul VI, the Pope who saw the Second Vatican Council through its achievements, proclaimed Teresa a Doctor of the Church. It was this Council that sought to affirm and strengthen the relationship of theology with experience, eg, the experience of men and women of diverse cultures, the experience of life in the modern secular world, the experience of other Christian communities and of people of other religions.
For those of us without formal studies in theology, whose theology grows out of our experience of God and God’s active presence in the world around us, Teresa is a great patron, and especially for women. As she has told us, the possibilities for women to wield influence in the public sphere in her day were miniscule. But she did what it was possible for a woman to do. She founded small monastic communities that would give living witness to the Gospel and stand as a visible and radical critique of her society and church. And in doing this, she became one of the great reforming influences in the universal Church.
Despite her feeling at the time of being deprived of her wings, she has soared into the hearts and minds and souls of women and men across the world through four centuries.
Dr Alison Healey was awarded her doctorate by Sydney University for a religious, cultural anthropology and historical study: a critical history of 50 years of religious broadcasting on ABC radio.
She is a member of The Grail, an international spiritual, social and cultural movement of women, founded in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands in 1921 but now in 20 countries and ecumenical in its perspectives and membership. The current Grail Centre in Sydney, named 'Avila' after Teresa, celebrated 50 years of life and work about 18 months ago.