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The world is on fire

· Response to the urgencies and dangers of her time ·

It is hard to sum up Teresa of Avila’s spirituality, it is so rich and subtle. However what can be said to present her is that she found her strength in action. Teresa of Jesus elaborated a mysticism which responded to the urgencies and dangers of her time and is structured round three poles: her enlightened understanding of the Incarnation and of what this entails as a response; her invention – as is said of the discovery of a treasure – of the centre of the soul as God’s abode; and lastly, prayer as a loving operation on the world.

Stained-glass window of the parish church of St Teresa at Summit, New Jersey

“The world is on fire”, Teresa wrote in the first chapter of her The Way of Perfection. And the world, she added, needs strong friends (amigos fuertes). What fire did Teresa of Avila want to combat? The fire that was devouring the Church from within, with the new ideas of the Reformation and other currents of thought in Rome which contested her dogma and infallibility. What happened was that the Copernican revolution had destroyed the premises on which the ancient world was based and had spread general anguish in the minds of the 16th century, the first of the modern era: neither the earth nor God were any longer the centres of an eternal and incorruptible universe that rotated round them.

Teresa masterfully swept away the questions that this vertiginous discovery had given rise to in people’s minds at that time. What did it matter if because of this theory God had lost his dwelling place? It sufficed to seek the divine as pure transcendence, as an inner experience, Teresa answered. What did it matter if the earth was no longer the place of theocentrism? If God is all, if “the machine of the world has, so to speak, its centre everywhere and its circumference nowhere,” then the centre of the world is where man is and God within him. The citation of Nicholas of Cusa (Kues) taken up by Pascal is not an allegory: the centre of a sphere with an infinite radius is effectively everywhere. At whatever point we find ourselves in this sphere, we are de facto at an infinite distance from the edge as we are in all the directions of space. Thus since God dwells within the secret centre of the soul, he is always and inevitably at the centre of the universe.

This is one of the sources of Teresian spirituality: in the discovery of the soul’s centre. In his Diccionario de santa Teresa de Jesús Tomás Álvarez emphasizes the originality of the mother of this notion which was to become one of the main themes of her masterpiece, The Interior Castle. This centre of the soul is “is the principal chamber in which God and the soul hold their most secret intercourse”. There in its centre, God continues to dwell and to shine out. It is in this centre that the union of the soul with Christ our Lord is celebrated, Teresa explained, so that its relationship with him may be definitively established: “the soul always remains with its God in that centre of which I have spoken”. This idea, undoubtedly unusual, was to draw down upon her the wrath of the Inquisition. It was an “error in philosophy, a dream and a fantasy in theology” the judges decreed. As for the idea of God who is in this centre, it was described as a revolting heresy.

This was the utterly brilliant response of a woman who responded intuitively from her soul to the general anguish generated by the Copernican revolution. In this way she succeeded in maintaining the strength of a peace-making divine. She who had the insane desire to give God back his place – to ensure that her soul, if it were united with God, would once again become the centre of the world – succeeded: Her prayer puts the world back into the divine gaze and placesGod at the centre of the universe. In praying, Teresa restores to his place Christ who comes. The irony of fate! What had almost caused her to be defined a heretic by the Inquisition – the notion of the centre of the soul – is what makes her so necessary to us.

Teresa of Jesus was canonized for the holiness of her life, the creation of her Carmel and her unshakeable fidelity to the Church. But what makes her a contemporary of ours is this invention. She who perpetually gives God a future, not with an “I think therefore I am” but with an “I believe therefore he exists” is far more than the individual openness of a soul intensely faithful to God. In this way she forces the advent of a world of which Jesus Christ will remain the inevitable yardstick.

Teresa of Avila understood the attraction of matter and the contemporary theories of her counterparts; hence her aversion to false erudition, claims to knowledge and restlessness in her convents. “The soul is not the power of thinking... and the will is not ordered by it, for that would be a sad state... seeing that the soul’s profit does not lie in thinking much, but in loving much,” she declared.

Teresa felt bound to love the day on which the sight of a crucifix made her suddenly realize how much God loved her for having given to her his own life in disgrace and in the suffering of the cross. How much she loved him for having made himself so similar to his creature as to incarnate himself in the weakest and humblest of all beings, not into a prince but into the son of a carpenter in the peripheries of Palestine. From that moment she understood in a flash that she would never be able to accede to any superior state of faith without a full knowledge and a full experience of this love through fusion with it: she realized that if God were to respond to her she must apply herself in a manner commensurate with the love revealed by his Passion.

Thus the most violent representation of Christ’s humanity – the Passion – overwhelmed her and it was through the Passion and starting from it that she was able to understand fully the folly and scandal of Christianity: the Incarnation. “No one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Jesus is the human face of God. Was there perhaps a better metaphor than this truth which Teresa was to assimilate as a host, namely, the reality of God, his being is accessible only in Jesus and through Jesus? In The Life of Teresa of Avila by Herself she wrote that Jesus is the true book in which she discovered all the truths. The overwhelming view of the suffering body of Jesus also revealed to her in a dazzling way all the promises of the mystery of Jesus, man-God and God-man. Christ’s humanity offers a possibility of union, communion and unity of love. Through Jesus the reciprocal attraction between God and his creature is formalized. Whether they think of the Passion or meditate upon this mystery, people praying find themselves at the foot of a ladder that leads to God, a ladder like Jacob’s, a ladder of prayer that one must climb in order to reach the divine union “where nothing is comparable to the raptures of the soul”.

Hence Teresa’s exhortation to pray. According to her, prayer is nothing other than “an intimate friendship, a frequent heart-to-heart conversation with him by whom we know ourselves to be loved”. It is necessary to pray because prayer is the central moment of the religious creation of which Jesus is master; to pray because prayer is the language of friendship, just as silence is the language of God. With these words Teresa ensures the survival of that formidable theological, teleological and human revolution which is the Incarnation. Pray and go ahead: Ir adelante. Her motto recurs 130 times in her work; going ahead in the world and at the same time penetrating one’s innermost depths. “It is absurd to think that we can enter heaven without first entering our own souls”.

What does her spirituality teach us? Acting out of love, instinctively as it is said, the infinite irradiation of each one of our acts is spread in the infinite warp and weft of the world. Through love, the mystique of Teresa – her beatific contemplation, her prayers – becomes an action and creates a dynamic from which charity flows. In fact, what would Love be if it were satisfied with itself? If it were not begotten through charity? If it were not in its turn incarnate in love for one’s neighbour? It would be nothing. It would be nothing other than empty speculation, the very opposite of the spirituality of Teresa who is a mystic of loving action.

Christiane Rancé

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