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The Impetus of Teresa of Avila, Mary Ward and Barbara Holmes

Three teachers
beyond tradition

 Tre maestre  oltre la tradizione  DCM-004
06 April 2024

In the Christian tradition, prayer is a response to the divine invitation to engage in dialogue, fully embracing the assurance that God desires to communicate directly and reveal God-self to every creature, without exception. Simultaneously, it falls upon each individual not only to welcome this invitation, but also to initiate the conversation, because an exchange of love can never be forced. Thus, prayer involves pleading, summoning, persisting, and, above all, patiently awaiting the response of the Other, the unseen Other who is God.

According to Saint Teresa of Ávila’s wonderful metaphor, prayer is the key unlocking the doors to the castle of our soul, wherein God's earthly abode lies. As a relational discipline towards God, then, prayer is not just an action but a state of being—a praxis born from the hope to contribute, in some mysterious manner, to the cosmic harmony and inherent dignity that God confers to all beings. It offers a means to overcome the horror caused in us by the blind destructiveness and hatred inherent in the social structures in which we find ourselves living. To put it in ancient words, prayer is the tool through which we align our will with God’s will.

Whether there exists a distinct “feminine” approach to prayer which is separated from a “masculine” one, I cannot say. Would this be determined by Nature? By Culture? What I am certain of, however, is that numerous women have committed and continue to commit their lives to prayer, driven by a fervent desire to guide others in prayer, thereby advancing the divine project referred to as Kingdom of Heaven. Among them, in accordance with the spirit of their time, some have introduced significant innovations to their respective prayer traditions.

I think first of all of Saint Teresa of Ávila, widely regarded as a supreme authority on Christian prayer. It is well ascertained that Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda of Ávila y Ahumada was of Jewish descent. Her grandfather, a prosperous merchant from Toledo, faced condemnation by the Inquisition for clandestinely practicing Judaism. To elude further scrutiny, Teresa's father relocated the family to Ávila and acquired the title of hidalgo, thereby attaining the status of a pure-blooded Christian, that is, free from any trace of Jewish or Moorish lineage.

It is highly improbable that Teresa was oblivious to her family's history. Book burnings cannot extinguish a spiritual heritage accrued over millennia, or prevent its transmission to future generations. Teresa de Jesús's “determined determination” to embrace the divine directive to reinstate the original Carmelite rule and establish small communities fostering the highest level of union with God attainable in this life, may well be a manifestation of her inheritance.

The more Teresa strives to break free from the discriminatory habits that characterized the cloistered life of her times, the more her faith in God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Holy Trinity shines with authenticity. Some of those habits, and in particular the ones that favored wealthy nuns with privileges obliging poorer nuns to serve them, were totally incompatible with a community devoted to prayer. The seventeen Discalced Carmelite monasteries founded by Teresa, despite the continuous obstacles posed by the Inquisition, are the highest evidences of her belief that the ultimate purpose of pure contemplation is to channel spiritual strength to people engaged in worldly struggles: Mary at the service of Martha.

The context of Venerable Mary Ward’s youth, at the end of the Sixteenth century, was similarly marked by a conflict between religious affiliations. The persecution of Catholics by the English government was at its peak. Priests celebrating mass and faithful who sheltered them faced dire consequences, including death or severe punishment. The Ward family was among them.

At the age of twenty-four, following God’s call to religious life, Mary Ward departed England to enter the Poor Clare monastery at St-Omer, in the Spanish Netherlands, where she was admitted as a lay sister. A few years later, prompted by a second divine call—“Take the same of the Society” (embrace the same spirituality and mission of the Society of Jesus)—, she embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome. There, she sought approval for her institute, dedicated to the education of girls. Her institute was to be exempt from the obligation of enclosure imposed to all consecrated women by the Council of Trent and, like the Society of Jesus, it could obey directly to the Pope.

Waiting for the promised papal bull and bolstered by the firm conviction that women are equal to men, Mary Ward, along with a group of companions, established more than fifteen schools in Italy and Northern Europe— contemplation in action. However, unlike Teresa of Ávila, who was canonized four decades after her passing, Mary Ward faced imprisonment on charges of “heresy, schism, and rebellion against the Holy Church”. She died in England, exiled in her own homeland. Only the steadfast loyalty of a handful of companions, compelled to conceal the identity of the foundress and simply known as “English ladies” or “Jesuitesses”, ensured that Mary Ward's spiritual legacy, rooted in a feminine version of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, flourished in the ensuing centuries. This legacy manifested in the establishment of boarding schools for girls, initiatives dedicated to aiding the impoverished, and a steadfast commitment to championing social justice and the civil rights of marginalized communities.

Born in New Haven, New York, in 1943, Barbara Holmes is a poet, spiritual director, and scholar specialized in mysticism, cosmology, and African-American culture. She holds the title of president emeritus at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and is a core faculty member at the Center for Action and Contemplation, founded and led by Father Richard Rohr, OFM.

In her book Joy Unspeakable, Barbara Holmes brings to light the spiritual energies running through the history of African-American communities: from forgotten or purposely censored African origins of many Desert Fathers and Mothers and theologians such as Augustine and Tertullian, to the religious practices of West African ethnic groups victim of the slave trade; from the deportation of twelve millions of men, women and children to the shores of the American continent to their forced labor on plantations; from the struggle to abolish slavery of the 19th century to the civil rights movement of the 1960s; from Black Lives Matter to the election of the first black president of the United States. The work of Holmes reconstructs a spiritual saga that bridges life and death, body and soul, anguish and ecstasy, music, dance, and silence. These expressions transcend solitary prayer, evolving into a contemplation in community capable of transforming into positive energy both the ancient traumas inflicted by centuries of slavery and the inequalities and oppression that black people still suffer today.

Pure contemplation, contemplation in action, contemplation in community. A lofty limit, but still a limit: individual prayer cannot go beyond the Interior Castle’s Seventh Mansions. After Teresa of Ávila, Mary Ward and Barbara Holmes, what a new step in collective prayerful awareness might be today? In which direction should we, contemporary contemplatives, direct our actions? What relationships of solidarity and alliance in the Spirit should we establish?

The practice of meditating and striving together for justice and peace could extend to include non-Christian communities and other spiritual traditions. Indeed, in some regions of the world, this is already a reality. This practice would gather together women of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim backgrounds, Palestinian and Israeli, Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist women, native women from Latin America, North America, Canada, and Australia… It would gather together women whose names are etched in history or remain unknown, women in their physical body or living beyond the earthly realm. For those of us more attuned to tangible aspects of reality, it is a project in its nascent stages, urgently calling us to a “determined determination”. For those of us with eyes capable of perceiving beyond the visible, it has always been in motion, already mysteriously operating with enduring effectiveness—a manifestation of divine Wisdom, Sophia.

by Guia Sambonet
Theologian, spiritual guide, head of the School of Prayer at the Jesuit San Fedele Centre in Milan.