How would you know that someone was a saint? Perhaps by the way they looked, by their seemingly unbroken closeness to God, by their other worldly character. St Teresa was a very human saint who struggled with the same things that cause problems for other people. Despite being a nun, whose main occupation is prayer, she spent 20 years struggling to pray, even actively resisting it. Teresa wrote about her struggles and that has given those of later generations an insight into her spiritual life.
At the Thursday 2pm SLT service in the Cathedral I shared a little more of her life and also used some of her prayers in the worship.
The readings were Psalm 34:11-17, Romans 8:22-27, Matthew 5:13-19.
If you think about saints I wonder what picture comes to mind. I think I would go for a beatific smile, a distant look. The saint would spend hours in prayer, talking and listening on a hotline to God. They would sail through life in constant communion with him and probably do a fair few miracles along the way. They certainly wouldn’t have any of the problems that lesser mortals suffer from.
St Teresa, whom we remember today, doesn’t quite fit the picture. Born in 1515, she started out as a very spiritual child, spending time in silent prayer. Sadly, while still in her teens, Teresa lost her mother. She describes how she fell down before a picture of the Virgin Mary and asked her to be her mother from then on.
As teenage really took hold, Teresa became something of a party animal, if such creatures existed in those days. She enjoyed having many friends, spending time with them and enjoying being complimented by them. She was a charming person who found it very easy to make friends, which made her very popular indeed. Despite this outward enjoyment, Teresa was not at peace.
Even when Teresa joined a Carmelite convent, she had conflict within her. Early in her time there, Teresa contracted malaria and there was a possibility that she would not survive. She was in a lot of pain but during this pain she began to have divine visions and felt a sense of inner peace. The nuns were amazed at her patience and joy in the face of her suffering, something which Teresa credited God with providing.
As Teresa got better, her prayer life improved but she had problems when she shared the visions she had had. Some clergy thought that this was the work of the devil. It was the time of the Spanish Inquisition and anything out of the ordinary caused a stir. This made Teresa lose confidence in prayer and her spiritual life ground to a halt near enough.
She wrote about her life at the convent and said that the first twenty years there was a time of failing God all the time. She felt buffeted about as though in a storm at sea. She found prayer a dry experience and had no wish to worship and pray. She found herself torn between wanting to be with God and wanting to be back in the world of her friends.
This is what she wrote about her difficulties in prayer:
‘Over a period of several years, I was more occupied in wishing my hour of prayer were over, and in listening whenever the clock struck, than in thinking of things that were good. Again and again I would rather have done any severe penance that might have been given me than practise recollection as a preliminary to prayer. Whenever I entered the oratory I used to feel so depressed that I had to summon up all my courage to make myself pray at all.’
With the encouragement of a priest, Teresa gradually got back in touch with God. She sensed just how much God loved her and felt a oneness with him. There were times when she was so full of divine contemplation that her body levitated. Teresa didn’t like this to happen as it seemed like a public display. In order to prevent this happening she had to get the other nuns to sit on her and stop her floating away! This is certainly not something I would think of when describing a saint.
Teresa was a down to earth person with lots of common sense, not other worldly at all, despite her experiences. She seems to have had a very good relationship with God which was open and honest, rather like the psalmists. She complained to him that she was being mistreated by other people and God replied, ‘That is how I always treat my friends.’ Teresa is said to have responded, ‘No wonder you have so few then!’
I think Teresa would have had some sympathy for those of us who try to explain to people what it’s like to be on Second Life, just how real and intense the relationships and experiences can be. When she was trying to explain her mystic experiences few could understand that either.
When she was 43, Teresa founded a new order of nuns which was much stricter than the Carmelite one she had been in. The way she ran her convent was with a mixture of discipline, common sense and love. Having learnt how much God loved her, she wanted others to experience that as well.
“The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything.”
For most of the rest of her life Teresa travelling in Spain to set up new convents. There were plenty of people who didn’t approve of Teresa. The papal nuncio described her as “a restless disobedient gadabout who has gone about teaching as though she were a professor”.
Teresa died on October 4 1582, aged 67. A nun described how her death occurred:
“She remained in this position in prayer full of deep peace and great repose. Occasionally she gave some outward sign of surprise or amazement. But everything proceeded in great repose. It seemed as if she were hearing a voice which she answered. Her facial expression was so wondrously changed that it looked like a celestial body to us. Thus immersed in prayer, happy and smiling, she went out of this world into eternal life.”
I take great comfort from the fact that Teresa, a saint, struggled so much to pray and have a relationship with God. As a result of her struggles she has left us some wonderful prayers which have enriched the prayer life of generations of Christians. I have used some of these prayers in this service as you will have noticed. I’ll finish with a piece of advice Teresa gave and with a short prayer of hers:
“Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life, which is short and has to be lived by you alone; and there is only one Glory, which is eternal. If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing. ”
Let nothing trouble you,
let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing;
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor