Stilling the Soul
Wisdom from Teresa of Avila

If you know Teresa’s name, you’re probably aware of her fame as one of the great mystics of the Christian church. A mystic she was, but she was much more than what the title might convey.

Active and Prayerful

Teresa was a courageous leader, quite unusual for a Spanish woman of her day. She was also highly active which doesn’t really fit with our view of a mystic, does it? Teresa joined an order at age 21, choosing this over marriage of her day which could have relegated her to the status of a servant to a tyrant husband. At the age of 40 Teresa experienced a spiritual awakening, after which she established a new order. What began with just four women grew, under Teresa’s skilled and visionary leadership, to 17 convents and almost as many monasteries during the final 20 years of her life.

Teresa was an active contemplative, and it’s this combination which speaks so significantly to me. Teresa was a master at stilling the soul. But she also believed that one’s prayer life should lead to action, action which becomes more purposeful and others-centred as the fruit of prayer. That sounds quite missional, wouldn’t you say?

Those of us who find it difficult to be still may be encouraged by these words about Martha:

"What more do you want than to be able to grow to be like that blessed woman, who was worthy to receive Christ our Lord so often in her house, and to prepare meals for Him, and to serve Him and perhaps to eat at table with Him? If she had been absorbed in devotion [like Mary] there would have been no one to prepare a meal for this Divine Guest."

(Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection)

"Action and contemplation are very close companions; they live together in one house on equal terms. Martha is Mary's sister."

(Bernard of Clairvaux)

Dealing with Distractions

Teresa was well acquainted with distractions to stilling the soul, and her books are loaded with advice on how to push through them. Here is some (paraphrased) wisdom from The Interior Castle (Fourth Dwelling Place):

  • We can endure anything from without if we have peace (tranquility) within.
  • The obstacle to inner peace lies within ourselves.
  • Don’t be deterred by the noise in your soul. Keep on doing what you know is useful: read, pray, meditate and these will bear fruit in leading you deeper.
  • If it’s the devil who’s causing the inner noise, know that he will eventually give up if you persevere.
  • Keep the love of God before you as you progress.
  • In the meantime, don’t beat yourself up! (Thanks, Teresa, I need that encouragement!)

Metaphor of Transformation

Teresa, like most great teachers, is big on metaphors. I love her imagery of the silk worm. It spins a cocoon in preparation for the process of metamorphosis. The transformation which happens in the darkness of the cocoon is only set in motion after the silk worm has worked diligently at spinning the cocoon.

Teresa draws a rather exquisite comparison to the work of transformation in our lives. Transformation is God’s work. Even though we can do nothing to cause the change to happen, we can do much by making ourselves available to him. I'll share two of her comparisons.

First, even before spinning the cocoon, the silk worm works industriously to grow to maturity. We likewise engage in our growth by reading and meditating upon Scripture, listening to sermons, confession, and so forth.

Secondly, the silk worm spins a cocoon, 'the house in which it will die’. We likewise build a house for ourselves by coming to prayer, laying aside selfish ambition, and dying to self.

Before long Christ inhabits our work: “We will not have finished doing all that we can in this work when, to the little we do, God will unite himself and give it such high value that the Lord himself will become the reward of the work.” (Fifth Dwelling Place)

I find it beautiful that my work is folded into the Lord's work. The small price I am willing to pay for Christ is folded into the price he paid. I become a co-worker in building the place of togetherness where I die to both myself and the world. The reward is that I may emerge transformed, given the wings of a butterfly.

There’s much about Teresa of Avila that I do not understand and will likely never experience. But what I have drawn from her life and teaching has enriched me greatly. Like many other classic masters of the faith, Teresa has much to offer to us as twenty-first century people.

Part 3
Practicing the Presence
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