WHAT TERESA MEANS TO ME:
AN INSPIRING LOVE
The author is a Secular Carmelite in the St Elijah
group, Oxford. In this article, she reflects on the love and mercy
of God, the truth of which is brought out so profoundly and authentically
by Teresa - this inspiring saint, she says, whose 'truthfulness
and commonsense teaching warm my heart', and who portrays Jesus
to us as our best friend and our Lord.
In the universe of God
I first encountered St Teresa when I was at the Carmelite Priory,
Oxford. I did not know about her until, by chance, I read an article
in Mount Carmel which was left on the desk in the room where I was
staying. That article, on The Interior Castle, described St Teresa's
metaphor of the castle as a funnel that goes down into the centre.
I was drawn by this image and it had a hold on me. It was as though
Teresa was saying to me: Look no further - go within yourself, go
deeper and you will find him.
I had an image of being drawn downwards into the centre. It was
as if, at the top of the funnel where it was wider, were all the
distractions. The further down I went, the more focused I became
in my search for God. At the centre, where it was narrowest, there
was no room for distractions: there was room for God alone. Gradually,
I developed a more meaningful understanding of God dwelling in the
depths of my soul. From that moment on, St Teresa took me on a journey
into the universe of God - instilling in me a keener awareness of
God's presence, awakening me to his mercy in my life, and bringing
me into a closer relationship with him.
Conscious of the sacredness
For a good part of my Christian life, I have had an image of God
being out there, up in heaven, or in another realm, unreachable.
Part of me still retains my childhood image of God: a bearded old
man who will judge me when I die, and decide whether I go to purgatory
or to hell. I am aware that this is a very immature image of God,
although intellectually I know that God is beyond our understanding
and imagination. I believe that Jesus Christ is God, and that he
is the Person of the Trinity who took on human form to atone for
our sins and reconcile us to God. Because he became man, we are
able to relate to him. Hence, all through my baptised life, Christ
has been the Person in God to whom I pray, and with whom I have
St Teresa tells us that, when we pray, we have to be aware of God:
'look at Him
[who] never takes His eyes off you' (WP 26:3).
Her very practical reasoning makes so much sense, as when she says:
'we must not approach a conversation with a prince as negligently
as we do one with a farm worker' (WP 22:3). And she explains:
if you are to be speaking, as is right, with so great a Lord, it
is good that you consider whom you are speaking with as well as
who you are, at least if you want to be polite. How can you call
the king 'your highness' or know the ceremonies to be observed in
addressing a highest ranking nobleman if you do not clearly understand
what his position is and what yours is? (WP 22:1)
My increased awareness of God when I pray changes the quality of
my prayer. It makes me more conscious of the sacredness of the time
I spend in prayer. When I go into a church or a chapel where the
Blessed Sacrament is present, I am more aware of the presence of
God and the holiness of the place. I am really aware that I am standing
on 'holy ground'. Hence, my genuflection and bowing are done with
Jesus has always been a central part of my prayer life. I always
'talk' to Jesus when I pray, because my mind often wanders when
I say vocal prayers. Hence, I often doubt if I am trying hard enough.
Sometimes I used to wonder if, praying in this way, I had made Jesus
into my 'imaginary friend' - or 'domesticated Jesus', to quote a
well-known spiritual teacher, Fr Robert Barron. So it was such a
relief to read St Teresa talking about prayer as a conversation
with a friend - 'an intimate sharing between friends' (L 8:5) -
and advising us to spend time with God as with a friend, which means
'taking time frequently to be alone with Him' (L 8:5). If praying
is like sharing what is happening in my life with my best friend,
it makes a lot of sense that I would naturally like to pray often,
anywhere, and without feeling obliged to do so. It is like 'tweeting'
God whenever we want to.
The logic of friendship
However, St Teresa goes one step further. She says: 'it means taking
time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us' (L 8:5;
my italics). St Teresa has complete confidence in God's love for
us. So, if God loves us so much, what are we going to do to show
him our love? This is what she suggests: 'In order that love be
true and the friendship endure, the wills of the friends must be
in accord' (L 8:5). That is, we must conform our will to God's will.
This is just logical. Good friends tend to like to do the same
things, and they share the same likes and dislikes. So, if we really
are friends with God, we must want the same things that God wants.
'Thy will be done,' we often say - but do we really mean it? St
Teresa explains: 'you do not yet love Him as He loves you because
you have not reached the degree of conformity with His will' (cf.
L 8:5). She is right. If we abandon our self-will, then we will
be able to take God's will as our own. That is why she urges us
to abandon ourselves to God. It is easy to see the logic, but I
still have a long way to go, to get there. Meanwhile, I am encouraged
by St Teresa's prayer to God: 'You wait for others to adapt to Your
nature, and in the meantime You put up with theirs!' (L 8:6).
Remaining in his company
This way of looking at prayer also clarifies my doubts about whether
or not I should ask God for favours. Sometimes I ask myself if we
should really ask God to intervene in our lives - for example, to
cure someone of a disease, to help someone get a job, or to end
war and violence in the world. All these petitions are good and
altruistic, but we are asking God to do something at our demand.
We feel disappointed if these good requests are not met. Teresa
reassures me, however: 'Beseech Him as you would a father; tell
Him about your trials; ask Him for a remedy against them
Perhaps even more than this, though, Teresa would remain praying,
so as to keep Jesus company as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane,
and not be like his disciples who either abandoned him or fell asleep.
That is true friendship and true prayer. Therefore, during Holy
Week, and in particular on the evening of Holy Thursday when the
Blessed Sacrament is placed on the Altar of Repose, I like to stay
in the church to pray - to be there with Jesus and to tell him that
I am sorry for my sins, for which he came into human history, suffered
and died for us.
Proper reverence for God
Through St Teresa's teaching, I begin to shed my immature relationship
with Christ. I realise that Jesus is more than a friend. St Teresa
addresses Jesus as God, as the Lord, 'His Majesty' and the King.
She refers to herself as a servant and, most of the time, as a 'wretched'
sinner - 'my soul which was so wretched', 'my great sins and wretched
life', 'beholding such great Majesty, how would a little sinner
' At first, I thought it was just her style of
writing or the custom of her time that made her so self-deprecating:
especially being a woman, whose place was seen by many as inferior
to that of men. I did not at first perceive the great respect she
had for God, as it is not at all the language of the twenty-first
Little did I know that she was going to correct my attitude. Indeed,
God the Almighty is the Creator, and we are his creation. He is
the Almighty who created out of nothing the universes (there is
not just one universe) - and us! We are one of his many creations
- among the constellations, the elements, the birds, animals, fish
and plants. 'By his word the heavens were made, by the breath of
his mouth all the stars. He collects the waves of the ocean; he
stores up the depths of the sea
He spoke; and it came to be.
He commanded; it sprang into being' (Ps 32:6-7.9).
With the advance of science and technology, we are able to see
how vast is the universe, and how numerous are the 'stars' - they
are not twinkling lights but 'suns'! By continually reading St Teresa,
who addresses God as 'Majesty' and 'Almighty', and who acknowledges
her lowliness and unworthiness, I realise to my shame and horror
that I have been rather 'rude' to God: I have not given Christ the
proper reverence. Jesus is God! And this almighty God has made himself
one of us, in order to save us! His humanity and divinity are fused.
St Teresa has inspired me to appreciate the awe, the immensity,
the might and the 'majesty' of the infinite God.
What great love!
Like St Teresa, I am overwhelmed by the sufferings that Jesus has
borne for us and the injustice that he had to undergo. However,
those thoughts only bring about my repentance for my sins. I understand
God's mercy as the clemency of a judge. St Teresa teaches me a more
profound way to respond to this truth. Jesus' suffering generates
in St Teresa her love for God.
Through his love for us, God sent his Son to become one of us in
order to reconcile us to God. Christ not only brought himself down
to our level and took on our mortal body: he also suffered the most
humiliating and horrific torture and death. As God, he did not have
to undergo all that suffering, but he willingly went through with
it to the bitter end. On the eve of his death, in the Garden of
Gethsemane, Jesus begged his Father: 'if it is possible, let this
cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have
it' (Mt 26:39). It is admirable for one to die for a friend, but
'Christ died for us while we were still sinners' (Rm 5:8). What
great love! St Teresa is very fond of meditating on this particular
scene; she wanted to be Christ's companion in the Garden and to
remain with Him as long as she could (cf. L 9:4). I am inspired
by her love.
Realising God's great mercy
The Israelites experienced the mercy and love of God who brought
them out of slavery, gave them food and drink, and led them to settle
in the promised land. I often struggle to identify with Jewish salvation
history for I have not had a dramatic conversion experience. Not
until I was at a low point in my life, when I turned to God, did
I realise God's great mercy. St Teresa's love of God and her total
abandonment of herself to God show me a way to deal with it. God
led me to the Carmelite Priory in Oxford and let me feel his presence
in the serenity of the place. This experience was new to me. It
was like fresh spring water. I began to look for more opportunities
for silence, and at the same time for a community of prayer. In
hindsight, I can see that God led me to find the Secular Carmelites.
When eventually I was introduced to them, I was given such a warm
welcome. I felt I had found my spiritual family.
Through my formation, I study St Teresa's writings which show me
her deep relationship with God. Her truthfulness and commonsense
teaching warm my heart. I learn to let go of my desire to take control
of my life, and I begin to find peace at prayer. It is a slow process
and I am not aware of the change in me until I look back. During
these years, there have been challenges in my life - and I fell
every time. Inspired by St Teresa's teaching, I am able to feel
the presence of God in these challenging moments, his forgiveness
for my many offences, and his way of drawing me out of my self-centredness.
In short, his merciful love.
The funnel inside out
God is great in turning things upside down! God has a surprise
for me. Just as I am being drawn to seek him in the centre of my
soul, he makes me realise that he is not for my own possession.
He is God of all humanity and of all of his creation. We are all
to be one - his Mystical Body, his Church, his new people. He pushes
me out of my shell. I feel a little yearning (tingling?) to reach
out. As St Teresa points out in the seventh Mansion of The Interior
Castle, the effect of prayer and contemplation is that it leads
to service - the soul's great desire to serve God: 'Martha and Mary
must join together in order to show hospitality to the Lord and
have Him always present and not host Him badly by failing to give
Him something to eat' (IC VII 4:12).
I believe this is a natural process: that when we have received
this wonderful gift of love and mercy - like the blind men who,
having been cured, could not help but tell everyone of Jesus' healing
(cf. Mt 9:31) - we will want to let others know of this amazing
love of God. I feel it so apt that Secular Carmelites, and all who
follow the spirituality of Carmel, are placed in the world to share
with others this tremendous gift of his generous love and greatest
How privileged we are to have this poem, attributed to St Teresa,
which captures her spirit so beautifully:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours;
no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion
of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which
He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He
is to bless His people.