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Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross
Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross

Contemplation and Action

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross

Contemplation and Action
Tuesday, April 21, 2020

This is a great favor for those to whom the Lord grants it; the active and the contemplative lives are joined. . . . The will is occupied in its work and contemplation without knowing how. –Teresa of Ávila

Author Tessa Bielecki writes about Teresa of Ávila as an extraordinary example of action and contemplation. In addition to her physical suffering, Teresa also suffered from difficult life circumstances, including the suspicion of church authorities who disapproved of her visions, her Carmelite reforms, and her status as a converso, a member of a Jewish family that had converted to Catholicism (likely under duress).  In her book Holy Daring, Bielecki shows us that it was the deeply mutual and loving nature of the “spousal” prayer Teresa entered into with God that led to such bold and faithful action:

Teresa . . . is not only one of the greatest contemplatives in the Western spiritual tradition, but also one of its greatest activists. Tremendously involved with people and projects, constantly on the go, Teresa still found time to make prayer a priority.

She founded new convents at the rate of one and sometimes two per year. . . . She was an ingenious administrator with a flair for organization, an astute diplomat, and wise in the world of finance, litigation, and contract negotiation. Her financial worries, business deals, and personnel problems certainly challenged her life of prayer, but never spoiled it. . . .

Contemplation and mysticism . . . both mean loving experiential awareness of God: not ideas in the head or on the lips, but personal living experience. In the Teresian tradition, this experience takes a special form which spiritual writer William McNamara calls “spousal prayer”. . . . [It is sometimes called bridal mysticism and is found in the Bible in the Song of Songs.]

Teresa uses the various stages in human courtship to describe the stages of prayer. First we meet [with God], exchange gifts and get acquainted. Eventually we are betrothed, and then finally we marry. True love deepens and grows gradually, over a lifetime. . . .

But the matter does not end here. Another consequence of prayer is far more demanding: generous, self-spending, and exhausting service. . . . The proper relationship between these two consequences is clear in the teachings of Jesus. First, he  says, “Love the Lord your God with all your mind and heart and soul and body.” Espousal. Second, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Service. [see Mark 12:30–31] . . .

As our prayer grows deeper and more authentic, we want to spend ourselves serving God and the world created out of divine love.

To be clear, this type of “spousal” or unitive prayer is not just for single or celibate people; it is available to all of us who are willing to risk surrendering our hearts and lives fully to God.

Adapted from Tessa Bielecki, Holy Daring: The Earthy Mysticism of St. Teresa, the Wild Woman of Ávila (Adam Kadmon Books: 2016), 37–38, 42, 65–66, 67.

Epigraph: The Way of Perfection, 31.5. See The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Ávila, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, vol. 2 (ICS Publications: 1980), 155.

Image credit: A Vision of the Holy Trinity (detail), anonymous Brazilian painter, 17th century, Museu de Arte Sacra da Universidade Federal da Bahia, Salvador, Brazil.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: I like to say that Teresa and John were part of the “final supernova” of nondual, mystical consciousness in 16th century Spain, before it all but disappeared in Europe for five hundred years in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the invention of the printing press. Both Teresa and John wrote detailed accounts of their lives and experiences with God, which makes them very accessible teachers. —Richard Rohr
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