Friday, December 18, 2009

Teresa of Avila: God Alone Suffers

By Jean-Jacques Antier, 352 pages, Pauline.

“The life of Teresa of Avila is, first of all, the deeply moving proof of a call from God, the necessary Existing One, the refutation of the philosophy of the absurd and the nothingness that shrouds in gloom our so-called civilized societies,” writes Jean-Jacques Antier.

God Alone Suffers presents a spiritual biography of Saint Teresa by giving us a very good picture of the religious landscape of late medieval Spain. Antier personalizes this in the family, societal, and Church figures who played a role in her life.

The author excels at outlining the web of relationships Teresa enjoyed with Avila's different groups. Her faith and spirituality was not a private matter, but something that impacted on her society. As the following shows, religion at the time was not a private thing but something social and public; one did not have the right to keep religion to oneself:

“But Teresa had no desire to suffer for the sake of suffering. Her only ambition was to love and to do the will of the God of love. Maria Diaz constantly surprised Teresa, for she experienced neither ecstasy nor other divine favors, a reassurance to theologians who were scandalized by the idea that a woman, albeit a saint, could take pleasure in Christ! But why not? Teresa would dare to write: 'The Lord sometimes desires, as I say, that the body enjoy [the experience of ecstasy] since the body is now obedient to what the soul desires.'”

Teresa's mysticism was a public mysticism, something she didn't use to escape from the world, Antier argues. She scandalized as much as inspired people with her unique spirituality. Her growing personal strictness had very public dimensions, even if she did not deliberately aim for this: “At the monastery, all those who saw that they were targets because of their lukewarm and relaxed lifestyles felt threatened. Teresa was disturbing. Was she going too far in her radical detachment? No more worldly parlor visits!”

Even this deeply religious, pious society could not easily deal with Saint Teresa's mysticism because, as Antier makes clear, she was a spiritual innovator, as exemplified in her autobiographical writings. More than that, however, was her intellectual maturity:

“But she was a born observer of psychological states, at that time a quality that was not only fashionable, but was also becoming suspect. Even in her ecstasies she remained an objective observer, refusing to passively abandon herself to celestial favors and other raptures of the spirit.”

Deeply religious societies have the problem of falling into brittle, repetitive ways of practicing their tradition, and Teresa's genius, along with Saints John of the Cross and Ignatius of Loyola, was to break through this and express the old ways with fresh energy. They did this at the time when the Protestant reformers decided to break with much of this tradition instead, and when the Roman Church itself was in dire need of structural, theological, and spiritual reform.

Saint Teresa will always have a significant place in Catholic history because of her role in this transformation; she showed us that reform does not need to lead to unfaithfulness to the past.

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