The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Teresa of Avila

Teresa of Avila

15 October 2012

Executive Council


The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori

Presiding Bishop and Primate

The Episcopal Church


Most people who know anything about Teresa of Avila know that she was a mystic, and spent much of her life in contemplation.  Some people are aware that she was proclaimed a "doctor of the church" by the pope in 1970, the first woman to get that title.  In Roman Catholic circles, that means that her writing is judged sound and good for teaching, and it means that this gospel is read on her feast day - you are salt of the earth.  Teresa's life was a good deal more complex than the popular image of a sickly nun shut up in her cell only to pray and write.  One modern commentator calls her, "stubborn as an ox, thick-skinned as an elephant, and sly as a fox."[1]  There's a taste of the saltiness that Jesus charges us to be.

Teresa was born about 1515 to parents who were members of the foremost families of Spain.  All of her life, she seems to have been profoundly hungry for God.  When she was a child, her uncle found her and her younger brother outside of town - they were going off to be martyred by the Moors so they could enter heaven.  He took them home.  Teresa's mother died when she was 14, which seems to have unleashed a fairly normal and frivolous adolescence.  She writes about indulging in clothes, and perfume, and trashy novels, and, she says, "all the vain trimmings my position in the world allowed."  Her father responded by packing her off to a convent school.  She got sick and had to come home, and it appears that she continued to experience the same kind of illness most of her life, maybe it was recurrent malaria. 

At age 20, Teresa insisted on entering a Carmelite monastery.  She stayed four years, when she got so sick that they dug her grave.  Her father took her home again, and it took her three years to recover.  She eventually went back and spent another 18 years there.  She grew tired of the tepid life, for many convents in those days were more like hotels for unmarried aristocratic women. 

With the assistance of two Jesuits, Teresa began a period of serious silent prayer, and began to have vivid experience of the near presence of God.  Her writings are the first to give a fairly explicit description of the experience of deep prayer, as a process of contemplation, quietude, and union with God in both conscious forms and un- or supra-conscious forms.  She was both descriptive and analytical, like William James centuries later, and her writings invited others into a similar kind of experience.

Within a few years, she began to envision a radical reform of the Carmelite order, that would return to a more ancient and ascetic discipline.  She established the Convent of St. Joseph in 1562, where the nuns gave up shoes in favor of sandals, took a rough habit, lived fully cloistered, largely silent and in strict poverty, and ate no meat.  After a while her superiors objected, and she was ordered off  into seclusion.  The pope spoke up for her and countermanded the order, and permitted establishment of the discalced, or shoeless, Carmelites as a separate religious order.  In all, she founded 17 convents for women and 14 for men.  Teresa died while on a journey to establish yet another convent.

Teresa hungered and thirsted for God in ways that may shock us today - that imagery in the Song of Songs has often been used to speak of mystical union with God.  Bernini's made a famous sculpture of Teresa in rapt prayer that was termed "indecent" by one commentator because it's so sensual.  Christians who live too much in their heads have a good deal to learn from Teresa's salty writing.

You are salt of the earth and light of the world, Jesus says to his disciples.  We're not worth much at all if we can't use our saltiness to spread light abroad.  Let me make a connection between salt and light.  In chemical terms, salts are charged molecules that react in the presence of water or other solvents.  Salts are what make batteries work, salts underlie most of the chemical reactions that give life.  The sun and the light it gives off are the result of reactions among charged particles.  The ability of plants to use sunlight to make sugars depends on salts.  Saltiness is the potent ability to interact with the world around us - and it's intimately related to our created nature - it's part of our earthiness.  We can't be light-bearers if we reject our created nature.  Teresa's hunger, and all that sensual imagery in the Song of Songs, are about the way we are created - to interact with creator and creation.  If we have no salt, we can shed no light.

What does that say to us right here?  Embrace your salt - in moderation.  Teresa's ascetic lifestyle was designed to give her salt its optimum field for action.  That field looks different in different human beings - some of us are made for the convent and monastery; most of us are not.  We are all, however, made to be conscious of our created nature and how it might be stewarded most effectively.  Think about what a whole lot of salt does - it preserves living things so that they stop living, like the brine we use to make ham or bacon or pickles.  If we eat too much salt, at the very least our blood pressure goes up, and at most, we die.  Salt mines are used to store precious things and as tombs for dangerous ones like radioactive waste.  Perhaps the abandoned salt mines under the Diocese of Michigan would make a good home for the Episcopal Church's Archives...

But salt in moderation is essential to life - balance is the key.  You are salt of the earth and light of the world.  Salt is not meant for us alone.  It's meant to react with the world around us and create light.

Teresa has something to offer this body in her push to get back to the core of her monastic tradition.  She challenged her sisters and brothers in the religious life to let go of the non-essentials, the frills and the frivolity, so that their own salt could be readier to interact with God.  We're challenged to do similar kinds of work - recovering and focusing on the central aspects of God's mission that engage this church and its partners.  That's radical work - going back to the roots, to get back to the essence of God's call to heal the world, and to let go of the details that so often distract us. 

How will the challenging conversations here (God willing in moderation!) help to shed light in the world around us?

The salt of reactivity is essential to produce light. But I don't mean simple anxiety; rather the kind of reactivity that can experience hunger like Teresa's, or feel the suffering of the vulnerable and hurting people around us.  What gets our justice juices flowing, what rouses our passionate response?  That is salt at work - and there is no light without it.  Teresa's cell did not cut her off from the world's hunger.  She felt that hunger deeply, and she responded.

Where is your salt at work?  What suffering is starting your tears, what need is making you sweat, where is your lifeblood being spent?  That's how light gets shed in the world.  That's how we give glory to God.  And that is the garden in which we find the beloved, and the beloved finds us.


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[1] Christian Feldman:  God's Gentle Rebels: Great Saints of Christianity.   Crossroad, NY: 1985