Awakening and Returning to Ourselves: “Meditations with Teresa of Avila”
The joy we previously experienced in awakening and returning to ourselves can suddenly seem like a tedious job, making the soul feel dull, flat, and tired.*
Megan Don muses on this concept in Spiritual Perseverance, the 21st chapter of her book, Meditations with Teresa of Avila: A Journey into the Sacred, a New World Library publication which the contemplative traveler may wish to include in his or her “small books to carry on the plane” collection. While much of this book has a Christian focus, there are meditation exercises which people of all personal growth traditions may find helpful. From start to finish, Don effectively weaves the words of one of Catholicism’s most storied women with her own to make the case for being more compassionate – with ourselves as well as with others – as a way to prevent our souls from dying.
Released by New World in March 2011 in a convenient paperback format, Don’s illuminating work is meaty enough to be placed within easy reach on a work desk or bedroom nightstand while also being “beach bag light” in order to spark those much needed moments of contemplation wherever we may be.
The subject of Don’s book – Teresa of Avila – has much to tell us about being enmeshed in – and removed from – the joys and troubles of today’s world, despite having ended her own spiritual journey nearly 500 years ago.
Born in Avila, Spain, Teresa Ahumada (1515-1582) was descended from both Christian and Jewish ancestors. As a young woman, she faced the fork in the road common to all young women born into the nobility of that time – the choice between having a marriage and family or entering into a spiritual life.
Teresa, as we now know, chose the spiritual life. Her decision, though, did not force her to live the stultified life that we typically think of when we conjure images of 16th century cloistered nuns.
According to Don, Teresa elected to enter the Carmelite Monastery in Avila, an order so open that its members frequently received visits from friends, family and others in the wider community beyond the cloister’s confines (kind of a “Grand Central Station of spirituality”). As a result, the young nuns were as up-to-date on the news and fashions of the day as they were on the prayers and other Catholic rituals they were expected to master.
However, despite this nurturing environment, Teresa was still what we’d call “a later bloomer.” It took her 20 years of “Aha!” moments before her spirituality gained traction. Her life’s work – work that would ultimately bear fruit when she was posthumously recognized through the Catholic Church’s canonization of her as Saint Teresa in 1622 – really only began for her in earnest as a 40-year-old in 1545.
Motivated to improve the Carmelite Order in which she served, she became an adept businesswoman schooled in the subtleties of tax law and a champion of reform, pushing to change not only the spiritual practices of the women of her time, but also those of the men around her. Bold enough to petition Spain’s King for personal favors in order to achieve the goals she set for herself and her reform efforts, she became close friends with many other leading spiritual figures, including fellow mystic St. John of the Cross.
Among her many accomplishments were the establishment of 17 new monasteries across Spain and the writing of spiritual texts with which many readers today are very likely be conversant. The Interior Castle, the best known of these, is “one of the most celebrated books on mystical theology ever written,” says Don*, who adds that it can serve as “a detailed guide for the journey toward spiritual perfection.”*
Still, Teresa of Avila did face hardship. Her efforts at reform, combined with her mystical views on spirituality, were the source of intense criticism from her superiors and colleagues. As a result, she often felt emotions with which many in today’s world can relate – fear, worry, and self-doubt.
Those emotions – and the manner in which Teresa managed to rise above – are at the root of why this book of Don’s continues to be so well received by individuals and spiritual communities across the globe. A recipient of the Ashton Wylie Charitable Trust Book Award, Meditations on Teresa of Avila, is a work that is meant to be savored, rather than rushed through as one does with the typical page turner.
Meditating with Saint Teresa
The life of Saint Teresa remains an inspiration. She lives again through this work by Megan Don who, when conducting her research for her book, studied both the workings of the Carmelite Order and the life of Teresa of Avila. Opening each chapter with a quote from Saint Teresa, Don then interprets that quote and provides an exercise to help readers stoke the fires of meditation. Take, for example, chapter 30 (The Divine Word), which opens with these words from Saint Teresa:
For one word of the Beloved contains within itself a thousand mysteries, and so our understanding is very limited. (AT, CW vol. II, 217)*
Don encourages readers to explore the ancient practice of scriptural-focused contemplation, Lectio Divina (the Divine Word) – a practice which can be easily and effectively employed with texts from many of the world’s great spiritual traditions:
In this practice you sit quietly with the scriptures or a work relating to the spirit and ask for guidance in your meditation. Upon opening the book you allow your gaze to fall gently on the page until a particular word or phrase catches your attention. Closing your eyes you softly repeat this word or phrase over and over, allowing it to become part of your breath and to penetrate deep within your body….*
As Don continues her explanation and instruction, she draws the reader further into the meditative state, illuminating what happens to one’s senses while deep in contemplation:
Your whole body and soul are given a new understanding of this one word or phrase that you have been guided to. Through this transmission your life becomes altered in some way. If you take the same word or phrase tomorrow, and the day after that, and enter into this practice, you may be given another understanding, and another, each affecting your life in a different way. This is what Teresa meant when she said that one word of the Beloved contains a thousand mysteries.*
When you’re open to hearing that small still voice within, that one word just may provide the answer you’re seeking.
The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions
Author: Wayne Teasdale
Foreword: His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Publisher: New World Library (ISBN: 978-1-57731-470-9)
Saint of the Day: Saint Teresa of Avila, Franciscan Media.