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6 Lessons from Teresa of Avila on Contemplation and Community

6 Lessons from Teresa of Avila on Contemplation and Community

I began reading Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle to learn more about my journey through learning about Teresa’s journey of prayer to union with God. Little did I know sprinkled throughout this very individual journey was the call to reach out and connect with others.

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I remember once walking by a Carmelite monastery and being told it was the home of a community that lived in silence. As a teenager and a Protestant I didn’t quite “get” why someone would want to do that. Isn’t living out our faith doing something? Years later, as I became more contemplative and reflective in my spiritual walk, I looked at those who were all about “the doing” and began to think they were missing the point. So what is our life with God about? Are we to reflect on God or save the world? As a spiritual director I’ve seen those I walk with struggling with the same questions. In exploring this issue I’ve found several contemporary writers who have said we are to live in both, the doing and the being. Yet it never fully made sense to me until I encountered the writings of sixteenth-century Carmelite Spanish mystic Theresa of Avila. It was there I saw the issue isn’t being vs. doing, but learning how to be in community.

The spiritual journey is wonder-filled. My experience has often felt like Alice chasing the rabbit and falling into a world she never dreamed of. It takes a healthy dose of courage to explore this world that can be both strange and familiar. But beyond the fear and excitement, I’ve noticed a recurring theme with this “wonderlandish” inner journey: there are times when it can feel very isolating.

In the beginning there is a want to tell people what it’s like in this mysterious land. Instinctively going to the community that is familiar can lead to unexpected responses. Blank stares and fearfully delivered comments like “I will be praying for you” may take us by surprise. A cold reception can leave us with a sense of doubt and anger, as well as a quick learning curve that it may not be safe to share this journey with our friends and family. This is where the isolation begins.

The rabbit hole is a personal experience that isn’t to be shared with just anyone. Although isolation may seem like the easy solution, the spiritual journey does need to be shared. A key piece is missing if it’s just an individual journey. I’ve noticed that God often shows up more visibly in community, and I’ve witnessed wonderful spiritual experiences get bigger in a shared context. The experience of an intentional group gathered around this journey with God gives me the sense that I’m standing on holy ground. The individual experience no longer belongs to just one person, but to everyone.

I began reading Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle to learn more about my journey through learning about Teresa’s journey of prayer to union with God. Little did I know sprinkled throughout this very individual journey was the call to reach out and connect with others. In The Interior Castle, Teresa uses the metaphor of a castle for the soul and at the center of the soul is a diamond representing God. She then guides the reader in the journey of moving through seven different stages of prayer she calls “mansions.” It is in the seventh mansion one finds union with God. Along the way, Teresa taught me the following lessons about community:

1. Community provides encouragement, guidance and inspiration.

When the journey into Wonderland is new it may be overwhelming. At times, habits are hard to break and temptations are difficult to avoid. Perseverance may be hard to come by. Entering community with those who have already been down the rabbit hole and explored a bit longer is important. In the second mansion, Teresa encourages:

“it is a wonderful thing to connect with others who walk the way she is walking, who are not only sitting in the rooms she enters but who she knows have already ventured more deeply toward the center. Conversations with these travelers will be of great benefit to the soul: She can get close enough to them so that they will be able to take her with them.” (Teresa, p. 59)

When surrounded by community I’m often encouraged just by the presence of others. There is strength in knowing others are showing up too. I can remember the first time I joined a meditation community. I wondered what the benefit of sitting in silence with other people would be. “How is this going to help?” I wondered, silently. I now know that sitting in silence together with others gives my understanding of God more space. Even when I use my phone app on meditation and see all the people who are meditating around the world at the same time, I smile. Knowing that God is moving in others’ lives as well as mine gives me a sense of calm.

Teresa of Avila knew that when a spiritual experience is new it can cause uncertainty.

“Don’t neglect to consult people with experience so that they can assure you there is nothing wrong with your practice, that you are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing.” (p. 63)

A meditation community gives me the opportunity to ask questions like “if my mind is still wandering, am I doing something wrong?” Whereas on my own I can easily tell myself I’m “not good at it” and quit meditating altogether.

2. Choosing a safe community is important.

Building community on the spiritual journey it isn’t about finding people who agree all of the time, but finding people who will be honest and encourage honesty in our relationship with God and others. The spiritual journey isn’t necessarily a feel-good journey; the deeper we go the deeper we end in Truth.

Teresa again encourages:

“Even if you were not part of a spiritual community, it would be great if you had someone to go to who would make sure you were not following your own will in anything. Most of us do have such a person in our lives. It is in doing what we want that we usually get into trouble. But don’t pick anyone who is just like you, nervous about every little thing. Seek out someone who is free from illusion about the world. It is very important to consult with those who see things as they really are if you want to come to know ourselves. Plus it is encouraging to encounter a soul who easily achieves what is felt impossible to us. By observing their flight, we are dare to fly. We are like fledgling birds who may not be ready to immediately soar but, by watching the parents , little by little learn to emulate them. This kind of assistance, I know is a great advantage.” (p. 82-3)

Left alone to navigate this new territory can feel impossible. Witnessing people in various states of the journey, though it is not exactly the same, gives flesh to the phase “With God all things are possible.”

3. Being in community teaches us about Love

In the fifth mansion, Teresa of Avila gives us a deep truth that Jesus and many others have stated throughout time:

On the spiritual path, the Beloved asks only two things of us: that we love him and that we love each other…In my opinion, the most reliable sign that we are following both these teachings is that we are loving each other. Although we might have some clear indication that we are loving God we can’t be sure that we really are, but it is obvious whether or not we are loving each other. Be assured that the more progress you make in loving your neighbor, the greater will be your love for God. His Majesty loves us so much that he repays us for loving our neighbor by increasing our love for him in a thousand ways, I cannot doubt this.” (p. 140)

It is in community that one knows how to love God. Who better to encourage and inspire us to Love than those who are also on this journey? How better to practice what we believe than with others?

4. Community helps us to discern.

When learning and exploring this land of mind, body, and spirit with God, old paradigms can shift. At times of spiritual growth there may not be many (or any!) familiar landmarks. How does one know where to go and how to act if one has never been there before? A friend was telling me about a sermon she heard recently saying that the address to where we are going is not written where we can see it. It’s written on our backs and we need others to read our lives to help us see where we are going. Teresa addresses it this way:

“What if the spiritual voice seems to require that some action be taken regarding something serious about yourself or impacting a third party?….You should never consider yourself to be so powerful that you act or even think about acting without consulting a wise and cautious guide whose primary purpose is to serve God. This is true even if you start to understand the spiritual voice better and better and are absolutely clear it comes from God.” (p. 179)

Being in community while discerning calls for a willingness to be vulnerable. Community is where the practice of listening to a Voice that is bigger than our own takes place. This practice not only helps to keep the balance of doing and being, it affirms my belief that my journey is truly our journey, which in the end is God’s journey.

5. Celebration and service belong in the context of community.

Community helps us celebrate those glimpses of what life is truly all about. I can remember when my daughter was seven years old coming home from school with a smile on her face. I asked what was so wonderful. She looked at me and happily sighed, “I don’t know, I just feel all filled up inside. Like a big balloon.” When those filled up, wonder-filled times of God happen, they’re best celebrated in community. We shouldn’t try to contain them, but in sharing them we let them soar into the bigness of God. Teresa recognizes the benefits of celebrating God’s goodness with others who have also experienced it:

“….he has been exceedingly good to us to bring us to this community where if you experience a divine favor and tell your friends about it you will not be criticized as you would be in the world but rather encouraged to praise him even more. There are so few people to praise him there that it’s no wonder someone would be looked upon with suspicion if they went around proclaiming his wonders.” (p. 210)

Our world is crying out for more of these moments of celebration and praise of how God is moving in the midst of us.

6. This prayer of union with God is much more than the individual experience.

How are we to balance this interior life with our exterior life? One way is to allow outward service to bear the fruit of our inward growth. The temptation is to either attempt to fix the entire world or be overwhelmed by the prospect. Yet Teresa of Avila shows us that community is the place where we learn to listen and move with God right where we are:

Prayer alone can do a lot of good for the people you pray for. Beyond that it’s not necessary to try to help the whole world. Concentrate on your own circle of companions who need you. Then whatever you do will be of greater benefit….The fire of your love for God enkindles other souls. You awaken them through the living example of your own virtues. This is no small service it is great service! (p. 294-5)

In the end, community is not just about getting individual needs met, it’s also about learning how to give it away. I’ve learned that sometimes just being present is enough to shine a light for others and maybe even change the world in the process.

At the beginning of the journey it’s easy to make it personal: “I want union with God so I might have peace and tranquility and know love,” etc. In the last mansion it becomes clear that this personal quest no longer holds power. Union with God means union with all beings. No longer motivated for our own personal gain, closeness with God has now become about closeness with all of creation, no matter the cost to the individual. All beings are now a part of us. Teresa points out the inner journey gives us the strength to connect with others:

“We should engage in prayer – thirst for it, even- not because it feels good, but because it gives us the strength we need to be of service.” (p. 292)

Prayer and service are one. At this place of union with God, the question of “Are we to reflect on God or save the world?” transforms into, “What leads to Love?” Now that’s a big question that can involve a lifetime of rabbit hole adventures.

6 Lessons from Teresa of Avila on Contemplation & Community

Amanda Peterson
Amanda Peterson

Amanda Petersen, M. Div., is the owner of Pathways of Grace: spiritual direction and workshops and has experience as a pastor within the Presbyterian and United Church of Christ denominations, hospice chaplain, spiritual director, life coach, and artist. She has led many workshops and retreats in the areas of spirituality, creativity, meditation, and the mystics. She is adjunct faculty at the Arizona Ecumenical Institute for Spiritual Direction and adjunct spiritual director at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. Her passion is creating a safe place for people of all backgrounds to explore their contemplative walk. For more information visit http://www.pathwaysofgrace.com