Tomorrow is the day we remember Teresa of Avila (1515-1582).
The famous Teresa was a reformer from the center of Spain, along with her protégé, St. John of the Cross. In response to the radicals of the protestant reformation, which was like an earthquake in the Church of their time, they wanted to return their order to the ways to the hermits that founded it near Elijah’s well in Palestine, on Mt. Carmel (see 1 Kings 18). They ended up with an offshoot of the Carmelites called the “barefoot” or “discalced” Carmelites. [As a total aside, we stayed in Aylesford Abbey last year when in Kent, the site of the first convocation of Carmelites in England in 1240. They had a yard full of elementary kids when we arrived, befitting the order’s traditional love of children.].
When we were in Avila a few years ago, Gwen and I went to the house where Teresa got started on her remarkable, influential ministry. For some reason we were the only pilgrims at the site and had a great museum all to ourselves. On the stairs there was a mannequin of a little boy, replicating one of the moments of ecstasy that popped up in Teresa’s prayer. One day, as she was preparing to ascend stairs leading to the upper rooms of the convent she met a beautiful child. He asked her “Who are you?” She replied, “I am Teresa of Jesus, and who are you?” To which the child responded, “I am Jesus of Teresa.”
Biographers say that encounter with the Lord, as a child, affected her so deeply that whenever Teresa set out to found a new house (she founded eighteen in all) she always brought a statue of the Child Jesus with her. She did a lot of teaching on contemplative prayer and encouraged everyone to leave their hearts open to visions and mysterious connections with God. But she didn’t want people to seek them or to rely on them.
In Carmelite spirituality there is an ancient custom of choosing a name which uniquely expresses a member’s personal relationship to the mysteries of the faith. Thus there are people like Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross, and Elizabeth of the Trinity. In honor of these ancestors in the faith, I have been pondering what name I should have.
If the risen Lord were to ask you today, “Who are you?” How would you answer? If you were a Discalced (or other kind of) Carmelite, what new name would you choose for yourself? What mystery of the faith has been central to your life-journey in Christ?
When I pondered this in Teresa’s honor, I realized I have been blessed with so many ways to connect with God that it is hard to choose something central (and Teresa cobbled together another name for herself, as well, since she couldn’t quite decide either). Rod of Jesus works for me, too. Rod of the Silence. Rod of the Pioneers. But mainly, I think, Rod of the church. The mystery of the body of Christ in action: restoring people to their rightful place, redeeming the creation, fulfilling what is left of the Lord’s suffering as a living organism of many diverse parts – I have never been diverted from my passion for it. Maybe that is why I have a hard time figuring out a name – I would prefer to be named, by my brothers and sisters, as they recognized Jesus in me, Jesus living through me to contribute what I have been given to share.
“Who are you?” How would you answer?