Meditations with Teresa of Avila
A Journey Into the Sacred
By Megan Don
New World Library Copyright © 2005 Megan Don
All rights reserved.
The Mystical Reality
* * *
Oh children of the earth!
How long will you be hard of heart? ( CW vol. I, 445)
These words were spoken to Teresa by the Beloved when she was questioning the authenticity of her mystical experiences. In probing the nature of reality, we tend to gravitate toward the theory that the common experience should dictate our own: "After all, this is what the majority of people are living and experiencing, therefore it must be true." But what of the rare mystical experience? The validity of such an encounter needs to be recognized for what it is: a divine gift of love, which expands the human soul, enabling it to comprehend a greater reality.
We are all mystics slowly awakening to the reality of who we really are; that is, we are the children of heaven and earth, of spirit and matter, who are blessed both with heavenly and earthly experiences. The Beloved does not know the difference between these worlds, and we are all being given the opportunity to enter into this unity, if only we will soften our hearts and cease to question the Beloved's infinite ways. The way of the mystic is a pathway to experiencing these ways of infinity, a pathway open to all.
Teresa described one of her experiences as a fire being enkindled in her heart, coming, she said, from the Beloved's true love. She knew that this was not of her own doing, as she felt it consuming her and burning away old pains and miseries, with her soul emerging transformed like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Her soul possessed a fresh purity, and she began walking on the pathway again with new vision. Even so, she questioned its reality. Like Teresa, we too often doubt our experiences that bring us into a mystical closeness with our own souls and with the Beloved.
The soul contains a complex array of all our faculties, including memories, rational thought, and intuitive and psychic abilities. To have all these faculties come into alignment on an issue is often a very difficult task. For many, the rational mind is dominant, and subsequently it governs the process of interpretation and belief. For a few, the intuitive and psychic faculties are well developed, and so their belief system has been constructed accordingly. Most people do not experience a balance among all these faculties. The universal paradigm of the mystic, however, is one of unity, encompassing all faculties and realities, both inner and outer.
How do we experience this unification that the true mystic experiences? Through surrendering to the spirit, wroteTeresa. The spirit of the Beloved, which is our very spirit, lays all the faculties of the soul to rest in a unified existence of peace and love, and in doing so, allows the transformation of the soul to occur. Herein lies the true nature of the mystic — a unity of being known through a spiritual metamorphosis. Further, the word mystic derives from the Latin mysterium, which means "to be altered."
In time we will come to know our mystical experiences to be as valid as any other experience in our lives. We will no longer think of them as rare occurrences for a select few, but as a natural way of life for us all.
Bring yourself into a quiet and reflective space. Follow the rhythm of your breath — breathe deeper and deeper into yourself. Allow thoughts and feelings to float by. Bring yourself before the spirit of the Beloved and lay your soul down. Immerse yourself in the calm, peace, and love. Allow your soul to be transformed — allow yourself to be.
The Beloved's Eyes
* * *
These are favored children. The Beloved would not want
them to leave the Sacred embrace, nor does the Beloved leave
them ... the Beloved seats them at the Sacred table, shares
with them the Sacred food even to the point of taking a
portion from the Beloved's own mouth to give to them.
(AT, CP)(CW vol. II, 97)
Small children are still very close to the Beloved. Our divine origins are reflected in their eyes, through their feelings, and through their interaction with the world. They carry the message of love so innocently and spontaneously, lightening the hearts of those around them. They remind us of who we are.
When a baby or child looks at you, she is seeing into your soul. Her gaze is not tempered by sentimentality or societal protocol but truly reflects the "love, as strong as death" (Song of Songs 8:6). In our society love has become equated with sentimental placations. But to make another feel better is not always an act of love. Love is not something to be done, but rather a pure state of being, lived in truthfulness. A child looking into your eyes will engage you at this level if you allow him to, if you do not fall into condescending baby talk. Remember, children are wise beings who come straight from the Beloved, with their memory of the divine still intact. We would do well to give them room to communicate with us and to listen very carefully to what they are saying. We are blessed when we allow their truth to ignite our own.
Teresa believed in the child's innate ability to relate directly with the Beloved and thought that parents should encourage this at all times. She understood the initial childhood years as providing the foundation for that soul's life to emerge. She noted that it is not simply the parents' words but also the state of their soul and their very way of being that leave an indelible impression on the new soul entering this physical realm. Teresa was greatly influenced by her father in her early years, and his religious nature made such an impression on her that at the age of seven she ran away from home to become a martyr for the Beloved. Fortunately, an uncle caught her as she was leaving the city and foiled this plan!
As our society becomes more open to spiritual phenomena we can allow a child's story to help us on our journey. Children see through the eyes of the Beloved, and many see beyond the physical realm. A child's imaginary friends are now being recognized as beings from the other worlds — angels, deceased relatives, and so on. We too can regain our godly sight by innocently opening ourselves and seeing beyond who and what we think we are. We can return to an expansiveness of soul that is our divine and human heritage, to a soul that is innately loving and spontaneous and free.
Children are spiritual beings growing into their physicality, and adults are fully physical beings rediscovering their spirituality. Coming into a joint learning, we are given the opportunity once more to be fed by the Beloved, and to look once more with the Beloved's eyes, seeing the divine in ourselves and in everyone around us.
Take time to sit in stillness. Call forth the innocence of your child self. Remember what it was like to feel the expansiveness of life, when each moment was an exploration and adventure. Let your eyes begin to see with this innocence, with this wonder. Look at yourself and at those around you. See your innate wisdom and that of others. Open yourself to the strength of love and to your ability to live it.
* * *
For now I realize what a danger it is at an age when one should begin to cultivate the virtues to associate with people who do not know the vanity of the world but rather are just getting ready to throw themselves into it. (CW vol. I, 57)
Teresa moved from her saintly childhood desires to an adolescent romanticism that was inspired by the chivalrous literature of the time. She spent her days voraciously reading romantic novels and, along with her cousins, dressed in the finest of clothes and jewelry. This behavior befitted her social status and was also demanded of any young woman intent on finding a suitor. Teresa was focused on societal and personal honor, with the ways of the world seeming far more exciting than the life of spiritual martyrdom that had previously inspired her. Owing to dubious relations with a particular cousin, however, her father arranged for Teresa to be sent to an Augustinian convent, where she stayed for a year, much to her chagrin.
In her autobiography, Teresa mentions repeatedly the importance of good companionship and talks about how easy it is to be misled by others, especially during adolescence. She remembers the innocence of her childhood and how quickly it eroded when she imitated her friends. When we too do this, our original godly vision becomes blurry and desires become distorted, with the soul beginning its journey into a state of confusion and lack of fulfillment.
The adolescence that Teresa wrote about does not just relate to teenagers but also to adults in their spiritual adolescence. This is the time when we become awakened to the reality of our true nature waiting to be reborn. We may catch glimpses of this marvelous being that we are, but like an adolescent moving back and forth between the childhood and the adult realms, we too alternate between the old society-formed self and the newly emerging inner Beloved-self. It is necessary, advised Teresa, to be vigilant about how this birthing process unfolds. We need to take care when choosing the people we associate with. This is not a call to be judgmental of others but rather to make a choice that will enable us to grow to our greatest potential.
Good companionship can be both supportive and instructive. We must remember, however, that our friends do not always truly support our spiritual growth. In fact, very often they can reinforce our patterns of dependency or insecurity or our inability to be intimate. In turn we may also be supporting their particular psychological and/or spiritual patterns. What can begin as a feeling of union and delight at being understood can easily lapse into a relationship that is binding and unable to promote spiritual growth.
Virtue is not a word that rolls easily off the contemporary tongue. For many it is associated with morality or uprightness; however, it has also been defined as "inherent power" (Collins English Dictionary). For Teresa the greatest virtue was the growth of our soul; by attending to this growth, she believed, we can discover the power that we are all born with. Be vigilant, she warned. Watch closely as you grow into yourself spiritually, and allow for change and growth to occur both in your friends and in you. Too often we want people to stay the same to ensure our own comfort. Likewise, our growth may not always be welcomed even by those closest to us.
Falling into a great and loving silence, allow your loved ones to greet you. Without the need for judgment or action simply let them speak to you — let the truth of their interaction become clear to you. Bless them all with love, and offer them to your Beloved-self, asking that the greatest good for all come to be.
* * *
As to what good qualities there may be in our souls, or Who
dwells within them, or how precious they are — those are
things which we seldom consider and so we trouble little
about carefully preserving the soul's beauty. (IC, 29)
Teresa often lamented the fact that we do not understand ourselves or know who we are. Becoming so bound up with our worldly identity, we forget about our divine nature. She used the example of our family life to illustrate her point. What if, she asked, having spent so many years as part of a family, we were unable to know who we were? What if we didn't know our name, who our mother and father was, or which town or country we lived in? What can we tell of our divine origins? To say we have souls because our religious traditions have told us so is not good enough; we must actively enquire about, uncover, and come to know our souls.
Comparing the soul to a clear crystal castle with many rooms, Teresa wrote that there are "some above, others below, others at each side; and in the center and midst of them all is the chief mansion where the most secret things pass between the Beloved and the soul" (AT, IC, 29). It is our divine responsibility, she maintained, to explore this castle, to come to know who resides at its center. And it is our responsibility to persevere with this ongoing discovery and eternal relationship that exists with our divine self. It is our duty to recognize how truly precious we are and to see all other beings as equally precious.
This is not a linear journey from the outer rooms to the center room. No, this journey is an eternal spiral. Sometimes we enter the room of past wounds, sometimes the room of peaceful meditation — there is no room where the door becomes closed, no matter how far we advance on our spiritual path. The room of humility is always ready for us to enter, and so too is the room where we see and know that we are a blessed child of the Beloved.
Teresa wrote, "There are many ways of being" (IC, 31). If we are intent on discovering our true nature, then we must also be prepared to enter all the rooms. To be sure, some will be more pleasant than others. But no matter what we discover about ourselves, we must remember that in the eyes of the Beloved, there is nothing wrong with us, and there never has been.
Too often our journey of self-discovery can become a complex psychological web, with our smaller ego-self (that place where self-serving impulses arise) becoming discouraged at its own ineptness or inability to love. The good news is that loving, whether it be of self or of another, is not its job; it is our larger Belovedself that fills our whole being with love. The ego need not do anything but simply allow the love to flow through. It is not by doing that love "gets done"; rather, it is by being that love simply happens.
Falling into a place of peaceful being, let all thoughts subside. Imagine before you a beautiful crystal castle; see how it reflects all spectrums of light. Allow yourself to wander through this castle without any desire or agenda, simply being and flowing in the love emanating from the center. Let yourself be absorbed by this love, and look at your own preciousness in the same way that the Beloved looks at you.
5. The Shining Sun
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It should be kept in mind here that the fount, the shining sun that is in the center of the soul, does not lose its beauty and splendor; it is always present in the soul, and nothing can take away its loveliness. But if a black cloth is placed over a crystal that is in the sun, obviously the sun's brilliance will have no effect on the crystal even though the sun is shining on it. (CW vol. II, 289)
Teresa was shown the brilliance of the castle, how a sun was shining in the center, its light spreading to all rooms. But she also saw that the outer rooms of the castle had little light and that the further away they were from the center, the darker they became. She was aware that although the light continued to shine, it was as if the soul was unable to enjoy and partake of its great brilliance and beauty. How sad, she said, for a soul to be separated from the light, how disturbed the senses became when deprived of their life-giving source.
In what ways do we separate ourselves from the shining sun? One of the most common ways to dull this inner sun is by failing to give love. And when we are not giving love it is usually because we are too absorbed in our own needs. It is not only others who may be hurt by our inattentiveness or lack of action. We are also hurt when we fail to connect with the light of the Beloved. This disconnection, wrote Teresa, can occur in many ways: we can become too engrossed in our work, we can become filled with self-importance, or we can simply become overly absorbed with our own needs and wants.
In failing to connect with the Beloved's light we come to notice how we then fail to relate with others. The black cloth becomes draped over our castle, blocking the light from penetrating through to our relationships. When the light is blocked, love is unable to flow. By concentrating too much on our work we barely have time for those we are closest to, let alone new relationships that may be waiting to evolve. In failing to acknowledge the divine in our life and seeing ourselves as the main protagonist, we may fall into arrogance, which can then estrange us from colleagues and friends. And by becoming absorbed with our own needs and wants we do not see the needs of others. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Meditations with Teresa of Avila by Megan Don. Copyright © 2005 Megan Don. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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