Reflections on St. Teresa of Jesus for the Feast

Solemnity of St. Teresa of Jesus, OCD

Reflection on Gospel for the Feast Rosalind Bliss Forrest, OCD

Jesus, tired and thirsty sat down at a well and there encountered a Samaritan woman who had come to draw water.

Last night, after we sisters had shared together on the Gospel which we just heard, I was led to change my opening reflection today to include the following questions one of my sisters posed to us sisters, and now to us today: What do we bring to the well?

An empty vessel?
Our weariness?
A hungry heart?
Good news to share with a neighbor?
A rupture worse than a broken sandal strap?
Fierce longing, hope and desire?

We share a common thread with Jesus, the Samaritan woman, and St.Teresa. Teresa was an inquisitive and lively child born in Avila Spain in 1515. She grew up in a family with devout Catholic parents.  As was the culture then, most rooms in their home had religious statues and paintings, one of which was inscribed with the response of the Samaritan woman to Jesus at the well “Lord, give me that water.”

Years later Teresa wrote in her autobiography “Oh, how often I remember the living water of which the Lord spoke to the woman of Samaria.  I am so fond of that Gospel. I have loved it ever since I was a child—though I did not, of course, understand it properly then, as I do now—and I often used to beseech (God) to give me that water.” (Life ch 30) Reflecting on the image of Christ and the Samaritan woman at the well helped Teresa throughout her lifetime to focus her attention on the Sacred humanity of Christ Jesus.

At the age of 20 Teresa entered a convent of 130 Carmelite Sisters. For 17 long years she led the life of a middle-of-the road, somewhat lax contemplative nun. At age 38 she experienced a 2nd conversion which was followed by 9 years of an intense spiritual search.

Teresa of Avila by Carmel of Reno
For the next 20 years she re-dedicated her life to God and to the Church in her efforts to reform the Carmelite Order of men and women and personally founded 18 new monasteries of women with whom she shared her spirituality, insights and teaching on prayer.

In 1970 Pope Paul VI declared her the first woman Doctor of the Church based on her life and the doctrine in her writings, especially on prayer.

When Jesus spoke of ‘living water’ the Samaritan woman would have understood this to be fresh water as a regularly available source that would save her from making so many trips to the well.  Fresh water was, and is, precious and Jesus had definitely caught her interest and attention.

St Teresa likewise catches our attention when she refers to the stages of prayer as “waters of prayer.”  She would encourage us initially to make time for God apart from our daily activities, religious devotions and whatever vocal prayers we may be accustomed to say, and to be quietly in God’s presence each day and share with God as we would with a dear friend. When we begin to do so we will need to persevere so that the soil of the spiritual garden where we meet with God may be readied to receive living water.

Jesus had asked the Samaritan woman to draw water from the well to slake his thirst.  St Teresa uses this same example as the first means by which we are to slake our own thirst, our thirst for God.

To explain the different stages of prayer that we can go through, Teresa compares quiet prayer in God’s presence to watering a garden. She says there are four ways of doing this:

  1. we may draw water from a well, which is laborious and produces little effect;
  1. we may turn the water wheel (this too involves a lot of work, but produces better results);
  1. we may have an irrigation system (which requires even less effort on our part);
  1. or we may receive a plentiful rain (in which case we need not do anything at all).

Examples of desert garden of Carmel of Reno

In 1958 when our sisters moved into their new monastery here in Reno, the only tree on our property was 1/2 of a Juniper. Digging into our rocky soil they began to plant 6” trees purchased from the forestry service, other seedlings from local friends and then saplings of cedars that friends brought from the western foothills of the Sierras. For years, they faithfully watered from buckets. Then they added hoses upon hoses up and down our hills and the watering became somewhat easier, yet still required daily hikes to move and change hoses.  Finally, in the late 90s they received a grant to begin adding a drip irrigation system—what a blessing! In this high desert area we rarely have a good rain and so deeply appreciate any rain and snow. The efforts of the sisters in our garden was truly a reflection of their prayer life of this Reno Carmelite community.

Now look at our 80 foot tall sequoias and many other trees, planted by human hands and by birds! Our property is a varied and vibrant microclimate of shade and sun where wild life such as sparrows, finches, quail, robins, scrub jays, red-tailed hawks, mule deer, lizards, squirrels and rabbits roam.

So too in prayer each of us often have to exert a lot of effort without feeling much profit.  We are, as it were, laboriously drawing water from the well of our own thinking, of our reflections on scripture, on the beauty of nature or good books.  Everything begins to change when God starts giving us the living water of spiritual experiences that well up in our hearts.

Teresa compares the gentle rain that falls into a river as the soul and God that once mingled cannot be separated. Here there is interior peace.

Teresa reminds us that God invites each of us to this experience as she writes  in the Way of Perfection:

“If the invitation of Jesus were not a general one he would not have said ‘I will give you to drink’.

Rather, he might have said: ‘come, all of you, for after all you will lose nothing by coming; and I will give drink to those whom I think fit for it.’

But, as (Christ) said we were all to come, without making any conditions, I feel sure that none will fail to receive this living water unless they cannot keep to the path (of prayer).” (Way of Perfection Ch 19)

An important aspect of Teresa’s spirituality is friendship: both with God and with one another. She constellates her whole doctrine around this concept. Prayer, the central piece of her way to God, “is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with God who we know loves us.” (Life 8:5).

She writes in her book The Interior Castle also known as the Mansions:  This experience (of God) is “not for our enjoyment but for service,” particularly in the local community and reaching out from there (VII Mansions 4:12,14).

Teresa fostered strong bonds of friendship within each of her communities and with friends in the wider community.  This intimate, “spiritual,” i.e., wholistic love was one of the reasons for her opting against large communities like the monastery in which she first lived, and favoring small groupings—maximum of 21 sisters.

As we gather together this evening as sisters and brothers, as friends, surrounded by our desert garden of Carmel, we remember that in our longing for God we must become the gardener, the laborer who digs, turns the soil, pulls out the weeds, sets the plants, resets new ones after deer and squirrel eat more than their share, and pulls the rope to draw water from the well.

When Jesus sees our intense effort and comes to sit on the edge of the well and ask us for a drink, may we, like the Samaritan woman and Teresa, cry out “Oh, give us your living water!”

Some of resources used & not noted above

Larkin086 from the published works of Ernie Larkin “Saint Teresa of Avila: My Lifetime’s Quest”