This is an exploration into the treasures of Carmelite Spirituality through the eyes of the Sisters and was a recently presented talk.
By Sr. Cecelia Kang, OCD
Today I’d like to share with you how the message of St. Teresa, a woman of the 16th century, is still so relevant and inspirational in our time, the 21st century.
While I am talking and you are listening, let’s make this a time of prayer.
Carmel is a spring of living water.
The reason why we are here today is to drink and drink more. And that’s what Teresa is all about…Life-giving water! Throughout her life, she was led to drink the Living Water to the full and became herself an arrow pointing to the Fountain.
Ever since Teresa founded her new communities, this spring of living water has been flowing down the centuries beyond the church to the whole world.
Women and men, young and old, people of all time come to this fount to drink and to be nourished. And Teresa’s message, her spirit, her vision, her gift is in the center of it.
So what is it?
What is her gift that draws so many people to come to the fountain? And what are we thirsty for?
“What kind of water could truly quench our thirst, not just for a moment, not superficially, but for good?”(cf. Saverio Cannistrá, OCD)
This is what the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel asks for. “Sir, Give me that water so that I won’t grow thirsty.” Jesus gave her the living water and she drank it. We know that her thirst was thoroughly quenched by her transformation; through which she became a true disciple. Later on we see Jesus offering the same water to the crowds: “Come to me, all you who are thirsty. From within yourself will flow springs of living water and you will never get thirsty again!”
Teresa was chosen to witness this living water flowing within us. And the way she guides us to the Living Water is through a transforming journey of friendship, a personal intimate relationship with Jesus. She strongly encourages us, “Let us walk together toward this fountain. Jesus invites us all. A great treasure is waiting for us. The end of this journey is to drink the water of life.” (cf. W 19.15)
In Genesis we hear the story of creation. God speaks a word – and everything, seen and unseen comes into existence. God sees them all as very good. The whole creation is sacred and beautiful. On day six, before the Sabbath, God created something very special. God says, “Now, let us make human beings in our own image, in our own likeness!” (Gen 1:25) Mark the word, “us”. There is more than One involved in the making of humans. In our belief there are Three Persons in one God. And each Person dwells in each other forming a community and relating to one another in constant movements of creativity and self-giving love. We are made out of this love, in this image of Communion of God in unity and diversity!
This is the reason for our insatiable longing, a longing for fulfillment, for our ultimate oneness with our creator. We are restless until we return to this fullness of our original self, our true self as Godself. We are lonely not because we are alone but because we are not yet fully integrated with our true self. The further we are from Truth, the lonelier we get. From the very beginning we are born for relationships with God and with one another. That Teresa is a Doctor of the church means she is a teacher of prayer which also means she’s a teacher of relationships. Because prayer is about relationships. From her own living experience of encountering the humanity of Jesus, Teresa defines prayer as “an intimate sharing between friends taking time often to be alone with the One whom we know loves us.” (Life 8.5) “Teresa does not begin with prayer; she arrives there through a journey of transformation”, (cf. Saverio Cannistrá, OCD) a journey of becoming.
Teresa’s emphasis on personal friendship with Jesus is very important.
First of all, this ‘Friendship’ is God’s invitation for all humanity. The New Testament reveals God’s abiding love in the person of Jesus. Jesus, the Word of God, speaks a word and everything, broken and fallen, sinful and weak … comes into life, becomes whole again. Jesus does not impose anything, he only invites us into friendship with himself: “I now call you friends.”
With these words, “Jesus set a new model: from “a domination paradigm to the friendship paradigm”, from dominating, controlling, suppressing culture to a culture of mutuality, respect and service. Only when we consciously choose this friendship model we will be able to enter into a new society”, (cf. Beatrice Bruteau) a new ‘culture of encounter’ that Pope Francis is urging us to build. Surprisingly, Teresa started this movement in her own communities 500 years ago! Having experienced the living God in Jesus, she changed her name from ‘Teresa de Ahumada’- her family title – to ‘Teresa of Jesus’. In other words she voluntarily
gave up her social privilege breaking down the barriers of her time! There’s an episode regarding titles; When Teresa met little Jesus, she asked, “I am Teresa of Jesus and who are you?” He replied, “I am Jesus of Teresa.”
So first – friendship is God’s invitation.
Secondly, we can build a new culture of mutuality and love only through friendship with Jesus, a life-long journey of transformation. Jesus knows we cannot do anything without him. So he begs us to come to him to drink and eat. I can hear him saying, “You have a long and tumultuous road ahead. Come and sit with me. Let me walk with you and share your burden. Let me console you and please let me wipe your tears.”
Just a few weeks ago, a friend of mine brought me great joy with this remarkable quote:
“In this lies my honor and reward
that whenever I come to the fountain to drink,
I find the Living Water itself thirsty,
And it drinks me while I drink It.”(K. Gilbran)
This is our friend, Jesus the Risen One, who not only begs us to drink him but also wants to drink us! He is as thirsty as we are! At every Eucharist, we hear him saying, “This is my body, this is my blood. Please eat and drink and become me! Allow me to be you! You and I are one!”
Let’s just recall how we are made as a reflection of God.
To help Teresa to accompany her sisters God provided her with a new understanding of self and human person. Teresa writes in her book the Interior Castle: ” … there came to my mind what I shall now speak about. It is that we consider our soul to be like a castle made entirely out of a diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms … I don’t find anything comparable to the magnificent beauty of a soul and its marvelous capacity.
The fact that we are made in God’s own image and likeness makes it almost impossible for us to comprehend the sublime dignity and beauty of a human person. But God says we are the reflections of God!” Teresa goes on, “The font, the very sun that gave the soul so much brilliance and beauty, is always present in the center of the soul and does not lose its beauty and splendor and nothing can take away its loveliness.” (Interior Castle I. 2, 3)
This is who we truly are! And this is where Teresa is leading us, the way to our true self! This is the kind of self-knowledge and humility Teresa wants us to have.
Seeking the truth of self is essential in Carmel, since it’s the same as seeking the face of God. She continues, “Fear comes from not understanding ourselves completely. Self-knowledge will not make us base and cowardly. It’s a shame and unfortunate that by our own fault we do not know who we are.” (I 1.2)
Our quality and preciousness lie in our origin, in the love of God, not in our perceptions. “Our true self is not defined by any of the qualities of our bodies or personalities: by our history or social positions; by our possessions or our religions.” (Beatrice Bruteau) Our beauty, our wealth, our job is not us. We are born of God and Jesus always makes us anew if we allow him to!
It is critical to restore the image of our original self, especially in this present time of our world where the divine image, the true face of God is being distorted and disfigured in countless people in so many different forms leaving the whole humanity and creation in pain. Here Teresa’s message on the human dignity speaks volumes. To the degree we take this seriously, our attitude toward self and one another will be affected in the way we treat ourselves and people around us. Jesus clearly says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.” (Mt. 25) He likens himself to the least among us!
For me this friendship with Jesus, this intimate personal relationship with God is the treasure of treasures. The ability to relate with each other is the gift of gifts.
For what good is it if we don’t engage with one another, especially with the One who dwells within us? God wants to communicate with us, to be invited to every aspect of our lives as a close friend. Teresa’s whole life is the proof of this.
At the final stage of her prayer, Teresa is fully exposed to the breadth and length and height and the depth of the love of Christ. Now she sees the whole creation with the eyes of Christ; “Once in prayer, I was shown quickly without my seeing any form how all things are seen in God and how all things are held in God.” (L 40, 9- l 0) “Good and evil, suffering and beauty, humanity and all creation, all of these are held within the divine life of God.” (Constance FitzGerald, OCD)
To understand the vastness of the reality of God’s world shown to Teresa, we will have to expand our imagination following modern science in its discovery of galaxies upon galaxies. As the firstborn of all creation Jesus encompasses all of these and carries the whole universe with profound serenity and ease. The whole of humanity is walking as one family in Jesus’ great peace and tenderness. In Jesus is our hope. Despite all the unthinkable sufferings and violence created by humans, at bottom we are all one family. We have to recover this oneness with God and with one another. If we call Teresa “a prophet of communion”,(Constance FitzGerald, OCD) I believe that is our mission, too. We also are called to be prophets of communion in our time. What else is more needed and urgent for our world right now? Our deeply suffering world begs us to be messengers of peace, harmony and hope.
To be in communion with one another we have to be in touch with our true selves first. Although we are in this pilgrimage together, each one of us has to walk the path personally. No one can encounter God for me, no one can drink the water for me. And the more we drink, the more divine life we bring into the world.
Now let’s go back to the Samaritan woman. Here I presume that we all are familiar with the story of Samaritan woman. If not, I would encourage you to read the passage in John’s Gospel. Fr. Saverio, our present leader of the Carmelite Family, shares a wonderful insight on her story. He says, “The water Jesus gave to her was not the material water; it was a water of truth. By asking her ‘Go call your husband,’ Jesus invited her to examine the truth of her life. And this brave woman did not turn her back to this challenge. She drank it and the life-giving water took effect; She discovered her own truth and her dignity as a daughter. And she immediately became an evangelizer. She ran back to her village to share her joy; ‘Come and see, I found someone who knew me entirely. He told me everything I ever did!'” Her testimony was more powerful because of her humble acknowledgment of her past filled with failures and mistakes and also because of her eagerness and joy to invite her neighbors to the same banquet of liberation. And this way the Samaritan woman gave the life-giving water back to Jesus. He also thirsted for her liberation. We too can do this. Our weaknesses and failures or anything we think blocks our freedom can only add to the strength of our testimony and more joy for Jesus.
“Take off your shoes. This is Holy ground,” says God to Moses.
Without shoes, without protection, we feel vulnerable and tender. But that’s the best condition to be touched by God. And the inner sanctuary of our being where the living water wells up is the safest place to meet God as friends with no pretense. Teresa describes it beautifully, “In this extreme interior, the deepest and most living recesses of the heart, the very secret exchanges between God and the soul take place.” That’s where we find the Living Water itself thirsty.
When IT drinks us while we drink, the unexplainable exchange takes place. In this Fountain the Three Persons never stop their divine dance of new creation breathing new life into us all the time.
Here we discover our own sacredness, our own dignity; here our praise rises like incense;
“O God, how wonderful are your works!
For the wonder of who I am, I praise you!”
Then we see all of creation as beautiful and sacred as God sees it.
Let us now pray together the Prologue from John’s Gospel as our closing prayer.
In the beginning,(John l)
was the Word; the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
Through the Word
all things came into being, apart from the Word nothing came into being. In the Word was Life,
and that Life was humanity’s light, a Light that shines in the darkness:
a Light that the darkness has never overtaken.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us.