Century Center, South Bend, IN
October 15, 2011
Most people who know anything about Teresa of Avila know that she was a mystic, and spent much of her life in contemplation. Some are aware that she was proclaimed a “doctor of the church” by the pope in 1970, the first woman to get that title. In Roman Catholic circles, that means her writing is judged sound and good for teaching, and it means that this gospel is read on her feast day – you are salt of the earth. Teresa’s life was a good deal more complex than the popular image of a sickly nun shut up in her cell only to pray and write. One modern commentator calls her, “stubborn as an ox, thick-skinned as an elephant, and sly as a fox.”1
There’s a taste of the saltiness that Jesus charges us with.
Teresa was born about 1515 to parents who were members of the foremost families of Spain. All her life, she seems to have been profoundly hungry for God. When she was a child, she and her brother set off to be martyred by the Moors so they could enter heaven. An uncle found them outside of town and took them home. Teresa’s mother died when she was 14, which seems to have unleashed a fairly normal and frivolous adolescence. She writes of indulging in clothes, perfume, trashy novels, and “all the vain trimmings my position in the world allowed.” Her father responded by packing her off to a convent school. She got sick and had to come home, and it appears that she had the same kind of illness, perhaps recurrent malaria, most of her life.
At age 20, Teresa insisted on entering a Carmelite monastery. She entered and stayed four years, when she got so sick that her grave was dug. Her father took her home again, and it took her three years to recover. She eventually went back and spent another 18 years in that monastery. She grew tired of the tepid life, for many convents in those days were more like hotels for unwed aristocratic women.
With the assistance of two Jesuits, Teresa began a period of serious silent prayer, and began to have vivid experiences of the near presence of God. Her writings are the first to give a fairly explicit description of the experience of deep prayer, as a process of contemplation, quietude, and union with God in both conscious and un- or supra-conscious forms. She was both descriptive and analytical, like the later William James, and her writings invited others into similar experience.
Within a few years, she began to envision a radical reform of the Carmelite order, that would return to a more ancient and ascetic discipline. She established the Convent of St. Joseph in 1562, where the nuns gave up shoes in favor of sandals, took a rough habit, lived fully cloistered, largely silent and in strict poverty, and ate no meat. After a while her superiors objected, and she was ordered into seclusion. The pope rejected that order, and permitted establishment of the discalced (shoeless) Carmelites as a separate order. In all, she founded 17 convents for women and 14 for men. Teresa died on a journey to establish yet another convent, in 1582.
Teresa hungered and thirsted for God in ways that may shock us today – that imagery in the Song of Songs has often been used to speak of mystical union with God. Bernini’s famous sculpture of Teresa in rapt prayer was termed “indecent” by one commentator for its sensual tone. Christians who live too much in their heads have a good deal to learn from Teresa’s salty writing.
You are salt of the earth and light of the world, says Jesus to his disciples. We’re not worth much at all if we can’t use our saltiness and spread light abroad. Let me make a connection between salt and light. In chemical terms, salts are composed of charged molecules that react in the presence of water or other solvents. Salts are what let batteries work, and salts underlie most of the chemical reactions that give life. The sun and its light are the result of reactions among charged particles. The ability of plants to use sunlight and make sugars is dependent on salts. Saltiness is the potent ability to interact with the world around us – and it’s intimately related to our created nature – it’s part of our earthiness. We can’t be light-bearers if we reject our created nature. Teresa’s hunger, and all that sensual imagery in the Song of Songs, are about the way we are created – to interact with creator and creation. No salt, no light.
What does that say to us right here? Embrace your salt – in moderation. Teresa’s ascetic lifestyle was designed to give her salt its optimum field for action. That field looks different in different human beings – some of us are made for the convent and monastery; most of us aren’t. We are all, however, made to be conscious of our created nature and how it might be stewarded most effectively. Think about what a whole lot of salt does – it preserves living things so that they stop living, like the brine we use to make ham or bacon or pickles. If we eat too much salt, at the very least our blood pressure goes up, and at most, we die. Salt mines are used as storehouses for various things or tombs for radioactive waste.
But salt in moderation is essential to life – balance is the key. You are salt of the earth and light of the world. Salt is not meant for us alone. It’s meant to react with the world around us and create light.
How is Northern Indiana shining light around here, and around the world? I know you have a companion relationship in Honduras – how is that bringing light here, and in Honduras? What salty interaction got that relationship started?
How about your interactions with Roman Catholics around here? Four of my great-uncles played football at Notre Dame in the 1920s, and I have some sense of what that kind of salty interplay is like. But how is the broader ecumenical saltiness producing light?
The salt of reactivity is essential to produce light. I don’t mean simple anxiety, but the kind of reactivity that can experience hunger like Teresa’s, or feel the suffering of the vulnerable and hurting people around us. What gets our justice juices flowing, what rouses our passionate response? That is salt at work – and there is no light without it. Teresa didn’t sit in her cell and veg out. She felt deeply, and responded.
St. Margaret’s House started in salty tears, and equally salty sweat and blood. It’s bringing light and healing to many women and children, who are themselves learning how to be salt and light in the larger world. Camp New Happenings is doing similar work with children whose parents are incarcerated. Who was the salty starter of that light-giving work?
Where is your salt at work? What suffering is starting your tears, what need is making you sweat, where is your lifeblood being spent? That’s how light gets shed in the world. That’s how we give glory to God. And that is the garden in which we find our beloved, and the beloved finds us.