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Fr Billy Swan

In the famous Gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, the Lord describes the life of God within the believer as being like a well-spring of fresh water: “The water that I will give them will become in them a spring, welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). With this image, Jesus teaches us that the spiritual life is anything but static but dynamic and always new.

This symbol of the Holy Spirit as flowing, living water was a favourite of St Teresa of Avila, whose feast we celebrate today. In her famous work Interior Castle, she wrote: “I don’t find anything more appropriate to explain some spiritual experiences than water; and this is because I am so fond of this element that I have observed it more attentively than other things” (IV, 2, 2).

For Teresa, as water makes the earth fertile, so too does the gift of the Spirit lead to growth within us and the fruits of a wholesome, holy life. This attentiveness to our inner lives is crucially important for that is where maturity and growth comes from. It is there that we confront ourselves and know ourselves, both our lights and shadows: “It is foolish to think that we will enter heaven without entering into ourselves, coming to know ourselves, reflecting on our misery…and begging him often for mercy” (Interior Castle, 2, 1, 11). In this light, to be humble is to be real and facing the truth about ourselves is an essential part of being grounded in who we really are:

“To be humble is to walk in truth, for it is a very deep truth that of ourselves we have nothing good but only misery and nothingness. Whoever does not understand this, walks in falsehood” (Interior Castle, 6.10.7-8). This stands in stark contrast to an overly positive view of the human condition in vogue today where everything needs to be affirmed, even if it delusionary. Take for example the song by Christina Aguilera who sings in her song Beautiful ‘I am beautiful in every single way’. Hardly.

For the Carmelite mystic, progress in the spiritual life is impossible with this delusion. No one is beautiful in every single way and to think so is to live in falsehood. If we are beautiful in every single way then it means that we don’t need to grow or improve as people. Instead, for Teresa herself and the community of Carmelites she led, the adventure of the spiritual life was understood as a progression or movement through what she calls ‘mansions’ that form part of an ‘Interior Castle’ where the soul is in intimate communion with God.

Beginners in prayer, she tells us, are “starting to cultivate a garden on very barren soil, full of weeds.” God helps us pull the weeds and God plants good seeds. We “must take pains to water them so they don’t wither but bud and flower.” Teresa has set the scene. “Let us see how the garden must be watered so that we may understand what we have to do,” she says. The watering is a joint effort by God and ourselves. The labour on our part is initially hard. “You may draw water from a well which is for us a lot of work.” She points out that later “you may get it by means of a water wheel and aqueducts by turning the crank of the water wheel. The method involves less work” (Collected Works, The Book of Her Life , Ch 11).

Teresa describes the initial phase of progression as difficult and something that requires much effort and discipline on our part. Yet we are not alone for God takes the initiative and leads his beloved into deeper union with him. What Teresa describes in the spiritual life is a certain synergy or partnership between God and ourselves as we grow in virtue and holiness. She implies that the more prayer is practised, the easier it gets as it becomes established as a habit.

What Teresa calls the second water is prayer in a more contemplative mode: “Here the water is higher, and so the labour is much less than that required in pulling it up from the well. I mean that the water is nearer to it because grace is more clearly manifest to the soul” (Life , Ch 14).

As we mature and progress is the life of union with God, love becomes more evident and visible: “Love is continually bubbling up in us. It cannot remain where it is, just as the spring-water seems unable to remain in the earth, but issues forth from it. So is it with the soul. It is already soaked in this water. It would want others to drink of its love so that they may help it to praise God” (Life , Ch 30:19). Here Teresa points to the necessary correspondence between the inner spiritual life and our public moral lives. Morality is the public face of spirituality.

Teresa also spoke and wrote of the Christian life as centred on the friendship of Christ. She learned from her own experience that the biggest mistake we make is to try and go it alone and rely on our own resources: “This self-reliance was what destroyed me” (Life, 19, 15). For her, Jesus is Lord and Master but also our best friend and true friend. “Whoever lives in the presence of so good a friend…who went ahead of us to be the first to suffer, can endure all things. The Lord helps us, strengthens us, and never fails; he is a true friend” (Life 22,6). Even at times of struggle, Teresa clung to her understanding of Christ as a faithful friend. On one occasion she was on horseback crossing a river when she fell off and got a right soaking. She famously said: “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it’s little wonder you have so few!” Prayer then is a conversation and an exchange between people who enjoy a bond of friendship that is deep and intimate. It is a sharing of how the other really is without the fear of being rejected by what the other might say. In Teresa’s words: “Prayer is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with him who we know loves us” (Life, 8, 5).

Teresa of Avila is a prophetic voice for our times to keep before us the central mystery of our faith which is the incarnation – that out of love for humanity, God became human so that we might become divine. She was fascinated by the humanity of Christ and was suspicious of any spiritualities that seemed to bypass the human faculties of Jesus and move too quickly to his divine identity. On this point she teaches:

“And I see clearly…that God desires that if we are going to please him and receive his great favours, we must do so through the most sacred humanity of Christ, in whom he takes his delight…we must enter by this gate…on this road you walk safely. This Lord of ours is the one through whom all blessings come to us” (Life, 22.6-7).

Again, she returns to prayer as the time when we contemplate the human categories that Christ shared with us as Son of Man: “When we pray, we place ourselves in the presence of Christ and grow accustomed to being inflamed with love for his sacred humanity” (Life, 12, 2). With these beautiful words, Teresa urges us to keep the humanity and divinity of Jesus always in close proximity. The corollary of this is also true. Our faith invites us to consider our humanity not in isolation but as penetrated by the transforming Spirit of Christ. Just as in the Eucharist, the Lord’s body, blood, soul and divinity come to meet our body, blood, soul and humanity.

Finally, the insights of St Teresa into growth in holiness are certainly a challenge to those who would minimise the reality of sin. She upbraids liberal and permissive priests she encountered who said: “what was venial sin was no sin at all and what was mortal sin they said was venial” (Life, 5, 3). Here again is a challenge to all of us to realise we are all tainted with original sin and while this is true, knowing how that sin manifests itself in our lives is the first step to growing in virtue and grace as we invite the saving presence of Christ to touch us and change us.

I conclude with the famous prayer ‘Nada Te Turbe’ attributed to St Teresa of Avila. This prayer, together with her wisdom and beautiful insights into the Christian life, reveal a woman with a lively soul who helps us access God in a delightful, earthy and ordinary way – a woman of deep spirituality, fully human and fully alive. The witness of her life was instrumental in the conversion of St Teresa Benedict of the Cross (Edith Stein) becoming Christian and then later to become a fellow Carmelite sister. May this prayer assure us of the Lord’s presence so that nothing might disturb us knowing that he is near.


Let nothing trouble you,

Let nothing frighten you,

Everything passes,

God does not change,

Patience overcomes everything.

Whoever loves God, lacks nothing

God alone is all we need

In your thoughts arise, rise up to heaven

Let nothing disturb you.

Follow Jesus Christ with a generous heart,

And come what may, let nothing frighten you.

See how the world’s glory is an empty glory,

It has no lasting value, everything passes.

Look to heaven, to the eternal,

Everlasting, faithful and full of promise,

God does not change.

Trust and living faith sustains the soul

Of one who believes and hopes,

Who overcomes everything.

Whoever loves God, though by Hell harassed,

Will laugh in the face of its attacks.

Though helplessness may be your lot,

Through suffering and through disasters,

Keeping God as your treasure, you will lack nothing.

For the riches of this world disappear,

Our pleasures are fleeting,

And even if we lose everything,

God alone is all we need.

St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)


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