Monday, April 30, 2012

Too Much Time In the Courtyard: Teresa of Avila + the Story of Her Life

Teresa of Avila: The Book of My Life

This image links to my favorite translation of Teresa of Avila’s VIDA. Translated by the adept Mirabai Starr and with a forward by the contemplative nun turned lay hermit Tessa Bielecki. I recommend it to anyone on the search for their spiritual center or interested in the contemplative traditions. 

Often when I read a book I cultivate a sort of literary friendship with the writer–in the instance of this book the gifts were threefold. I felt like reading the translation of Mirabai with the consultation of Tessa and the story of Teresa of Avila I made three friends in one text. Each as valuable as the other to my reading experience. 

Teresa of Avila wrote, in the book of her life “Vida” that she felt she hit a point in her adult life where, after the worst of her medical afflictions had passed, and she had experienced moments of dimensional faith during those afflictions, she found herself, still, absorbed in the daily life activities in the courtyard of her world–a meeting space where nuns entertained the visitors of their monasticism.

It is a very difficult thing to digest our spiritual experiences, our contemplative selves and still exist in the “courtyards” of our own lives. At least for me it is very difficult. Since the spiritual whirlwind that was my couple of weeks of asthma, with medicine working (thank you Advair) and breathlessness abating, it is a bit of a personal horror to see how easily the urgency of living a life fully of God can dwindle into the background of the white noise of life.

I would say I felt jealous of the luxury and decadence of silence bestowed on the monastic communities–like those of Teresa in Spain. But, so it seems, even with a lifestyle of silence there are way too many ways to avoid it if you want.

During Teresa’s period of whittling away days in the courtyard she describe a complete detachment from her prayer life–namely her contemplative practice. She found it difficult and would blame her illness and requisite exhaustion for why she didn’t have the capacity for it. And everyone bought her story, except her. In the story of her “Vida” she puts herself on full show, the battles, the internal wars of “self” that she struggled with and the easiness and allure of life in the noise, bustle and chatter which went on in the courtyard.

I find it hard, when not in immobilizing pain, to balance life in the world (the courtyard) which goes by so quickly (dangerously fast) and life in my contemplative prayer (which can go intimidatingly slow). I love it, I teach it, I believe in it, but the honest truth is I think in a world of “doing” we all suffer from the inability to cultivate and exist in silence. Teresa, the  first female “Doctor” of the Church, and legendary contemplative struggled with it in her 20′s and 30′s. Much of her work, I think, was informed by that time of struggle and her advocacy to make contemplative prayer accessible and male able enough for everyone struggling with the battles she fought.

I am often comforted by the visualization of my patron, my namesake, struggling between worlds of chaos and those of silence. Even when she became more adept at prayer, she still struggled between the work she did in the external world (necessary to further her mission of creating the Discalced Carmelite Order throughout spain) and that which she craved internally.

We spend so much of life ensconced in the noise that the silence can be very intimidating. Contemplative prayer is not about detaching from this struggle for silence and struggle with silence (we will always struggle as long as we spend any time in the living world) but rather dealing with the struggle and staying in silence regularly regardless. Even if that silence is in the car on the way to work with the radio off, or turning off the television a few nights a week. Silence can be inserted into most of our lives but it seems we avoid it, more afraid of what to do with quiet than anything else.

I look to Teresa of Avila to help me on my journey–I feel her empathy in her words and works which she wrote most often for the sisters in her convents. She passed along a legacy of silent treasures and the honesty of a soul that did not lie or edit her own journey in the process. I think it is also telling that her works were written at the age of 40 and above. In the space in which our developing generation grows into itself–the ages of 20′s and 30′s–she was not ready yet. She was still cultivating her silence.

Not to say we shouldn’t write a thing before the age of 40 or that a story that is younger doesn’t have its use–but it is also important to reflect on the fact that her tomes of sage wisdom came with age and practice.

So I practice at life–balancing the complex external world with the hungering soulful internal that both craves and fears silence. I practice at prayer and experiment with the many ways I can make it easier for me …and when I do find things that relate to my generational experience, I try to pass them along. Maybe they can help someone else. And maybe just saying that I struggle will help most of all–as Teresa’s struggle did for me.

I will be adding some MP3s of some contemplative practices I have used along the way in the near future. Also, tomorrow I will be emailing out the FIRST NEWSLETTER for THE SOCIETY FOR YOUNG CHRISTIAN CONTEMPLATIVES with the same aim as above–to share the experience, pass on things that might be of interest and build a community for a generation of us that I feel need contemplative practice as much as we avoid it.

Today, listening to the amazing FREE webcast of the INTERNATIONAL SYMPOSIA FOR CONTEMPLATIVE STUDIES I heard a wise monastic, Brother David Steindl Rast, discuss the word “contemplation” as carrying both phonetically and practically both the natures of action and contemplation in the single world. We are not meant to live in total silence or total noise but use the word “CONTEMPLATION” to the fullest extent of its meaning–living contemplatively both in silence and in the world.

What do you struggle with in prayer? Do you find it hard to sit and exist in silence? How do you apply both action and contemplation in your life? What would you want help with in cultivating silence? What resources do you wish were out there to help? What or who has helped you keep perspective in your personal spiritual journey?

To sign up for the NEWSLETTER fill out the form on the right of the page or you can email me at crookedmystic(at)gmail(dot)com. I look forward to continuing to explore, discuss, and share the contemplative life and silence with you!

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