Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

A Garden of Righteousness: What Does a 16th Century Mystic Have to Say to 21st Century Peacemakers?

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

A Garden of Righteousness: What Does a 16th Century Mystic Have to Say to 21st Century Peacemakers?

Article excerpt

Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Spaniard, is known not only for her mystical raptures but also for her practical activism. The Interior Castle, Teresa's most famous treatise on the spiritual path, written in 1577, may be seen as more than a prescription for achieving personal union with the Divine--it can serve as a clear set of guidelines for conscious peacemaking in the world.

At 51, Teresa took the reforms she had advocated in the convent out to the rest of the church. "She braved burning sun, ice and snow, thieves, and rat-infested inns to found more convents," writes Terry Matz in The Daybook of Saints. The papal representative called her "a restless, disobedient gadabout who has gone about teaching as though she were a professor." "She often had to enter a town secretly in the middle of the night to avoid causing a riot," continues Matz.

The Interior Castle is the fruit of a vision Teresa had near the end of her life. She perceived the soul as a crystal palace, so radiantly beautiful that the Beloved himself chooses to dwell at its center. Our purpose is to make the journey within, passing through seven dwellings, to achieve union with God. At every step, the single clearest test of our love for God is whether we are loving one another in tangible ways.

Before even entering the castle of the soul, Teresa says, it is important to acknowledge our inherent goodness. We are worthy of taking this journey toward the union of love. We are worthy of doing the work of making this world a more peaceful one.

Our primary navigational toot along this path is contemplative practice. This can take many forms: sitting in silent meditation, walking alone in nature, or absorbing ourselves in creating or appreciating art. It involves the conscious cultivation of silence, stillness, and surrender. Only when we have restrained the urge to impose our own remedies upon this broken world can we hear what is truly needed.

IN THE FIRST dwelling we practice self-knowledge. The task is to recognize reality just as it is. We begin to be released from delusion about ourselves and the world. We experience both humanity and gratitude.

At this early stage, it is difficult for us to see the light emanating from deep within, where the glorious object of our longing dwells. Accustomed to looking outside ourselves for both the problem and its solution, we are easily distracted. We are still concerned about what other people think. We tend to project wisdom and authority on those who do not necessarily have the clarity we need to guide us correctly.

As our self-awareness increases, so do our powers of discernment. The more we perceive, the more deeply troubled we become. In the second dwelling we hunger for wise discourse. We are drawn to meaningful conversation, books, lectures, and sermons. These are the indirect voices the Beloved is using to call us home, Teresa says.

Inspired by these teachings, we begin to look beyond personal gratification and are moved by an urge toward service. When we become confused by the clamor of needs, we must be gentle with ourselves, taking time to be still and listen to the inner quiet until we regain our perspective.

It is tempting at this stage to hide behind the trappings of our cause, but we need to recommit to authenticity of being. "Don't think you have to use esoteric jargon or dabble in the mysteries of the unknown," Teresa warns us.

In the third dwelling, we have a tendency to become deadly earnest and take ourselves far too seriously. We struggle to avoid our own imperfections and to conceal them when we fail. It is here that we may become obsessed with our cause and resent anyone who does not share it. As we grow increasingly self-righteous and hypercritical, we stumble into the "martyr trap." We must beware, Teresa says, of "glorifying our tribulations."

This can be a lonely place; our purpose may begin to ring hollow. …

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