Archbishop of Westminster

500th Anniversary of birth of St Teresa of Avila

Given at Westminster Cathedral on 9 May 2015 at a Mass to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of St Teresa of Avila

This moment evokes many memories for me, memories particularly of Avila. I can see so clearly walls of the city, glistening in the strong sunlight. I can taste again the suckling pig, so proudly served to hungry visitors. And I can almost smell the parlour of the Convent of St Joseph where, some years ago now, I went to meet the spiritual descendants of St Teresa of Avila.

In speaking about her, briefly, this morning I start by remembering that so much about her is approachable, down to earth and humorous. She valued and nurtured friendship, which often flourishes with those very qualities. Yet her life was not easy, certainly not following the death of her mother when Teresa was only 14 years of age. We are told that this prompted in her a deep devotion to Our Blessed Lady, such that Mary became a real mother to her.

This foundation for her spiritual life is beautifully emphasised by the choice of the music for Mass this morning. We are listening to a Mass setting by the Spanish composer, Tomas Luis de Victoria, who was a contemporary of St Teresa. It helps us so much to enter into the richness of Spanish Catholic cultural life of that time. And the Mass is dedicated to Our Lady: the Missa Ave Maris Stella. I wonder if St Teresa herself ever heard this Mass setting, or at least heard of it, and even prayed with its beauty as we do this morning?

I think we all know that, at the age of 20, Teresa entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in Avila. There she suffered from much ill health, but also rather enjoyed the lax life of the Convent, at that time, along with the 150 nuns that made up the community. Visitors abounded. The enclosure was almost non-existent and the social life of Avila enjoyed the Convent as one of its focal points.

It was not until some 15 years later that, looking back, we can see the Holy Spirit taking hold of her life. By then she was being drawn so much closer to the Lord through prayer that she became determined to re-found the Carmelite way of life, in its radical dedication and its freedom from other attachments. In a manner which echoed the great achievements of St Claire of Assisi in the 13th Century, Teresa was determined that the first principle of her reform was to be that of 'absolute poverty and renunciation of property.' Then, having won approval from the highest authorities, in 1562, she began her programme of founding reformed Convents, starting in Avila with the Convent of St Joseph.

The way of life which then followed for her is well reflected in the Scripture readings of this Mass. From the First Reading we have a pattern of endless travel. Just as Paul and his companions, especially the young Timothy, travelled relentlessly, so too did Teresa. The disciples, we read, 'visited one town after another', Derbe, Lystra, Phyrgia, Mysia, Bithynia, Troas and on to Macedonia. Teresa's list is even longer. She founded Convents in Segovia, Salamanca, Seville, Palencia, Valladolid, Granada and other places too. She actually died on a journey from Burgos to Alba de Tomes. Like those first disciples she too was possessed of a restlessness in her desire for the work of the Lord.

And the Gospel too makes clear another calling of the disciple: to endure hardship, misunderstanding, rejection and persecution for the cause of Jesus himself. In those difficult years of opposition and obstruction which started in 1576, Teresa must surely have repeated to herself the words that we have just heard: 'A servant is not greater than her master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too.'

The greatest part of the story of Teresa, though, must surely lie in the intensity of love with which she would have spoken those words in the depth of her heart. For so long and for so many people she is recognised and welcomed as the great teacher of prayer. Under the impulse of the Holy Spirit she explored the most astonishing depth of prayer and yet retained the ability to speak of it in the most encouraging and helpful ways.

Who can be frightened of an invitation to contemplative prayer when it is described, as she described it, as 'a close sharing between friends ... taking time to be alone with Him who we know loves us.'  What could be more appealing!

Every one of us, I believe, has a real instinct for what is meant when she writes: 'For now I live a life unseen. The Lord has claimed me as His own.' In our quiet moments of prayer we aspire to that same sense of being entirely in the embrace of Jesus, of being safe, beyond disturbance, solely because of His love. Prayer is a matter of presence, not so much my striving for God but of God's love drawing me to Himself. And the fruit of prayer is always to be seen in the way we live, and, of course, in the way we die. No wonder that, as her death approached, she was able to say: 'The hour I have longed for has come. It is time for us to meet one another!' We are wise to pray for that same grace for ourselves and for those we love.

Perhaps of all the Books of the Bible the one that most fully explores prayer in the fashion of St Teresa is the Song of Songs, the book of love between the soul and the Lord. Words from this text enrich our Mass this morning. During the Offertory, very shortly, the choir will sing 'Come, then, my lovely one, come. For see the winter is past, the rains are over and gone ... the season of glad song has come' as the Lord reaches out to His beloved. And then, at the time of our Holy Communion, more beautiful words of simple delight as we welcome the Lord into our hearts: 'The turtle dove is heard in our land. The fig tree is forming its first figs and the blossoming vines give out their fragrance.' This music, too, comes to us from the land and the time of St Teresa. The composer, Francisco Guerrero, from Savile, is also her contemporary.

Our prayer this morning, then, is inspired by this great Saint, enriched by her words and framed by the music of this golden age of Spain. That age lives on and serves still to raise our minds and hearts to God, always thankful for the priceless gift of faith and the wonder it inspires. I thank the Ambassador and all at the Spanish Embassy for their initiative here, this morning, which I know arises from a genuine love of their land, of their heritage and especially from a love of their faith in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, a faith shared by us all.

Amen.

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