Interview with St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross
This a contemporary Christine midrash, please refer to this midrash explanation for more details.
Reporter: St. Teresa, I understand that you were born in Spain in the mid-1500s. Could you tell us a little about growing up?
St. Teresa: I was born into an upper-middle-class family. Even in my youth, I enjoyed praying in silence. I was very generous with my time and money to the poor. In my teens, I became worldly. I had lots of friends because of my natural charm. My father sent me to a convent for education, which was traditional for wealthy people.
Reporter: Can you tell us about the experience that changed your perspective?
St. Teresa: Yes, I got a severe case of Malaria and came close to death. My extreme pain triggered divine visions and peace. I bore these sufferings with great composure, in fact with joy, except at first when the pain was too severe. What followed seemed to hurt less. I was completely surrendered to the will of God even if he intended to burden me like this forever….. Without him I truly could not have borne so much with so much joy.
Reporter: What happened when you told others about your visions and peace despite the pain?
St. Teresa: The other sisters wondered at my God-given patience. No one believed in my visions. I lost confidence in them. I also stopped praying, which effectively caused my spiritual life to end.
Reporter: Then how did you turn that around?
St. Teresa: I had a very dry twenty years without the kind of peace I had in my illness. A priest friend challenged and convinced me to go back to prayer. I fell to my knees and asked God to come back into my life.
Reporter: Was that an easy process for you?
St. Teresa: Initially, I had difficulty sitting through prayers. The end of the hour’s prayer couldn’t come soon enough. Eventually, God responded, returning me to near the place where I was when I was dealing with my Malaria.
Reporter: When you say near the place you where dealing with Malaria, what do you mean by that?
St. Teresa: I had to open myself to the possibility that what I experienced earlier was truly a mystical reality of God’s unconditional love. I began to understand that a relationship with God was two-way. I felt an ever-growing sense of oneness with God becoming absorbed in deep contemplation.
Reporter: Please hold that thought of contemplative prayer, so I have an opportunity to ask St. John to bring us to the same point in his journey. St. John, could you tell us about your path to meeting St. Teresa?
St. John: My father married for love, not for wealth. He was disowned by his family and lost all his inheritance. He died when I was young, so we lived in poverty, and I was always hungry.
Reporter: What did you do to survive?
St. John: At 14, I took a job caring for hospital patients who suffered from incurable diseases and madness. In this suffering, I learned to search for beauty and happiness not in the world but in God.
Reporter: Is this what drew you into becoming a priest?
St. John: Yes, at the hospital I began to study with the Jesuits. It was then I uncovered my artistic desires, eventually writing poetry which brought me in contact with the local Carmelites. They sent me to the University of Salamanca so I could explore with others using poetry to express the love of God.
Reporter: Could you give an example of one of these poems from your time at the University?
A little shepherd alone, in pain,
His soul no joy can move;
His thought is all for his shepherdess,
His heart is lost in love.
But he weeps not because of love’s deep wound,
Laments not at his lot;
Though the wound has cloven his heart in two–
He weeps that he is forgot.
Reporter: Becoming a Carmelite must have been wonderful for you.
St. John: Yes and no, my poetry drew me further still into the silence of being with God. I felt that to fully immerse in the experience of being with God, I had to live in the silence of the Carthusians.
Reporter: Yet, you are a Carmelite.
St. John: Yes, there was a long moment of thinking of becoming a Carthusian. St. Teresa attended one of my early Masses and we discussed my Homily and a deeper Carmelite call. She was almost 30 years older than me, but her desires were much like mine.
Reporter: And this encounter with St. Teresa caused you to remain a Carmelite.
St. John: Yes, and more. She had already experienced internal silence with God. She asked me to come to her new convent to serve her nuns. It allowed me to be alone with God. To maximize this experience, I gave up everything. I ate very little and spent every possible minute with God.
Reporter: This must have been difficult for you.
St. John: It was; however, I wanted to pursue it all cost. Unfortunately, it was contrary to what others were doing in the Carmelites. Eventually, what I was doing attracted others to the same way of life, but many others disapproved. They began to ridicule my ways, which to them was outside the boundaries of our faith.
Reporter: I can see how being in a Cloistered convent could give you this freedom. St. Teresa, did you approve of what St. John was doing?
St Teresa: Yes, I encouraged and helped him experience God in his unique way in prayer. While my experiences differed from St. John’s, they pointed to the same Holiness.
Reporter: This deep prayer must have been profound. Was there any fruit from your experiences?
St. Teresa: At the age of 43, I decided with Jesus’s guidance that I wanted to found a new order re-committing to the values of poverty and simplicity.
Reporter: That must have been challenging, considering, at the time, convents were a place filled with those from wealth.
St. Teresa: Yes, there was tremendous opposition, and I was separated from pursuing this idea for a period of time. With the support of some Priest friends, I was allowed to set up our first convent.
Reporter: Did this also allow you to express your relationship with God?
St. Teresa: Yes, when I was 47 years old, I was asked to start writing about my relationship. It was a difficult process because how can you write about something so personal? I put many thoughts into poetry and books meant for my fellow sisters. Eventually, I came to understand that this gift needed to be refined.
Reporter: What do you mean by being refined?
St. Teresa: The more I understood prayer, the better I could write about it, especially its fruit. As the years went by, I could better articulate these thoughts. Ultimately, I was able to write a book that helps people on their own journeys, even in your time. At times in the book, it may seem that I contradict what I have said elsewhere. This is not surprising, because almost fifteen years had passed since my first writings, and perhaps the Lord had given me a clearer realization of these matters than I had at first
Reporter: Would you share one of your thoughts with us?
St. Teresa: You may have heard one of them put into song:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands, no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which Christ looks out his compassion to the world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.
Reporter: Your book titled Interior Castle is considered a spiritual classic and, like you say, helps people in their journeys. Can you share some of the thoughts from this book?
St. Teresa: Everyone’s journey is unique, but as I mentioned comparing my journey to St. John, there are many common threads. I describe the journey as rooms deeper and higher into a castle
The door to the castle is prayer and reflection
Since God has given it such great dignity, permitting it to wander at will through the rooms of the castle, from the lowest to the highest. Let it not force itself to remain for very long in the same mansion, even the one of self-knowledge
Union is as if in a room there were two large windows through which the light streamed in it enters in different places, but it all becomes one.
God calls to us in countless little ways all the time. Through illnesses and suffering and through sorrow, he calls to us. Through a truth glimpsed fleetingly in a state of prayer, he calls to us.
You must not build upon foundations of prayer and contemplation alone, for unless you strive after the virtues and practice them, you will never grow to be more.
On this journey to the center of one’s life, the self is born as God is met.
Reporter: Your relationship with God seems quite complex and full of lessons. This experience must have brought you great joy in the contact.
St. Teresa: There were many lessons that exposed the need for me to remain humble. Once, when traveling to one of my convents, I was knocked off my donkey and fell into the mud, injuring my leg. I said to the Lord that you couldn’t have picked a worse time for this to happen. Why would you let this happen? And the response I heard in prayer was, That is how I treat my friends. I answered, And that is why you have so few of them!
Reporter: It sounds like with this kind of humility and trust in Jesus, your convents multiplied and flourished.
St. Teresa: Yes, in the last twenty years of my life, with guidance and help, we established 17 convents.
Reporter: Was St. John involved in this process?
St. Teresa: Once I got past the original struggles and trials of reforming the order, I got my bishop and papal authorization to create the same structure for men. I choose St. John and my friend St. Anthony of Jesus to establish the first men’s convent. St. John was a great teacher and directed the interior life of the movement.
Reporter: You have mentioned help from Priest friends several times, including one who helped turn your life around by prayer.
St. Teresa: Yes, I did have help and guidance in my transformation, especially from Saint Peter of Alcantara. He was the one that allowed me to finally explore the visions not as some special event but rather as an awakening by God to purpose. With his spiritual guidance, I was able to transform outward expression into writing, reformation, and creation of convents.
Reporter: St. John, it seems your experiences have these same common threads. For instance, you had your detractors. How did you deal with them?
St. John: That did not go well. They kidnapped me, put me in a dark cell, gave me very little food, took my Bible, and did not give me Eucharist. Contrary to what they thought, everything was not lost.
Reporter: How could that not be everything?
St. John: Within this darkness, I found an even deeper relationship with God. I was able to write poetry on little scraps of paper. Peace washed away all disruptions; I mystically entered Heaven through contemplative prayer.
Reporter: Yet, like St. Teresa, you helped create Discalced Carmelite Monasteries all over Europe?
St. John: After many months of captivity, I was helped in an escape, returning to where Teresa with all my new insights. She then asked me to be the Spiritual Director of all her nuns. As you heard from her, with Papal permission, Teresa and I could move about freely expanding the mission of the Discalced Carmelite order.
Reporter: With all this activity, how could you put your thoughts and prayers into writing?
St. John: My little scraps of paper from the cell were lost. However I was able to memorize what I started. At the convent, my days started with deep prayer, followed by writing. Christ filled me with unexplainable Grace, His energy within flowed outward as love.
Reporter: Can you give us an example of something you wrote?
St. John: This is a poem titled The Dark Night of the Soul that surfaced from the darkness of my cell:
One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
— ah, the sheer grace! —
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
— ah, the sheer grace! —
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.
3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
or did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.
4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
— him I knew so well —
there in a place where no one appeared.
5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.
6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.
7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.
8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.
Reporter: This is very deep. How can we be expected to understand it?
St. John: I wrote a whole book to explain the poem, followed by many other similar poems and related subjects such as The Spiritual Canticle, The Living Flame of Love, and Ascent of Mount Carmel. Many other writers have translated and interpreted what I wrote.
Reporter: Some of your quotes are just as deep:
In the twilight of life, God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human successes but on how well we have loved.
To love is to be transformed into what we love. To love God is, therefore, to be transformed into God.
God leads every soul by a separate path.
Reporter: Is this separate path of every soul what led you also to focus as much time as you did on Spiritual Direction?
St. John: Yes, many thoughts about this subject were able to be preserved and written down, such as:
The virtuous soul that is alone and without a master (a spiritual director) is like a burning coal; it will grow colder rather than hotter.
To guide the soul in the purity of faith through all its natural and supernatural apprehensions, in freedom from deception and every obstacle, to union with God.
Directors should reflect that they themselves are not the chief agent, guide, and mover of souls in this matter, but the principal guide is the Holy Spirit, who is never neglectful of souls and they themselves are instruments for directing these souls to perfection through faith and the law of God, according to the spirit given by God to each one.
This is the ordinary procedure in the state of contemplation until one arrives at the quiet state: the soul never remains in one state, but everything is ascent and descent.
I should like to persuade spiritual persons that the road leading to God does not entail a multiplicity of considerations, methods, manners, and experiences–though in their own way these may be a requirement –but demands only the one thing necessary; true self denial, exterior and interior, through surrender of self both to suffering for Christ and to annihilation in all things.
Reporter: St. Teresa, it seems like you also have thoughts on Spiritual Direction. Can you share some with us?
St. Teresa: It is a great advantage for us to be able to consult someone who knows us, so that we may learn to know ourselves.
The Lord will give you a director if you are really humble and desire to meet with the right person.
It is a great encouragement to see that things which were thought impossible are possible to others and how easily these others do them. It makes us feel that we may emulate their flights and venture to fly ourselves, as the young birds do when their parents teach them; they are not yet ready for great flights, but they gradually learn to imitate their parents.
The highest perfection consists not in interior favors or in great raptures or in visions or in the spirit of prophecy, but in the bringing of our wills so closely into conformity with the will of God that as soon as we realize he wills anything, we desire it ourselves with all our might, and take the bitter with the sweet, knowing that to be His Majesty’s will.
God continually offers us divine intimacy and by this time the person has accepted this offer and has done and continues to do all in his or her power to be open to receive this gift of God.
Although it is necessary in the beginning that we should be very reserved, controlled by the discretion and authority of a director; but we must take care that he be one who does not teach us to crawl like toads, nor one who may be satisfied when the soul shows itself fit only to catch lizards. Humility must always go before: so that we may know that this strength can come out of no strength of our own.
Reporter: For both of you, Spiritual Direction seems to be a combination of someone experienced in guidance but, more important the Holy Spirit helping to focus on a close prayerful relationship with God.
St. Teresa: Having a little guidance helps us understand the Holy Spirit’s action in our lives. Prayer is needed to build friendship with God. Prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything.
St. John: I agree, however softly we speak, God is so close to us that he can hear us; nor do we need wings to go in search of him, but merely to seek solitude and contemplate him within ourselves, without being surprised to find such a good Guest there.
Reporter: Thank you both very much for being with us today. Perhaps you can continue to be and join us in spirit as we further explore Spiritual Direction.
Note: I offer this midrash free of charge provided you have asked for and received permission, agreeing to reference www.immersiveprayer.org as the creator of the midrash. I also ask the same of use of any re-interpretation and humbly ask that you do not do so without deep prayer. There are other midrash’s here some of which have been utilized in a multi-person skit format.