St. Teresa of Avila and the True Vine

This was given as a homily for a Mass for the Feast of Saint Teresa of Avila for the Apostoli Viae Connecticut Chapter at Saint Mary’s Church, New Haven, Connecticut, October 15, 2021

I remember seeing a vineyard for the very first time in Europe. I was traveling on a ten-day pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi on a train as a student of Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program in February, 2005. The sun glistened through the mountains upon the vines and the grapes. It was one of the most beautiful sites of nature I saw on that pilgrimage. Little did I know at the time that this sight would signify the beginning of a formative period of prayer that would occur and last for months. This period would culminate in my own discernment and realization of the call to follow Jesus through embracing the vocation to the priesthood. 

Who and what is the vine that we root our lives upon? Tonight we celebrate the feast of Saint Teresa of Avila, founder of the Discalced Carmelite Reform, mystic, and Doctor of the Church. Teresa’s life and spirituality are at the heart of the call that the Lord has placed upon our hearts – to live, light, and lead the way of contemplation for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Teresa of Avila, in her life and her teaching on prayer and contemplation, reminds me of the importance of allowing my entire life to abide in the true vine, Jesus Christ.

Teresa lived during a time of great chaos in the Church and the world not unlike our own. The Protestant Reformation was raging in Europe. Evangelization and colonization efforts were being launched by the Portuguese and the Spanish Empires in the Americas. Souls were falling left and right from the faith. Ignorance and corruption were in abundance. The joys and trials of her age and her own life offered Teresa motives for prayer, love, and sacrifice. It was in this desire for intimacy with Jesus that she became a branch of He who is the true vine (Cf. Jn 15:1). Teresa’s life and teachings would become an inexhaustible fountain of joy, intimacy, and salvation through the contemplative life that would become a bedrock in the mystical tradition of the life of the Church. How then did Teresa seek to bring souls to Christ? Through the spousal union of prayer and the sanctification of her soul. This divine intimacy and union with Christ was the desire of Teresa’s heart above all else and was the fuel behind the Discalced Carmelite reform:

Anyone who has not begun to pray, I beg, for the love of the Lord, not to miss so great a blessing. There is no place here for fear, but only desire. For even if a person fails to make progress, or to strive after perfection, so that he may merit the consolations and favors given to the perfect by God, yet he will gradually gain a knowledge of the road to Heaven. And if he perseveres, I hope in the mercy of God, whom no one has ever taken for a Friend without being rewarded; and mental prayer, in my view, is nothing but a friendly way of dealing, in which we often find ourselves talking in private with Him whom we know loves us. (Vol. I of Life of the Holy Mother Teresa of Jesus, trans. E. Allison Peers (Sheed & Ward, London, 1950 ch. 8, p. 50.)

For Teresa, prayer begins and is fruitful by abiding in Jesus. It starts with vocal prayer and passes through the heart and our way of living our faith by means of meditation and contemplative recollection until it attains perfect loving union with Christ and with the Holy Trinity (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, “St. Teresa of Avila,” February 2, 2011).

This call to prayer is at the heart of being a disciple of Jesus and is meant for everyone.  Teresa then goes on to describe how prayer grows in the normal life of faith:

Oh Lord of heaven and earth, how is it possible that even while in this mortal life one can enjoy you with so special a friendship?… May you be blessed, Lord, because we do not lose anything through your fault. Along how many paths, and how many ways, by how many methods you show us love! With trials, with a death so harsh, with torments, suffering offenses every day and then pardoning; and not only with these deeds do you show this love, but with words so capable of wounding the soul in love with you that you say to them in this Song of Songs and teach the soul what to say to you…My Lord, I do not ask you for anything else in life but that ‘you kiss me with the kiss of your mouth,’ and that you do so in such a way that although I may want to withdraw from this friendship and union, my will may always, Lord my life, be subject to your will and not depart from it ( Meditations on the Song of Songs 3:14-15. Taken from Drink of the Stream: Prayers of Carmelites. Translated by Penny Hickey, OCDS, San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2002, 73-74.).

Teresa of Avila teaches that the transforming union of prayer that leads the individual believer to spiritual marriage with God bears fruit in leading others to that same union in prayer and works in service to the Church. It is the fruitfulness of divine union that she emphasizes as the principal and last end to be attained. This shows the link between the contemplative life and the apostolate, that the ultimate meaning and fruitfulness of the life of faith can happen when it has its foundation first in prayer and then in right action (P. Marie-Eugene, OCD, I Want to See God, 131-132).

If we abide in Jesus through the grace of contemplative prayer, he will give us a participation in the mysteries of his life in the ordinary events of our own living of the faith. This participation will include the sharing of the sentiments of his heart, including a loving desire and care for the Church and all humanity as well as a participation in the suffering and death that he received in his passion from sins of the entire world(P. Marie-Eugene, OCD, I Want to See God, 132). After offering his priestly prayer for the Church, Jesus goes into the garden of Gethsemane and offers Himself for our salvation. He who is infinite purity offers himself to the torments of sin. Prostrate on the ground under the weight of the sin of the world Jesus frees us and defeats sin, death, and Satan through love. Praying in painful anguish and sweating blood, he secures the fruitfulness and efficacy of his prayer of union for the apostles and for us. Elijah the prophet, the father of the Carmelite order, also foreshadowed this same mystery fulfilled by Jesus by groaning painfully in prayer under the weight of the sin of Israel while in the cave of Horeb. His painful cry of prayer would later become the foundation of Carmelite spirituality in its distinctive forms, “with zeal I have been zealous for the Lord God of Hosts.” (1 Kgs 19:14)   Teresa, like Elijah and Jesus before her, would also weep and moan in her prayer for the sins of the church and the world: “I was so afflicted by the loss of so many souls that I do not know what to do. I withdrew into a hermitage and wept tears in abundance” ( Foundations, 1, Peers II, 3. Taken from I Want To See God, 132).

She would also be reminded by Jesus himself of the sharing she would have in his passion for the sake of the salvation of souls by her embracing the contemplative life in the bonds of spiritual marriage. “Behold this nail. It is a sign that from today onward you shall be my bride…henceforward you shall regard my honor…as that of my very bride” (Relations, 35; Peers 1, 352. Taken from I Want to See God, 126).

All the faithful by the fact of their baptism in the graces of contemplation are in some way called to continue the prayer of Jesus at Gethsemane for the sake of his Church and for the salvation of souls.  Our fidelity to Jesus will be lived out by being receptive to his grace in the different ways that we are called by the Lord while living in the world. This fidelity will lead us not only to the purification of our own souls but also to be consumed with flames of divine love.  Like the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, we are called to offer our lives to God’s majesty that ardent, zealous, passionate prayer that brings salvation and purification to both our souls and the souls of the entire church.  This call to contemplative prayer even includes praying and doing penance for all the faithful, especially our priests and pastors in their own vulnerabilities, weaknesses, failures, and sins. This is so that they can bear the fruit of salvation, conversion, sanctification, and divine union that Jesus wants to bear through them in their own prayer, priestly ministry, and sacrifice alongside all the baptized (I Want To See God, 132-133).

There is a danger in the life of faith and of prayer when we reduce our relationship with Jesus just to personal action and accomplishments alone.  We can face this temptation when we merely react impulsively to darkness, trial, and difficulties. We can face it when we are tempted to compromise who we are for worldly acclaim at the expense of being faithful to Jesus. This temptation to activism can also pose a risk of clinging solely to our own preferences, consolations, or egos alone. It risks cutting us off eternally from he who is the true vine and the union with Him that he made us to share in.  Teresa also warns us of this danger:

How our will deviates its inclination from that which is the will of God. He wants us to love the truth; we love the lie. He wants us to desire the eternal; we, here below, lean toward what comes to an end. He wants us to desire sublime and great things; we, here below, desire base and earthly things. He would want us to desire only what is secure; we, here below, love the dubious. Everything is a mockery… except beseeching God to free us from these dangers forever and draw us at last away from every evil… What does it cost us to ask for a great deal? We are asking it of one who is powerful… His name be forever hallowed in heaven and on earth, and may his will be always done in me. Amen (Way of Perfection, 42:2, 4. Taken from Drink From the Stream: Prayers of Carmelites, 72).

Our lives as disciples of Jesus are not just about our own interests, consolations, and pet projects alone. They are about abiding in the truth of divine union with the Lord in love with every fiber of our being. This is attained by cooperating with grace through embracing the life of prayer faithfully while living in the world. In this, we remain in Him and He in us and we bear the fruit of salvation and perfection that He longs us to bear for the sake of His church (cf. Jn 15:1-8). So we pray to St. Teresa of Avila on this her feast day, alongside her companion, St. John of the Cross, St. Elijah the Prophet, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and St. Joseph that we may ever abide faithfully in the One True Vine, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and so bear the fruit of his love both in this life and eternally in heaven. 

Photo by Jaime Casap on Unsplash.

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