Monday, 21 September 2015

124: St Teresa of Avila 3/16: Christ the Groom

When we read St Teresa's books we are struck by something very unusual : the way she treats the Lord is reminiscent of the way a Spanish married woman would have interacted with her husband four hundred years ago. The level of intimacy and bold directness she had with Christ is staggering. Of course throughout the past twenty centuries of Christianity the idea that Jesus is the Groom is not a novel one. He identifies himself in the Gospel with that title. It is true as well to say that we often understand this expression more in a symbolic way rather than literally. We never consider it as being something real. Furthermore, St Teresa's way of writing is very lively, oral, direct and wholesome, so that reading her is like being a secret observer of her real life dealings with the Lord. What do we notice then? We see clearly that Jesus is her Spouse and that “the Groom” is not a beautiful exalting symbol but her simple daily reality.

We can very easily measure how today such a reality is uncommon and disturbing. To be frank one has two choices: either to conclude that she must be becoming mentally deranged or there is an unknown dimension in our faith which we need to explore. Since she is a saint, however, and not just any saint - she is a 'Doctor of the Church' (which underlines the huge trust the Church puts in her teaching) - this brings us to the second choice. It must also be added that it is not an easy choice to enter into this new world she is offering us. To her, all that we invest in a human relationship has to be involved in our relationship with Christ, and becomes a daily reality. This part of our heart – this lower and very human part of our heart – is destined as well to be given to Christ and will have its full share of the Infinite Love of Christ. In fact, one gains the impression of having made a mistake for having dedicated this part of our hearts to a human being! She seems to say to us: 'even this heart which wants to love and be loved, just as in the dream of any adolescent's heart, is to be invested in our relationship with Christ, is invited to experience Christ's Love'. This is very difficult to swallow!
With this in mind, even if we can overcome the initial psychological difficulty, the fact remains that this is too good to be true! Let us acknowledge then, that what she offers in every page of her writings is a 'love story with Christ', the possibility of 'falling in love with Christ': she offers us the Love of our Life! Indeed, the journey of growth in Love that she offers us has as a goal to reach 'spiritual marriage' with Jesus! Therefore we are not faced with a marginal element of her teaching: it is the very core!
Another difficulty now arises. Imagine we can convey this message to a woman – it is far easier for a woman to fall in love with Christ than for a heterosexual man to do so – how would we explain this concept to a man, either consecrated or lay?! On the one hand all this is quite overwhelming, not too politically correct, and on the other hand it is like squaring the circle.
This question is profound and exhilarating, but it has also to be acknowledged, very delicate. As long as the human being has a heart and will continue to feel this desire that God put in him to love and be loved, this question will touch him profoundly. However, our heart is made by whom? How is it made? And for which goal? Here we are talking about the whole human heart, all the human emotions and not only this elevated part that we normally give to God. The 'lower' part of this heart is the one that spontaneously we give to another human being. But this side of our heart is an integral part of our entire heart!
Our heart is made by God. It is made 'in his image and likeness'! The erotic part of our heart is also made 'in his image and likeness'. Some would argue that it is made according to a human dimension in the image and likeness of another human being! Definitely this is not so.. this is not true. Not only do the saints claim it, but God's word first states it: 'you shall love your God [in whose image and likeness your heart is made] with all your heart..'. He didn't say: 'you will give half of your heart to God and the other half to a human love'! He said: 'all your heart'! Why? Because he is capable of filling 'all our heart', otherwise, he would not have made it clear. This teaching is at the very core of God's message to the human being.
The fact is that God, in order to love us more 'authentically', in order to dwell in us, to unite himself to us, took on human nature. St Teresa will often speak about Jesus' human nature (see her Autobiography Chapter 22 and Chapter 7 on the Sixth Mansions), Not only did he take on a human nature, but he even got much closer to us: he gave himself to each one of us on the Cross: body, heart, soul, spirit, divinity and continues to give himself to us in the Eucharist. Isn't that the total gift of oneself? - And what is the definition of marriage? - The mutual gift of the spouses. Who is our real Spouse? Isn't it the one who is capable of giving us everything and who already has done so? In this sense the groom par excellence is Jesus. There is no greater and more total a gift than his!
From the first generation of Christians, Christ has been followed by souls avid for this love! Let us remember Mary Magdalen! And after her all the virgins martyrs, Cecilia, Lucy, Agnes,... Some of them, in fact, stated it very clearly that Christ was their real Spouse. Let us contemplate in detail, then, all the people who followed Christ: monks and nuns, starting with St Antony the Great. This exclusive love for Christ is an approach that is in itself simple where the human being understands that his heart is an immense dwelling place, made in the image and likeness of God and that God only, Christ-The Groom, is capable of filling. They understood that a certain way of loving one's neighbour is idolatry because he then takes the unique place reserved for God! They understood well the First Commandment: 'you shall love your God with all your soul, all your strength, all your heart'. For greater clarity one could also add: 'with all your emotions'.
In this light choice is not an option: either one loves God this way, as the Saints loved Him, or one loves a human being [one's neighbour]. Let us notice that God offers us 'love' in a unique equation: on the one hand he invites us in the first commandment to love him with all our heart, and on the other hand he invites us to love our neighbour as ourselves. Following the logic of the First commandment one would think that if he or she gave all his heart to God, there is nothing left to 'love with' for one's neighbour! While the surprise is that he has to love his neighbour and to love him 'as himself'. The two commandments are like squaring the circle! It is God Himself who says that our heart is created in his image! It is God Himself who says that we have to love him 'with all our heart'! It is God Himself who says implicitly that only He can fill all our heart! God Himself spoke. He never mentioned half-measures!
Human marriage, in consequence, Christian Sacramental Marriage, is not a mere concession derived from the first commandment. The spouse can never take in our heart the place (all the place) that in it belongs to God. It is written nowhere that one can reduce the First Commandment! The First Commandment is an absolute that nobody can diminish or get rid of. No doubt, this looks like an insoluble question. It takes us out of our comfort zone because we can't lie to ourselves. But finding ways to interpret it, diluting it, or finding ways to get around it without confronting the challenge is cowardly and treasonable.
It is in this sense that after her 'second conversion', when Christ appeared to St Teresa, He was perceived as the Groom, the Spouse and a jealous one at that (remember when he says to her: I don't want you to speak to human beings anymore!). It is not a matter of a kind 'symbol' to console the celibate! Just the very opposite. But without a conversion, without God's grace it is impossible to discover this dimension in Christ. The only thing we can say is that this dimension exists and that it is not an unhealthy psychological deviation, but rather it is integral to the heart of the life of the human being as he was created by God and saved by him.
St Teresa goes on to tell us that this is a unique experience, where we discover that Christ is expert at showing us and making us feel that 'falling in love with him' is the only way forward, when He makes us discover that He is really above other “loves” - that, in fact, no human love can be compared to His. She seems to invite whoever has not yet undergone this experience to humbly to make this prayer:

O Lord,
I have heard that you want to give yourself to me
like the real Spouse of my heart and of my life.
I have not experienced it yet,
but if you want to do so with me,
I leave the door of my heart ajar.”


What about men faced with this possible experience?

Within this question of having the experience of 'falling in love with Jesus' there is a subquestion: what about men? In fact, it is humanly speaking easier for a woman to fall in love with Christ than for a man! Here in a similar way the difficulty is huge!
In order to solve it, some will try to find solutions within a nuptial dimension with others: the Community, even Our Lady. But neither the Community nor Our Lady are what God wants to give us. The central question here in St Teresa's message concerns to 'fall in love with God'! Our heart is made in His very image and not in the image of the Community or Our Lady. Christ is the central object of our love according to St Teresa and He is at the same time God and man.
St Teresa only offers in an indirect way the answer to this difficulty. We will try to guess at it by reading between the lines of her writings. It will certainly become clearer when the last chapter of this book will be addressed.
Who, then, is the best disciple of Christ? Our Lady. She embodies in a perfect way both the feminine and the masculine dimension of every human being. So, there is no difficulty for a heterosexual man to contemplate Mary at the Annunciation and ask God to give him a heart like Mary's heart. He will be able to develop within himself that feminine side while perfectly remaining a man. God promises us this change, development and transformation: I will take away your heart of stone and put in its place a heart of flesh (See Ezekiel 36). This heart of flesh is this new heart capable of believing what we receive in Baptism, this heart is this marian feminine dimension of each and every disciple of Jesus, be he man or woman. In this sense, it is unavoidable for all of us who really want to follow Jesus till the end of our lives. Let us contemplate, for one, the manly Peter, a good man, generous, zealous: how does he follow Christ? On various occasions in fact we find the 'heart of stone' seems to be more active in him! During the last supper, for example, the 'heart of stone' is very much alive in him: he insists on wanting to follow Jesus his way, wanting to defend him, protect him, and even die for him. He does not yet really allow Mary's heart to envelop him totally, activating a deeper 'falling in Love' with Jesus. What is about to happen to him? He will hit the wall at full speed!
What, between the lines, St Teresa of Avila invites us to do in order to better understand this 'feminine dimension' is to contemplate Peter right after the Resurrection, when he will have to face Mary. She believed, hoped and waited for the Groom to Rise! She remained faithful to Jesus' Promise ('the Son of Man will Rise on the Third day') until the end. Peter says three times to a woman: woman I don't know Him! And now The Woman, the New Eve, the True Bride, the Wise Virgin, is about to teach Peter how to become a 'wise Virgin' as Jesus recommends (see Matthew 25:1-13). Peter goes through a radical about-face! Christ, by his Cross, broke Peter's heart of stone and gave him a heart that is made in the image of the first heart that comes out of his side: Mary's heart. This new heart is a 'heart of flesh', a heart where the feminine dimension is fully alive and alert.
St Teresa's answer to our question concerning men, consequently, is the following: it is necessary for men to allow Mary to develop within themselves in order to better follow Christ until the end. Isn't Mary's heart the best in the nuptial dimension? Isn't 'to fall in love with Christ' the only possibility given to us in Baptism - to fall madly, deeply in love with the Groom?
We can hear St Teresa saying: it seems to me that this works very well for men as well!


Let us stop here, gaze and ponder over the result, if such a deep change – like Peter's one after the Resurrection – were to spread more widely within the Church! We would love Jesus with greater power, deeper floods of love would flow from our heart, the erotic energy compressed in us finally finding a way to be elevated, purified, and then expressed! Trying to suppress our sexual tendencies and desire to love, is the worst error we can commit and the consequences are really ugly: it will backfire on us more forcibly. It is important to face and embrace the erotic dimension of the human being - men included - and to allow him or her to discover the absolute love of Christ-The-Groom. One would be able to see the powerful energy that would result; after all aren't mystics the most fruitful of people? They loved with all their heart. St Teresa's message, then, is clear to us. Chastity can only be preserved this way: accepting and learning to 'fall in love' with Christ and to count only on his grace and the intimacy with him. This is, furthermore, the great lesson of St Teresa's conversion (see previous chapter). This is why we need a more complete and clear teaching on the Prayer of the Heart in order to enter into intimacy with Christ and persevere in it.

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