Saturday, February 05, 2011

Misericordias Domini in Aeternum Cantabo

Print made by Hieronymus Wierix 1553 - 1619
Of painting by Brother Juan de la Miseria (d. 1616)
St Teresa of Avila of Jesus
1582 - 1614
12.6cm x 8cm
The British Museum, London

This Netherlandish print is based on the famous painting of St Teresa of Avila by Brother Juan de la Miseria who painted the only portrait of the Saint in 1576 while she was still alive and aged 61 years.

Her then Superior, Father Jerónimo Gracián caused the original to be made, as he says, 'to mortify her and because otherwise there would have been no portrait of her at all'

It was Father Gracián who commanded the saint to finish her account of the history of the Foundations of the Convents she had set up, the first version of which she finished on 14th November 1576

The Saint was not particularly happy with the finished portrait. She certainly seemed mortified by it.

It is said that when she saw it, she said laughingly to the artist, 'God forgive you, Brother John; after making me go through no one knows what, you have turned me out to be an ugly old hag'.

Brother Juan de la Miseria was an Italian who first came to Spain on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. He was probably trained in the workshop of Alonso Sanchez Coello. He remained at Santiago as a sculptor and afterwards became a hermit. Then the Council of Trent decreed that all hermits had to become members of religious orders. He did not know what to do. Many hermits took up the Rule of St Basil.

He was. on his way back to his hermitage when he met St. Teresa. She explained her Rule and became a lay brother of the Discalced Carmelite Convent at Ávila

In The Foundations Chapter 17 St Teresa described Brother Juan de la Miseria as "a great servant of God, but very simple in worldly matters".

The banner in the original painting and in the print carries the inscription: Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo (Ps 88 [89]: 2). [I will sing the mercies of the Lord forever].

It is a fitting banner for the great Doctor of Prayer.

It was she who coined the term "inner prayer" to describe the process whereby the person praying does not address God solely through the words of the text but also turns his whole inner being towards God.

And this week on Wednesday past Pope Benedict XVI began his new cycle of catecheses on the Doctors of the Church by beginning first with St. Teresa of Avila of Jesus, whom he described as "one of the highest examples of Christian spirituality of all time"

In an interview on a flight to Spain in Novemer 2010, the Pope said:

"Catholicism in the modern era was brought about above all thanks to Spain; figures such as St Ignatius of Loyola, St Teresa of Avila and St John of Avila are figures who really renewed Catholicism, who formed the features of modern Catholicism."

However at many times she did not have an easy time from the clerical authorities of her time. The Interior Castle was written during the time that she was confined by the Apostolic Delegate to remain in a single monastery, to make no new foundations and described her in his words as

“… a restless gadabout, a disobedient and contumacious woman who invented wicked doctrines and devotions, and … leaving her cloister against the mandate of the Council of Trent has gone about to teach others as though she were a ‘maestra’ in contradiction to the teaching of St. Paul who had forbidden women to teach.”

What then were the characteristics of Teresian spirituality ?

The Pope attempted a short summary:

"It is not easy to summarize in a few words the profound and complex Teresian spirituality. I would like to mention some essential points.

In the first place, St. Teresa proposes the evangelical virtues as the basis of all Christian and human life -- in particular, detachment from goods or evangelical poverty (and this concerns all of us); love for one another as the essential element of community and social life; humility as love of the truth; determination as fruit of Christian audacity; theological hope, which she describes as thirst for living water -- without forgetting the human virtues: affability, veracity, modesty, courtesy, joy, culture.

In the second place, St. Teresa proposes a profound harmony with the great biblical personalities and intense listening to the Word of God. She felt in consonance above all with the bride of the Canticle of Canticles and with the Apostle Paul, as well as with the Christ of the passion and with the Eucharistic Jesus.

The saint stressed how essential prayer is; to pray, she said, "means to frequent with friendship, because we frequent him whom we know loves us" ("Life," 8, 5). St. Teresa's idea coincides with the definition that St. Thomas Aquinas gives of theological charity, as "amicitia quaedam hominis ad Deum," a type of friendship of man with God, who first offered his friendship to man; the initiative comes from God (cf. Summa Theologiae II-II, 23, 1).

Prayer is life and it develops gradually at the same pace with the growth of the Christian life: It begins with vocal prayer, passes to interiorisation through meditation and recollection, until it attains union of love with Christ and with the Most Holy Trinity.

Obviously, it is not a development in which going up to the higher steps means leaving behind the preceding type of prayer, but is rather a gradual deepening of the relationship with God, which envelops our whole life. More than a pedagogy of prayer, St. Teresa's is a true "mystagogy": She teaches the reader of her works to pray while praying herself with him; frequently, in fact, she interrupts the account or exposition to burst out in a prayer.

Another topic dear to the saint is the centrality of the humanity of Christ.

In fact, for Teresa, the Christian life is a personal relationship with Jesus, which culminates in union with him through grace, love and imitation.

Hence the importance that she attributes to meditation on the passion and the Eucharist, as presence of Christ, in the Church, for the life of every believer and as heart of the liturgy. St. Teresa lived an unconditional love for the Church: She manifested an intense "sensus Ecclesiae" in face of incidents of division and conflict in the Church of her time. She reformed the Carmelite Order with the intention of serving and defending better the "Holy Roman Catholic Church," and she was prepared to give her life for it (cf. "Life," 33, 5).

A final essential aspect of Teresian doctrine that I would like to underscore is perfection, as the aspiration of the whole Christian life and the final end of it. The saint had a very clear idea of "fullness" in Christ, relived by the Christian. At the end of the course of "The Interior Castle," in the last "stanza" Teresa describes this fullness, realized in the indwelling of the Trinity, in union with Christ through the mystery of his humanity."

For more on Teresian spirituality see Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J who once gave a Conference talk on St. Teresa of Avila and the Carmelite Reform and can be accessed by following the link