At primary school I learned a song that went, “Trees are green, Trees are brown/ autumn leaves come tumbling down,” but because a girl called Theresa Green lived across the street, I sang the words as printed above, imagining that they paid tribute to the variety of Glasgow Theresas – of which there were many amongst the Roman Catholic population, most of them called after St Theresa of Lisieux, a smaller number if any, after St Teresa of Avila.
And now there’s to be another St. Theresa, the Albanian nun whom all the world knows as Mother Theresa of Calcutta/ Kolkata.
I like saints but I’ve never been able to muster much enthusiasm for Theresa of Lisieux, with her visions of the Virgin, which seem to me to be the worst form of Catholic hysteria. Teresa of Avila is an altogether more interesting person, who established the more rigorous branch of Carmelite nuns, the “shoeless” order, in 16th century Spain, and recorded her spiritual adventures, exploring their meaning in a number of books. She became notorious through her description of an angel thrusting a spear into her heart and arousing in her an agony of pain and pleasure. The depiction of this by Bernini in a famous work called the “Ecstasy of St Teresa” which can only be called orgasmic, established this image of her, rather than of her identity as one of the few female doctors of the Catholic Church. She was part of a movement in European Christianity, which emphasised real experience of God, and suggested disciplines which might lead to such experience. The Ignatian Spritual Exercises, which may have been known by Teresa, are another example of this movement, as indeed in a very different way, is the Lutheran Reformation.
I think that Mother Theresa would have found the experience of her great namesake puzzling, as she was honest enough to acknowledge that when she prayed she experienced nothing but silence: God did not communicate with her. Indeed I think that her experience of the loneliness of prayer led to her closer identification with the Jesus of Gethsemane and the cross, who prayed to be spared suffering, got no reply, and was abandoned in his dying. She believed that in this world human beings experienced God in suffering more truly than in prayer and worship. She was a tough cookie who believed in a tough God who gave his human children a tough time. That’s why people could criticise her for being more concerned with tending the suffering of the poor, than with how it might be prevented. She believed that their suffering was holy.
Although I totally disagree with the practical policy she deduced from her religious experience, I can identify with her honesty about the absence of God. When I pray God does not answer me in any mystical way. I experience nothing analogous to a reply, except the silence, which I imagine says to me, “No, I am not here; and no I can’t arrange the universe to match your prayer for that sick child, except through people, some of whom may be acting out of real goodness and others out of a desire to further their career. Get off your knees and at least make sure you’ve still got a national health service.”
In other words, in my faith, God not only does not become part of human experience, he/she does not act in the world either – which means that those who believe in the God of Jesus have to get on, as he did, with doing what good we can, here and now. Mother Theresa certainly acted as if God were not avaialble, persuading churches and bullying millionaires to support her mission. We cannot step outside of our story about God to meet God, because the story tells us that the One God is beyond our experience and beyond the universe. Because God is not here, our experience of God is not some specially cultivated unworldly reality, but the whole of our experience in the world which tells us that God is not here. Therefore we must be open to the Holy Spirit, namely the courage to change what can be changed, the serenity to endure what cannot be changed and the wisdom to know the difference, along with our fellow beings, as Mother Theresa did, as Jesus did.