Confessions of a She-Geek

August 21, 2013

Do You Hear What I Hear?

One thing I find interesting about The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself is how the author uses her life story more as a framing device for discussing spirituality than an opportunity to talk about herself. I’m not saying that Teresa removes herself from the equation (although I get the sense that if she thought she could get away with it, she would have); more that she picks and chooses anecdotes specifically to illustrate what happens when faith grows and one’s connection to God deepens.

Early in the book Teresa focuses on the fundamental concepts, describing how to lay a solid foundation of faith through prayer. There are several types of prayer, Teresa explains, and people will progress at different speeds and achieve different levels of connections with God. Most people will be able to reach a point of inner calm, where they connect to the Spirit within them. These people will be rewarded with gifts of the Spirit and will happily remain at that point of spiritual development.

A few people, like Teresa, will have deeper, more mystical spiritual experiences. As Teresa’s development progressed, she began to “hear” and “see” God. Teresa says that this doesn’t mean hearing and seeing with physical senses, nor is she referring to the mental “voice” that we hear when we’re thinking. The “hearing” is more like suddenly knowing or understanding something that she would otherwise never have known or understood.

The “seeing” is more like becoming aware of someone whose presence cannot be determined by physical senses: “[One day while I was at prayer] I saw Christ at my side – or, to put it better, I was conscious of Him, for I saw nothing with the eyes of the body or the eyes of the soul… I most clearly felt that He was all the time on my right, and was a witness of everything I was doing.”

She describes invisible light and inaudible sounds, and struggles with finding a way to fully convey the experience to her priest and the other sisters in her order. When her priest asked Teresa how she could be sure that this was real; that it was God’s presence, Teresa could only say that she just knew it somehow. I can imagine that must have been frustrating, but it also makes sense that someone who’d progressed to a point in spiritual development that most people will not reach, would struggle to express what it was like.

It reminds me of the scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where McCoy asks a newly-resurrected Spock to describe the experience. Spock replies that he couldn’t do that because McCoy had no frame of reference, and therefore no words would be able to explain it in a manner that McCoy would grasp. To paraphrase McCoy’s response, McCoy would need to die himself in order to understand Spock’s description.

How do you explain the color blue to someone who is blind from birth? The best you can do is look for a metaphor; something within the listener’s experience that might get the concept across. But when push comes to shove, the only way to see what blue looks like is by seeing it. It seems to me that this was what Teresa ran into. She knew of no words to fully express something that was so far out of most people’s experience, so she used the words see and hear as metaphors in an attempt to make herself understood. But she was frustrated, because these words fell short.

When you consider that Teresa is describing communing with God, is it any wonder that words failed her? That she was unable to explain because she was experiencing God on a deeper, less-filtered level than the average person? According to the Bible, when God manifested to humans, He used different methods. For Moses, it was a burning bush. Other people had different experiences. Was this because the interactions were tailor-made for the humans involved?

One reason I love TV shows like Eli Stone and Joan of Arcadia is because they explore this concept: how different people experience God. In Joan of Arcadia, God puts it this way: “I don’t look like this. I don’t look like anything you’d recognize. You can’t see me. I don’t sound like this. I don’t sound like anything you’d recognize. You see, I’m beyond your experience. I take this form because you’re comfortable with it, it makes sense to you. And if I’m “snippy” it’s because you understand snippy. Do ya get it?”

This actually meshes with Teresa’s account: it’s clear that the people around Teresa experienced God in ways very different from her. Parenting experts say that parents have a different relationship with each of their children. What works with one child will not work with another. And parents will get the best response when they use an approach that fits the child in question. I think the concept translates pretty well to prayer. If prayer is connecting to/communicating with the Father, it makes sense that the Father will interact with each child in a manner that best fits the child.

That’s something to keep in mind.

August 10, 2013

So What’s the Point?

As can be gathered from my posts, a recurring theme in The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself is praying and service to God regardless of what you might get out of it. While Teresa never denies that God does reward and bless those who serve him, she emphasizes that this should not be the prime motivator.

I’ve been wrestling with this concept for the past several days, trying to wrap my mind around what that really means for day-to-day existence. What is the point of serving God, really? The obvious response is that we serve because serving God is pleasing to Him, and pleasing God is A Good Thing.

Then I got to thinking, but what does serving God really mean? What form does it take? Prayer and worship, yes – but also providing assistance and comfort to our fellow human beings. Yet the act of helping other people helps us feel better about ourselves and the world in general. And prayer and worship help calm and center us, contributing to our sense of well-being. So while these things are pleasing to God, it seems inevitable that we will benefit as well – whether we plan to or not. We’re blessed despite ourselves, regardless of our intentions.

Yesterday one of my brothers and I were having an e-mail conversation and somehow got on the topic of It’s a Wonderful Life. My brother hates this movie. He sees it as the story of a good man engaged in a life-long struggle to do the right thing and help other people, only to be sucked dry and beaten down in the process. There’s no retribution for the bad guy, and the good guy gets nothing but trouble for his efforts.

I can see where he’s coming from, but since It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite movies of all time, I felt compelled to mount a defense. As I composed my reply, it occurred to me that I’d never really examined my fondness for this film. In trying to articulate my thoughts to my brother, I discovered something surprising.

This film which I’ve cherished for years explores the same theme that I’ve been mulling over: serve God (which much of the time manifests as serving others), and there’s a good chance that you will reap some benefits in the process. Don’t do it for the benefits themselves, but enjoy them.

When the movie opens, we see George Bailey growing up in a small town, wanting nothing more than to get out of what he sees as a confining, stifling environment. He dreams of traveling the world, then going to college and becoming a world-famous architect. Due to events beyond George’s control, he never gets to do these things.

Instead of becoming an architect, George winds up running the savings and loan that his father started. This wasn’t what George wanted, but he did it to honor his father’s wishes. The savings and loan stays because George recognizes that it’s something the townspeople need, even though George would rather be doing something else. Understandably, George isn’t seeing much benefit to himself in all this; he has little to show for all the hard work.

But the benefits are there. They take the form of the loyalty, friendship, and love from the people around George. He doesn’t recognize these benefits, possibly because he’s too close to them, or maybe because they’re not easily seen and measured. But when George is at his darkest time, his friends and loved ones rally around him. They’ve got his back, even though George didn’t realize it. When he needed help, it was there – and likely wouldn’t have been if George hadn’t spent his life helping the people around him. George’s service was rooted in wanting to honor his father’s wishes and to help others. But ultimately the good that George did came back to him.

In thinking this through I can’t help wondering if true altruism is really possible. We seem hard-wired to feel better about ourselves when we help other people, which encourages us to give more help, which adds to the sense of well-being, and so on. It’s an upward spiral. And really, where’s the down side of this? That we feel good about ourselves and help the people around us?

It seems to me that such an arrangement would be very pleasing to God – even a form of service, by building His Kingdom on Earth. Serve God, by helping others, which makes us feel good about ourselves, which encourages us to help others more, which increases the service to God. I’m not sure it matters where in the cycle you start, because in serving others you can’t help but serve God, and in serving God and others, you can’t help but feel good about yourself.

So the initial motivation becomes a moot point, because it’s all going to happen anyway. “Do it because I said so” leads to “hey, this feels pretty good”, which leads to more doing. Oh, that’s tricky.

August 4, 2013

Oh, Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble

Humility is a recurring theme in The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself. Teresa describes true humility as being essential in preparing oneself for spiritual development. Self-examination, she says, is crucial to achieving and maintaining this state of humility.

As Dr. Eric Elnes of Darkwood Brew said in a 2012 webcast, “You really can’t  move forward in this whole life of spirituality unless you are also willing to be broken apart.” Although used in a broader context regarding what it is to be a Christian, the sentiment applies here, as well. Knowing who we truly are, faults and all, makes it possible for us to approach God honestly and without self-delusion getting in the way of truth.

At the same time, Teresa says, we must avoid the pitfall of questioning God’s desire to connect with us. While it’s natural to wonder what God could possibly get out of such a relationship, we must not use that as an excuse to avoid working toward a deeper connection with the Maker of All Things.

It put me in mind of an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street where a police detective comments that he can’t figure out what motivation led the suspect to commit the crime being investigated. The detective’s pragmatic partner replies that their ability to work the case is not contingent on understanding why something happened; just knowing what happened, and how. Teresa takes a similar approach to prayer. We don’t need to know why God wants us to draw nearer to Him, or what He gains in the process. It’s enough to know that He wants us.

Once the self-examination is done, and we’re laid bare to ourselves, what comes next? The obvious answer is working toward eliminating our flaws, striving to make ourselves more worthy of the gifts that come as a side effect of prayer. This is an admirable goal, but Teresa also mentions the need to cut oneself some slack: “We should not worry ourselves to death even if we cannot think a single good thought. We are unprofitable servants. So what do we suppose we can do?”

In other words, we should persist in our efforts toward self-improvement, removing those things in ourselves that impede our progress – but we should also keep in mind that spiritual development is a process, not a destination. And the process is not one we’ll ever finish. It’s a lifelong journey in unfamiliar territory, and like most journeys of discovery, it won’t necessarily follow a straight path. Don’t expect it to be a linear progression.

If faith can be defined as a river, keep in mind that rivers may flow in a general direction, but they are also full of eddies and currents. Accept that in some parts of the river you may move more quickly and steadily than others. Don’t expect to be in full control. Do your part, and stop trying to change the river.

Which brings us back to humility – recognizing our limits and shortcomings, and doing the best we can anyway. That is a lot more easily said than done, and also brings up a troubling question: does this humility thing mean we should just be content with where we are and not strive for more?

No, actually. Teresa isn’t saying that we should stop trying to deepen our faith and expand our understanding of God. She’s just saying that once the connection is made, we shouldn’t expect to be in charge of what comes next.

To go back to the metaphor, we are canoes in the river of faith. A canoe in good repair will work much better than one that’s damaged and weighted down with unnecessary junk. We need to make sure the canoe is in good working order. Make repairs when needed. Clean it. Remove the stuff that’s cluttering it up. Once we enter the river, God will control the pace and the direction; we just need to stay in the river to make progress.

July 30, 2013

Spear Carrier #4

Filed under: Books,Faith and Religion — Teresa @ 11:29 pm
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When we were kids, one of my brothers and I got into a disagreement about Watership Down. I maintained that the hero of the story was  Hazel, the de-facto leader of a small band of rabbits who set off to start a new warren after theirs was destroyed. Hazel was smart, cool-headed in a crisis, brave, noble – all the things a hero should be.

My brother insisted the real hero was Hazel’s brother, Fiver. At the time, I thought my brother had a screw loose.

See, Fiver was not a leader; he was quiet, and preferred to stay in the background. Described as a runt, Fiver was also seen as strange, prone to making odd predictions that had an unnerving way of coming true. Hardly the sort to inspire a band of followers. But Hazel loved and trusted Fiver enough to take Fiver’s advice, which saved all of them time and time again. So, while Fiver was not leading the way himself, he was making it possible for Hazel to guide the group to safety.

Looking back, I can see that my brother had a point.

I found myself thinking of this while mulling over something that Teresa of Avila wrote in her autobiography. She discusses the importance of humility in prayer; recognizing that God knows far better than we do what we’re ready for spiritually, and not pushing the growth process. Growth will happen at the appropriate time.

She goes on to explain that humility is also a key factor in serving God, because not everyone is necessarily meant to accomplish great, impressive things. Some of us are meant to help others accomplish great, impressive things.

You know; like Fiver helped Hazel.

So what does this mean for us? What if it turns out that you’re not supposed to take a leading role? What if you’re supposed to be, say, Spear Carrier #4? Do you have the humility to serve God in the role that He assigned you, and to do it to the best of your ability?

Teresa put it this way: “If His Majesty is pleased to promote us to His household or Privy Council, we must go willingly…  God is more careful for us than we are for ourselves, and He knows what each of us is good for.”

While we may know logically that exceptional people are, well, exceptions, and that by definition most people are not, cannot be exceptional, applying this to ourselves can be a rather bitter pill to swallow. It flies in the face of everything this competition-based culture tells us. There are plenty of examples in movies, books, television, and so on. How many stories have we heard where the leading character is the best at what he (or she) does? Even if the protagonist is less than admirable in other ways, his (or her) skill is the redeeming factor, and a source of respect from others, however grudgingly it may be given.

Can we override this ingrained mythos in order to serve God in the manner that pleases Him best, not ourselves? Can we check our egos at the door and follow God’s lead, even if we’re led to someplace far different than we thought we’d be? More important, can we let go of the desire for recognition from others for service well-done?

There’s a saying that integrity is doing the right thing when no one’s looking. I think service may work in the same way. Spear Carrier #4 will probably never get awards for appearing onstage, but it’s the appearing onstage that matters, awards or no. Do it because it’s what God wants, Teresa says, regardless of what’s in it for us, and whether or not we can see the fruits of our labors.

I’ve been pondering this point. For a lot of people, prayer is a source of comfort; of strength. We pray to gain spiritual gifts. What Teresa says suggests that we should pray and serve God and look at the benefits to ourselves as icing on the cake. It’s the prayer and service that count; what pleasure we derive from it is beside the point, should not be expected every time, and should not be the primary motivator.

Then again, if you apply 20th-century psychology to this, intermittent reinforcement is the most effective way to foster persistence. Kinda like God understands the best way for someone to grow spiritually is through prayer and service, and that providing rewards from time to time (but not necessarily every time) will get someone to keep at it. That’s actually pretty sneaky. And effective.

July 29, 2013

More Human Than Human

Filed under: Faith and Religion — Teresa @ 10:47 pm
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For the past several months I’ve been part of the small group that’s studying The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by Herself. More than an autobiography, this book is a reflection on the nature of prayer and what it really means to pray.

In chapter 22, Teresa muses on how scholars often advise ignoring Christ’s humanity and focusing only on his divinity when striving to deepen a connection to the Divine One. To her way of thinking, that’s fine if one has developed enough spiritually – but most people won’t ever reach that point. Teresa maintains that, for most people, spiritual growth must be rooted in Christ’s humanity because that’s what we can relate to and identify with. From there, one may develop to the point where the focus can shift to his divinity, but first the connection must be made.

As I pondered this, reflecting on Christ′s experience as a human being, what came to mind was how profoundly unfair it all was. Then I flashed on the Grandfather′s statement in The Princess Bride: ″Well, who said life was fair? Where is that written? Life isn′t always fair.″

It certainly wasn’t for Jesus Christ. He was punished for things other people did. He followed the rules and did his duty, and his reward for a job well done was humiliation, mockery, torture, and death. Now, I remember how bad it felt to be blamed for something one of my siblings did, when my punishment was being sent to my room. It′s hard to wrap my head around how much worse it was for him.

He must have known how terribly he′d hurt – the agony he′d be subjected to. No doubt Christ knew that ultimately he′d be fine (being divine and all), but that doesn′t negate his human suffering any more than making a full recovery from a catastrophic injury negates the pain of the recovery process. Jesus knew his future would be filled with pain – did he dread it? Anticipation of pain is its own special form of torture. For 33 years, he lived with the knowledge that his last hours would be a horrific ordeal. How was he able to deal with this foreknowledge and live his life without retreating into isolation and bitterness?

Was he ever angry about it? Did part of him resent his lot in life, but recognize it as an unpleasant necessity? Did he sink into depression, knowing that during his darkest time his friends would distance themselves and no comfort would be found? Was he heartbroken by his abandonment? When he looked down from the cross, exhausted, and saw his mother weeping at his feet, did he feel sorrow over her distress? Doesn’t get much more human than that.

Here’s my point: he gets it. He was a human being, with all that entails. He understands walking through dust. Feeling the sun beating down on your head. Being hungry, thirsty, and tired. He′s felt the betrayal of a dear friend. He laughed. He cried. He hugged and loved and had family and friends and through it all, he was wonderfully, undeniably human. Put simply, God knows the human experience firsthand.

Teresa explains that this shared experience makes it possible for us to connect to God in an authentic way, bonding over what we have in common. She describes it as a friendship; saying that ″when we are busy, or suffering persecutions or trials… Christ is our very good friend. We look at Him as a man, we see Him weak and in trouble, and He is our companion.″

I find this comforting, because it means that we have never been, and never will be, alone. Someone is there, and knows what you′re going through, and will not leave your side, no matter what. Sounds like the kind of friend we all could use.

Back in the Saddle Again…

Filed under: Faith and Religion — Teresa @ 10:41 pm
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It’s been a long, long time since I’ve posted anything to this blog – mainly because I didn’t have much to say. At least, not much that I thought anyone else would find all that interesting. But during that time I’d been struggling my way through a crisis of faith that eventually led me to a new church (Open Source – here’s the Facebook page) and an in-depth study of The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself.

For those who may not be familiar with her, Saint Teresa of Avila was a Carmelite nun in 16th-century Spain. She was, to say the least, a deeply spiritual woman with a knack for explaining complex, abstract theological concepts in surprisingly practical ways. Pressed by the head of her order into writing her autobiography, Teresa used it as an opportunity to discuss the nature of faith, prayer, and what it actually means to pray.

This book is not one to be rushed through, and does not contain any easy answers. It requires a great deal of thought, reflection, and personal examination. So I’ve been studying this book, and have found that half-formed thoughts which had previously wandered aimlessly through my mind, are finally making sense because Teresa of Avila articulates the concepts in a way that makes sense to me.

As part of my study, I’ve been journaling in order to pull some of these thoughts together. When during one of the book study discussions I shared some of what I’d written, my pastor asked me to turn two of my journal entries into short articles for future newsletters. Which brings me back to my blog. If I’m going to be writing articles based on journal entries, I already have the perfect place, all set up and ready to go. An added bonus is that entries can just be linked to, rather than re-printed in their entirety.

Now for the disclaimer. I do not claim to be a theologian or a biblical scholar. I have never attended seminary and frankly have no ambition to do so. I am not trying to present myself as an expert of any sort. All this will be is my thoughts about, and reactions to, this book that I’ve been reading (once an English major; always an English major). I’m fascinated by The Life of Saint Teresa and want to share some of what I’ve been learning.

If anyone finds any of these blog entries in any way beneficial, I’m glad. If they help generate interest in Teresa of Avila’s writings, even better.

If not, just keep in mind that this is (in the immortal words of The Dude) just, like, my opinion, man.

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