Ordinary within the Extraordinary

By Sarah Coakley

For we do not know how to pray. . .but [the] Spirit intercedes
with sighs too deep for words. (Romans 8:26)

No, we do not know how to pray; and doubtless this is why Teresa of Avila remains so attractive and approachable a Christian witness. For so much of her first, autobiographical work, The Life—inspired, of course, by Augustine’s Confessions, but so delightfully different from them—is about the frank impossibility of prayer. Or rather, it is about our endless subterfuges to avoid it, to think of utterly convincing and really good reasons not to do it, to run away as fast as our legs will carry us from that pressure of the Spirit of which Paul speaks, the source and goal of all our longings. Perhaps better than any before or since, Teresa tells us—in glorious and homely detail—how not to be a saint, before she shows us what it costs to be one.

And that’s the joke; because, as Teresa herself became increasingly aware in the development of her prayer towards union, the running away that we all do never quite does the trick. The Spirit is always there, closer to us than we are to ourselves, closer than kissing, constantly begging permission to pray in us. And so our excuses, our evasions, our dryness, our declaring of prayer as impossible, are themselves ironic witnesses to the Spirit’s ever-effacing willingness to “come to our aid.” It is not the fact that God is absent, but rather so uncontrollably present, that discomforts us. It reminds us of our weakness, of our lack of control, of the various traces of death that we politely circumnavigate. As Teresa herself puts it in one of her “Spiritual Testimonies” (no. 25), hearing these words from God: “Don’t think, daughter, that [only] union lies in being very close to me. For those, too, who offend me are close, although they may not want to be.”

To acknowledge then that our not wanting the Spirit is the backside of our deepest desire to hand over to it, a token of our very closeness to God, is precisely the paradox of which Paul speaks. It is also the wellspring of Teresa’s long account of her gradual ceding of control to the same Spirit. The human impossibility of prayer becomes the space of divine prayer. And what initially led (when Teresa turned back to prayer in earnest) to spiritual high jinks—raptures and “favors”—finally becomes, at the end of Teresa’s busy life—simple “repose” in the Spirit, humdrum and ostensibly unremarkable. And so almost to her own dismay, Teresa discovers, at the end of The Interior Castle, that ceding to the Spirit makes one, in union, more extraordinarily ordinary than one could have imagined. Life goes on, with all its trials and irritations. It is just that God has finally taken up residence in the deepest part of one’s soul, and nothing can move it.

“We do not know how to pray.” True; but fortunately God the Spirit does, and will make us saints if we dare. Of this Teresa is unambiguous and alluring witness. Or, in the feisty words of her own parting shot on “union”: “You may think what you want. What I have said is true” (Interior Castle, vii: 2). So be it. Amen.

Sarah Coakley is a priest in the Church of England and Edward J. Mallinckrodt, Jr., Professor of Divinity at Harvard. These words were presented as the homily for Harvard Divinity School’s Friday morning Eucharist on October 18, 2004, St. Teresa’s day of commemoration.

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