Teresa R. Tunay, OCDS
…and that’s the truth
A MISSIONARY priest frequenting Quiapo church would observe that Filipinos are “natural contemplatives.” He was impressed by the sight of ordinary people in Quiapo church “who would just sit there and stare at the crucifix for hours.” He would say: “It’s amazing that a middle aged man wearing a T-shirt, shorts and rubber slippers—like the sidewalk vendors around the church—would devote so much time doing nothing before the image of the suffering Christ.”
St. Teresa of Avila (whose religious name is Teresa of Jesus) is not that well-known to Filipinos, thus it would be presumptuous to say that the Quiapo devotees observed by the missionary priest must be imitators of the Saint from Avila. Whether it is coincidence or grace at work here, it is heartening to know that such devotees are on the right track as far as this Doctor of the Church teaches to those at the earliest stages of their prayer life.
Filipinos, often praised by foreign visitors and tourists for their friendliness, would naturally take to Teresa of Avila’s idea that “Mental prayer … is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.” Aware that some minds could be so distracted when trying to pray, she writes, “I am not asking you now to think of Him, or to form numerous conceptions of Him, or to make subtle meditations with your understanding. I am asking you only to look at Him. For who can prevent you from turning the eyes of your soul … upon this Lord?
“Believe me, you should stay with so good a Friend for as long as you can before you leave Him. If you become accustomed to having Him at your side, as if He sees that you love Him to be there, and are always trying to please Him, you will never be able, as we put it, to send Him away.”
In our world today when people’s hunger for social approval and friendship makes them satisfied to be surrounded by (and proud of) hundreds of Facebook friends, Teresa of Avila assures us that in Jesus we have a Friend who will never “unfriend” us in spite of our unfaithfulness. And we don’t even have to try too hard to befriend Him and keep Him company, as she says, “If you are happy, look upon your risen Lord. If you are suffering trials, or are sad, look upon Him on His way to the Garden. Love to speak to Him, not using forms of prayer, but words issuing from the compassion of your heart.”
For St. Teresa, keeping the Lord’s company is almost like having Jesus the man around in the flesh. The humanity of Christ, in fact, is a fundamental tenet in her teachings—a mystery which Teresa had grasped first-hand. In 1554 she was to have a spiritual experience she would call her “conversion” for the deep mark it would leave on her life—she was 39 then, and her “soul was now grown weary” due to the “miserable habits it had contracted.” She would write, “It came to pass one day, when I went into the oratory, that I saw a picture (the Ecce Homo) which they had put by there, and which had been procured for a certain feast observed in the house. It was a representation of Christ most grievously wounded, and so devotional, that the very sight of it, when I saw it, moved me—so well did it show forth that which He suffered for us. So keenly did I feel the evil return I had made for those wounds, that I thought my heart was breaking. I threw myself on the ground beside it, my tears flowing plenteously, and implored Him to strengthen me once for all, so that I might never offend Him any more… It seems to me that I said to Him then that I would not rise up till He granted my petition.” The experience made her “very distrustful of myself, placing all my confidence in God.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his presentation on the Doctors of the Church in February 2012 said, “St. Teresa of Jesus is a true teacher of Christian life for the faithful of every time. In our society, which all too often lacks spiritual values, St. Teresa teaches us to be unflagging witnesses of God, of his presence and of his action. She teaches us truly to feel this thirst for God that exists in the depths of our hearts, this desire to see God, to seek God, to be in conversation with him and to be his friends. This is the friendship we all need that we must seek anew, day after day.”
Might this be the kind of “friendship” the devotees in Quiapo church hunger for when they rub and kiss the foot of the suffering Nazarene, or when they sit for hours on end staring at the statue of the Crucified Christ? Are the Filipinos truly “natural contemplatives”? Who knows? Suffice it to say that a “profoundly contemplative and effectively active” unschooled woman from Avila who would become a Doctor of the Church would now—almost 500 years after her birth—serve to encourage simple believers by her example. She merely asks us to “look at Him”—and that gaze of faith will lead to the grace of friendship with the One who we know loves us very much.