My Spiritual Director Told Me I Needed a Silent Retreat | Sojourners

My Spiritual Director Told Me I Needed a Silent Retreat

How the humor and honesty of a 16th-century Spanish nun helped me trust God.
The illustration shows a woman who's eyes are closed sitting on a chair, with her hands open and facing up in a receiving posture.
Illustration by Owen Gent

THE INTERIOR CASTLE, the best-known text of 16th-century Spanish saint Teresa of Ávila, is a tour of the inward ways we relate to God, with varying intensity, awareness, and intimacy. In Spanish, the book is simply Moradas, or “Dwellings,” a title I find more appealing and helpful than the English title, mostly because “dwellings” sounds approachable, universal, and less precious.

Teresa was a grounded mystic. She is down-to-earth in her prose, her witty and candid teaching, and her lived experience. It could be argued that every “true” mystic or saint is grounded or has some element of both the active and contemplative life. Teresa strikes me as remarkably and robustly balanced, in a way that her basic reputation as a mystic sometimes betrays. She is notably resolute in both her defense of the reality of “supernatural” prayer experiences and her insistence that this loving movement of God to an individual must then extend into the world rather than curve in on itself. What we might call her grounded nature even extended into her prayer dialogues with Jesus: Once, when complaining honestly to Christ about her many struggles, she heard a response to this effect: “Don’t be troubled; so do I treat my friends.”

Her tart response? “I know, Lord — but that’s why you have so few friends!” In many of her waking days, she worried that Christ has so few “good friends,” and tried to encourage her contemporaries to become better friends of God. But she is clear-eyed and honest about the things that stand in the way of that friendship, from within and without.


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