The Eucharist: Teresa of Avila vs the “Lutherans”

Holy Communion of St Teresa of Avila, by Claudio CoelloHow central is the Eucharist to our spirituality, and in what way? Rowan Williams discusses St Teresa of Avila’s answers to these questions, in his chapter on the Way of Perfection in his book Teresa of Ávila.

For Teresa, what lies at the heart of the Eucharist is this:

Jesus knows our weakness and our need; he desires, with God’s own desire, to go on being with us as he was with us in the incarnate life, in humility and vulnerability. This is the divine desire we encounter in the sacrament of the Eucharist: the sacrament itself becomes for Teresa the primary and most immediate sign of God’s unconcern with honour and self-protection, the sign of the divine longing to be unconditionally at hand for us. (pp.95f.)

Teresa’s discussion of the Eucharist in the Way of Perfection comes in the section on the petition from the Lord’s Prayer, “give us this day our daily bread”, which Teresa “has no doubt at all” refers only to the sacrament. This isn’t, Dr Williams adds, because she dismisses the importance of “real bread for the hungry”, but is due to:

the conviction that – since the Eucharist is so pre-eminently the sign of God’s desire to be with us, God’s humility and faithfulness, in being unconditionally accessible to us – we should expect to find it at the heart of a prayer that is so pervaded by the acknowledgement of this divine availability from its first words onwards. (p.96)

For Teresa, “thanksgiving after Communion must remain the very centre of our spirituality”. This is the one time when we are not to try to use pictures of Jesus (whether mental or carried with us) in our meditation, because “Christ’s presence in the sacrament [is] the enactment now of the events narrated by the gospels,” so no other reminder of his presence is needed. At Communion, Teresa is “wholly confident that she is in Christ’s company no less than was Mary Magdalene in the Pharisee’s house.”

Williams summarises Teresa’s even deeper reflections on the Eucharist in her Spiritual Testimonies, written a few years after the Way of Perfection:

In Communion, the Father receives the Son’s sacrifice in the soul: that is, presumably, the Father is present already in the soul but the Son must come to him there. More precisely, the Trinity is present in the soul; but the graces God wills to give us are ‘released’ by the coming of the Son in his humanity into the soul. When this happens the joy of the eternal trinitarian life is realized on earth. This encapsulates the chief theme of her earlier thoughts on the Eucharist: what is enacted here is the completion of the divine will. God is present as creator and sustainer at the centre of the soul, but is present as a transforming act of love only as the humility of the incarnate Christ draws the whole world into its proper harmony with heaven. The image of God’s humble love returning to God through our souls and bodies in Communion is a striking summary of Teresa’s whole Christology as well as of her thinking on the sacrament. (p.97)

And in her Meditations on the Song of Songs, Teresa describes Communion as a fulfilment of the bride’s petition in the Song: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.”

All this then leads Teresa to attach the “scandal of ‘Lutheran’ desecration of the sacrament” (Williams has earlier referred to the “semi-mythical ‘Lutherans’ who so preoccupy Teresa in this work”): 

She has not the faintest idea of Lutheran theology, but knows only that eucharistic cultus is under attack and that the Mass as she knows it is being taken away. For her this can only be an assault on the Gospel itself, the good news of God’s humility and vulnerability for our sake. (p.98)

That said, Williams picks up a point here that has struck me a number of times while reading about Teresa:

For the historian of theology, the paradox is that her Christocentric piety, her profound understanding of the cross, and above all her sense of the grace of God acting without regard to our merit or achievement all echo Luther himself so closely.’ What is distinctive, though, is precisely this linking of a theology of the cross and of the sovereignty of grace to the eucharistic presence. (p.98)

The one point at which I’d take issue with Dr Williams here is that last sentence: it seems to me that the linking of a “theology of the cross”, the “sovereignty of grace” and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist are, along with baptism, at the centre of Lutheran spirituality. However, it’s probably fair to say that the Lutheran understanding of “eucharistic presence” is different in emphasis from, and perhaps narrower than, Teresa’s: in practice, Lutherans tend to emphasise the presence of Christ’s body and blood “in, with and under” the elements, rather than seeing Communion as an encounter with the Christ who wants to “go on being with us as he was with us in the incarnate life”.

So this is maybe an area in which Lutherans can learn from Teresa. At the moment, I don’t think anyone could say of most of us what Williams says of Teresa:

And what must be remembered in reading anything Teresa writes about the Eucharist is that it is for her the one concrete and contemporary sign of the reality on which everything depends—the desire of God to be with creation, at all costs—and is thus the centre and touchstone of all that is said about Christian life and prayer. 

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