A Gay Quaker’s Unexpected Encounter With A Catholic Mystic Saint

[NOTE: For those, like this blogger, who is taking a spring break from indictment chatter until indictments really happen (if they do), this passage from a talk given in 1998 by the late Friend Bill Kreidler, is meant to help us cope with our withdrawal symptoms via distraction.]

Bill Kreidler: It was about eight years ago (late 1980s, in Boston) that I started to learn the value of spiritual storytelling. I was in a very low period in my life. Part  of this low period involved a serious alcohol and drug problem; and finally in desperation I called up a Quaker lesbian I knew was in recovery and asked her to take me to an AA meeting.

I didn’t know what would happen at an AA meeting, so on  the subway ride there she explained that people tell their stories. They tell about their drinking, what led them to it, and they tell about hitting bottom and about finding their way out in recovery.

Telling your story is considered in AA to be a fundamental part of recovery, and I was blessed that first AA meeting to hear some exceptionally well-told stories.

I’ll never forget the first woman who spoke. For one thing she was funny, which I hadn’t expected at all. She told about coming out of an alcoholic blackout and finding herself on an airplane and having to figure out a discreet way to ask the flight attendant where the plane was going.

It turned out she had booked herself on a flight to Anchorage, Alaska. And all she had in her purse was a credit card, about two dollars and thirty cents and a pack of Dentyne.

That woman’s story could not have been more different from mine, but she told it with such wit and grace, that I didn’t even realize she was throwing me a thin lifeline. I was so amazed at what I heard that I went to another AA meeting the next night, just so I could hear more stories. That was what started me on the  road to recovery.

Shortly after that, I went to a Friends General Conference Gathering where I met two women who changed my life. One was Teresa of Ávila, the 16th century Spanish mystic, the other was Julian of Norwich, a 14th century English mystic.

Teresa and Julian really opened up my thinking on any number of aspects of the spiritual life: how I thought about God, how I named God, the kind and quality of relationship I had with God, how I nurtured or didn’t nurture that relationship through spiritual discipline.

In addition to all their other gifts to me . . . Julie and Terry [as I now call them] started me reading the lives of the saints. Roman Catholic Saints. Now this is an odd thing for a Protestant boy from upstate New York. But I was and still am fascinated with these lives built entirely around the love of God and Jesus, with these extravagant spiritual journeys.

I began to look for opportunities to hear other people’s spiritual journeys, and a couple of years ago, I joined a spiritual support group in my meeting. There were eleven people in the group, and each of us took a turn telling our spiritual autobiographies. It was a group of very different spiritual paths– Christian, Buddhist, Universalist. But in that group I learned some more about why we should tell each other our spiritual stories. . . .

In my own meeting, we’ve found that it’s incredibly powerful to tell each other our spiritual autobiographies. It’s a way to talk across the theological divisions that can separate us and find unity in the Spirit as we learn more about the paths people have followed in their seeking.

We can’t underestimate the importance of the fact that Friends from a wide range of spiritual backgrounds, bring different ideas, histories burdens of pain, hurts and cherished memories of their experiences.

This amazing diversity can be enriching. It can also be divisive. This spiritual storytelling is one way to find common ground. How and why this happens is mysterious to me, but I know experimentally that it can happen. One woman in my meeting commented on this process saying, “It’s amazing how  different we are, all in the same ways.”

[In 1998, Bill told stories at Pendle Hill about  his two favorite Catholic saints. Julian of Norwich is an elusive character, who spent most of her life in a kind of open isolation, as a public hermit. For space, we’ll pass her by here, to hear what Bill learned from Teresa of Ávila.

Why should a story about a cloistered Catholic mystic nun be of any interest to modern Quakers, especially liberal, mostly secular, theologically stripped-down Quakers?

For one reason, because of the storyteller: a gay Quaker, soon to die of AIDS-related cancer, who was one of the best storytellers the Society of Friends has produced in generations.

And for another, because Bill’s encounter with Teresa helped him find life, meaning and even joy, for himself and others, in his last years.

And for a third, because it might help us get through this day in our own years of trial and tumult.

Give it a whirl, and you be the judge: ]


Bill Kreidler (1952-2000)

Bill Kreidler:  I’m probably not the first person to say that the spiritual life is like traveling a road. It can be smooth traveling and it can be a rocky road. At times it can disappear and at times it shines like gold.

Gandhi said, “On my lonely road to God I need no earthly companions.” Well, that may be true, but I have found on the road to God that companions are a nice thing. That the company of seekers — more experienced seekers in particular — makes the difficult stretches a little easier and the golden miles just that much brighter.

It’s been my experience that there are really three, maybe four kinds of companions along the way. . . . And then there’s those that fit this special phrase, the Great Aunts. Or since I’m from Boston, I should say Great Oughnts [rhymes with haunts].

But I didn’t grow up in Boston, so I can never quite bring myself to say it like that.

The phrase comes from the great preacher, Phillips Brooks, who was once asked why he was a Christian. He was asked this by an undergraduate, who clearly expected to get a weighty, reasoned theological answer.

Phillips Brooks (1935-1893)

But Brooks answered very simply, “I’m a Christian because of my aunt in Teaneck, New Jersey.” In Teaneck, New Jersey there was a woman who so lived a Christian life, for whom Christianity so suffused her life and everything she did that Phillips Brooks said, “I wanted to be like her.”

And I’ve found in my travels through Friends that many Friends also have an Aunt from Teaneck, NJ in their past, including myself. One of my aunts is named Jack Daniels, so it can be either gender. One of the things I found that people in these three categories often end up in, is something that I think of as the “Clearness Committee.”

Does everybody here know what a “Clearness Committee” is? A Clearness Committee is a group of Friends who sit and labor with a Friend to help make decisions; to help struggle through problems; to work things out; to pray with that person. I’ve used Clearness Committees at various points in my life, when I’ve had decisions to make.

I also have one that I carry with me. It’s not an intentional one, it just, sort of, developed. . . .

By way of contrast, Teresa is not an illusion, or an elusive person.

[Teresa is] a very real, flesh and blood woman. And I want to start with a quote from Dorothy Day [who started the radical Catholic Worker movement]. Dorothy Day named her daughter Teresa after Teresa of Ávila, and she said,

I had read the life of Saint Teresa of Ávila and just fallen in love with her. She was a mystic and a practical woman, a recluse and a traveler, a cloistered nun and yet most active. She liked to read novels when she was a young girl, and she wore a bright red dress when she entered the convent.

Once when she was traveling from one part of Spain to another with some nuns and a priest to start a new convent, their way took them over a stream and she was thrown from her donkey and landed in the mud. The story goes that the Lord spoke to her and said, ‘Teresa, this is how I treat my friends.’ And Teresa responded, ‘And that is why you have so few of them.’

A later artist’s view of Teresa; there are no known contemporary portraits.

When you think that she was traveling in the 16th century you can probably get the grounding for that comment. Once when she was trying to avoid that recreation hour which is set aside in convents for nuns to be together, the others insisted on her joining them. So, she did: she took castanets and danced. And there were other delightful little touches to the story of her life that made me love her and feel close to her.

Teresa of Ávila lived in the 16th century at a time when Spain was at the height of its powers. She was born in 1515 and she was the first daughter of Doña Beatriz de Armada and Don Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda. Now Beatrice and Alonzo had other children from previous marriages and eventually there were twelve children in the family.

Don Alonso was a well-to-do cloth merchant, a profession he inherited from his father. In 1492, King Ferdinand had ordered all the Jews to either leave Spain or convert. Teresa’s grandfather had been a Jew who chose to convert. Because people mistrusted converted Jews, he also moved from Madrid to Ávila.

This background is significant for a couple of reasons. The first is the fact that he would choose to convert says something about his character. It says he was a very practical man and he would do what he had to do to survive. Also, both Teresa’s father and grandfather were successful businessmen. These were characteristics that Teresa very much shared, and I’ll show you why later.

Teresa was very practical about everything, including prayer. In later years, when she fell afoul of the Spanish Inquisition, she did not hesitate to do what she had to do in order to survive. In her case, it meant a combination of pulling strings with influential people and downplaying her own talents. She was also an astute businesswoman and never doubted for a moment that if she prayed, God would send her a good deal. In fact, one of the business criteria she used was, if it was a good deal, she thought it came from God; if it was a bad deal, she was sure that God didn’t want it to happen.

By all accounts, Teresa’s family was large and loving, wealthy and indulgent. For example, her parents, both of whom were devout Christians, believed in education, and Teresa and all of her sisters were taught to read and write, which was very unusual at the time. In fact, Teresa and her mother would read romantic novels together. Teresa and her brother actually wrote a romantic novel together. Romantic novels in those days were not like Harlequin romances, they were more about quests. You know, stories about quests for the Holy Grail and so on.

One of my favorite stories is from her autobiography. She says,

When I considered the martyrdoms that the Saints had suffered, it seemed to me the price they paid for going to enjoy God was very cheap, so I decided that I wanted to die. I didn’t do this on account of the love I felt for God, but I wanted to get to heaven and enjoy the wonderful things that I read about.

My brother and I discussed the means we should do this and we agreed to go off to the land of the Moors, and then beg them, out of love of God, to cut our heads off. But we couldn’t discover any means to get there. The having of parents seemed to us a great obstacle.

I think that Teresa’s tongue is in her cheek here. The way the story goes is that she and her brother Rafael — they were like seven and five at the time — packed up some raisins in a handkerchief and went off to find the Moors to get their heads chopped off.

And while they were doing that, their Uncle Diego came along and said, “What are you two doing out here?” They said, “We’re going to get our heads cut off by the Moors.” And he said, “Oh no, you’re not,” and he scooped them up and trotted them home to their mother.

It’s interesting if you go to Ávila today, you can see the site where they found Rafael and Teresa, which is now a shrine.

When Teresa became an adolescent, she established a pattern that was to be the fundamental conflict in her life: she was a very popular girl, she liked parties and the company of other people. She loved to sit and chat and by her own account she would waste endless hours talking with her friends. But at the same time, she had an intense longing for a deep spiritual life, not like the frivolous life she was leading.

So, the Quaker way to say this would be that she felt the pull to mind the Inner Light but also to be one of the world’s people in a way that was really incompatible with that. Part of Teresa’s appeal to people is that many of us have the same struggle in one way or another.

However, Teresa was able to work out a way to be both with people and with God, and one of the unique things about her theology is that it is relational. She decided to join the Carmelite nuns. Typically, this was a decision influenced by her best friend, who was also going to join the convent.

Surprisingly her father, who doted on her, would not allow this to happen, and we don’t know why; Teresa doesn’t tell us why. But what she did finally, at age 20, was to hire a carriage and run away in that red dress after a party in the middle of the night.

Now I’ve been to Ávila, and I want you to know that I’ve seen the site where her house was and I’ve seen where the convent is, and the distance is probably possibly at best half a mile. And yet Teresa still felt compelled to hire a carriage to carry her this short distance. At this point there was still a part of Teresa that was kind of a spoiled little rich girl, who was being sort of dramatic and melodramatic about the whole thing.

The story goes that on that night — and this may be apocryphal —Teresa was attending a ball wearing that red velvet dress, and at one point a gentleman remarked flirtatiously that Teresa had lovely ankles. And she twitched up her dress a little bit and said, “Take a good look at them, Sir, you won’t be seeing them again.” No one caught on to the secret that made her say that.

In her time, life at a Carmelite convent was not like convent life today. I said that in Julian’s time, 200 years earlier, women’s spirituality was highly-prized and taken very seriously. The opposite was true during Teresa’s time. Convents were overcrowded and in some cases were little more than warehouses for unmarried women. One writer describes them as a sort of like easygoing sorority houses. Any woman could join the convent, but life there reflected their social class, so women with money like Teresa had entire suites of rooms, they had servants to take care of them, they had food brought in from outside, so they didn’t have to eat the convent food; they could have friends and relatives visit them.

Teresa says in fact, “The convent I joined was not founded on a strict observance and, miserable creature that I was, followed after what I saw was wrong and left aside the good.” Specifically, it was very difficult for her to find any uninterrupted time for silence, for prayer or for meditation. In addition, Teresa had health problems that would plague her for her whole life.

She described her religious life at the convent as a contradiction to the things she found when she turned to God in prayer. She amused herself with trivial pastimes and she said, “I grew ashamed to return to the search for God, especially that which is found in the intimate exchange of prayer.”

And, in fact, she gave up prayer, with the kind of charming excuse that until she could really pray well, she wasn’t worthy to pray at all, so she simply stopped. Eventually she found a confessor who helped her get back on track spiritually. And this is where Teresa started to see the positive side of relationships. For the rest of her life, Teresa felt that mentors, spiritual mentors, were very important in anyone’s spiritual development, but particularly that of young women.

For those of us who have reached middle age and still don’t feel like we have it all together, it’s comforting to know that it took Teresa another twenty years before she began to get it together. Her prayer life did gain strength and she began to experience visions. She experienced God speaking to her and even, supposedly, levitation.

That’s a funny thing: I visited this convent that she was in, and down in the basement there’s a room, not a big room — it’s about 6 feet by 6 feet — there’s a little sign that said, “This is the room where Saint Teresa levitated.”

And I looked at it and I felt, well she couldn’t have levitated very high — I spend all my time up there! Now these visions she had were very controversial in their day; some even said they were demonic, but there were other weighty people who said that they were inspired. And people came to visit her as her fame spread.

It was long and difficult, and it really wasn’t until she was age 45 that it became clear what she was supposed to do. In 1562 she came into the fullness of her vocation. One of the nuns at the Convent of the Incarnation, where she was enclosed, began to talk about the good that might come from founding a stricter community. Teresa prayed about this and finally realized she had that leading, to found such a monastery.

It wasn’t easy. The Convent of the Incarnation was outraged that she wanted to leave, and even more outraged at her implication that they were lax. The city of Ávila objected because they thought that a convent founded on poverty and obedience would become a financial burden to the town. The Bishop first granted and then withdrew his permission. There were lawsuits.

Finally, using a house purchased by her sister and brother-in-law, she founded the Monastery of Saint Joseph. Later in life, Teresa would call the five years at Saint Joseph the most peaceful, calm and quiet years of her life. A group of twelve women spent their time working, praying and gardening. They owned no personal property, and they supported themselves with alms in return for sewing and spinning. The sisters lived in strict enclosure, but Teresa, as was her way, encouraged the spirit of celebration. “God deliver us from sullen saints!” was her cry.

Now from our vantage point, it’s difficult to see what is so radical about all of this. What’s so radical about taking twelve women and shutting them into rooms all alone? But what Teresa was doing when she did this was saying in effect that women’s spiritual lives were important, and they should be taken seriously. Allowing them to just fritter away time in a convent was an insult and a waste both to the women and to God. So, if you think about it from that perspective, it was quite radical.

Now because Teresa practiced what was called mental prayer, which is what we would call meditation or contemplative prayer, and because she had visions, and that emphasized a personal direct experience with God, she ran afoul of the Inquisition, and was ordered to write her autobiography. It was here that she first shared her remarkable gift for explaining abstract spiritual concepts using metaphors and similes.

Learning to pray she said, is like learning to water a garden. When we start, it’s like drawing water from a well with a bucket in a rope: it’s really a lot of work. When we get better, it’s like using a water wheel and aqueducts: we get more water for less work. Next, it’s like getting water from a river or a spring; and finally when we get skilled enough at mental prayer, our relationship grows so close to the divine it’s like rain, which she calls “heavenly water,” that in its abundance soaks and saturates this entire garden. Isn’t that lovely?

Always practical, her autobiography is peppered with curious disclaimers about being “a foolish woman.” You’ll be reading along these wonderful things and then all of a sudden you will come to this phrase: “But of course, what do I know? I’m just a foolish woman.”

This was Teresa’s way of disarming her critics. If people felt she was getting above her station, she could say, “Oh no, I told you I was just a foolish woman.”

Her autobiography was followed by a book with the charming title of The Way of Perfection. This was a book written for her sisters, and it sets forth her experiences and advice about mental prayer. With her tongue firmly in her cheeks she emphasizes this book is only for those who have souls and minds so scattered, that they’re like wild horses when they try to pray. And who among us does not? Fifteen years later came her greatest work, I think, The Interior Castle, where the goal of the spiritual journey is to get to the center-most room.

After spending five years in the monastery of Saint Joseph, Teresa was given permission to found new convents. She went out into the world and founded 17 monasteries for women and four for men and in doing so she, in effect, reformed the entire Carmelite order.

Now people did not travel for pleasure in 16th century Spain — there was no pleasure to be had traveling in 16th century Spain. When after a poor night’s sleep in a rural part of Spain, one of Teresa’s novices asked, “Mother, what is life?” Teresa was in no mood to deal with such a fatuous question and she said, “Life is a night spent in an uncomfortable inn.” In addition to the rigors of travel, Teresa was in continuously poor health throughout her adult life and what was remarkable was that she was not even more grumpy than she sometimes was. She bore it all with remarkable grace and good humor.

Part of what made that travel bearable for Teresa was the company of friends. Friends were always important to her as she did this work; they traveled with her. She says, in fact, “People will say to you that on this journey you do not need earthly companions, that God is enough. But I say, to be with God’s friends is a good way to keep close to God in this life.”

The best known of those friends and the person who, aside from Jesus, was the most important was her confessor and secretary, St. John of the Cross. He shared her concern for reform and was himself imprisoned by the Inquisition. During that imprisonment he wrote his famous poem The Dark Night of The Soul. This is why in Spain Ávila is called the land of stones and saints, because there are stones all over the landscape and there are at least three saints that come from Ávila.

Teresa’s life had a bittersweet ending: she quarreled with John; John was a good man, but he had no sense of humor, so he just didn’t get it when she said things like “God, no wonder you don’t have any friends.” He adored her and she him but they nonetheless didn’t communicate well.

Also, she was continually called upon to resolve disputes in her monasteries. She was out on the road when she died, even though she was tired of traveling. Ill-health forced her to stay in an unfamiliar convent. She died at night, holding a cross and nearby was her Bible. They found in it a bookmark on which she had scribbled this prayer: “Let nothing upset you, let nothing frighten you. Everything is changing. God alone is changeless. Patience attains the goal. She who has God lacks nothing. God alone fills all her needs.”

Teresa too became a member of the Clearness Committee in my head almost before I knew it. The roles that she plays are many: she keeps me grounded in the concrete. “That’s just like the silk worm,” she says, of the process of change people go through. When I’m trying to pray, I remember Teresa saying that’s just like trying to pray by holding up water with a bucket. “Your soul is like a diamond.” These very concrete images keep me from being too abstract and too distant.

She also has a role that no one else on my Clearness Committee has, and that is her sense of humor. I read you the part about “Lord deliver us from sullen saints.” In her letters — she wrote thousands of letters — one of the phrases that keeps repeating is about how much she laughs. She would say, “Oh, we laughed and we laughed,” and “how we laughed and we told stories” and “just laughed and enjoyed each other’s company.” Teresa tells me, don’t take it all too seriously.

When John first came to her — John was short; John was about four foot eight, and he came to be Teresa’s secretary in the company of another monk. Teresa then wrote to a friend of hers, and she said, “I’ve been praying to God to send me a monk, and he sent me a monk and a half.”

Finally, Teresa reminds me of the importance of faith. Teresa was someone who truly, as the Bible said, had faith even as unto a mustard seed. “If you have faith even as unto a mustard seed, nothing shall be impossible to you,” says Matthew.

Well, Teresa believed that. Once she was in a town trying to found a new convent. She was looking to buy some property and one of her sisters said, “But, mother, we only have ten ducats.” Teresa said, “Teresa and ten ducats can do nothing. But Teresa, ten ducats and God can do anything.”

I always find that one interesting because, not only do you notice she did not leave herself out of the equation, she put herself first.

So that’s the Clearness Committee in my head. Did Teresa and Julian know each other? Well, they do now.

And who would have ever thought that there was such a short distance between Norwich England, Ávila Spain, and Teaneck, New Jersey . . . .

Bill’s book is available in paperback and e-book For more about it, click here.


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