Jun 13 2008
You are Christ’s Hands
by Teresa of Avila
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.
— from The Essential Mystics: Selections from the World’s Great Wisdom Traditions, Edited by Andrew Harvey
/ Photo by batega /
Let’s round out our series on women’s voices in sacred poetry with this selection by St. Teresa of Avila.
I haven’t been able to confirm whether or not this beautiful poem was actually composed by Teresa of Avila or not. It is popularly attributed to her, but it is not included or even mentioned in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, which I assume has all of her known writings. It may be similar to the popular Prayer of St. Francis, which is a profound prayer-poem, but not actually composed by St. Francis of Assisi.
Whether this was composed by Teresa of Avila herself or by an anonymous Christian poet, this is one of my favorite prayer-poems. It is a prayer of supreme spiritual maturity. It is not someone imploring Christ to come and fix everything in the external way imagined by so many fundamentalist sects; rather, it recognizes the presence of the Divine within each of us and our sacred responsibility to embody that compassion and service to the world. Each one of us is the vehicle through which Christ (or Ishwara, or however you name the personal form of the Divine) sends blessings. Our job is to get out of the way and let that sacred current flow through us unhindered.
“Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now…”
|Teresa of Avila|
Teresa de Jesus, more popularly known as Teresa of Avila, lived in a time of turmoil and religious reform. She was a nun in Catholic Spain during the immediate aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, when Spain saw itself as the most secure bastion of traditional Catholic faith and practice.
She was a strong and inspired leader, in a time and place when women were relegated to more passive roles. And she was a deep mystic, who was sometimes seen to levitate slightly off the ground, and her face illuminated.
Teresa entered the Carmelite order of nuns against the wishes of her father. She eventually joined the “discalced” movement within the Carmelite order, a movement that advocated simplicity, humility, and the spiritual life over the increasingly worldly and sometimes corrupt practices that dominated many other communities of monks and nuns. Her reputation for holiness along with her immense energy and practical talents quickly made her a leader of the discalced Carmelites and the foundress of several monasteries. These activities led her into a world of politics, legal battles, letter campaigns, and long periods of exhausting travel.
Like Francis of Assisi, Teresa also suffered from a series of debilitating illnesses and injuries, often made even worse by the treatments of the time. Later in life, for example, she fell down a flight of stairs and broke her arm. It was poorly set and limited her movement. Someone had to rebreak her arm in order to reset it, but an even worse job was done, leaving her essentially crippled and needing aid for such simple things as dressing herself.
Obedience was one of the virtues Teresa particularly extolled. Politically, this was significant at a time when the Catholic world was being challenged by the Protestant reformation, and when many mystical movements within the Catholic church narrowly escaped the label of heresy. Yet obedience, for her and for monastics throughout the centuries, has the spiritual value of freeing the individual from self-will and the trap of ego. In other words, when practiced with intelligent caution, obedience can be understood as a technique that opens the heart and the awareness.
Despite her physical sufferings and the challenges of her foundational work within the Catholic church, she remained supremely dedicated to the mystical life. She shared a close spiritual connection with John of the Cross, her younger contemporary, and was in some ways a mentor to that great poet and mystic.
Teresa of Avila wrote poetry, many letters, histories of her work in establishing monastic foundations, but it is her book on the path of prayer, The Way of Perfection, and her spiritual autobiography, The Interior Castle, that are most widely read and considered her masterpieces.