Rowan Williams

Saint Teresa of Avila and Thomas Merton

(A Review by John Davies)

It would be difficult to exaggerate the distinction of the speaker at the Lincoln Theological Society’s April meeting. Twice an Archbishop (of Wales and of Canterbury), at one time Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford and now Master of Magdalene College Cambridge, Rowan Williams is the author
of many books. He drew a large audience.

Dr Williams spoke about Saint Teresa of Avila and Thomas Merton, who share an anniversary year. Teresa was born in 1515, Thomas Merton in 1915. This might seem a random, even an arbitrary, connection on which to hang a talk, but Dr Williams showed real connections. Each was a faithful rebel, a devout Catholic, she a nun and he a monk, in difficult times and places. Saint Teresa’s Spain was a recently united country swamped with New World wealth looted from Native American cultures in central and south America. The Muslims and Jews had not long been expelled and the religious and
social life was dominated by an increasingly paranoid Inquisition. The population included conversos, former Jews and Muslims, many of whom had been coerced into becoming Christians. A kind of police state resulted, in which neighbour watched neighbour for signs of hidden Judaism or Islam, and “new Christians” were always suspect. Merton, originally English, was a highly successful student at Columbia University where he became a wellknown
writer after expulsion from Clare College Cambridge because of a
sexual scandal. His childhood had been nomadic. Teresa’s family, it was discovered in the 1950s, was originally Jewish. Thus each though wealthy and educated, felt marginalised in ways which affected their teaching and writing.

In Teresa’s time there were reforming movements which included devout educated women. These were suspect to the establishment. Initially at ease as a well healed nun in a comfortable convent, Teresa became a mystic, writer, and community reformer and was thus associated with these Beatas as these women were known. Dr Williams showed that her spiritual journey and the one in which her writings direct others, bring us back to community, to the present, to a human and humane sociality. Her life, her prayer and her books (the last often threatened by the Inquisition) thus brought the Christian back into a newly sanctified present.

Merton too engaged with issues of his time. He became a Catholic and a monk (so in a sense was also a converso) in 1950’s America, when the Roman Church was still very traditionalist. Like Teresa he was loyal but uneasy. In the 1960s he engaged with the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war struggle. He was also curious about other religions and receptive of a wide range of people, including dissident priests and beat poets. (Indeed, one of his poems which Dr Williams read, reminded this writer of Allen Ginsberg in style if not in content). His writing, like Teresa’s, is earthed. It brings us to the Saints, as men and women and though a Trappist
who sought solitude, he wrote for and from community.

Two difficult, highly intelligent, politically sharp people, utterly committed to the Way and at the same time vulnerable, Teresa and Thomas Merton came across as utterly relevant to our time and situation. A Jewish woman and an initially disgraced Brit. in exile, they both spoke so well to their times that they speak to ours.

Dr Williams’s lecture was clear, clearly delivered and so scholarly that it concealed it’s scholarship. We attended a masterly talk by a Master both spiritual and intellectual, who came across, as his subjects both did, as utterly humane and real.

John Davies

7 April 2015