home | FAQ |

Q & R: St. Teresa, a song, and a theological issue

Here's the Q:

At Cedar Ridge, our Sunday morning book group has been reading The Fire of the Word by Chris Webb (written when he was President of Renovaré). I don't know if you've read it. What prompts me to write is a section in Chapter 14, From Reading to Contemplation (pp. 177-181).

Webb references here the words attributed to Teresa of Ávila which start with "Christ has no body now but yours." Since you set these words to music (which we still sing from time to time at Cedar Ridge), this made me think of you. Webb insists that "Teresa never wrote anything of the sort and would almost certainly have found the sentiment shocking. The poem appears nowhere in her collected works or letters."

Webb believes the sentiments in this piece attributed to Teresa reflect a basic misunderstanding of the contemporary Western church that God needs us to achieve His purposes. Webb maintains "that the exact opposite is true," and this (opposite) understanding is the very basis of the contemplative life, and that contemplation would make no sense if the contemporary Western activist assumptions were correct.

My first question is a factual one. Do you have a source for the quote which would indicate it really was written by Teresa of Ávila?

In the second place, I would like to hear your comments on Webb's thesis that the activist approach, as exemplified in the poem, is a corruption of the true message of Christianity, and is at basic odds with the contemplative approach. I know that you and others (I think especially of Richard Rohr) see activism and contemplation as complementary rather than conflicting. I have tended to take that approach, which is why I found what Webb had to say somewhat startling. I would love to hear your comments on this.

We are doing well at Cedar Ridge, but we do miss you. Wish you could visit us more often.

And here's a follow-up:

I was interested in Chris Webb's contention (Fire of the Word, p. 178) that the poem "Christ has no body" usually attributed to Teresa of Ávila (and so attributed on the screen at Cedar Ridge when we sing the version set to music by Brian McLaren) was in fact not written by her, so I did a little exploration.

I found that several people who have studied Teresa in some depth agree that it is not her work. I found an interesting piece which suggests it is a combination of the work of Methodist minister Mark Guy Pearse and Quaker medical missionary Sarah Elizabeth Rowntree. That is a blog entry at http://mimuspolyglottos.blogspot.com/2011/11/whose-hands-another-possible-case-of.html

I found further support in another blog through a quote from a British Quaker periodical:

Sarah Eliza Rowntree gave an interesting account of the recent establishment of the “Home” in Pearl Street, and the progress of the Mission there. She appealed for more workers to assist its further usefulness, concluding with some words of Mark Guy Pearse, “Remember Christ has no human body now upon the earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours, my brothers and sisters, are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion has to look upon the world, and yours are the lips with which His love has to speak. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless men now, and yours the feet with which He is to go about doing good through His Church which is His body.” –The British Friend, volume 1, number 1, 1892, p. 15

(See http://livinginthemonasterywithoutwallsdotcom.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/christ-has-no-body-but-yours-teresa-of-avila/ ) This entry suggests that Rowntree added the first half of the poem to what Pearse had earlier written.

Here's the R:
First, thanks for doing all this research. It sounds like all the evidence is against these words being St. Teresa's. As you probably know, the same seems to be the case with a famous prayer "attributed to St. Francis." It reminds me that many things that we "know" based on "common knowledge" turn out to be questionable or false in the long run. The technical term for keeping this in mind is "epistemological humility." Thanks for adding to mine!

Thanks also for bringing up the polarity between a certain kind of contemplation and a certain kind of activism. Either extreme can be defended by quoting certain Bible verses - God does everything, so we can rest in God's sovereignty, and God does nothing except through us, so we must be busy and engaged.

After several decades of learning to follow Christ, I am firmly with Richard Rohr on this. He talks about how in the name of the organization he founded - Center for Action and Contemplation - the most important word is "and." As I contemplate God's character - for example, being deeply mindful of God's creativity and compassion - how can I not be inspired to let my own creativity and compassion grow? (I think of Paul's words about beholding as in a mirror God's glory, and being transformed into that glory.) And if I am compassionate and creative, I will find creative ways to move in compassion toward others.

Similarly, if I am active in working for worthy goals, I will continually face roadblocks - inner roadblocks in my own strength and know-how, outer roadblocks in intransigent systems of injustice, etc. At those times, I will be tempted to give up unless I retreat a little, engage in contemplation, and recenter on a God whose power and patience and commitment to good are equally unlimited.

So I don't pit the two against each other. Action without contemplation easily becomes a shrill moralism, and contemplation without action can easily become a smug indulgence in luxurious piety. But put the two together and you have a kind of "spiritual fusion" that can empower a spiritual movement.

I set the poem to music and recorded it with my gifted friend Tracy Howe Wispelwey.

Canadian treasure Steve Bell also has recorded it beautifully.

Whatever the source of the poem, I think it beautifully captures the daring image so precious to Paul - that we are the body, or embodiment, of Christ. What an honor to contemplate, and what a summons to action!