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'An Unforgettable Experience': Teresa of Avila 1515 - 2015 Conference at St Mary's

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'An Unforgettable Experience': Teresa of Avila 1515 - 2015 Conference at St Mary's

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On 18th June 2015 over one hundred delegates from five continents – academics, contemplatives, clergy and lay people – gathered to celebrate the life and work of the great ‘Santa’ of Avila – Teresa of Jesus, whose 500th birthday is celebrated this year, at St Mary's University, Twickenham. The aim of the conference was to create a space where the latest academic research on Teresa’s writing might intersect with the contemplative lifestyle of those living out the Carmelite charism. This was achieved by a full programme that included academic presentations from the leading writers on Teresa, space for prayer, artistic exploration and, of course, chat and relaxation over meals and drinks. The first day was taken up by placing Teresa in her context and seeing how the historical circumstances of 16th Century Spain shaped her place in the pantheon of the Christian mystical tradition. This was begun by two leading interpreters of the tradition – Emeritus Prof Bernard McGinn of Chicago University and Fr Wilfrid McGreal of Aylesford Priory, Kent, one of the first Carmels founded in England after the Carmelites left the Holy Land. The afternoon witnessed a lively debate between Professors Sarah Coakley (Cambridge), Peter Tyler (St Mary’s) and Edward Howells (London University) over Teresa’s debt to the medieval mystical tradition. Finally the day concluded with a heart-centred reflection from the American mystic, James Finley, one time novice of Thomas Merton. The second day began with a presentation from Archbishop Emeritus, Rowan Williams who chose as his subject the importance of the Eucharist in Teresa’s theology. He was followed by two Carmelite friars – Fr Matt Blake ODC of the Boar’s Hill Priory and Fr Iain Matthew ODC of the Teresianum in Rome who presented two important aspects of Teresa’s thought – her role as foundress and the place of Christ’s resurrection in her description of the soul. The day culminated with a magnificent Votive Mass of Teresa celebrated in the historic University Chapel. The principal celebrant here was Fr Tony Lester OCarm, UK Carmelite Provincial, who was joined by the Spanish Ambassador to the Court of St James – HE Frederico Trillo-Figueroa y Martínez-Conde – who took a particular interest in the travelling Teresa exhibition displayed at the back of the Chapel. The liturgy was celebrated to the accompaniment of music by St Teresa’s fellow Avilan, Tomás Luis de Victoria, brilliantly sung by Cherry-Willows Pauls and her choir. Our final day began with a spirited video conference given by the celebrated French theorist and feminist Prof Julia Kristeva. Following her post-Lacanian deconstructivist approach to Teresa a dialogue was initiated by Prof Gillian Ahlgren and taken up by the Carmelite sisters, Sr Jo, Sr Philomena and Sr Mary on how Teresa’s 16th Century experiences can be lived out in today’s postmodern world. Prof Peter Tyler, Director of the Centre for Initiatives in Spirituality and Reconciliation (InSpiRe) and author of Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Soul said, “The opening comments from our delegate with which we began, sum up the feeling at the end of the conference. We felt we had glimpsed the unending genius of this remarkable woman – mystic, foundress, thinker and saint – in a unique event which will stay in our hearts and minds for many years to come.” One participant commented, “I thank you for this beautiful and unforgettable conference in Twickenham where so many (if not all) of us have been blessed in so many different ways. This has been the perfect combination of academic and mystic where our mind, heart and soul were made One in the Trinity. I have attended many conferences in my life but this one has been the most fruitful in so many different ways that I have not yet finished uncovering.” The proceedings of the conference will be published by Ashgate in 2017 and in the meantime papers from the conference and videos can be found on www.stmarys.ac.uk/inspire and http://www.teresaofavila.org/multimedia.html
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