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Zooming with St. Teresa of Avila

A statue of St. Teresa of Avila, Spanish mystic and doctor of the church, stands in the sanctuary of the Serra Chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. We are all called to be mystics on some level. God is present to us and desires us. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

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Zoom was fun in the beginning. It was an adventure to see inside each other’s houses, show off our pets and experiment with fancy backgrounds. Now, notwithstanding the magnificent benefits and possibilities of Zoom and other online meeting platforms, videoconferencing is becoming wearisome, and “Zoom fatigue” is well and truly a thing. Added to this is the burden of realizing that we won’t be abandoning this form of communication any time soon. We now need to be more intentional in our approach to Zoom meetings in order that they continue to bear fruit and our use of this amazing technology is sustainable for the long haul.

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St. Teresa of Avila’s (1515-82) teaching on prayer is a surprisingly helpful resource for improving our Zooming. The chief gem that Teresa offers us from her spiritual treasury is her rich understanding of presence. Zoom meetings, like prayer, call us to commit to a form of nonphysical presence. In both situations, the fruitfulness of the encounter depends on our commitment to be present.

In her teaching on prayer, Teresa counsels us to speak with God with living faith that we are in God’s presence. She urges us to be mindful of who it is that we are speaking to and to trust that he is very near to us. Writing to her Carmelite daughters about prayer in her book “The Way of Perfection,” Teresa declares: “I’m not asking you now that you think about Him or that you draw out a lot of concepts or make long and subtle reflections with your intellect. I’m not asking you to do anything more than look at Him. … Your Spouse never takes His eyes off you.” Or again, she says: “What I’m trying to point out is that we should see and be present to the One with whom we speak without turning our backs on Him. … If people aren’t looking at us when we speak, it doesn’t seem to us that they are listening to what we say. … We must get used to delighting in the fact that it isn’t necessary to shout in order to speak to Him.”

When Teresa refers to looking at Jesus, she doesn’t mean necessarily having a mental picture of Jesus. Rather, she means deliberately engaging in a relationship with a living person. She wants us to know that Jesus is living, available and interested in us, and is waiting for us to be with him. Teresa emphasises over and over how important it is to realize that the Lord is near, very near. “If you speak,” she writes, “strive to remember that the One with whom you are speaking is present within. If you listen, remember that you are going to hear One who is very close to you when He speaks.”

What wisdom is there here for our approach to Zoom meetings? Teresa’s teaching on prayer challenges us about the quality of presence that we bring to our Zooming. Zoom, and apps like it, wondrously allows us to connect with people all over the world from the comfort of our own homes, while wearing the same clothes as the day before, and with all our beloved devices close at hand.

A reverse side of these benefits is that it is easy for our presence at videoconferences to be speckled with absence. Clicking on a link makes it easy to arrive at a meeting on time, yet we can land on the screen with diminished attentiveness to the reason for the gathering — even though we may be feeling triumphant that we have thrown a load of laundry in the washer, put the dog out and made coffee, all before clicking on that link. Additionally, it can feel normal to make nowhere near the effort to be present to the others in the “room” as we arrive at an online meeting as we would if we were gathering in person. Perhaps this is because there is a certain unreality in meeting with faces on a screen and, if we are so inclined, it is easy to slip into semi-presence. And, of course, once they are underway, Zoom meetings abound in opportunities for distraction: the surreptitious text, the quick look at the news headlines and our email inbox, the perusal of our Twitter feed — all while maintaining a semblance of being fully present at the meeting.

When translated into the context of online meetings, Teresa’s insights into prayer encourage us to establish the discipline of being as present as possible. Just as in prayer we are invited to look at the Lord in faith, deliberately engaging with a living person whom we believe is very near to us, Zoom calls us to be fully present to the people with whom we are gathering and the purpose of our meeting. Neither form of nonphysical presence is easy, yet it is what divine love asks of us. And if, as Jesus tells us — and as Teresa herself emphasised so strongly — love of God and love of neighbour are intertwined, we can be assured that our attentiveness in prayer and our attentiveness in Zooming will be mutually enriching.

It seems characteristic of our God of surprises that a 16th-century mystic would have something to say to 21st-century Christians living through a pandemic. If it leads to less wearisome online meetings, let’s take all the surprises we can get.

Michelle Jones writes from Australia.

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