This coming Saturday (October 15) is the feast day of Saint Teresa of Avila. For many years now, I’ve looked to Saint Teresa as the model of the kind of person I would most want to be, if only I could! That’s what Saints are for! They are to be like prototypes for us, examples of how to live the Christian life.
Who could not be attracted to this Saint? Once, while traveling by ox cart from one of her Carmelite Foundations to another, the cart overturned and Teresa was dumped into the mud. “Mud” was the polite way of describing the liquefied dung that covered the roads in sixteen century Spain.
Picture it in your mind. There she was traveling wearily from convent to convent, doing exactly what Lord had asked her to do. She was doing HIS work, she was HIS servant, faithfully following HIS commands. Teresa looked up to heaven, and remarked (I am sure with a wry smile), “Your Majesty, if this is how You treat your friends, no wonder You have so few of them!”
In the last year, I’ve come to look on Saint Teresa, not just as a Saint in heaven that I can admire from afar, but as a friend. Please, dear Protestant friends of mine, do not fret. Friendship with the Saints isn’t something to fear or condemn. It’s our privilege as members of the Communion of Saints.
You might ask, “Just how does one become a member of this illustrious group, this fellowship that seems to span the bridge between life and death? The answer is Baptism. All baptized Christians are members, by re-birth, in the Communion of Saints, also called the Body of Christ.
One of my dearest friends (down here on earth!) is Julie Onderko, founder of the Apostolate Catholic Finish Strong. A year ago, Julie’s first book, Discover Your Next Mission from God: Saints who Found God’s Will – and How You Can Too, was published. This book, which I highly recommend, has helped me to understand, at least in a small way, the Catholic teaching about the Communion of Saints, that great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) who watch from the grandstands of heaven and cheer us on. They CARE about us – we are their sisters and brothers after all!
Perhaps in a future blog I will share more about my growing friendship with Teresa — how she inspires me every day to be a better writer! And how she models (in her writings) how I can face both my cancer and (sometimes even more daunting) growing old. Until then, I highly recommend reading Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, written by Teresa herself and translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD. (I strongly advise choosing this translation. Kieran Kavanaugh has translated all Saint Teresa’s writings and is considered THE expert on all things Teresian.)
I also invite you to read the following article which I wrote four years ago for Catholic Finish Strong – (catholicfinishstrong.com). Enjoy!
The Saint Who Wanted to Retire
“I’m too busy!” “I’m too old!” “I’m not qualified!” Have these thoughts ever stormed your heart after God asked something of you? Such “fiery darts” from the enemy have always plagued good people trying to discern the will of God. Think of Moses – “I can’t speak well!” Or, Jeremiah – “I’m too young!” Or, Sarah – “I’m too old!” Or, Isaiah – “I’m too sinful!” Or, Saint Teresa of Avila….
A Brief Teresian History
Teresa entered the Carmelite monastery of The Incarnation in 1535 at the age of twenty. After nineteen pleasant but spiritually fruitless years as a Carmelite sister, Teresa underwent a profound conversion experience. During this life-changing spiritual upheaval, her eyes were opened to the desperate plight of the Church. The Protestant Revolt was at its height and whole nations had fallen away from the Truth. “The world is in flames…they want to ravage His Church…,” Teresa wrote to her Sisters [from Way of Perfection].
In response to this, Teresa began what she felt would be her life’s work: reforming her Carmelite Order, returning it to its eremitic, contemplative roots. She so believed in the power of the “prayer of the righteous man (or woman),” that her thought was: the more spiritual we (Carmelites) become, through prayer and a life of holiness, the closer to Jesus Christ we will become, and therefore the more effective our prayers for the Church will be. As she put it, “Let us be the kind of persons whose prayers can be useful in helping those servants of God, that though enclosed we will be fighting in strict solidarity with the captains (the theologians and preachers) who defend the Church” [from Way of Perfection].
With these thoughts in mind, Teresa began her work as founder of the new Discalced Carmel Order. In the next twenty-three years, Teresa traveled throughout Spain in covered wagons, on the backs of mules and horses, and even sometimes on foot, founding twelve new Foundations, Carmelite communities for women — and she inspired a young friar, John of the Cross, to help her establish new Communities for the friars.
At sixty-two years old, after founding twelve new Carmelite Communities, she was (understandably) tired. Teresa looked forward to retiring – to “continue with her spinning” and live the quiet contemplative life she had worked so hard to establish for her Sisters. But God had other plans for her.
Teresa’s Life as a Writer
Eight years after her conversion experience, under obedience to her spiritual director, Teresa penned her first major work, The Book of Her Life – at the age of fifty! Following in quick succession (again on orders from her superiors), came Way of Perfection, Foundations, and a number of smaller works, all this as she traveled from place to place doing the work of the Discalced Carmelite founder.
Teresa never thought of herself as a writer. First of all she was too busy! All of her writing – except for her hundreds of letters to friends and family – were written under obedience to her superiors. She felt that writing, especially doctrinal writing, should be left to the “learned theologians.” For these reasons – and because she longed for that “retirement” — she balked when asked by her good friend and confessor, Fr. Jerome Gracian, to write yet another book!
The Interior Castle
Teresa countered Gracian’s request with every argument she could think of. She was too old! Sixty-two years old! She was too busy! It was too dangerous! (She was right in thinking it was dangerous. The Book of Her Life had recently been confiscated by the Inquisition!) Gracian countered with advice to write the book “in more general terms,” not as her own personal experience.
Teresa continued to protest. She was too sick! (Her physician had recently forbidden her to even take up a pen to write anything!) Her last argument: She was too stupid! Gracian wanted her to write a book on prayer? Shouldn’t that be left to those “learned theologians!”
Gracian won the battle, but only after he got Teresa’s spiritual director, Fr. Alonso Velazquez, on his side. Velazquez even bought Teresa all the paper, ink, and pens she would need to complete the task! Once again under obedience, Teresa began to write her masterpiece, The Interior Castle. In her prologue Teresa expresses her feelings in typical Teresian style:
Not many things that I have been ordered to do under obedience have been as difficult for me as is this present task of writing about prayer. First, it doesn’t seem that the Lord is giving me either the spirit or the desire to undertake the work. Second, I have been experiencing now for three months such great noise and weakness in my head that I’ve found it a hardship even to write concerning necessary business matters. But knowing that the strength given by obedience usually lessens the difficulty of things that seem impossible, I resolved to carry out the task very willingly; even though my human nature seems greatly distressed… May He, in whose mercy I trust and who has helped me in other more difficult things so as to favor me, do this work for me.
Teresa completed The Interior Castle in less than five months — actually, because of numerous interruptions, she had only two months of writing time. These five months were the most difficult of Teresa’s life. Here are just a few obstacles and sorrows she faced during this time:
- Religious leaders (from Carmel!) were threatening to shut down many of the new Carmels.
- The Inquisition continued to “study” Teresa’s writing, combing through it for heresy (which they never found).
- Her friend and protector, Fr. Nicolas Ormanto, the Papal Nuncio, died and was replaced by a man who labeled Teresa “a restless gadabout.”
- A pamphlet was published, accusing Teresa and Gracian of “lurid crimes.” Few believed the lies but it spawned suspicion about Teresa’s credibility.
- Her friend and fellow worker, John of the Cross, was kidnapped and thrown into prison.
- Teresa was re-elected as prioress of The Incarnation. Now that might sound like a good thing, but Teresa didn’t think so! Then the election was annulled (by those same religious leaders who held Teresa in suspicion). The Sisters, in protest, elected her again – and they were in turn excommunicated! (The stand-off was ultimately resolved, but not during these five chaotic months.)
Yet, through all this turmoil, The Interior Castle was completed — the work that (more than any other) inspired Pope Paul VI, in 1970, to name Teresa of Avila a Doctor of the Church.
How did she do it? How did Teresa not listen to the voices that shouted: Too old! Too weak! Too sick! Too busy! Too Stupid! The answer to this question can be found, first of all, in Teresa’s own words. Remember them? “But knowing that the strength given by obedience usually lessens the difficulty of things that seem impossible.” Teresa knew the spiritual secret, that an attitude of obedience silences the enemy and brings peace.
And second, we have the testimony of a witness, Maria del Nacimiento, who actually watched Teresa as she wrote: When the said Mother Teresa of Jesus wrote the book called The Dwelling Places [the original title of The Interior Castle]… it was after Communion. This witness understood that in all that she wrote, and during the time she was writing, she was in prayer.
The Interior Castle was Teresa’s last doctrinal work. For the next five years, the “restless gadabout” continued her travels, founding, instructing and encouraging the new Carmels. She was on the road until the eve of her death. At the age of sixty-seven, Teresa was finally able to retire, not “to her spinning,” but to Glory.
St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church, thank you for your example. Thank you for not retiring “to do your spinning.” Thank you for showing us all how to Finish Strong.