Take a Moment to Dwell on the Holy Wisdom of St. Teresa of Avila
St. Teresa of Avila is known and loved by many devotees. She is best understood for her expansive treatise on prayer, but her life itself unfolded in such a dramatic way that what she learned can only be described as holy wisdom. Her words, spoken and written, are pathways into our own spiritual growth and development, intended to encourage and challenge us toward movement in a heavenly direction.
Some find St. Teresa to be difficult to follow, as she is mystical in her spirituality and was heavily influenced by her comrade, St. John of the Cross. I’ve chosen five quotes from her that I believe are relevant to all of us, even in this modern day, and are clear for personal understanding.
“In a soul that belongs to itself and is attached to its own will, there can never be solid virtue.”
Most practicing Catholics have a difficult time discerning between self-love and self-denial. Some saints admonished what they termed as “self-love,” although this can be synonymous with “love thyself,” one of the two greatest commandments proclaimed by Jesus in the New Testament. Loving oneself as a commandment involves an interior separation between focusing on oneself – appearance, how others judge or interpret their personality, the desire to be affirmed, etc. – and genuine desire to please God.
I read in a small devotional that self-denial involves shedding one’s own desires in favor of God’s will. Neither of these are specific to the modern Catholic, but we can determine a few things about each that might shed light into how we live our everyday lives:
- Loving oneself means taking care of one’s body, mind, and soul – eating properly, getting enough rest, moderation in food and drink, resting and relaxing (especially on Sundays), taking a nap if needed, going to Confession regularly and praying daily.
- Self-love, as the saints talked about is vain and narcissistic. It means a person is always thinking of how s/he appears to others and deigns to please people rather than God.
- Self-denial includes acts of mortification of the senses (St. John of the Cross was a big proponent of this), which we are encouraged to do during Advent and Lent. The purpose is to lead us closer to loving God for His own sake rather than any delights or spiritual consolations we may receive.
“There is nothing in us so fitted to glorify God and to sanctify our souls as suffering.”
Suffering is another nebulous topic among Christians today. On one end of the spectrum, some claim that Jesus took on all of our suffering so that we would no longer need to, while others almost adopt this disturbing martyr complex, in which even sick, codependent and abusive forms of suffering is considered a higher calling.
It’s important to distinguish between pain and suffering, first of all. Pain is our body’s natural response to something gone amiss. When we get a cut or bruise, it signals our brain to feel physically hurt so that we will attend to the wound and care for it. Pain, of course, can also be mental and spiritual, but regardless of its source, the purpose is always to move us toward changing something about ourselves to ameliorate the problem.
Suffering is our interpretation of pain. When we live with a chronic illness or endure long recovery after an injury, we have a choice on how we will manage the pain: patiently accept it with resignation, giving it back to God perhaps several times per day, or resisting it and becoming embittered? There is wasted suffering, and there is meritorious suffering. What we give back to God can be a powerful means by which both we and others are sanctified, but we don’t have to go searching for misery.
The cross that is chosen for us is far more meaningful than one we choose for ourselves.
“We gain more in a single day by trials which come to us from God and our neighbor, than we would in ten years by penances and other exercises, which we take up of ourselves.”
A friend of mine suggested that, every time one of my children did something to upset or irritate me, to open a spiritual bank account and make a deposit toward their salvation. It sounds a bit odd, but when a parent is constantly nagged or met with whining, needs to push a lazy kid or reprimand constant hitting, then she gets desperate.
The everyday trials of life seem petty to us when they happen, but they accumulate quickly and can often build within us to the point of temptation toward sin. Consider the spouse who doesn’t get to the to-do list for months. Or the child who complains on a daily basis about the food he is served. Or the coworker who is shifty and lazy and deceptive. There are thousands of examples by which God permits us to experience irritation, so that we might choose to bear each trial with patience and endurance.
“Much more is accomplished by a single word of the Pater Noster said, now and then, from the heart, than by the whole prayer repeated many times in haste and without attention.”
If you are in a season of your life when prayer consists of rote repetition and very little creative or spontaneous prayer, take heart to what St. Theresa says here. Many of us are told that, when we advance in our spiritual development, we should necessarily move from mere vocal prayer to mental prayer. Mental prayer involves meditating on some Sacred Mystery or image from Scripture.
But if you are depleted from taking care of an ailing parent or managing a household while working a difficult and grueling job, if you are assailed with financial struggles or struggle with physical and mental diagnoses, it is difficult – if not impossible – to imagine oneself in Scripture or to expend one’s mental energy in deep thought. Pain and sleep deprivation are two factors that influence our ability to process complex thoughts.
St. Teresa is saying here that if we pray a familiar prayer, such as the Our Father, with devotion and sincerity, then it is pleasing to God and benefits the soul far more than reciting an entire Rosary or engaging in an hour of uninterrupted meditation done in total silence.
“It should be observed that perfect love of God consists not in those delights, tears, and sentiments of devotion that we generally seek, but in a strong determination and keen desire to please God in all things, and to take care, as far as possible, not to offend Him, and to promote His glory.”
Here’s another sign of hope for you: if you haven’t experienced an extraordinary spiritual phenomenon, such as ecstasy, the gift of tears, or signs from heaven, it’s not an indication that you are unfavored by God or that you are far away from Him. Sometimes we go through seasons of consolation, in which God displays to the soul showers of favors and delights unbidden, but that is the key – we do not seek them in and of themselves, nor do we attach ourselves to them should we receive them.
Everything that happens to us is a gift, and we are all given the opportunity – and invitation – to thank God for what pleases Him to do with us. It is best to simply love Him, seek to serve Him, and to avoid sin. If that is where you begin your prayer, from the heart, each day, then it is enough.