Let Nothing Disturb You
by Guest Author, Terri Aluise
This year, 2015, marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Teresa of Avila. I have spent the last month or so trying to discern how I can, in my own feeble way, honor her on this occasion – for she is a close friend and a spiritual mother to me. There are many avenues to take with St. Teresa. She was a pivotal player in the Counter Reformation movement, the first female Doctor of the Church, and is up there with St. Augustine in confessionary autobiographies. However, after much thought, the obvious struck me (it takes time with me) – prayer. St. Teresa was gifted with many things, but her greatest contribution to the Church was her treatise on the life of prayer, outlined in her famous book The Interior Castle. St. Teresa achieved what most of us can only imagine, an earthly divine union with Christ. She had many moments of religious ecstasies which often times caused her to levitate. But the thing is, it took a while for her to get there. She started out a pathetic prayer amateur, and ended her life one of its greatest masters. If St. Teresa teaches us anything, it is this – perseverance pays off.
I became acquainted with St. Teresa at a very early age. She was actually a gift to me from my own mother, who loved to tell me growing up that I was named after her. That is…until the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux toured the U.S. in the 1990’s. The huge publicity surrounding this tour was odd, given the fact that St. Therese was relatively unknown during her lifetime. But with the publication of her autobiography The Story of a Soul after her death, she became a giant in the Catholic world, a saint, and eventually a Doctor of the Church as well. People strongly identified with her spiritual discipline of making small acts of love through everyday life. Throngs of people came out to pray before the relics and my mother got caught up in the moment. So much so that she announced to me that she had changed her mind, and now I was named after the Little Flower.
Changed her mind? Really? I remember blurting out in typical Boston fashion “Oh for crying out loud Ma, which is it? Teresa of Therese?” She just looked at me with a humorous smile and said “I don’t know. Let me think about it”.
I never did get the answer. My mother died in 2002, and by now she has probably met a few more Teresas – St. Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicata of the Cross) and Bl. Mother Teresa come to mind. I imagine her indecision at this point would make Hamlet blush. But, as Juliet says to Romeo “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Well the name is my fortune and I have received numerous roses from my dear friend St. Therese, but that is for another day.
Back to St. Teresa of Avila. Before getting into prayer, it might be best to give some biographical information about St. Teresa. She was born Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada on March 28, 1515 in a province of Avila Spain. At the time of her birth, the Spanish were still fighting the Moors, the Protestant Reformation was about to start, and Columbus had just discovered the New World. Her paternal grandfather was a marrano, a Jewish convert to the Catholic faith. Her parents were very pious and she grew up hearing heroic stories about the saints and martyrs and her feisty nature led her to make the momentous decision at the age of seven to run away with her brother Rodrigo to die a martyr fighting the Moors. Fortunately, she didn’t get very far when she was discovered by her uncle at the edge of town and returned home. This sweet childlike antidote reminds me of the famous line from A Temple of the Holy Ghost by Flannery O’Connor “…she knew she would never be a saint…but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick”. Needless to say, God had different plans. She would not be a martyr, but she would be a giant among saints.
Like St. Therese, St. Teresa lost her mother at a very young age – fourteen. Her father was strict and was concerned about the crowd she was hanging out with, who were prone to gossip, vanities, and reading romance novels. Not unusual for girls then…or now. Typical teenage girl stuff. Although, I can’t imagine the romance novels of her day were anywhere near as bad as they are now. However, what is unique about her is that at a tender young age, she understood her own nature and weaknesses well (vanity, flirting, seeking admiration, etc.). Most young women know this about themselves on some level, but not enough to have a deep insight as to how dangerous it can be or where it leads. Teresa did – and it bothered her deeply. Men may fall victim to the deadly sin of pride, but women seem keen on vanity. This self-knowledge led her to discern rather quickly that married life was not for her. In addition to her character flaws, she had witnessed the difficulty of married life from her own parents (and the challenges of having children) and didn’t think her nature was suitable for that. Therefore, she entered the order of Carmelites – more out of a fear of going to hell, than a desire to know, love and serve God.
She spent the next twenty years or so living a rather mediocre spiritual life. Part of the problem was that the Carmelites at the time were somewhat lax. Nuns often met friends and acquaintances in parlors and mildly flirted and chit-chatted. Teresa was careful to walk the line and not commit a mortal sin. And yet she tinkered with venial sin and the occasions of sin. Her prayer life was a roller coaster. At times, she would do well, and receive many blessings and consolations. At other times, she felt like a fraud. She would get distracted and become concerned about worldly things. At one time, she even deluded herself into thinking that not praying an act of humility. When she would bring these concerns to her confessor, he would tell her she was fine and to move on her merry way.
She describes these years in her autobiography The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus this way:
Oh that I knew how to describe the captivity of my soul in those days! I understood perfectly that I was in captivity, but I could not understand the nature of it: neither could I entirely believe that those things in which my confessors did not make so much wrong as I in my soul felt them to be. One of them – I had gone to him with a scruple – told me that, even if I were to raised to high contemplation, those occasions and conversations were not unfitting for me. This was towards the end, when, by the grace of God, I was withdrawing more and more from those great dangers, but not wholly from the occasions of them.
Many of us lead our entire lives on this level, don’t we? We are good enough, so we tell ourselves. But for St Teresa, being lukewarm in prayer was torture. She felt as if her soul was in prison and longed to break free. In her spiritual classic Interior Castle, she gives insights as to how to overcome this stagnation. She uses the analogy of a silkworm and butterfly. She goes on to say that a seed from a mulberry tree falls to the ground. Good weather comes and it begins to grow and form leaves. The silk worm feeds off the leaves and starts spinning silk into a tight little cocoon around itself. Then the worm emerges from the cocoon a beautiful butterfly. She goes on to explain:
The silkworm is like the soul which takes life when, through the heat which comes from the Holy Spirit, it begins to utilize the general help which God gives to all, and to make use of the remedies which he has left in His Church – such as frequent confessions, good book sermons, for these are remedies for a soul dead in negligences and sins and frequently plunged into temptation. The soul begins to live and nourishes itself on this food, and on good medications, until it is full grown.When it is full grown, it starts to spin silk and build the house in which it is to die. This house may be understood here to mean Christ.
She goes on to say that once we die to self and wrap ourselves in Christ, the soul emerges as a beautiful butterfly. And in St. Teresa’s case that transformation would eventually result in rare religious ecstasies. Bernini’s famous statue of St. Teresa in Ecstasy at the Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome captures what she herself described in her autobiography:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.
Personally, I think her mysticism and ecstacies were a unique charism, gifted to her by God. Most of us will never even come close to that. But, I imagine that she was chosen as a messenger to show us, perhaps just a glimmer, of what we all hope to experience in the presence of the beatific vision.
However, we can achieve the sanctuary of the inner castle, in which “nothing disturbs us” and “God alone suffices”. It is this mansion, in this room, that we discover the secret of our purpose – of who we truly are and what we created to be. The place where we are known and loved by God – and we, in turn, know and love Him. But it takes time. It takes patience. And more importantly, it takes desire.
But we are not alone on this quest. The Church gives us tools to accompany us on our journey: first and foremost, the Mass. We also have confession, adoration, the rosary, and the daily office. There are numerous books on deepening our spiritual lives, such as Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales and the aforementioned Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux. Often times we feel dry or useless in our prayer life. It doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and we are still the miserable, rotten souls we always were. But if we remain in the love of God and trust in His Holy Spirit, we will bear fruit. God will not leave us orphans. He will come to us and reveal Himself. But…perseverance is the key.
At the age of 43, Teresa would leave her order and form a new Discalced Carmelite order under the patronage of St. Joseph. Like the great reformer before her, St. Francis, she wanted to return religious sisters back to basics of Christian tenets, of poverty and simplicity, so they could grow spiritually. She would found new convents all over Europe and play a pivotal role in the Counter Reformation movement. She died at the age of 67.
“Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.”
St. Teresa of Avila
This article, Let Nothing Disturb You is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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