“Although the Church triumphant in heaven, and the Church mourning here on earth appear to be completely separated,” says Bossuet on this feast, “they are nevertheless united by a sacred bond. This bond is charity, which is found in this land of exile as well as in our heavenly country; which rejoices the triumphant Saints and animates those still militant; which, descending from heaven to earth, and from Angels to men, causes earth to become a heaven, and men to become Angels. For, O holy Jerusalem, happy Church of the first-born whose names are written in heaven, although the Church thy dear sister, who lives and combats here below, ventures not to compare herself with thee, she is not the less assured that a holy love unites her to thee. It is true that she is seeking, and thou possessest; that she labors, and thou art at rest; that she hopes, and thou rejoicest. But among all these differences which separate the two so far asunder, there is this at least in common: that what the blessed spirits love, the same we mortals love. Jesus is their life, Jesus is our life; and amid their songs of rapture, and our sighs of sorrow, everywhere are heard to resound these words of the sacred Psalmist: (Psalm 72:28) It is good for me to adhere to my God.” (Bossuet, Panegyric on St. Teresa)
Of this sovereign good of the Church militant and triumphant, Teresa, in a time of decadence, was commissioned to remind the world, from the height of Carmel restored by her to its pristine beauty. After the cold night of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the example of her life possessed a power of irresistible attraction, which survives in her writings, drawing predestined souls after her in the footsteps of the Divine Spouse.
It was not, however, by unknown ways, that the Holy Spirit led Teresa; neither did she, the humble Teresa, make any innovations. Long before, the Apostle had declared that the Christian’s conversation is in heaven; and we saw, a few days ago, how the Areopagite formulated the teaching of the first century. After him we might mention St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and many other witnesses from all these churches. It has been said, and proved far more ably than we could prove it, that “no state seems to have been more fully recognized by the Fathers than that of perfect union, which is achieved in the highest contemplation; and in reading their writings, we cannot help remarking the simplicity with which they treat of it; they seem to think it frequent, and simply look upon it as the full development of the Christian life.” (Spiritual Life and Prayer according to Holy Scripture and monastic tradition, ch. xix)
In this, as in all else, Scholasticism followed the Fathers. It asserted the doctrine concerning these summits of Christian life, even at a time when the weakness of faith in the people scarcely ever left full scope to divine charity, save in the obscurity of a few unknown cloisters. In its own peculiar form, the teaching of the School was unfortunately not accessible to all; and moreover the abnormal character of that troubled epoch affected even the mystics that still remained.
It was then that the Virgin of Avila appeared in the Catholic kingdom. Wonderfully gifted by grace and by nature, she experienced the resistances of the latter, as well as the calls of God, and the purifying delays and progressive triumphs of love; the Holy Ghost, who intended her to be a mistress in the Church, led her, if one may so speak, by the classical way of the favors he reserves for the perfect. Having arrived at the mountain of God, she described the road by which she had come, without any pretension but to obey him who commanded her in the name of the Lord. (Life of the saint written by herself.) With exquisite simplicity and unconsciousness of self, she related the works accomplished for her Spouse; (Book of the Foundations) made over to her daughters the lessons of her own experiences; (The Way of Perfection) and described the many mansions of that castle of the human soul, in the center of which, he that can reach it will find the holy Trinity residing as in an anticipated heaven. (The Interior Castle) No more was needed: withdrawn from speculative abstractions and restored to her sublime simplicity, the Christian mystic again attracted every mind; light re-awakened love; the virtues flourished in the Church; and the baneful effects of heresy and its pretended reform were counteracted.
Doubtless Teresa invited no one to attempt, as presumptuously as vainly, to force an entrance into the uncommon paths. But if passive and infused union depends entirely upon God’s good pleasure, the union of effective and active conformity to the divine Will, without which the other would be an illusion, may be attained with the help of ordinary grace, by every man of good will. Those who possess it, “have obtained,” says the Saint, “what it was lawful for them to wish for. This is the union I have all my life desired, and have always asked of our Lord; it is also the easiest to understand, and the most secure.” (Interior Castle, 5th mansion)
She added however: “Beware of that excessive reserve, which certain persons have, and which they take for humility. If the king deigned to grant you a favor, would it be humility to meet him with a refusal? And when the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth deigns to honor my soul with his visit, and comes to lead me with graces, and to rejoice with me, should I prove myself humble if I would not answer him, nor keep him company, nor accept his gifts, but fled from his presence and left him all alone? A strange sort of humility is that! Look upon Jesus Christ as a Father, a Brother, a Master, or a Spouse; and treat him in one or other of these ways; he himself will teach you which is the one that best pleases him and that it behooves you to choose. And then, be not so simple as to make no use of it.” (Way of Perfection, ch. xxix)
But it is said on all sides: “This way is beset with snares: such a soul was lost in it; such a one went astray; and another, who ceased not to pray, could not escape a fall … —See the inconceivable blindness of the world. It has no anxiety of those thousands of unfortunate creatures who, entirely strangers to the path of prayer, live in the most horrible excess; but if it happens, by a misfortune deplorable no doubt but very rare, that the tempter’s artifices seduce a soul that prays, they take advantage of this to inspire others with the greatest terror, and to deter them from the holy practices of virtue. Is he not the victim of a most fatal error, who believes it necessary to abstain from doing good in order to avoid doing evil? You must rise above all these fears. Endeavor to keep your conscience always pure; strengthen yourself in humility; tread under foot all earthly things; be inflexible in the faith of our mother the holy Church; and doubt not, after that, that you are on the right road.” (Way of Perfection, ch xxii) It is too true that “when a soul finds not in herself that vigorous faith, and her transports of devotion do not strengthen her attachment to holy Church, she is in a way full of perils. The Spirit of God never inspires anything that is not conformable to Holy Scripture; if there were the slightest divergence, that, of itself alone, would suffice to prove so evidently the action of the evil spirit, that were the whole world to assure me it was the divine Spirit, I would never believe it.” (Life, ch. xxv)
But the soul may escape so great a danger by questioning those who can enlighten her. “Every Christian must, when he is able, seek out a learned guide; and the more learned the better. Such a help is still more necessary to persons given to prayer; and in the highest states, they have most need of it. I have always felt drawn to men eminent for doctrine. Some, I grant, may not have experimental knowledge of spiritual ways; but if they have not an aversion for them, they do not ignore them; and by the assistance of holy Scripture, of which they make a constant study, they always recognize the true signs of the good Spirit. The spirit of darkness has a strange dread of humble and virtuous science; he knows it will find him out, and thus his stratagems will turn to his own loss … I, an ignorant and useless creature, bless thee, O Lord, for these faithful servants of thine, who give us light. (Life, ch. xiii) I have no more knowledge than virtue; I write by snatches, and even then with difficulty; this prevents me from spinning, and I live in a poor house where I have no lack of occupations. The mere fact of being a woman and one so imperfect, is sufficient to make me lay down the pen.” (Ibid. ch. x)
As thou wilt, O Teresa: deliver thy soul; pass beyond that, and with Magdalene, at the recollection of what thou callest thine infidelities, water with thy tears the feet of our Lord, recognize thyself in St. Augustine’s Confessions! (Ibid. ch ix) Yes; in those former relations with the world, although approved by obedience; in those conversations, which were honorable and virtuous: it was a fault in thee, who wast called to something higher, to withhold from God so many hours which he was inwardly urging thee to reserve for him alone. And who knows wither thy soul might have been led, hadst thou continued longer thus to wound thy Spouse? But we, whose tepidity can see nothing in thy great sins but what would be perfection in many of us, (Bolland. in Theres. 133) have a right to appreciate, as the Church does, both thy life and thy writings; and to pray with her, on this joyful day of thy feast, that we may be nourished with thy heavenly doctrine and kindled with thy love of God. (Collect of the day.)
According to the word of the divine Canticle, in order to introduce Teresa into his most precious stores the Spouse had first to set charity in order in her soul. Having, therefore, claimed his just and sovereign rights, he at once restored her to her neighbor, more devoted and more loving than before. The Seraph’s dart did not wither nor deform her heart. At the highest summit of perfection she was destined to attain, in the very year of her blessed death, she wrote: “If you love me much, I love you equally, I assure you; and I like you to tell me the same. Oh! how true it is, that our nature inclines us to wish for return of love! It cannot be wrong, since our Lord himself exacts a return from us. It is an advantage to resemble him in something, were it only in this.” (To Mary of St. Joseph, the Prioress of Seville, Nov. 8, 1581) And elsewhere, speaking of her endless journeys in the service of her divine Spouse, she says: “It cost me the greatest pain when I had to part from my daughters and sisters. They are detached from everything else in the world, but God has not given them to be detached from me; he has perhaps done this for my greater trial, for neither am I detached from them.” (Foundations, ch. xxvii)
No; grace never depreciates nature, which, like itself, is the Creator’s work. It consecrates it, makes it healthy, fortifies it, harmonizes it; causes the full development of its faculties to become the first and most tangible homage, publicly offered by regenerated man to Christ his Redeemer. Let anyone read that literary masterpiece, the Book of the Foundations, or the innumerable letters written by the seraphic Mother amid the devouring activity of her life; there he will see whether the heroism of faith and of all virtues, whether sanctity in its highest mystical expression, was ever prejudicial—we will not say to Teresa’s constancy, devotedness, or energy—but to that intelligence, which nothing could disconcert, swift, lively, and pleasant; to that even character, which shed its peaceful serenity on all around; to the delicate solicitude, the moderation, the exquisite tact, the amiable manners, the practical good sense, of this contemplative, whose pierced heart beat only by miracle, and whose motto was: To suffer or to die!
To the benefactor of a projected foundation she wrote: “Do not think, sir, that you will have to give only what you expect; I warn you of it. It is nothing to give money; that does not cost us much. But when we find ourselves on the point of being stoned, you and your son-in-law, and as many of us as have to do with this affair (as it nearly happened to us at the foundation of St. Joseph’s at Avila), Oh! then will be the good time!” (To Alphonso Ramirez, Feb. 19, 1569) It was on occasion of this same foundation at Toledo, which was in fact very stormy, that the Saint said: “Teresa and three ducats are nothing; but God, Teresa, and three ducats, there you have everything.”
Teresa had to experience more than mere human privations: there came a time when God himself seemed to fail her. Like Philip Benizi before her, and after her Joseph Calasanctius and Alphonsus Liguori, she saw herself, her daughters, and her sons, condemned and rejected in the name and by the authority of the Vicar of Christ. It was one of those occasions, long before prophesied, when it is given to the beast to make war with the saints and to overcome them. (Apocalypse 13:7) We have not space to relate all the sad circumstances; (See the saint’s letters: to the prior of the Charterhouse at Seville, Jan. 1579; etc.) and why should we do so? The old enemy had then one manner of acting, which he repeated in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, and will always repeat. In like manner, God has but one aim in permitting the evil, viz: to lead his chosen ones to that lofty summit of crucifying union, where he, who willed to be first to taste the bitter dregs of the chalice, could say more truly and more painfully than any other: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)
The Church thus abridges the life of the reformer of Carmel.
The virgin Teresa was born at Avila in Spain, of parents illustrious for nobility and virtue. She was brought up by them in the fear of God; and while still very young, she gave admirable promise of her future sanctity. While reading the Acts of the holy martyrs, she was so enkindled with the fire of the Holy Spirit, that she ran away from home, resolved to cross over to Africa, and there to lay down her life for the glory of Jesus Christ and the salvation of souls. She was brought back by her uncle; but her heart still burned with the desire of martyrdom, which she endeavored to satisfy by alms-deeds and other works of piety, weeping continually to see herself deprived of that happy lot. On the death of her mother she begged the Blessed Virgin to be a Mother to her; and she gained her request, for, ever afterwards the Mother of God cherished her as a daughter. In the twentieth year of her age she joined the Nuns of St. Mary of Mount Carmel; and spend eighteen years in that monastery, enduring severe illnesses and many trials. While she was thus courageously battling in the ranks of Christian penance, she was deprived of the support of heavenly consolations, in which the saints usually abound, even on this earth.
She was adorned with angelic virtues; and her charity made her solicitous not for her own salvation alone, but for that of all mankind. Inspired by God, and with the approbation of Pius IV she restored the Carmelite rule to its primitive severity, and caused it to be thus observed first by the women and then by the men. The all-powerful blessing of our merciful God was evident in this work; for, though destitute of all human aid, and moreover opposed by many of the great ones of the world, the virgin was able, in her poverty, to build thirty-two monasteries. She wept continually over the blindness of infidels and heretics, and offered to God the voluntary maceration of her body to appease the divine anger, on their behalf. Her heart burned like a furnace of divine love; so that once she saw an Angel piercing it with a fiery darts, and heard Christ say to her, taking her hand in his: Henceforward, as my true bride, thou shalt be zealous for mine honor. By our Lord’s advice, she made the exceedingly difficult vow, always to do what she conceived to be most perfect. She wrote many works, full of divine wisdom, which arouse in the minds of the faithful the desire of their heavenly country.
Where Teresa was a pattern of every virtue, her desire of bodily mortification was most ardent; and in spite of the various maladies which afflicted her, she chastised her body with hairshirts and iron chains, scourged herself with sharp disciplines or with bundles of nettles, and sometimes would often speak thus to God: O Lord, let me either suffer or die; for she considered that as long as she was absent from the fountain of life, she was dying daily and most miserably. She was remarkable for her gift of prophecy, and was enriched to such a degree by our Lord with his divine favors, that she would often beg him to set bounds to his gifts, and not to blot out the memory of her sins so speedily. Consumed by the irresistible fire of divine love rather than by disease, after receiving the last Sacraments, and exhorting her children to peace, charity, and religious observance, she expired at Alba, on the day she had foretold; and her most pure soul was seen ascending to God in the form of a dove. She died at the age of sixty-seven, in the year 1582, on the Ides of October according to the corrected Roman Calendar.* Jesus Christ was seen present at her deathbed, surrounded by Angels; and a withered tree near her cell suddenly burst into blossom. Her body has remained incorrupt to the present day, distilling a fragrant liquor; and is honored with pious veneration. She was made illustrious by miracles both before and after her death; and Gregory XV enrolled her among the Saints.
* In order to effect this correction, Gregory XIII had ordered that ten days of the year 1582 should be suppressed, and that the morrow of October 4 should be called the 15th of that month. It was during that historic night, between the 4th and the 15th, that St. Teresa died.
The Beloved, who revealed himself to thee, O Teresa, at death, thou hadst already found in the sufferings of this life. If anything could bring thee back to earth, it would be the desire of suffering yet more. (Apparition to Father Gratian) “I am not surprised,” says Bossuet speaking in thy honor on thy feast, “that Jesus willed to die: he owed that sacrifice to his Father. But why was it necessary that he should spend his days, and finally close them, in the midst of such great pains? It is because, being the Man of sorrows, as the Prophet calls him, he would live only to endure; or, to express it more forcibly by a beautiful word of Tertullian’s: he wished to be satiated, before dying, with the luxury of suffering: Saginari voluptate patientiæ discessurus colebat. (Tertullian. De patientia, 3) What a strange expression! One would think, according to this Father, that the whole life of our Savior was a banquet, where all the dishes consisted of torments. A strange banquet in the eyes of men, but which Jesus found to his taste! His death was sufficient for our salvation; but death was not enough to satisfy his wonderful appetite for suffering for us. It was needful to add the scourges, and that blood-stained crown that pierced his head, and all the cruel apparatus of terrible tortures; and wherefore? Living only to endure, He wished to be satiated, before dying, with the luxury of suffering for us. Insofar that upon his Cross, seeing in the eternal decrees that there was nothing more for him to suffer, ‘Ah!’ said he, ‘it is done, all is consummated; let us go forth, for there is nothing more to do in this world;’ and immediately he gave up his soul to his Father.” (Bousset, Panegyric on St. Teresa.)
If such is the mind of Jesus our Savior, must it not also be that of his bride, Teresa of Jesus? “She too wished to suffer or to die; and her love could not endure that any other cause should retard her death, save that which deferred the death of our Savior.” (Ibid.) Let us warm our hearts at the sight of this great example. “If we are true Christians, we must desire to be ever with Jesus Christ. Now, where are we to find this loving Savior of our souls? In what place may we embrace him? He is found in two places: in his glory and in his sufferings; on his throne and on his cross. We must, then, in order to be with him, either embrace him on his throne, which death enables us to do; or else share in his cross, and this we do by suffering; hence we must either suffer or die, if we would never be separated from our Lord. Let us suffer then, O Christians; let us suffer what it pleases God to send us: afflictions, sickness, the miseries of poverty, injuries, calumnies; let us try to carry, with steadfast courage, that portion of his cross with which he is pleased to honor us.” (Ibid.)
O thou, whom the Church proposes to her children as a mistress and mother in the paths of the spiritual life, teach us this strong and true Christianity. Perfection, doubtless, cannot be acquired in a day; and thou didst say: “We should be much to be pitied if we could not seek and find God till we were dead to the world. God deliver us from those extremely spiritual people who, without examination or discretion, would refer everything to perfect contemplation!” (To the Bishop of Avila, March 1577, one of the saint’s most graceful letters.) But God deliver us also from those mistaken devotions which thou didst call puerile and foolish, and which were so repugnant to the uprightness and dignity of thy generous soul! (Life, xiii) Thou desirest no other prayer than that which would make thee grow in virtue. Convince us of the great principle in these matters, that “the prayer best made and most pleasing to God is that which leaves behind it the best results, proved by works; and not those sweetnesses which end in nothing but our own satisfaction.” (To Father Gratian, Oct. 23, 1577) He alone will be saved who has kept the commandments and fulfilled the law, and heaven, thy heaven, O Teresa, is the reward of the virtues thou didst practice, not of the revelations and ecstasies wherewith thou wast favored. (Apparition to the Prioress of Veas)
From the blessed abode where thy love feeds upon infinite happiness, as it was nourished on earth by sufferings, obtain that thy native Spain may carefully cherish, in these days of decadence, her beautiful title of the Catholic Kingdom. Remember the part taken by France in determining thee to undertake the reform of Carmel. (Way of Perfection, i) May thy sons be blessed with increase in members, in merit, and in holiness! In all the lands where the Holy Ghost has multiplied thy daughters, may their hallowed homes recall those “first dovecotes of the Blessed Virgin, where the Spouse delighted to show forth the miracles of his grace.” (Foundations, iv) To the triumph of the faith and the support of its defenders, thou didst direct their prayers and fasts; (Way of Perfection, i. 3) what an immense field now lies open to their zeal! With them and with thee, we ask of God “two things: first, that among so many men and so many religious, some may be found having the necessary qualities for usefully serving the cause of the Church, on the understanding that one perfect man can render more services than a great many who are not perfect. Secondly, that in the conflict our Lord may uphold them with his hand, enabling them to escape all dangers, and to close their ears to the songs of sirens … O God, have pity on so many perishing souls; stay the course of so many evils which afflict Christendom; and without further delay, cause thy light to shine in the midst of this darkness!” (Ibid.)
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)