Monday, October 20, 2008

Teresa of Avila

I'm going to approach St. Teresa with some caution. She's a mystic, after all, and that's how you have to treat them. Reading stuff from mystics is something we probably shouldn't do without a spiritual director. It's real easy to either get very spiritually greedy and feel like you deserve ecstacies, visions, etc. This tends to lead someone into doing rather extreme things in search of such experiences. Such things can get out of hand. Or you can go the other way and get down on yourself because you lack such experiences and wind up depressed about it.

Just be wary is all I'm saying.

Teresa herself really didn't trust the veracity of her own visions for a while. Her early encounters with God left her with a very vivid picture of how awful sin was, which in turn led her rather delicate conscience to describe even her most minor faults as absolutely horrible. Since she was so convinced of how awful she was and how unworthy she would be of the outpouring of graces God was giving her, she became convinced (not without the help of folks around her) that she was under the influence of The Adversary. She took this so seriously that she started major, hardcore penances that didn't stop until her confessor was able to turn her around to the idea that these mystical encounters were from God.

Yeah, I know. Makes you wonder about how we should be viewing our own sins. These ordeals help you understand her mindset later in life when her sufferings (I think she'd been thrown from a horse at the time) led her to state:

Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them!

She eventually undertook the reform of her order, the Carmelites, who had apparently grown pretty soft over the years. As someone who knew a thing or two about penance and asceticism, Teresa was the perfect woman to toughen them back up again, starting with the practice of going barefoot and working up to ceremonial use of the discipline (translation: penitential flagellation). This reform is why we have Discalced Carmelites today.

If you're looking for an idea of what Teresa's experiences were like, take a good, long look at the picture above. It's from a vision/encounter she had where a seraph drove a golden lance through her heart. This is wild stuff for us non-mystics to wrap our minds around.

Teresa was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church back in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. If she has anything to teach us about, it's definitely prayer and patience. I am reluctant to reproduce stuff from her writings. That's another funny thing about mystics. Snippets can't give you anything close to a picture and often do damage to their whole message. I will provide this one simple, yet profound remark:
Patience obtains everything. God alone is enough.

Amen. If you want to see if her work is right for you, I suggest Fr. Thomas Dubay's book Fire Within, which gives an overview of Teresa and her friend John of the Cross, another guy whose work is almost dangerous in its depth.

St. Teresa of Avila, pray for us and for the reform of Holy Mother Church.

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