The world knows of a million artifacts from ancient days, papyri and sculptures and scrolls, buildings and kitchen tools and coins. Only the Church shows forth the Holy Shroud, wholly unlike any artifact in any museum or in any excavation, associated with an event whose like no one else in the ancient world ever affirmed. The world knows many a good man who deals honestly, grows wealthy, and conspicuously bestows his wealth upon his native city. Only the Church knows of holy men and women who give away all they have to sail across treacherous seas, bringing the Gospel of Jesus to villages they have never seen, and perhaps never will leave alive.
The world knows of many a learned and wise man who is well aware of it, and who complaisantly sets his precepts in writing, as a memorial of his learning and wisdom for generations to come. Only the Church knows of someone like Saint Teresa of Avila, who insisted that she had no learning, and who wrote her great work on prayer and the mystical life because her superiors commanded her to. But it’s as the Psalmist says, that God fashions praise out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, and so too, says Teresa, is he pleased to bestow his infinite variety of gifts upon human souls, “so many of them,” she says, “that nobody can possibly understand them all, much less anyone as stupid as I.”
She meant that as no more than the plain fact of the matter. Three hundred and fifty years later, a young German woman, a brilliant philosopher in her own right, but raised in unbelief, would open Teresa’s autobiography and, in astonishment, utter the words, “Here is truth!” That woman, Edith Stein, would be baptized as a Catholic, would enter a Carmelite convent just as Teresa had done, would take the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and would be murdered, along with her sister, by the Nazis at Auschwitz.
I imagine that the daughter looks with joy upon the mother, in that land where we meet the members of the great family of God, most of whom we never knew.
It is all God’s doing, and ours only in and through him.
The castle of the king
One day, on the eve of Trinity Sunday, Teresa was granted a magnificent vision. She had been longing to be shown the beauty of a soul in grace; and she had been asked to write a treatise on prayer, by priests who knew that she was far advanced in that knowledge, far more than they themselves were. Then, says her biographer and friend, God “showed her a most beautiful crystal globe, made in the shape of a castle, and containing seven mansions, in the seventh and innermost of which was the King of Glory, in the greatest splendor, illumining and beautifying them all.”
“Humility,” says Teresa, “must always be doing its work, like a bee making honey in the hive: without humility all will be lost.”
What can I say of this work? I am a cripple writing about the good fight. I am an earthbound man writing about what it is to soar. But so, says Teresa, was she too. She calls us “malodorous worms,” and that alone would cause modern man to turn away in wounded pride. But she begs us also to behold the soul’s great dignity and beauty, made by the hand of God. “Believe in yourself,” says the world, whose bloody history has been written by men who took that advice to heart. loseb Jughashvili believed in himself, and that was why he called himself Stalin, “Steel.” Lord, save us from self-believing and self-deceiving! “Humility,” says Teresa, “must always be doing its work, like a bee making honey in the hive: without humility all will be lost.” To know yourself is to know your sin. It is to know how far you fall short even in humility: “By meditating upon his humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble.”
“Avoid suffering, and do as you please,” says the world, stuffed full of time-servers and deserters who avoided suffering and did as they pleased, calling it freedom. But Teresa, fool for God, urges her sisters otherwise, virile in her very femininity: “Embrace the cross which your Spouse bore upon his shoulders and realize that this cross is yours to carry too: let her who is capable of the greatest suffering suffer most for him and she will have the most perfect freedom.”
“Seek your own consolations,” says the world, measuring worth by the resume or the hogshead. But Teresa says that “perfection consists not in consolations but in the increase of love.” We look for no other result than that there should be more of love in the world, and to till the soil for love is to seek someone to obey, so that we “might not be following [our] own will in anything.” Love does not seek its own, after all.
What does the world know of love?
“Follow your heart,” says the world, meaning that tangle of cravings and confusions, growing year by year a tough rind of insensibility. But Teresa the unlearned woman shut in a cloister knows more of the world than we do. Pray that God will enlarge the heart, says she, “for even in ourselves there are deep secrets which we cannot fathom.” The world, old and dense, tells us to reason everything out before we have faith, but Teresa says that our understanding will be most wakeful when we “put a stop to all discursive reasoning,” and rest content to be in the presence of him we love.
The world is pleased to consider that God, who is Love, will be as indifferent to sin as it is.
“Love, love,” says the world of divorce, abandonment, dismissal, and indifference, a world hard of hearing and harder of heart. The world is pleased to consider that God, who is Love, will be as indifferent to sin as it is. The world longs for immortality so that it may sin and sin for ever. But Teresa begs us so to unite ourselves with God in prayer, that the thorns of sin will pierce us as they pierced Christ: “I know that the torment which a certain person of my acquaintance,” Teresa herself, “has suffered, and suffers still, at seeing the Lord offended, is so intolerable that she would far sooner die than suffer it.”
What does the world know of truth?
“Knowledge is one thing, a matter for the scientists,” says the world, “and love is another.” But when we are speaking of personal beings, that cannot be. To know another is not to be privy to a glut of facts. A spouse is not a statistic. We long to know God, the fountainhead, the infinite sea of the personal. And to the soul made supple and ready by humility and prayer and burning love, God may show himself, says Teresa. Then it seems to us that we do not know what it is to be in the body, or not in the body. “The ecstasy has the effect of leaving the will so completely absorbed and the understanding so completely transported — for as long as a day, or even for several days — that the soul seems incapable of grasping anything that does not awaken the will to love; to this it is fully awake.” So says Teresa, who experienced this love, like a lance in the heart.
“When we die,” says the world, “we return to the dust, the cosmic dust. How fine a thing it is to be cosmic dust.” But Teresa has heard the words of Jesus, that the Kingdom of Heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. It is the secret of the final fruit of prayer, what she calls Spiritual Marriage. In this marriage, there is in one sense no more I and Thou, but only God, as “it is impossible to divide or separate the water belonging to the river from that which fell from the heavens,” and so “there is a self-forgetfulness which is so complete that it really seems as though the soul no longer existed, because it is such that she has neither knowledge nor remembrance that there is either heaven or life or honor for her, so entirely is she employed in seeking the honor of God.” And yet we are never so much ourselves, so peacefully dwelling in the center of who we are and who God has made us to be, than when we forget ourselves entirely, just as a bride is lost in joy when she beholds the face of the Bridegroom.
I am a man with a rowboat and paddle, trying to describe Teresa’s voyage upon the depthless waters of prayer.
A teacher for all generations
But isn’t it remarkable? A thousand years from now, if the world is still here and man still lives upon it, ordinary and extraordinary people will be turning to Saint Teresa of Avila for her practical wisdom into things that soar infinitely beyond the practical. People who believe only in usefulness will be forgotten, useless as they are. The madness of our day will be forgotten, as a feverish dream. So I do hope.
The Church has brought forth the most admirable women the world has known, and someday women themselves will become aware of it, and return to their beauty and their high calling. Out of the mouths of sisters in the cloister, and married women attending to the sweet duties of a human life, will come, has come, the praise of God.
“Here is truth,” said Edith Stein.
BY ANTHONY ESOLEN