In reflecting upon our Holy Mother St. Teresa, I have been especially taken with how much time it took her (as a religious) prior to her experience of BEING CONVERTED to Christ. The experience of falling before the image of the “much wounded Christ” at the pillar (Life 9.1-3) and SURRENDERING to His power took nearly 20 years from the time she entered the monastery of the Incarnation in Ávila. It was 20 years ago last month that I began my postulancy in Brighton, MA with Fr. Sal (our prior) as my postulant director! …And I am still begging for this grace of complete SURRENDER!
“How many are the reasons I can sing Your mercies forever!” St. Teresa writes in The Book of Her Life (14.10). Teresa here echoes the Magnificat of the Blessed Virgin. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, Teresa knows by experience the liberation of having been loved by Christ. She knows the liberation of being freed of one’s enslavement to sin. She knows the liberation of being freed of licking one’s own wounds and repeatedly tearing them open again in the desire for justice. At the CORE of Teresa’s spirituality is the experience of ENCOUNTER with Christ, of having been visited by God in Jesus Christ and having been saved from the tyranny of her self-love.
We heard the Gospel of the Samaritan woman. She has been called “the most broken person in the Gospels” (Jean Vanier). She came to the well having had five husbands (whether they died or divorced her we don’t know) and she was living with one who was not her husband… But Jesus begged her for her faith in Him. He begged her to abandon the satanic lie concerning who and what she was. And the result is that, as Teresa writes, “This holy woman, in that divine intoxication, went shouting through the streets” (Meditation on the Song of Songs, 7.6). Her experience at the well was something of a Pentecost experience, much like the apostles in the Upper Room who moved from fear and trepidation in the Upper Room to joy and ecstatic witness throughout Jerusalem.
This is the story of Teresa and the story at the heart of her doctrine—to recall her own wretchedness, her lack of freedom and disordered affectivity, and how the beauty of Jesus and His loving initiative pulled her out of herself… In a 1982 lecture, then-Cardinal Ratzinger commented: “[Teresa’s] conversion consists ultimately in the fact that she was ‘freed from conversation as chatter with the world and about the world so as to enter into a real and essential conversation with God, about God, about herself, about people and her world as God sees them and from the perspective of God himself’” (“Interpretation-Contemplation-Action: Reflections on the Mission of a Catholic Academy” from Fundamental Speeches From Five Decades, Ignatius Press ).
Isn’t this so much our problem, that in the course of a day our thoughts and inner conversations are a rehashing of half-truths, rehearsed disappointments, and past hurts? Self-love much prefers what is familiar and contained—however miserable—to what is unfamiliar and reliant upon another. But this is the way of conversion (exemplified by the Samaritan woman at the well), to abandon the familiar and miserable monologue (“what I’ve done and what others have done to me”) and instead, to be bold in entering into Christ’s dialogue (“who He is and what He is doing for me”).
Teresa writes: “As often as we think of Christ we should recall the love with which He bestowed on us so many favors and what great love God showed us in giving us a pledge like this of His love, for love begets love. Even if we are at the very beginning and are very wretched, let us strive to keep this divine love always before our eyes and to waken ourselves to love” (Life 22.14).
In the previously cited lecture by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, he notes that Teresa’s “dialogical orientation to liberating truth” is shown specifically in “her doctrine about remembering and thanking.” He continues, “First, remembering creates the context of a spiritual history in the individual person and at the same time brings history as a whole to him as his own history. Only remembering teaches understanding, makes a person grateful, and leads to love.”
In the Book of Her Life 10.5, Teresa writes: “It is very obvious that we love others more when we often recall the good works they do for us. …It is permissible, and therefore meritorious, to keep always in mind that we have our being from God, that He created us from nothing and sustains us, and all the other benefits flowing from His death and trials — for long before He created us He obtained them for each one now living. …For love is the genuine fruit of prayer when prayer is rooted in humility. It is necessary to draw out strength again for service and to strive not to be ungrateful.”
Teresa teaches us that WE MUST STRIVE TO REMEMBER HIS MERCIES so to be disposed to the grace of continuing conversion.
Fr. Maximiliano Herraiz, OCD says this about her greatest work, the Interior Castle: “[It] is like a biography of God, written first in the flesh and blood of Teresa, and then on the pages [written in her hand].” How can he say that it is “God’s biography”? How can it be said that God writes His “biography” in the flesh and blood of St. Teresa, who then becomes God’s scribe?
The LIFE of St. Teresa is a message of God written in her flesh and blood, her personal history, to reveal to EACH of US something of God’s design for EACH of US. If we solely stand back and gawk at her… if we solely “tip our hat” to her once a year on her feast, we have MISSED the point! We ourselves are called to be living vessels who reveal His glory through the works of LOVE and MERCY in our lives.
But God wishes to free us of the useless “chatter about the world.” He wishes to free us from self-destructive arrogance and the tendency to lick our own wounds, and to enter into a real and essential conversation with God, about God, about ourselves, about others and our world as God sees them and from the perspective of God himself.
Let us finish with Holy Mother’s words by which she implores us: “[Let us] trust in the goodness of God, which is greater than all the evils we are capable of. … Souls should remember … and see what He did with me; before I grew tired of offending Him, His Majesty began to pardon me. He never tires of giving, nor can He exhaust His mercies. Let us not tire of receiving. May He be blessed forever, amen — and may all things praise Him” (Life 19.15).