In college, I comes within the framework of a team of students that strategy the re-dedication of our dormitory chapel to a saint that would be a good fit for a dormitory filled with undergraduate girls. I was rooting for St. Therese of Lisieux and was initially disappointed when St. Teresa of Avila was chosen. But, in the process of planning for the rededication Mass( and going roped in to dressing up like St. Teresa of Avila and handing a performance on our new patron to the dorm, because that is the sort of thing that undergraduate girlfriends do) I fell in love with St. Teresa of Avila. I discovered a saint who was funny, and who preserved her sense of humor even amid suffering. Facing some mental health challenges as an undergraduate, her hope amid digest gave me hope, too.
Although I knew about her anecdotally, it was not until last year that I eventually are caught up her writings. What I found there fascinated me and blew me apart. When I began speaking The Interior Castle, what I expected was a dull tome sketch the steps of the spiritual life. Instead, what I located was a love story.
Big Tess, the Reluctant Mystic
Unlike St. Therese, St. Teresa( affectionately referred to as “Big Tess”) came back holiness later in life. Yes, she did have some metaphysical ordeals as a child, but in her writings, she makes it clear that she also was a bit of a rascal and rebel. Yet, that same spiritedness that she introduced to ordinary life was converted when she was called by Christ to the esoteric life.
I recently listened to a talk in which the speaker was trying to outline numerous roads of the spiritual life, and I was confused by his assessment of the “Mystical Way.” If Big Tess has educated me anything, she has taught me that the supernatural life can be summarized in a simple phrase- it is a love story.
In addition to her improvement of the Carmelites, Teresa likewise was a mystic. There are different kinds of mystics and different versions of mysticism( something which Teresa interprets more eloquently than I can) but Teresa’s fit into two categories. Firstly, she did experience what we would consider classic occult knows- sees, raptures, etc. She was rather mortified by the inconvenience of them, in the way a less demonstrative girlfriend might blush at the overt desire of her young husband. Yet, she accepted them because she accepted the One who she was encountering in these experiences.
The second category of mysterious suffer( which constitutes one that, as Teresa asks, is common to all mystics) is that of an incredible longing for God. Teresa of Avila was a practical, down to earth woman. But she also had the heart of a Beloved, longing for the Lover of her person. She describes it as being “wounded with love for the Spouse.” Those who are married, and mothers( extremely fathers) are more likely knew something similar- a cherish for your spouse or child that is so great that it is almost agonizing. Yet, there is a sweetness in that kind of human enjoy and longing, and St. Teresa clearly asserts that the same is true of the compassion of Christ. She describes her longing for God as dreadfully sweet, a longing that is distressing because it cannot be fulfilled in this life…and yet, it is sweet, because its pain is a greater joy than any earthly joy.
Mysticism for the Ordinary Catholic?
In Interior Castle, St. Teresa summaries seven “mansions” of the feeling, through which one may pass through in the spiritual life. She makes it clear that not all will advance through all seven in this life- in fact, she thinks that if you make it to the fourth mansion, that is a grace to be exulted in. Yet, some may be called and drawn to even the higher levels of the metaphysical life this line-up of heaven- even ordinary Catholics, living in 2020.
What can we do to get there? Is there a road map?
The early manors that Teresa describes involve much effort( as cooperation with grace ), but they are steps that can dispose us to whatever spiritual offerings God may want to give us in this life. What is important to keep in mind is that the mansions are not “levels” like in a video game. You do not advance to the next one really because you have accumulated a certain number of holiness moments. That is not the stage of her analogy.
Rather, her descriptions of the various stages of the spiritual life are to help us to recognize and name with gratitude the talents and charms that God has given us. Whether those mercies and endows fall in the third mansion or the seventh- they are a part of the love story. And, unlike video games, every saint will one day reach the final level- that of excellent union with Christ and the whole Trinity.
The occult nature, as Teresa of Avila pictures it, is a series of encounters of charity- much as the back and forth between the Lover and his Beloved in the Song of Songs. Spiritual charms are not tokens of success- they are knacks of ardour, freely given by the Lover of all our people. And, like any good spouse, Christ knows what gifts are most fitting for his beloved ones.
Yet, even if most of us will never reach the upper manors of the Interior Castle in this life, Teresa’s writings are still relevant for us all. We are created for union with God. If God deems it fitting for us to experience a flavor of that in this life, it is a gift. But even if he does not, saints like Teresa can give us a view at a reality that will, hopefully, all be ours one day in heaven.
The ordinary, down-to-earth nature of St. Teresa of Avila should contribute us hope, more. Already in this life, irrespective of our position in life, God is sucking us in love to him. And, as he discovers to Teresa, he is immensely, irresistibly, lovable. And he is waiting for us, every moment, of every day, calmly and patiently, in the tabernacle. And oh…how he longs for us. Like Teresa of Avila, let us run to him.
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