This is the final in a series of three posts on Saint Teresa of Avila. The whole piece was originally published in VISION, the Catholic Religious Discernment Guide. Read the first part My BFF is a 16th century nun, Teresa of Avila and the second part Teresa of Avila’s desire to give her life to God.
Teresa spent a year and a half living with the nuns. Still, she resisted becoming a nun, saying, “I could not be persuaded to be one” (Life 3.2). Though obviously attracted to the life, Teresa needed time to adjust to the possibility of God calling her to religious life. Like Teresa we are often given the same challenge of imagining our life in a different way. Teresa says little about how or even if she resolved her questions, but we do know that she decided to become a nun anyway. She was able to set aside her doubts and fears and respond to God’s call.
This didn’t mean that Teresa’s life was easy once she made the decision to become a nun. Explaining her call to family and friends proved to be a challenge. Her father so loved her that he couldn’t imagine letting her leave for the convent until after he died. Nothing Teresa said or did could change his mind. But Teresa wished to remain true to the call from God. She knew herself well enough to know that if she didn’t pursue God’s call now, she might never do it. So early one morning, Teresa quietly left her father’s house for the convent: “I remember, clearly and truly, that when I left my father’s house I felt that separation so keenly that the feeling will not be greater, I think, when I die. For it seemed that every bone in my body was being sundered” (Life 4.1).
The pain which Teresa wrote about here is real. Whether it be family or friends, careers or possessions that we want to hold onto, God’s call is all-encompassing. It is a call to be open to radical change in our lives, if that’s what God asks of us.
Teresa entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in 1533, took the habit, and eventually professed solemn vows as a Carmelite nun. Her initial struggle gave way to a lasting joy: “[God] gave me such great happiness at being in the religious state of life that it never left me up to this day, and God changed the dryness my soul experienced into the greatest tenderness. All the things of religious life delighted me, and it is true that sometimes while sweeping, during the hours I used to spend in self-indulgence and self-adornment, I realized that I was free of all that and experienced a new joy that amazed me.” (Life 4.2)
When I first began considering religious life, I never would have imagined I’d experience this “new joy” of which Teresa wrote. But the experience of responding to God’s call and eventually professing my vows as an IHM Sister was a joy that I’d never felt before. I felt like a new person, yet more myself than ever.
All along the way, it helped to have Teresa by my side. Today she is still very much a companion. Sometimes I turn to her writings for encouragement, other times for help in a pastoral or theological quandary. Whenever I have questions about prayer or don’t quite understand how the Spirit is moving in my life, I pray and seek guidance from Teresa. Even Teresa’s own tangles with God (once, when complaining of her suffering, Teresa heard Jesus respond, “This is how I treat my friends” to which Teresa rejoined, “No wonder you have so few!”) give me assurance that my struggles are not out of the ordinary and that there is a way through the darkness.
Although I have known Teresa for many years now, I continue to discover new things about her. Recently, I read a book of her letters. The letters reveal a woman who was deeply committed to a contemplative life but who was, of necessity, engaged in what one commentator calls “a maelstrom of activities.” Sometimes this maelstrom got the best of her. Wrote Teresa, “With so many duties and troubles … I wonder how I’m able to bear them all” (Letter 39 in The Collected Letters of St. Teresa of Avila).
As a religious I can identify with this constant balancing of prayer, ministry, and community life. It is both a joy and a challenge to live this life. Religious life calls us to our best selves and often summons strengths and gifts that we didn’t even know we had. I’m sure on more than one occasion Teresa was surprised to see how things worked out or what paths opened up that she could have hardly imagined. Perhaps some of the best advice that Teresa has ever given to me is to trust always in God, even when things are tough or unclear. She reminds me that determination is indeed a virtue and a necessity in the life of faith.
“Have great confidence,” Teresa wrote, “for it is necessary not to hold back one’s desires, but to believe in God that if we try we shall little by little, even though it may not be soon, reach the state the saints did with his help. For if they had never determined to desire and seek this state little by little in practice they would never have mounted so high.” (Life 13.2)
* * *
What struck you about Teresa’s life and her desire to trust always in God? If you could ask Teresa anything, what would it be?