The letters of St Teresa of Avila reveal someone who was human and practical yet close to God
Having written about Peter Kreeft’s short and provocative book, Forty Reasons I am a Catholic last week, I will conclude with one final “reason”: “Because of the personality of the Church’s saints.” Kreeft writes, “You can’t argue with a saint. Their smiles, their charity, their wrinkles of experience and suffering and patience make your words bounce off them…When you meet a saint, you meet yourself: what you could be, should be, and in heaven will be.”
This is the point of Dorothy Day’s repudiation of the label “saint” when people applied it to her, that she would not be dismissed so lightly. It meant that others, less generous and self-giving, were letting themselves off the hook – the call to sanctity – by placing her on a convenient pedestal; by inferring that saints are different in kind from us, rather than simply in degree.
Those outside the Church who look askance at the Catholic love of the saints are too buttoned-up. By keeping the saints at an emotional and spiritual distance, they end up doing the same to God himself. The saints simply reflect more completely the overflowing, unplumbed depths of divine love. For some people, such love is too terrifying to contemplate so they turn God into a safe space on Sundays and carefully avoid meeting people like St Teresa of Kolkata (Calcutta).
The saints always recognise each other. Mother Teresa took her name from St Therese of Lisieux, the French Carmelite; and she, in turn, took her name from St Teresa of Avila, the great 16th-century Spanish mystic. A new book, St Teresa of Avila: Her Life in Letters, translated by Fr Kieran Kavanaugh OCD, has recently been published. I will blog about it more fully shortly; meanwhile, St Teresa, whose letters are so wonderfully human, practical, forceful and yet close to God all at the same time, reminds us that to be a “mystic” includes entirely down-to-earth considerations.
In her forties, and beginning the arduous reform of the Carmelite Order, she writes a letter in December 1561 to her brother, Don Lorenzo de Cepeda who is living in Quito (Ecuador), which shows her administrative and organisational gifts interwoven with her conviction of her divine mandate. After discussing the sums involved, what she has borrowed and what she still needs, Teresa states: “By trusting in God alone…I entered into an agreement with the workers [building her first foundation]. It seemed a foolish thing to do. But then His Majesty [her characteristic way of referring to Christ] comes along and moves you to provide for it…I believe that St Joseph – after whom the house will be named – wanted us to have the money and I know that he will repay you.” She concludes on a charming personal note: “Although the house is small and poor, the property has a field and some beautiful views. And that’s sufficient.”
Over 20 years later, after two decades of many trials and tribulations, Teresa writes to one of her nuns, Madre Ana de Jesus, in May 1582, a severe but loving letter, reprimanding her for acting independently of her superior. She is clear that “If the monastery should continue…by introducing into the order principles that show little obedience, it would be much better if it didn’t last. Our worth will not come from having many monasteries but in having nuns in them who are saints.”
St Teresa knew that being a religious is not the ultimate goal. It is sanctity.