I have never liked saints who follow certain guidelines and whose qualities have been defined from an early age. St. Teresa is a woman with an impressive range of possibilities and she surprises us at every turn, and precisely for this reason, I think she is a great help for those of us who, especially at the beginning fail to clearly discern their call to the religious life. Similarly, she is a great help both for those who due to an attractive or ‘magnetic’ personality, so to speak, have had to face emotional attachments earlier on in their lives, or for those whose asceticism is still weak. God gave her mystical graces when she was still imperfect – totally incompatible for a nun who realized that prayer and worldly pursuits could not go together. Teresa experienced all this at the start of her vocation.
But, that’s not all. St. Teresa, by virtue of being a Carmelite, was at the mercy of timid and scrupulous confessors and theologians who – finally – in fact force her to say: but how is it possible? … Why should we be saying “devil, devil” … where we should be saying “God, God” instead? Then she was hurt time and time again; she also had to confront the Inquisition all because the Princess of Eboli, a frustrated Carmelite, denounced her Autobiography to them on the grounds that it dealt with too many visions and revelations. Of course, it was the time of the “enlightenment” where too ‘exalted’ prayer groups were viewed with suspicion. This was the case as far as external factors were concerned, but also on an internal level, Teresa was pulled both ways having dual aspirations: on the one hand she felt the call to silence, to her cell, to be a hermit, revealed when she says: “Remember those holy prophets of Mount Carmel, who aspired to the sublime contemplation of the mystery”, yet on the other hand, when she actually won through, she had to face the battle of the Foundations. Here once she became famous, there were many members of the Castilian nobility who, to gain indulgences or whatever else they wanted, offered villas or lands to Mother Teresa to found a new Carmel – an honour at the time – perhaps sometimes in remote areas and therefore not to be recommended. Thus, rather than being a “hermit” St. Teresa spent most of her life travelling the highways and staying in very modest – half-star – hotels, in order to found 16 Carmels throughout Spain while enduring the tiring means of travel of the time.
But that’s not all. Teresa, always attentive to nurturing steady growth in life, could not herself stagnate either, but had to be ‘renewed’ with the ‘new creature’ she had brought into the world, the renewed Carmel. In fact, when she began it all with the convent of St. Joseph, she was inspired by the example of Franciscan poverty of St. Peter of Alcantara. However, subsequently, she realized that to guarantee community life and to be able to live and pray in peace, an income was indicated.
At the beginning it was all austerity and mortification, but then when she saw too much excessive and extravagant penances among the friars of the first hour in the novitiate in Pastrana, she sent St. John of the Cross there to restore order to the situation, and make Carmelite life more humane and balanced, because it is one thing to have “desires and yearnings for perfection” and it is another thing to have what St. John of the Cross called: “the penance of beasts”.
However, I would like to say a word about prayer in which Teresa is Master, Teacher, and finally Doctor of the Church. Her definition of prayer is as simple as it is profound. Leaning on the great wealth of friends that the Lord had given her, she could not fail to describe even prayer through the medium of friendship, as if it were a dialogue between friends, where frequency, solitude, perseverance and love steadfast and determined are key to moving forward. Prayer, in my opinion, she says, is nothing else than a close sharing between friends “taking time frequently to be alone with him whom we know loves us.” A very simple utterance that, in fact, encompasses all the great themes of the Covenant of God with his people.
I remember starting, almost 30 years ago now, a prayer group based on the Carmelites in my town, singing “Let Nothing Disturb You”, or “I Live not Within Myself” with only cushions on the floor, a Bible and a candle. And from these small beginnings came salvation with a group of young people, who “many times, alone, but also with the Carmelites of the town …sought that friendship, with He whom we know loves us “. Once the “Castle” has been entered God slowly does the rest….
Slowly an experience of a God who grows and develops in us, is born … as we saw in the Triduum: first a God who puts before us the choice of eternity, then, a merciful God who takes care of us every time we fall, and then, when God wants and how He wants it, the fruits of this friendship appear. For some, and I am speaking of that group of young people in my town, it was married life, for others religious life, for others the missions, and for Teresa a more than necessary Reform of an Order which was no longer viable, the Carmelite Order.
And we too, here and today, are the fruit of this superabundant grace that God gives to all those who abandon themselves to Him. Now, if we want to encourage each other, as a community challenge, on the occasion of this feast, I would invite myself and invite you to be – like Teresa – men and women of great desires, of great aspirations. God does not need “saints already fashioned according to certain guidelines”, but people with open hands and enthusiastic hearts, ready to give their lives for the Kingdom.
This is my wish, which I convey to you in this Eucharist, on this great day for Carmel. May St. Teresa help us to emerge stronger and stronger from everything that makes us fall, from everything that weakens us, discourages us, placing everything in God’s hands … and there, this is his specialty … when we abandon ourselves totally to Him , then He acts, speaks, embraces and tells us: «here you are, let’s go, get up …it’s time to walk.”
(Stella Maris Monastery, Mount Carmel, homily in the feast of Saint Teresa of Avila, 15-10-2020)