In the history of mankind there are people whose lives are given to everybody as an example to follow, imitate and emulate. Think of St Augustine in his Confessions, think of St Francis of Assisi, or even closer to us St Therese of Lisieux. The light of these people is not meant to remain hidden under a bushel, but it is placed by God on the lampstand (Matthew 5:15) so they can shine forth, or better said, the Light of the Risen Lord can shine through them. St Teresa of Avila is a saint of this nature, offered to everybody as an example: her life, her journey are full of teachings for us. All the graces she received were certainly for her, but filter in addition through her, to her nuns, and to all of us. The fact that Pope Paul the Vlth declared her “Doctor of the [universal] Church” is a sign that in her life there is encapsulated an important teaching for all of us.
From the start when we look at her, we have to say, that it is not uncommon to find a gap between what really happened in her life – often recounted by her – and what people think and project about her. We know that many times she had fallen into ecstasy, fallen onto the floor, that she was subject to levitation, transverberation, spiritual marriage,… Seeing the extraordinary graces she received, popular opinion is attracted, but often retains what is secondary to these graces. As a consequence, some might hastily conclude: “this is not for me”, or even worse: “this woman is not really of sound mind”.
It seems advisable, therefore, to look at both sides of the coin regarding what really happened. One has to recognise that she never really sought the extraordinary external effects of the graces she received, that she often felt very embarrassed about receiving graces in public, being the object of laughter, accusations and denigration from many. However, there was a reason for this to happen: God wanted to show his Mercy in her and wanted to tell us what His Grace can achieve in us.
It is very important to understand that what St Teresa went through is not that uncommon. If the description she offers of the Graces she received seems a bit exaggerated we need to understand the reason: she acts like a magnifying glass for us, greatly enlarging the effect so we can perceive it. God was “zooming in” on her soul to show us the effects of His Grace in her, with the hope of the same effect resulting in us. Why so? Because God has the earnest desire to give himself to us, to give us “grace upon grace” as Saint John puts it in his Prologue (John 14:16), or without measure (John 3:34) as he says in his Gospel.
It is good, now, to take the opportunity to distinguish what is in St Teresa’s experience of God “for everybody” and what is rather more exceptional, “for her only” or for lesser numbers of people. The majority of the Graces she received are “for all”. I suggest putting them into three categories:
1- What we can do in our lives without the personal direct intervention of the Holy Spirit.
2- What God achieves through direct intervention on His part.
3- Some secondary effects of the Grace of God in her.
It is not difficult to sort out the graces because 1 and 2 are quite frequent: “1” covers the first part of her life, till the age of thirty-nine, till her “second conversion”; “2” is what will happen in her life from that moment on up to her death. Therefore it is more important to pay closer attention to “2” because this is what really interests us, this is God’s message to the Church: the necessity of His Grace, of His action in us, and the goal His action is achieving: a journey of sanctification in order to reach “Union with Christ” and to serve Him, as the Apostles and Disciples did.
It is true that just mentioning St Teresa’s name triggers the notion of “mysticism” and can put off many of us. “Mysticism” did not always have a good press in the Church, while many think that it certainly does not embody the mainstream of Catholic experience. But God through St Teresa seems to say the contrary to us: mysticism is the common way for Him. Let us examine this more closely.
First let us clarify one point about her initial intention: has she sought after all these graces? Definitely not. She often felt embarrassed, as if she were standing out from the courting fame: some even told her that this was from the Devil, so her suffering can only be imagined. She certainly would have preferred to be away from such manifestations of the Grace of God. So what is their meaning? And why are we attached to a popular vision of her and do not search for what happened to her spiritually, as she relates it in the book of her Life?
Mysticism often alludes to a very powerful and intimate relationship with God, a life filled with plentiful received Graces. In what we put under “mysticism”, therefore, we need to distinguish between two kinds of graces: on the one hand the “normal” ordinary graces destined for “everybody” and focused on within St Teresa’s writings, and on the other hand “extra-ordinary” ones that are not destined for everybody. In fact, we are all invited by Christ to have a personal relationship with him (CCC 2558) and to receive grace upon grace (John 1:16), to experience the Risen Lord and grow spiritually until we reach Union with Him – undeniably the case for “everybody”!
Let us examine the lives of the Apostles for a start: their entire mission rests on the fact that they were the Lord’s companions and that they saw Him Risen. He sends them the Holy Spirit, who will be constantly present with them and guiding them. They are essentially witnesses of the Risen Lord. This is so evident in the book of the Acts of the Apostles and in the life of a man like St Paul who received powerful graces. Why then do we give credit to St Paul and not to what the Lord achieved in St Teresa’s life, and wants to achieve in the life of each one of us?
Some people, in their negation of “mysticism”, go to the point of saying that St Therese of Lisieux is different from St Teresa, that she never received extra-ordinary graces, and that therefore the way God offers through St Teresa’s life is an extra-ordinary life, not for everybody. Let us not be deceived by such inaccurate statements. First, it is important primarily to take into account all the graces St Therese mentions in her writings. It is true that she seems psychologically “stronger”, therefore she does not faint easily as St Teresa does, but the core of what she receives is identical to what St Teresa received.
Furthermore, thinking that they are different (or worse that they have different spiritualities) leads very easily to errors in the reading and understanding of their lives. This is seriously unhealthy. The great advantage with St Therese is that strictly speaking all that is extraordinary (and not the core) in mysticism is clearly discarded. This is not the case with St Teresa. Therefore in order to read St Teresa’s writings to greater advantage, we can comfortably discard all that is extraordinary in the Action of God in her and deal with the rest: much will remain, and it is the essence of her work.
To be fair, it is true that for the average reader it is very difficult to sort out the graces. What is extraordinary, then, in mysticism and in St Teresa’s life? Levitation to start with, i.e. where her body is elevated from the floor while receiving a strong grace. Next, the visible part of the grace of transverberation (when an Angel pierces her heart with a fiery arrow).Then certain exterior manifestations of her ecstasies: falling on the floor and fainting. Or Certain visions she received. All these could be discarded, as not being destined for the everyday Christian. But let us keep all the rest.
The rest could still seem extra-ordinary, but in fact it is not. The Grace of God is an action of God in us which is greater than our own capacities (With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Mt 19:26)), and in this sense the Grace of God is by definition extra-ordinary, or better said: super-natural, i.e. above the normal capacity of our faculties. It elevates our way of doing things to a divine level. Let us not reduce the Grace of God and what it achieves in us. When God acts in us, His action has a real effect on us. If some consider that this “mysticism” is not part of christian life, they are emptying Christianity of of its essential constituent: the experience of the Risen Lord.
Here a valid objection of many arises: “but we live by faith and in faith”!
It is important, then, for us to go back once more to the experience of the Apostles and of the Saints. This is our criterium, the way we should measure our faith, and what constitutes a life of faith. If “faith” means absence of the experience of the Risen Lord and forgetting the experience of the Holy Spirit, then there is a serious problem. This is the basic attitude of the individual, moved by the Grace of God, open to the direct Action of the Holy Spirit. One has only to re-read the Gospel and make a note of all the passages that allude to an experience of the Holy Spirit to see that, if removed, nothing will be left.
Here further objections may arise: Christ said in St John’s Gospel: blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. (John 20:29) and St Paul mentions that we live our life in faith i.e. without seeing! For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror ; then we shall see face to face. (1 Cor 13:12). Are these objections really truer?
St Paul can talk with authority. He underwent the experience of the Risen Lord, he heard His voice, he received hundreds of Graces, he was taken to the third heaven (see 2 Cor 12:2),… Therefore, let us be prudent in our reading of the texts, and let us view them together in a coherent way, not quoting one text while forgetting the others. Between the very narrow idea some have of “faith” and the experience of St Paul and the Faith he preaches, there is an abyss. Let us be objective.
For St John (blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed) the same applies: does he not talk about the necessity to receive “grace upon grace” (John 1:16)? Does he not speak about the fact that God gives his Holy Spirit without measure (John 3:34)? What we need to understand in the text (blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed), is not the negation of the experience that the act of faith brings to us, but the priority of that act over the experience: believe first, and secondly you will see, you will have the experience. On the one hand we cannot put experience before faith, and on the other hand, the act of faith, opens us to the action of the Grace of God and therefore offers an experience of God: if you believe, you will see the glory of God. (John 11:40)
In the Gospel of St John, in fact, “to believe” is a progressive journey: from the faith of the first disciples in the first chapter, through their faith in Cana of Galilee, up to the Faith of St. John at the foot of the Cross seeing Jesus’ side opened, there is growth and progress. This is the teaching of St John. Believing leads to a vision of the Glory of God. First we see Jesus, in his human nature, secondly we believe that in Him there is more than just what we first see or notice. Then with the act of faith we enter deeper within Him, in order to reach new layers/dimensions of His Divine being. Finally we have the experience of His Divinity, leading to the experience of the Risen Lord. This is the core of St John’s Gospel, underlined in his first conclusion: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his Name.” (John 20:30-31) What is written is a journey of growth in Faith, a Faith that leads to the experience of the Divine Life, during this lifetime.
The fact that the experience during this lifetime is not a total vision, can be universally acknowledged, but from that assertion to discarding the existence of a journey of growth, would be to offer an impoverished reading of the Gospel.
Returning to St Teresa once more, it can be said that her experience of Jesus is a way for everybody to undergo. Of course, by saying that one seems to go against the mainstream! To offer a mysticism like hers to everybody seems unsettling. But St Teresa is adamant in sending a clear message to the entire Church because what is at stake is the core of Christianity. If one removes the experience of the Risen Lord and the experience of the Holy Spirit that comes with it, what will remain? The same applies to her life: if we remove all the graces the Lord gave her, out of His pure mercy, we empty her life completely of its meaning and purpose. Her achievements become but a human endeavour.
The fact that she seems to go against the trend is not her fault. St Paul in a similar way, when talking to the Greeks in the Areopagus was going against the trend: when he mentioned the Resurrection of Jesus they laughed at him and stopped listening to him. Christianity at its core is an openness to the One who is Present amongst us, acts, loves us, and is searching for us. Christ offers his friendship, his Love! For some, Christ is absent, away, dead! This is not the case for St Teresa and for Christians: on a daily basis they have an experience of him: otherwise christians would be a collection of liars.
This, emphatically, is christian life and indeed talking this way puts people out of their comfort zone. Some easily take St Teresa for a mentally or psychologically deranged person. But let us not forget what happens to St Paul after his experience of the Risen Lord, when he talks to his fellow Jews. Will they listen to him? When he will talk to the Gentiles, in Greece, will they listen to him? Is he trying to cajole them? If we remove from Christianity the “experience of the Risen Lord as something common offered to all Jesus’ followers” we empty it completely.
To this the objection may be raised that many do not have this experience and are surprised to hear this. It seems excessive!
But Teresa did not actively seek out such an experience, she did not even know it existed. She was a nun for almost twenty years without this experience, at least without a steady growth spiritually. And God in His infinite Mercy took pity on her, shook her powerfully so she could completely turn all her being towards Him and start to receive a great abundance of graces. When we read her then, we find her very sincere. She cannot lie. Her authenticity endorses more forcibly what she has to say. Those almost twenty years of having a “normal” life as a consecrated person speak loudly to us, because they highlight all that comes afterwards. Her life is an invitation sent by Jesus to each one of us to receive what she received, to learn how to prepare ourselves – removing all obstacles – in order to receive the Lord. It is a matter of experience: to dive into the pool is exceedingly more useful than to discuss at length the nature of its water!
St Teresa offers us a huge challenge, a challenge that is capable of changing our Christian lives. All her life is here to tell us the difference between before and after meeting the Risen Lord. In this light it resembles St Paul’s life a little. As with him, it was certainly a huge effort for her to accept the challenge and undergo the journey. But she learned to let the Lord lead her, to be attentive to Him and to receive His Graces.
It will not be to our detriment if we lose hold of our resistance and make an attempt and follow her example. On the contrary – the adventure starts here!