One important question is left for us to address and it can be very easily overlooked: what St Teresa has to say to us about Evangelisation.
She is a woman great of heart, full of compassion for the Church of her time, clearly seen in Chapters 1 and 3 of the Way of Perfection, where we witness her enormous suffering because of the Protestant Reformation, not to mention all the disastrous news she was receiving from France. It is true that all the graces she received greatly spurred her on to increase her desire to reform her life and create a monastery. It is true, too, that the powerful grace of witnessing the place she deserved in Hell, had she not been saved by the Lord’s mercy, consistently urged her on to start a new life. We know that she founded seventeen monasteries, which is a momentous achievement, given the means she had and the short time it took to accomplish. But all this does not necessarily give any clear indication of ‘evangelisation’.
How can St Teresa’s teaching shed a light on the very hot topic of Evangelisation? It is very rare to compare Evangelisation with the fact of sitting on the top of a very high tower, in the guardhouse, having a wider and deeper view with being capable of measuring the heights and depths of God; in fact all these elements are necessary in order to spread the Gospel. In one word, in order to evangelise, we need to find, in contemplation, the supernatural wisdom of God. Christ wants us to be ‘witnesses’! Witnesses of the Risen Lord. Yet, to bear witness necessitates seeing the person, meeting him, actually touching him and finally contemplating him. This high ‘tower’, this living and contemplative dimension of our relationship with Christ is necessary in order to bear witness to Him. This is very seldom underlined.
Unfortunately this tower must definitely be built! It requires a steady effort aiming for growth and not being spread too thinly. Inevitably there is a constant referral back to the question of the spiritual life and of its priority for us. The reason is simple: one can impart to others only what one has first assimilated. This demands extreme care in nurturing a deep relationship with Christ first, in order to grow spiritually. On a tower, the place of the guardian or night watchman is not at mid-height of the tower, but at its summit! Therefore it is vital to reach the summit in order to have clarity of vision and not to act with haste by lowering one’s gaze to mid-height only. In a sense, this is how evangelising progresses: Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? (Luke 14:28) However, do we pay attention to and acknowledge this important fact of ‘completing the tower’? After all, it’s only logical that a task be completed. In St Teresa’s case, then, after her conversion and from the moment she started to receive a steady stream of ‘grace upon grace’, would she not have felt the urge to do something for the Lord? But with lack of experience and discernment as yet still growing, the process would necessarily take some time to be completed! Herein, therefore, lies the reason for the Lord’s delay in allowing her to do any important work for Him – at least until she was ready for the grace of ‘Spiritual Engagement’.
Loving one’s neighbour is of paramount importance, and this from day one, as Teresa’s growth in grace was to reveal! Charity is fundamental and does transform us in Christ! But charity is not necessarily ‘Evangelisation’. It is more limited in time and content. A great Master in Spiritual Life of last century, the Carmelite Father Marie Eugene Grialou, saw this point with great clarity. In the forties and fifties he wrote a great ‘summa’ of Spiritual Theology in the form of a substantial commentary of St Teresa’s book the Interior Castle, its title being I want to see God. Toward the end of the magnum opus, he endeavours to write a small treatise on the relationship between ‘spiritual growth’ and ‘apostolate’ according to St Teresa. His intuition is of rare brilliance! Why? Because being able to recognize the link between them is highly pertinent! In fact, one of the members of his secular institution, Notre Dame de Vie, transformed it into a wider study and published it as a book. That this work is of fundamental significance cannot be denied.
Let us expand a little on this brilliantly intuitive work. It is very rare to find an analysis on the direct relationship between, on the one hand, the spiritual growth, transformation and sanctification in the agent of evangelisation and, on the other hand, the quality and great fruitfulness of his apostolate, ministry and evangelisation. St Paul clearly endorses this in that he says ‘without charity’ all that he does is mere gesturing (1 Corinthians 13:1 : If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal). It is God alone who makes us bear fruit, His love pouring into us adding greater merit to all that we do. If we are not connected to God, either the divine stream of the grace of God will not flow, or it will flow only feebly, crippled by our clumsiness.
Paradoxically we rarely address these issues either theoretically or pastorally. The question is ‘Why’? Because our starting point is that the apostolate and the ministry are separate areas to be worked on, we are blind to the labourer’s being ill-equipped for this! As the apostolate is mandatory, hardly anybody analyses the conditions for increasing fruitfulness in the vineyard, resulting consequently in the quality of the labourer not being addressed. Instead, only their intellectual formation and theological qualifications are considered, to the detriment of the spiritual life. Their spiritual life is considered as being a private matter, of an interior dialogue that has no immediate connection with the possible fruits that might result.
It is true that these are profound issues, but of necessity they must be addressed, because it is on them that the fruits of our life depend, it is they which reflect God’s true intention when he chose us. ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last’ (John 15:16). It is not surprising, therefore, to hear criticism of the contemplative cloistered style of life of St Teresa’s nuns such as: ‘what good are they doing?’, ‘wouldn’t it be better for them to come out of their enclosure in order to be useful to their neighbour instead of remaining enclosed doing nothing?’ This is a blatantly superficial judgment that fails to appreciate or understand how the Gospel spreads, or what occurs in the hidden recesses of peoples’ hearts. When St Teresa writes to her sisters, she often asks them to be ‘such as’, namely, transformed by the Lord, so that their prayers become more powerful (see Way of Perfection Chapters 1 and 3)! ‘to be such as’ goes a long way in Teresa’a view! It is not a passing comment in her writings, but in fact encapsulates the entire process of the spiritual growth that it implies and that should be implemented, that is: the closer one gets to God the more one is transformed into Him, and gains – by the grace of God – an increasing, an extraordinary, ‘hold’ on God, which enables them to be instrumental in the salvation of more people. In sum, to ‘evangelise’ is first and foremost to obtain Christ’s grace for others. It is true that Christ obtained everything for us on the Cross. But this salvation needs to be communicated to others, and the Lord’s plan for us is that we participate in this work, as St Paul specifies: we are the collaborators of the Lord (1 Co 3:9; 2 Co 6:1), of his grace.There is a need, after all, for all the graces obtained by Christ on the cross (our salvation) to be passed on to our brothers. Surely this is the basic requirement for any evangelisation! One can preach ad infinitum, but if this is not done while being spurred on by the divine life in us, it will be like ‘sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal’ as St Paul says.
Are those, then, who plunge into action, into apostolate, connected to God, to divine charity? Preaching is not one ‘job’ amongst others! It is sacred work! My Father works always says the Lord (John 5:17), and the Son sees the Father doing, and he does the same‘ (John 5:19) – these are important indications of real ‘work’ and real divine ‘action’ in the Gospel of St John. They are put there in order to enlighten us, for if Christ, who is the Evangeliser and the Witness par excellence, proceeded in this way, how can we evade it? This greatly intuitive concept of Fr. Marie-Eugene on the relationship between ‘spiritual growth’ and ‘apostolate’ is summed up at the end of his book I want to see God, mentioned above, and deserving great praise should be pondered on at length. Here, going through her book the Interior Castle, Mansion after Mansion, he reviews the relationship between the growth of the love of God in us and our apostolate. He analyses the state of the human being at each stage, and questions whether it is advisable for him to plunge into the apostolate and to which extent, or whether prudence is needed. He questions the state of balance between the human and the divine parts in the person, and whether the person is ready for greater things. ‘Is the person rooted deeply enough in God to undertake great endeavours?’ he asks, and ‘how does the divine work in the person?’ And so forth. Not only does he address these questions, but ‘pondering’ on these questions is also essential and reminds us of that other cause for pondering: For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ (Luke 14:28)
Instantly two urgent questions emerge : do we have to wait until we reach the summit in order to initiate interaction with our neighbour? If this is the case, then, why do the cloistered Carmelites not go out and evangelise – at least the ones who have reached the summit of the Spiritual Life?
The reply of St Teresa herself in answer to the first question is to lay great stress on the importance of love of neighbour in order to grow (see Chapter 13 in this book). Decidedly, not only is this a beneficial practice, but it is also a vital one for our spiritual life, because it facilitates spiritual growth, enlarges our capacity to love and increasingly attracts inner graces. Without it, there will definitely be no growth! We are called to practise it from day one! We simply cannot seek Christ the Head of the Church and neglect his Body, the Church, our brothers and sisters. Here it is necessary to add that it is during the Prayer of the Heart, namely during those long daily moments of silent prayer, that the Holy Spirit enlightens our hearts and minds concerning our neighbour. One would be surprised to discover within the ‘science of the human being’ that the Holy Spirit unquestionably communicates with us during the Prayer of the Heart. This having been said, the meaning of ‘evangelisation’ does not include throwing oneself into a project, a mission, even a specific ecclesial one, or an apostolate. From day one, Christ simply asks us to forgive our neighbour, to help him, to see Christ in the person of the poor, the suffering, the one who is in need. By contrast to start work on a project, a mission, is quite another matter..
The second question concerning the cloistered nuns is both ‘cheeky’ and pertinent. Who says that St Teresa’s sisters are not taking care of their neighbour? From the beginning of their cloistered life till their last breath they work for the salvation of souls, and more especially for priests (read Chapters 1 and 3 of Way of Perfection). Is it possible for the Love of Christ to be poured into the heart of a human being for the latter not to be filled with supernatural compassion for his neighbour? The condition, in fact, for a young girl’s entry into a Discalced Carmelite Monastery is that she dedicate her prayer and her sacrifices to priests. Her entire life (her efforts, sufferings, sacrifices, prayers…) is oriented towards and centred on this intention. It may be better therefore to reword the question another way: ‘if one of the nuns has reached ‘spiritual engagement’ or even ‘spiritual marriage’ with Christ, what then becomes her method of evangelising?’ In this light, seen externally the impression given is that, enclosed between four walls, she does not do a great deal! The question as ever, then, remains: what is she doing?
Let us take as an example one of the best representatives of St Teresa’s daughters, St Therese of the Child Jesus. She perfectly embodies the teaching and spirit of St Teresa of Avila. If we examine her life more closely, especially from the year 1893 to her death in 1897, what she ‘does’ will become eminently clear. It is true externally her life looks very simple with no great changes from 1893 onwards including that she will be responsible for the Novices, will pray especially for two priests entrusted to her prayers, and will become gravely ill of tuberculosis and die young. Her life goes unnoticed by anyone outside of the Monastery, but also by those inside it. Let us remember that after her death, the Church started her process of Beatification, with the Diocesan Process, and that when one of the nuns learned of this she said: ‘Sister Therese, a saint? What did she do? Nothing!’ Very true – she did not do anything remarkable, noticeable or of visible impact! But would this be St Teresa’s point of view and analysis of the situation? If we read her works, or merely remember what she recommends is done in the seventh mansions, we certainly will reach a different conclusion. St Teresa, in fact, used to say (see Chapters 1 and 3 of Way of Perfection) that she wanted her nuns ‘to be in such a way’ that their prayers would have greater empire and influence over Christ. What does it mean to be ‘in such a way’? It alludes to their transformation in the love of God. St Therese would understand what has already been mentioned above: the supernatural power of love that circulated from then on in her veins, resulted in her being able to take part directly in the action of the grace of God within the Church! An external view of the Church reveals it is composed of different distinct members. However, an internal view reveals it to be one Body, wherein the same Divine Blood (the Holy Spirit) circulates. If this life’s blood in a member is blocked, the blockage is dire! The Vatican II Council, with its new awareness of the Church as Jesus’s Body, clarifies this as it gives us a greater perception of what is known as the Communion of Saints. Today, therefore, we have a better understanding of sin and that one person’s sin will affect not only that person and God, but it will also affect the Church. This is the reason for asking for forgiveness not only of God, but also of the Church. So then, if we allow this flow of the love of God in our heart to be deployed, or even if we increase the power of that flow, we get different results. The process is reminiscent of the action of a pump, although Therese herself uses a different comparison – the ‘lever’. Concerning the action of God she says:
All the saints have understood this, and more especially those who filled the world with the light of the Gospel teachings. Was it not in prayer that St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. John of the Cross, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis, St. Dominic, and so many other famous Friends of God have drawn out this divine science which delights the greatest geniuses? A scholar has said: ‘Give me a lever and a fulcrum and I will lift the world.’ What Archimedes was not able to obtain, for his request was not directed by God and was only made from a material viewpoint, the saints have obtained in all its fullness. The Almighty has given them as fulcrum: HIMSELF ALONE; as lever: PRAYER which burns with a fire of love. And it is in this way that they have lifted the world; it is in this way that the saints still militant lift it, and that, until the end of time, the saints to come will lift it.’(Manuscript C, end)
In order to understand more fully the ‘prayer which burns with a fire of love’ Therese will take another image where the Church is compared to a great body composed of different members; which member will she be? ‘In the heart of the Church I will be Love’ (Manuscript B) is the inevitable answer. She will not be the heart, she has been in fact transformed into ‘blood’! She is so transformed in the Holy Spirit, that she becomes, by participation, the Holy Spirit (Love) himself. St John of the Cross will say something as powerful in his own incomparable way: first, ‘the soul gives God (the Holy Spirit) to God (the Father)’ and, ‘the soul gives God to whoever she wants’ (see his work Living Flame of Love). What a supreme hold the human being has on God!!
This seems to belong to another world! Only Spiritual Theology is capable of explaining to us what happens in the depths of the human heart in the transformative journey. It was a great part of St Teresa’s mission to lift the veil over the world of the interior life which, while invisible to the naked eye, is very real. She offers to her readers an ‘inner garden’ so they can walk within it. As described in the early chapters, she could be compared entirely to Christopher Columbus the explorer of a new world, and to Diego de Ribera the cartographer. Or even closer to us, to Freud and Jung. There are indubitably entire continents to be discovered within ourselves which develop with our spiritual life! It is not because they are invisible that they do not exist. Reference to microprocessors or to nano-technologies proves this without question! They are invisible to the naked eye, but they are quite real. Like today’s electronic microscopes or scanners, Spiritual Theology, a science shining with such power through St Teresa of Avila, is the right tool: it allows us to ‘see’ what the naked eye of Theology cannot see.
A return to details of Therese’s life is pertinent here, especially to the fact that her body is prey to a terminal illness – tuberculosis. More significant, however, is the massive internal struggle occurring in her soul, especially starting from Easter of 1896 – God’s introducing her into the underground world of sinners. Reflect for a moment on the beautiful passage we read every Christmas, at midnight Mass: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2) This text mentions ‘the land of deep darkness’ or in another translation: ‘the land of the shadow of death’. But what is this ‘death’? It is nothing less than separation from God! This is a terrible thought! And St Teresa says it in the Seventh Mansions where she advocates the need for great compassion for people in this state, the state of mortal sin…. people who dwell in the obscurity of the First Mansions, far from God. She is insistent about the need to remember them in our prayers and that this is a momentous act of mercy on our part. Remember, too, that many years after experiencing it, she still had a vivid impression and image in her mind of the vision from God of her place in Hell, had He not had mercy upon her!
In Therese’s case here, not only does she remember these people, but she is literally introduced by God himself – as a result of a greater Love – into their world! Through the Holy Spirit, she is united to them, becoming out of her transformation in Christ the Love of God himself, being imbued in all her being by that which invades them: darkness. Here it is to be understood that only a soul who has reached the summit of the Tower (union with Christ), has the capacity (which is at this stage not hers, because she is now being moved by God) to bear the weight of that contact with darkness. And this is done out of love, by the action of the Holy Spirit, by virtue of her transformation in Christ. St Paul says it well: I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for His body, that is, the church (Colossians 1:24). We know very well that nothing is lacking in the Lord’s Passion. He is the only one who is fully God and fully man, the only one who obtained salvation for all on the Cross. But, what is lacking is not salvation itself, it is the application of this salvation to more people, to those who are distant from Christ. What is lacking is discovering a charitable soul, a true Bride of Christ, who wants to communicate this salvation to her brothers, her new brothers! The magnificent understanding conveyed by St Teresa and St Therese is that Jesus does not only desire souls to become his Brides, reaching ‘Union with Christ’, but He also desires Brides and Mothers, Spiritual Mothers, capable of bearing new children for Him! St Paul, a man, says: My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,(Galatians 4:19), indicating that there is no single way of evangelising, of engaging in the apostolate, or of acting. On the contrary, it is of central importance, first, to enter the real laboratory of transformation and evangelisation of the Church. God allowed St Teresa to undergo the journey of growth in order to reach this goal.
From the Seventh Mansions, the Mansion of the Lord himself, a new interaction starts, that of entering into the inner depths of the human being in need of the salvation realised by Christ, he who is in need of being carried…. he for whom verbal evangelisation is insufficient. Here the focus must be on Our Lady, Mother of Jesus! Did she give voice to any remarkable words of external evangelisation? Did she have any apostolate? Has she evangelised? No. And she is the mother of us all. Her mission belongs to all Christians, and is at the reach of everybody, especially the humblest of us. She is the mother of evangelising and the mother of evangelisation. Indeed, it is fitting to say that everything starts with her and ends in her. We, too, can emulate Our Lady being enclosed within four walls, and still hold the entire world in our hands and in our heart, and yet make it turn. After all, the sun continues to rise everyday. One has only to see and to pose the question: because of whom?!
Conformity with Our Lady
“On the octave day of All Saints I spent two or three very troublesome days […] While I was at Matins that same night, the Lord, through an intellectual vision so intense it almost seemed to be an imaginative one, placed Himself in my arms as in the painting of the fifth agony. This vision caused me great fear. For it was so clear, and He was so close to me that I wondered if it was an illusion. He told me: “Don’t be surprised by this, for My Father is with your soul in an incomparably greater union.”
This vision has so remained up till now. What I said of our Lord lasted more than a month. Now it is gone. (St Teresa of Avila, Spiritual Testimonies, Seville 8th of November 1575)
By placing Himself in the arms of St Teresa, just as tradition represents Him in the hands of Our Lady in the descent from the cross (in fact the sixth sorrow of Our Lady), a real similarity between Our Lady of Compassion and St Teresa is established. We understand her fears of being deluded or misled. Herein we discover her supreme conformity with our Lady of Compassion, rarely given – it seems – with such supporting evidence in the entire history of the Church. Jesus has granted St. Teresa the grace of conformity to Our Lady’s life, leading her to the fullness of the Mystery of Our Lady. The last statement above could mean that this grace lasted an entire month, in which case this could be the longest Marian grace St Teresa received. Initially on 22nd of July 1572 St Teresa had requested the Lord to allow her to take the place of Mary Magdalen at the foot of the cross. Here Christ is giving her infinitely more…. the place of his mother.
St Teresa would not mention any other Marian grace after this one. Was it because this was unsurpassable? It is noteworthy that this grace was received three years after the grace of Spiritual Marriage, which rooted St Teresa in the Spiritual Maternity of Our Lady, in her compassion for Christ’s Body, dead as it was. Also, more trials would occur in her life, beginning a month later when she received the order from her superiors to stop founding more monasteries and to retire in one of them. At the same time the Inquisition paid a visit to Teresa in the Seville monastery after a denunciation by an ex-novice. It was the beginning of a great storm hitting her reformed order. Then too, St John of the Cross was kidnapped and imprisoned. To make matters worse, the discalced had now to submit to the orders of the Calced Carmelites. In a word, her entire new world, in one fell swoop, seemed to collapse – Teresa was certainly living her ‘motherhood’ in a painful way. Being the woman she was at that junction however, she would show a great deal of patience and strength, moving heaven and earth in order to save her reform and fulfil her God-given mission. This mission would be almost completed at the Chapter at Alcalà (beginning of March 1581) that consecrated the autonomy of her Reformation. During this month, echoing some words heard interiorly in 1572 (see below), Teresa said: I can speak like Simeon, because I saw in the Order of Our Lady the realisation of what I wished (Letter 361, March 1581).
On another day the Lord told me this: “Do you think, daughter, that merit lies in enjoyment? No, rather it lies in working and suffering and loving. Haven’t you heard that St. Paul rejoiced in heavenly joys only once and that he suffered often. Look at my whole life filled with suffering, and only in the incident on Mount Tabor do you hear about my joy. When you see My Mother holding Me in her arms, don’t think she enjoyed those consolations without heavy torment. From the time Simeon spoke those words to her, My Father gave her clear light to see what I was to suffer. The great saints who lived in deserts, since they were guided by God, performed severe penances; and besides this, they waged great battle with the devil and with themselves. They spent long periods without any spiritual consolation. Believe, daughter, that My Father gives greater trials to anyone whom He loves more; and love responds to these. How can I show you greater love than by desiring for you what I have desired for Myself? Behold these wounds, for your sufferings have never reached this point. Suffering is the way of truth. By this means you will help me weep over the loss of those who follow the way of the world, and you will understand that all your desires, cares, and thoughts must be employed in how to do the opposite.” (St Teresa of Avila, Spiritual Testimonies, Probably Avila, 1572)