Dan Burke is an award-winning author, writer, and speaker on Catholic spirituality. He has written and/or edited nine books on faithful Catholic spirituality and is the Executive Director and writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register. Dan is the president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and the creator of Divine Intimacy Radio and SpiritualDirection.com.
When Alonso Sanchez de Capeda decided to raise his daughter in a pious Catholic household, he did not anticipate his child of seven would run away in hopes of being martyred by the Moors. This event in the life of the young St. Teresa of Avila revealed two concepts that would color her entire life: She would have an unquenchable thirst to love and serve God, and she would be in need of spiritual direction.
Our use of athletic metaphors to explain spiritual concepts is almost as old as the Church herself. St. Paul exhorted us to run the race of life as to win and to attain the imperishable prize of eternal life. Yet, how many times do we find ourselves suffering from spiritual atrophy? Maybe we wake up one day to realize not only have we stopped running the race, but even the race itself is a puzzle. The spiritual life of a Catholic is never one of self-sufficiency or independence, but is deeply woven within the community of faith. And within that community we see a need for a kind of spiritual coach. We see a need for spiritual directors.
In her own spiritual life, St. Teresa was plagued by questions regarding the gravity her own sins and the mystical graces that had been given her. In the beginning, her incredible sensitivity toward sin led many to misunderstand the actual sate of her soul. Unfortunately, this led to questions of whether her visions were of divine or demonic origin. Influenced by poor opinions, St. Teresa began various mortifications to hopefully free herself of these “demonic” visions.
However, her spiritual director and confessor St. Francis Borgia worked with her, and they came to see that her visions were a grace from God. With her soul at peace and properly focused, St. Teresa was able to embrace the most wondrous of visions.
Over her life, St. Teresa had a number of prudent spiritual directors, including St. Peter of Alcantara, several Dominicans (Pedro Ibanez and Dominigo Banez), many Jesuits, and the aforementioned St. Borgia. St. Teresa’s unyielding passion had to be tempered by the prayerful insights of directors that loved both her and the Lord. Under their guidance, she flourished in the will of God, and was able to lead sweeping Carmelite reforms, write numerous works on the mystery of living a vibrant relationship with Christ, and experience the glory of God in the most vivid and sublime of ways.
Pope Benedict XVI has regularly called for everyone—priests, religious, and laity—to place themselves under the guidance of spiritual directors. Spiritual directors are instruments of the Holy Spirit that form us in the ways of holiness. They are coaches who speak from their knowledge and experience of the faith. And like athletic training, it can be arduous and frustrating. It is a spiritual exercise that demands regularity, a devotion to the work of the Holy Spirit in the process, and a humble and teachable heart.
St. Teresa shows us that it can be a difficult path, but she also shows us the magnificent fruits of a well-directed soul. This Saturday is the memorial of St. Teresa. May her heart—which is now a relic in Avila—not only remind us of the wonders of mysticism, but also of the benefits of having a spiritual director.
St. Teresa of Avila, pray for us.