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.
The purpose of the newest book in the Navigating the Interior Life book series, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, is to reveal the unique personality, wisdom, and insight that often emerges out of the letters of the saints. These letters are a window into Saint Teresa’s genuine humanity, witness, and pragmatic advice for pursuing an intimate friendship with God.
I’ll be sharing some of the letters here, in the hope that you’ll be inspired to spend time prayerfully reflecting on them. This letter is from Day 23.
Toledo, November 2, 1576
To Mother Mary Baptist, Prioress Of Valladolid Health of the prioress. Matters of the Order and the convent of Valladolid.
May the grace of the Holy Spirit be with you.
Take no notice of the interior troubles you mention; the greater they are, the more you ought to despise them. They arise from a strong imagination and a disordered body, and the devil, seeing this, contributes his share. But do not be frightened, for “God will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able,” and though you may fancy that you consent, you do not, but are acquiring merit. For the love of God get well, eat enough, and do not be alone or think much. Occupy yourself with what you can and how you can. . . .
Let me know soon how you are, and abide with God. The Mother Prioress was grieved at hearing of your illness. All here are praying for you. Always send my kind regards to Fray Domingo when you write to him, and tell me about his health.
Today is All Souls’ Day.
Teresa de Jesus
Internal and External Trials and Spiritual Warfare: The prioress of Valladolid has obviously revealed a number of personal struggles to Teresa, and Teresa responds with clarity but also with gentle care. Her advice is very simple and straight forward, yet also insightful regarding the work of the enemy.
She knows of the prioress’ strong powers of imagination and notes that her internal discord is coming in part from a kind of preoccupation or focus on thoughts, worries, or whatever is troubling her. It seems that her physical health also makes these troubles even worse. Here, Teresa makes an interesting comment about the devil’s work.
Some see the enemy as the cause of all that ails us or makes us uncomfortable. This is obviously not a view that can stand the test of Scripture or tradition. Even so, the enemy is always looking for an opportunity to tempt us. As an opportunistic thief is ever searching for a way to steal the goods of another, so the enemy is always looking for circumstances that are favorable to his destructive work on the soul. In this case, he knows that the prioress’ mind is a bit overactive and that she doesn’t feel well physically. Teresa reveals that such conditions are commonly present when the enemy enters, to seek to make matters worse and to use circumstances as an opportunity to draw the soul into confusion and desolation. Teresa’s wise remedies are almost universally applicable:
Find peace in the loving arms of God, knowing that He will give you the grace you need to endure the suffering you face. A good Carmelite would know to both affirm this truth as an act of faith and dwell on this truth so as to make it a lived experience.
Take care of your body. The life of a Carmelite nun during this period was very austere and difficult and involved fasts and penitential practices that were hard on the body. Teresa gives her permission to the prioress, as she often did with others, to rest and care for herself.
Get busy, spend time with others, serving others. The life of a Carmelite was also one of solitude for the purpose of prayer. However, in times of temptation and difficulty, we often need to engage and serve others in order to break our minds out of the prison of dwelling on our own struggles.
Note: If you would like to read all of these letters and reflections, please click here and purchase 30 Days with Teresa of Avila through the EWTN Religious Catalogue and support the worldwide efforts of EWTN.