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.
"Make your community holy and God will help."
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.
Today's excerpt is from Day 6 in the book.
Convent of the Incarnation, Avila1
To Father Ordoñez, S.J., Medina Del Campo Concerning the foundation at Medina by Elena de Quiroga of a girls’ school connected with the nuns, and the entrance of her daughter Geronima into the convent. JESUS!
May the grace of the Holy Spirit ever be with you!
I wish I had time and strength to discuss certain matters with you which I consider important, but my health has been unspeakably worse since the messenger left than before. It will cost me dear to say what I can, and being so unequal to the task I am sure to be tedious, however brief I try to be. This convent of the Incarnation evidently injures my health; God grant I may gain some merit by it!
I am more anxious than ever now that this matter seems almost settled, especially since reading the letter today from the Father Visitor, who leaves the affair entirely to me and to the Father Master Domingo to whom he has written, delegating all his own powers to us. I always feel nervous when any decision is left to me, being sure that I shall go utterly wrong. True, I have laid the matter before God as has this community.
It seems to me, my Father, that we must look well at all the drawbacks to the project, for if it turns out ill, no doubt God and the world will lay the blame on us. Therefore, never mind about a delay of a fortnight or so. I was very glad to learn from your letter that the Prioress is only concerned with the two matters you mention. Believe me, it is highly important, as you say, that one good work should not be sacrificed to another.
The idea of taking pupils in the way you mention has always been repugnant to me, for I know well that a number of girls are as different from boys to teach as black is from white. The obstacles to doing any good in a large girls’ school are too many to mention here. It would be best to fix the number of pupils, which when over forty is far too large and results in nothing but confusion. The children disturb one another and no good can come of it. I am told that thirty-five is the limit at Toledo and no more can be received. I assure you that so many girls and so much noise are in every way undesirable. If some people will give no alms because the number is small, then go on by degrees: there is no hurry. Make your community holy and God will help it; we must not injure the work for the sake of gifts. . . .
Your unworthy servant and daughter,
Teresa de Jesus
Illness and Suffering: St. Teresa faced persistent illness most of her life. She often verbalizes her struggles, though she admonishes her sisters to do as little of this as is necessary. Even so, she rarely yields to the physical challenges she faces. Instead, she simply informs her superiors or others of her limitations and battles through her suffering to fulfill her mission.
The fuel behind her strength to fight through these struggles is rooted in her acute awareness of her participation with Christ in her suffering for the sake of all. She is also aware of the strength of will and faith that increases when we fight the temptation to yield, or to be thwarted or discouraged by our suffering. Teresa’s heart resonates with St. Peter’s perspective on suffering as revealed in his first letter to the exiles:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls. (1 Pet 1:6–9)
Discernment: Because God delights in the response of human freedom in love, this life is filled with a kind of necessary ambiguity and uncertainty. Seeking God’s will through prayer and careful consideration redeems this ambiguity (even if it doesn’t remove it). It does so by helping us to discover just the amount of certitude we need to serve Him in the most appropriate way. There are spiritual principles that help us in this effort and St. Teresa presents a very important one here: “Make your community holy and God will help it.”
When it comes to the work of sanctification in our families and communities, it is possible to place too much importance on the many gifts God gives us. We can even become preoccupied with whether or not we have the financial, physical, or psychological resources we need to do good things for God. Teresa speaks into this anxiety and invites us to renounce it. Our concern must be first and foremost the work of our mutual sanctification. Everything else needs to be ordered towards this end or we are likely to be deceived into inaction.
Humility: One of the more beautiful aspects of St. Teresa’s character is her humility. Though she is obviously an intellectually strong and holy woman, a woman capable of navigating political and social situations with an unusual wisdom, she is always ready to reveal her weaknesses and sin. In fact, some of her works were originally edited because they were so self-effacing. However, this self-deprecating quality has a very powerful effect on her readers as it helps us to realize that saints are real people.
In this letter, she openly reveals her anxiety and nervousness about the decisions and demands she faces. Yet she does so with an unyielding and steely determination to do God’s will. She reveals this same bold humility in the thirty-eighth chapter of ‘The Way of Perfection’ when she says,
There is another temptation. When God gives us some virtue, we must understand that it is only a loan and that He may take it away again, as indeed often happens, not without a wise providence. Have you never found this out yourselves, sisters? I certainly have. Sometimes I fancy that I am very detached, as I really am when it comes to the trial. Yet at another time I discover that I am so attached to things which I should perhaps have laughed at the day before, that I hardly know myself. Again, I feel such courage that there is nothing I should fear to do in God’s service, and I find, when it comes to the proof, that I am brave sometimes—yet, next day, I should not venture to kill an ant for Him if I met with any opposition. Sometimes I care nothing if people talk or complain of me; and indeed very often it has even given me pleasure. Yet there are occasions when a single word disturbs me and I long to leave this world, for everything in it disgusts me. I am not the only person to whom this happens, for I have noticed it in people better than myself, and I know that it is a fact.2
Authentic humility—bold humility—never shirks or shrinks from the call of God. Instead, it recognizes its own weakness and its true source of strength and insistently takes hold of that Source in faith as it flails headlong into the dark call of God.
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.