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.
"I realize better every day what grace our Lord has shown me in enabling me to understand the blessings of suffering so that I can peacefully endure the want of happiness in earthly things since they pass so quickly."
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 letter comes from Day 15.
Veas, May 11, 1575
To Don Alvaro de Mendoza, Bishop of Avila
The Saint speaks of Father Gracian whose acquaintance she made at Veas and of his ordering her to make a foundation at Seville.
May the grace of the Holy Spirit ever be with your Lordship!
I realize better every day what grace our Lord has shown me in enabling me to understand the blessings of suffering so that I can peacefully endure the want of happiness in earthly things since they pass so quickly. You must know that I was arranging to spend this summer either at Avila or Valladolid when we received a visit from Father Gracian. He is now Provincial of Andalusia by commission of the Nuncio, who appointed him to this office after the Counterbrief. . . . He has such fine qualities and is a man of such mark that I should be glad if he went to pay his respects to you, so that I might be sure I am not mistaken in my opinion of him. He is anxious to do so since I told him how you have always protected the Order. It is a great consolation to me to know that we have so good a religious.
We shall leave for Seville on the Monday of next week. It is fifty leagues off. I do not think that Father Gracian would have forced me to undertake this work, but his mind was so set on it that, unless I consented, I should feel very scrupulous about being wanting in obedience, as I always strive to obey strictly. It costs me dear, nor am I very desirous of going through this scorching heat to pass the summer in Seville: God grant it may render Him service! The rest matters little. I beg for your Lordship’s blessing; do not forget to pray for me.
As they say there are couriers at Seville. I will write to you when I arrive; there are none at Veas which is a very out-of-the-way place. God grant you good health as I and Father Julian de Avila constantly ask for you. He is a great help to me and begs to be remembered to your Lord- ship. We often think of you and of St. Joseph’s convent, and of the rest I shall enjoy there later on. May it all render God service, and may He watch over you much more vigilantly than over me!
Today is the Eve of the Ascension.
Your Lordship’s unworthy servant and subject,
Teresa de Jesus.
Glory be to God, I have kept well ever since I came here and am in much better health than usual.
Suffering: “The blessings of suffering” unlock, for the one who welcomes them, the power of patient endurance, and this no matter the hardship. Such blessings are not obvious, even for great mystics like Teresa of Avila. In referring to these mysterious blessings, she does not mean that all suffering is good or that God wants us to suffer. On the contrary, she knows that understanding the wisdom of God, in a lived way, takes prayer, time, careful discernment, and loving obedience. Yet the effort is worth it because it leads to invincible peace.
Those who are patiently faithful in their love for the Lord find joy in discovering how the Lord uses even situations they do not understand to impart His blessings. Indeed, through our obedience in the face of suffering, the Lord provides some of His most beautiful and tender graces, and these are often subtly disguised in circumstances that might seem to be insurmountable and unbearable.
True Christian obedience is never a mechanical response to a command imposed from the outside, purely extrinsic to the interior truth of one’s own being. Instead, obedience is a deep vulnerability to the Lord’s loving presence who whispers in the ear of our heart. What is whispered is always a blessing, and when whispered in hardship, the fruit of patient endurance is born.
Teresa understood that God uses those with spiritual authority in our lives to help us attend to this whisper. There is always a danger of conflating God’s whisper with the noise of our own thoughts. In the Church, Christ has given us one another to protect us from this conflation. We learn what to do in order to say yes to the Lord through people He places over us, even when they make mistakes and cause us to face difficult trials.
Any painful difficulty that we face in obedience to God must be distinguished from suffering brought on for lack of obedience. There are, for example, efforts to escape suffering that rob the heart of its dignity and steal away all courage. We see these effects of selfish escapism in the abuse of drugs, alcohol, food, internet pornography, or relationships. Such webs of sin only limit our freedom to love and bind us from receiving vital blessings. In many ways, such misery is far more severe, dismal, and long lasting than the original suffering we refused to accept.
Such abuses of freedom are incredibly difficult to escape even when a pilgrim finally sees the light. The sense of inadequacy, failure, and shame actually work against the effort to turn to God. When faced with such trials, it is good to remember that patient prayer which obediently trusts in Divine Mercy turns even the burden of sin and shame into a discovery of God’s blessing.
His grace is enough for us. Ongoing prayerful acceptance of the loving work of the divine surgeon makes possible a renewed commitment to sobriety and self-discipline every day. This is why, in the difficult daily renunciations and other bitter struggles that recovery requires, there are unique and tender blessings awaiting even the worst of addicts.
Those that aggressively pursue spiritual growth quickly learn that each moment of suffering embraced as an offering of love for the Lord is like another stair step toward heaven. How so? When we embrace suffering, we first avoid the sin and consequences entailed with running from it. Second, we find the great grace of a will strengthened against sin. Third, we begin to rise above the circumstances of life and see God at work in and through challenging situations. This brings us to further comfort and strength. Finally, we gain an understanding of how we can actually participate in the redemptive work of Christ through our suffering.
In this letter, Teresa is again very human in her response. She does not deny suffering or minimize the impact on her. Instead, she thanks God for the grace to understand and accept His mysterious presence. She seems convinced that suffering aids our detachment from the world and our union with God. She then turns to face the suffering, clearly stating what it is and then, with a prayer for God’s strength, presses forward in obedience.
The power of this kind of disposition cannot be overstated. Teresa is abandoning herself to obeying God (through her superior) with a clear recognition that she cannot, of her own strength, achieve what He is asking of her. God will never deny a soul that so completely trusts itself to Him.
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.