Deep Joy, Difficult Suffering: Teresa of Avila on Why We Need Both
"However, the joys of this life are always accompanied by troubles, lest we should go crazy with joy."
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, I'm sharing from Day 17.
Seville, August 12, 1575
To Doña Juana de Ahumada, Alba de Tormes Arrival of their two brothers at San Lucar.
Death of Jerome de Cepeda and of Don Lorenzo’s wife. Father Gracian nominated Provincial.
However, the joys of this life are always accompanied by troubles, lest we should go crazy with joy. You must know that the good Jerome de Cepeda died like a saint at Nombre de Dios. Pedro de Ahumada has arrived with Lorenzo, who they tell me has lost his wife. Yet we must not grieve for that. I know what kind of life she has led: she has practiced prayer for a long time past and, from what I hear, her death was the wonder of all who witnessed it. One of the three boys Lorenzo was to have brought home with Teresita is also dead. Glory be to God, the rest have reached Spain safe and sound. I am writing to them today and sending them some little things. . . .
Teresa de Jesus
“Lest we should go crazy with joy”: This letter was occasioned by a homecoming, and this particular phrase is filled with a deep mixture of emotions that one might not guess a saint would suffer. Those who know how much she loved her brother Lorenzo and how concerned she was for him and her brothers in America better understand the hidden intensity of this document. Her excitement over the return of Lorenzo from America after thirty-four years would have been pure elation had it not been tempered by news of the deaths of Lorenzo’s wife, one of his children, and their brother Jerome. This letter was occasioned by Lorenzo’s visit to his sister with their troubled brother Pedro, both struggling widowers in a homeland that did not welcome their return.
The contemplative life does not shield a heart from anything that is genuinely human: deep joys and difficult sorrows, excitement of seeing one another again and the heart piercing realization of loss, the tenderness of family affections, genuine concern for those she loved. Instead, the truly prayerful are all the more vulnerable to the plight of those they love, feeling both sorrow and joy more acutely than those whose hearts are hard for lack of prayer. Faith and hope do not diminish such feelings. Instead, they provide the space and courage to seek out God’s blessings in the midst of the storms that often rage in our hearts.
In this letter to Juana de Ahumada, we see some of the first signs of just how much care St. Teresa has for her brother’s remaining children. Eight-year-old Teresita will be cared for by Teresa’s own nuns. The Saint will actively advise her brother concerning the upbringing and education of his remaining sons, while encouraging him to keep his eye on Pedro.
Prayer roots us in the tender reality of love because God is love. We know from Teresa’s writings, especially about experiences she describes as “the sleep of the faculties,” that there is a kind of spiritual intoxication to which we are vulnerable when we finally begin to see just how much God has done for us and is doing right now. This sober intoxication of the spirit can be brought on from hidden graces poured out in the heart. It can also be occasioned by beautiful heartfelt occasions shared by friends and family. Yet, if we were always caught up in this kind of ecstasy, we would run the risk of being mindlessly unaware of the plight of our brothers and sisters around us.
Her “lest we should go crazy with joy” seen in this context reminds us that the blessings of God not only raise us on high, but help us to enter into the depths where our neighbor is in greatest need. God uses both wonderful moments and difficult ones to deepen His love in us so that we not only feel it, but live it out to the full.
The great Carmelite mystic knows that following Christ means both intoxicating moments of joy and sobering moments of loss and sadness, including even the death of family and close friends. Most of all, she knows that love is not merely sentimental, especially in the face of death. Instead, it looks for reasons to hope and it is always ready to embrace and live within that hope.
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.