Celebrating the Fifth Centenary of the Birth of St Teresa of Jesus (1515-2015)
“He who lives by faith may meet with difficulty and struggle, suffering and even bitterness, but never depression or anguish, because he knows that his life is worthwhile, he knows why he has been born.”
St. Josemaria Escriva
Christ is Passing By, no. 45
Carmelites all over the world begin celebrating the fifth centenary of the birth of St Teresa of Jesus on 15 October 2014. The year-long celebration encompasses her 500th anniversary of birth (28 March 1515) and concludes on her liturgical memorial in October 2015. Carmelites have chosen as their jubilee theme not a teaching or saying from any of her classic mystical works, but rather a short verse from “In the Hands of God,”1 one of her most memorable poems: “For You I was born.” Forming a part of the poem’s refrain, the line reads in full: “Yours I am, for You I was born: What do you want of me?”
Throughout the poem’s 12 stanzas St Teresa sings of her purpose in life like one in love, like one who lives on the will of another. The entire lyric is both a prayer and a poignant meditation on her complete surrender to God: Since God is all things to her, she will be all things for Him. Whether He gives dryness or consolation in the Saint’s prayer, whether He wills her to be at rest or to “die working,” whether He grants light or darkness, she is prepared to accept all from her “sweet Spouse.” Only one who knows why she’s been born can speak so, and mean it.
Although she lists many possibilities of what God may ask of her, St Teresa’s purpose in life is to do one thing, which in practice is many things: the will of God. Just as Jesus gives several purposes for His coming among us—e.g., to fulfill the law, to bear witness to the truth, to save what was lost, to serve—all is resolved in one thing: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 6:38). His Father’s will is, for Jesus, both His “food” and “work” (cf. Jn 4:34).
Likewise, the will of God for any of us is not something vague or far-off. It is as concrete as food and work, as unmistakable as sickness or health, peace or trouble, joy or suffering—or any of the other alternatives Teresa proposes in her poem. And like the saint of Avila, it is also what we were born for, the one thing that gives any supernatural value to our life.
In reflecting on St Joseph—a Saint very dear to the heart of Teresa of Avila, and to whose patronage she entrusted her first reformed Carmel—St Josemaria characterizes the “great supernatural value” of his life in these same terms. The worth of St Joseph’s life was largely “the value of an ordinary life of work done in God’s presence and in total fulfillment of his will” (Christ is Passing By, no. 45).
With St Joseph as her special model—and as her “glorious father and lord,” as she devotedly called him—it’s not surprising that St Teresa is likewise very down-to-earth about the goal of all contemplative and mystical prayer. Although we might associate St Teresa’s spirituality with the extraordinary—with the visions, locutions, and ecstasies that she experienced—yet even here, her focus never leaves the one purpose for which she was born. Anyone who aspires after prayer and perfection should read and reread what she reminds her fellow Carmelites of:
“The whole aim of any person who is beginning prayer—and don’t forget this, because it’s very important—should be that he work and prepare himself with determination and every possible effort to bring his will into conformity with God’s will. Be certain that … the greatest perfection attainable along the spiritual path lies in this conformity…. Don’t think that in what concerns perfection there is some mystery or things unknown or still to be understood, for in perfect conformity to God’s will lies all our good.”2
As St Teresa further makes clear, this conformity has no other name than friendship. Yes, all authentic prayer must begin and end with God’s will—not changing it, but changing ourselves to see it and embrace it. But St Teresa shows us that we can only conform ourselves to His will if we know Him as the One for whom we exist, our best Friend, and the One whose love exercises a delicate and particular providence over our lives.3
It is likewise in these terms that St Teresa defines her prayer, as quoted by the Catechism: “Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us” (CCC 2709). This is not only a description of her own experience, but having been enshrined in the Catechism, is normative for all—and is as accessible and practical as a teaching on prayer can get.
St Teresa often speaks in such loving tones to and about her Lord because she knows Him well. The tender language of her poem employs such endearing terms as “sweet Spouse,” “sweet Love,” and “sweet Life,” and this can only be the fruit of her experience—the lived experience of sincerely seeking God’s will, patiently following it, and seeing for oneself that the Lord is good. No one can “taste and see” for us; we must be the ones who make God’s will our own food, our daily bread (see Ps 34:8).
St Teresa experienced God’s goodness and providence firsthand in her own walk of faith—not without difficulty, struggle, and suffering (as her accounts of Carmelite reform attest), but always with a confidence that His will is inseparable from His love and goodness.
What the Lord asks of us in conforming to His will is, above all, our trust and confidence—the main ingredients of friendship. The “depression or anguish” of which St Josemaria speaks results from our losing awareness of our basic call to cooperate with the Lord ‘no longer [as] servants, but friends,’ especially in moments of trial (cf. Jn 15:15 ).
St Teresa teaches us in “In the Hands of God” to cultivate an attitude of soul that fosters dependence on God and trust in His providence—whether that providence permits short-term disappointments, struggles, or even our own mistakes. Her entire spirituality, summed up in “For You I was born,” likewise shows us that her purpose and conviction in life was a direct result of recognizing that Jesus—her Savior, Friend, and Spouse—could say the same thing to her and to each of us: “For You, I was born.”
1 Saint Teresa of Avila, “In the Hands of God,” The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, tr. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez, vol. 3 (I.C.S. Publications: Washington, D.C., 1985), pp. 377-379. The entire poem may be found on-line: http://www.ocds.ca/cl537.pdf
2 The Interior Castle, Ibid., vol. 2, p. 301.
3 Pope Benedict XVI once preached about this friendship in terms that St Teresa would approve of: “Friendship is not just about knowing someone, it is above all a communion of the will. It means that my will grows into ever greater conformity with his will. For his will is not something external and foreign to me, something to which I more or less willingly submit or else refuse to submit. No, in friendship, my will grows together with his will, and his will becomes mine: this is how I become truly myself” (Homily of 29 June 2011, Feast of Saints Peter and Paul).
The content is published by the St Josemaria Institute for the free use of readers and may not be copied or reproduced without permission from its author © Fr. John Henry hanson, 2014. Image: “A New Friend” (c. 1900), Giovanni Battista Torriglia.