In college, I was part of a unit of students that strategy the re-dedication of our dormitory chapel to a saint that would be a good fit for a dorm filled with undergraduate girls. I was rooting for St. Therese of Lisieux and was initially disillusioned when St. Teresa of Avila was chosen. But, in the process of planning for the rededication Mass( and going roped in to decorate up like St. Teresa of Avila and passing a lecture on our new patron to the dorm, because that is the sort of thing that undergraduate daughters do) I fell in love with St. Teresa of Avila. I discovered a saint who was funny, and who kept her sense of humor even amid suffering. Facing some mental health issues challenges as an undergraduate, her hope amid suffering gave me hope, too.
Although I understanding of her anecdotally, “its not” until last year that I ultimately are caught up her writings. What I perceived there charmed me and blew me apart. When I began reading The Interior Castle, what I expected was a dull tome delineate the phases of the spiritual life. Instead, what I attained was a love story.
Big Tess, the Reluctant Mystic
Unlike St. Therese, St. Teresa( affectionately referred to as “Big Tess”) came back holiness later in life. Yes, she did have some occult experiences as small children, but in her writings, she makes it clear that she also was a bit of a rascal and maverick. Yet, that same spiritedness that she introduced to regular life was changed when she was called by Christ to the mystic life.
I recently listened to a talk in which the speaker was trying to outline many itineraries of the spiritual life, and I was confused by his assessment of the “Mystical Way.” If Big Tess has coached me anything, she has coached me that the esoteric life can be summarized in a simple phrase- it is a love story.
In addition to her reformation of the Carmelites, Teresa likewise was a mystic. There are different kinds of mystics and different versions of mysticism( something which Teresa excuses more eloquently than I can) but Teresa’s fit into two categories. Firstly, she did experience what we would consider classic esoteric know-hows- imaginations, ecstasies, etc. She was rather mortified by the inconvenience of them, in accordance with the arrangements a less demonstrative girlfriend might crimson at the overt inclination of her young partner. Yet, she accepted them because she agreed with the One who she was encountering in these experiences.
The second category of mystical ordeal( which constitutes one that, as Teresa interprets, is common to all mystics) is that of an incredible longing for God. Teresa of Avila was a practical, down to earth woman. But “shes been” had the heart of a Beloved, longing for the Lover of her someone. She describes it as being “wounded with love for the Spouse.” Those who are married, and parents( specially mothers) have probably experienced something similar- a kindnes for your marriage or child that is so great that it is almost painful. Yet, there is a sweetness in that kind of human affection and longing, and St. Teresa clearly asserts that the same is true of the ardour of Christ. She describes her longing for God as dreadfully sweetened, a longing that is pain because it cannot be fulfilled in this life…and more, it is sweet, because its pain is a greater joy than any earthly joy.
Mysticism for the Ordinary Catholic?
In Interior Castle, St. Teresa synopsis seven “mansions” of the soul, through which one may pass through in the spiritual life. She makes it clear that not all will advance through all seven in this life- in fact, she is considered that if you make it to the fourth dwelling, that is a grace to be exulted in. Yet, some may be called and drawn to even the higher levels of the spiritual life this side of sky- even ordinary Catholics, living in 2020.
What can we do to get there? Is there a road map?
The early manors that Teresa describes involve great efforts( as cooperation with grace ), but they are steps that can dispose us to whatever spiritual endows God may want to give us in this life. What is important to keep in mind is that the mansions are not “levels” like in a video game. You do not advance to the next one simply because you have accumulated a certain number of holiness targets. That is not the point of her analogy.
Rather, her descriptions of the various stages of the spiritual life are to help us to recognize and name with grateful the knacks and forgiveness that God has given us. Whether those forgiveness and endows fall in the third mansion or the seventh- they are a part of the love story. And, unlike video games, every saint will one day contact the final level- that of excellent association with Christ and the whole Trinity.
The occult road, as Teresa of Avila verifies it, is a series of encounters of kindnes- much as the backward and forward between the Lover and his Beloved in the Song of Songs. Spiritual graces are not tokens of success- they are endows of adore, freely given by the Lover of all our feelings. And, like any good spouse, Christ knows what endowments are most fitting for his beloved ones.
Yet, even if most of us will never contact the upper mansions of the Interior Castle in this life, Teresa’s writings are still relevant for us all. We are created for union with God. If God deems it fitting for us to experience a flavour of that in this life, it is a gift. But even if he does not, saints like Teresa can give us a view at a reality that will, hopefully, all be ours one day in heaven.
The everyday, down-to-earth nature of St. Teresa of Avila should commit us hope, more. Already in this life, regardless of our district in life, God is choosing us in love to him. And, as he discloses to Teresa, he is immensely, irresistibly, lovable. And he is waiting for us, every moment, of every day, humbly and patiently, in the tabernacle. And oh…how he longs for us. Like Teresa of Avila, let us run to him.
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