In his apostolic letter concerning the call to holiness in today’s world, Gaudete et Exultate, written by Pope Francis on March 19, 2018, one is fascinated by the fact that the phrase our lives is found some nineteen times. This fact alone suggests that holiness is not a “head-in-the-air thing” but it is very concretely related to our daily lives.
Personally speaking, I am deeply touched by what Pope Francis tells us in number 14 of this very down-to-earth apostolic letter:
To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by labouring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain (no.14).
Although the great mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, was the recipient of visions, ecstasies and extraordinary graces, she is the same woman who had a great sense of living life in the most ordinary of ways. Despite her role as a warrior of the Counter-Reformation, she also remained a practical Prioress in making sure that her sisters got enough sleep, took care of their health, and did not overly indulge themselves in harsh penances.
Her writings, which vividly show both her strong character together with a singular wit and wisdom, amply show that the art of prayerful discernment was the bread-and-butter of what she was and represented. To a layman who helped her in her work to found new communities, she told him: Your imperfections do not shock me, for I see myself with so many. True humility makes us aware of our faults and sins. In the regard, the great Teresa encourages you and me to hand them over to God gladly and seek to cooperate with his grace so as to “do better next time.”
Teresa teaches us that authentic prayer helps us grow in virtue even if we have to pay a harsh price for it: I would not want any other prayer than that which makes the virtues grow in me. If it should be accompanied by great temptations, dyness, and trials leaving me with greater humility, I would consider it a good prayer. That prayer is the best prayer that pleases God the most.
Suffering, according to this great saint, is the greatest form of prayer. When you and I undergo moments filled with tremendous anguish, if we offer them to God, then those moments become pivotal not only in our sanctification but also in that of others. St Teresa teaches us: It shouldn’t be thought that he who suffers isn’t praying, for he is offering this to God. And often he is praying much more than the one who is breaking his head in solitude, thinking that if he has squeezed out some tears he is thereby praying.
Teresa encourages us to grow in our trust in God. Her advice is simply remarkable, even to this very day: Leave it all to God and leave your interests in His hands. He knows what is fitting for us… Obviously, trusting in God does not mean that we do not do our part to cooperate with God’s grace. On this point the saint from Avila assures us by her following wise words: Let us do our part, and God will then do what He wills. This is God’s cause, and all will end well. My hope is in Him; do not be distressed.
St Teresa also teaches us that no matter what evil might befall us, God is infinitely capable of bringing out good from it. She said: God knows how to draw good from evil. And the good is all the greater in the measure that we diligently strive that He not be offended in anything. Teresa’s insightful teaching reminds me of what Fr. Jacques Philippe meditates on in his book, Interior Freedom, when he says: Drawing good out of good is not so hard but God alone, in his omnipotence, his love and his wisdom, can draw good from evil.
Contrary to what we might think, God permits that a soul sins so as to grow and shine in the virtue of virtues, humility. St Teresa teaches: Often the Lord allows a fall so that the soul will be more humble, and when it returns to the right way of acting and grows in self-knowledge, it advances further in the service of our Lord, as we see among many saints. In his eternal wisdom, the Holy Spirit taught Teresa to pray, first and foremost, for those she disliked and was angry with. She wrote: I have taken particular care to pray to the Lord for those who think I am angry with them.
She notes that God will not let us endure more than we can bear and defends those who are suffering. St Teresa assures us of this very important fact when she said: Courage, courage, my daughters. Remember that God does not give anyone more trials than can be suffered and that His Majesty is with the afflicted. For this is certain, there is no reason to fear but to hope in his mercy. He will reveal the whole truth; and some machinations, which the devil kept hidden so as to create a disturbance, will be made known. What Teresa is saying surely reminds us of what C.S. Lewis wrote regarding courage when he said that it is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.
The wise Teresa also reminds us that we love God for the sake of loving him not because we receive any prize for loving him. Hence, God is to be loved because He is God, infinitely good and merciful. She said: Prize being able to help God carry the cross and don’t be clinging to delights, for it is the trait of mercenary soldiers to want their daily pay at once. Serve without charge, as the grandees do their king. The king of heaven be with you.
Teresa was so practical! She saw and noticed how life simply flies away. That is why she wrote to one of her sisters: It seems to me, my daughter, that everything passes so quickly that we should be thinking more about how to die than how to live. Since life passes so swiftly, Teresa came to the conclusion that her life was really worth it if it was spent at God’s service. She said: You should know that as long as I live, I desire to do something in God’s service.
Let us let God sanctify Teresa’s practicality of life by praying with her this prayer which deeply shows how her relationship with God was really a down-to-earth loving affair:
Majestic sovereign, timeless wisdom,
your kindness melts my hard, cold soul.
Handsome lover, selfless giver,
your beauty fills my dull, sad eyes.
I am yours, you made me.
I am yours, you called me.
I am yours, you saved me.
I am yours, you loved me.
I will never leave your presence.
Give me death, give me life.
Give me sickness, give me health.
Give me honour, give me shame.
Give me weakness, give me strength.
I will have whatever you give. Amen