Thursday, May 16, 2013

St. Teresa of Avila

I haven't done a What I'm Reading Friday post in a while, so I decided this was the week for a book review! Join the club- if you've read it, or decide to read it, let me know and we'll call it a club.

What I've been reading this week....

The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, vol. 1

Bernini's The Ecstasy of St. Teresa
sculpture in Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Rome

Here is my review of the book:

St. Teresa of Avila compares being close to God to holding up a glass of dirty water up to the light. As the light penetrates, the water that may have looked clear is seen for what it is- full of specks of dust. She was a serious woman with a passion for God.  Her prayer life will blow you away.  Her love for growth in faith will inspire your knowledge of God in a way that really knocks some good sense into you. If you want to work on your humility, I recommend this book highly.

She was firmly convinced that the good she was able to attain was not of herself, but God in her. A quote early in the book humbles, but also encourages:

"So I return to the advice- and even if I repeat it many times this doesn't matter- that it is very important that no one be distressed or afflicted over dryness or noisy and distracting thoughts. If people wish to gain freedom of spirit and not be always troubled, let them begin by not being frightened by the cross,  and they will see how the Lord also helps them carry it and they will gain satisfaction and profit from everything. For clearly, if the well is dry, we cannot put water into it. True, we must not become neglectful; when there is water we should draw it out because then the Lord desires to multiply the virtues by this means."

I found this comforting. At times I don't feel like praying. At times the cross seems disheartening, and I run from it. But like Teresa, I have to remember that God is at work no matter what.  When I experience dryness, dissatisfaction in my work, or affliction of any kind, I must keep working, and being faithful, without the worry- God will bring back the water, and he might surprise us with a flood of grace.

She begins her memoirs at the urging of her superiors in the convent.  She has experienced what she calls "favors" from God- special experiences of prayer and union with Christ.  She seeks to explain how it all adds up.... what were the events leading up to her closeness with God? She warns against the many paradoxes of a life of prayer and virtue.  Namely, pride and a desire for esteem from her peers.  This can be a trick of Satan, and is something to be very careful to protect against.

First off, I must say I knew very little about St. Teresa before reading this work. I was surprised to learn that she experienced severe illnesses throughout her life. Most life-threatening (she was thought dead) was her experience right before entering the convent: severe paralysis. For many years afterward, she experienced symptoms of this first illness and never quite recovered fully. It seems that many saints- St. Catherine of Siena comes to mind- struggled with severe pain or illness in their lifetime. No doubt God uses this to make his children more devout and dependent on him. She expresses a peace in being close to God, despite her many struggles and hardships. Her trust inspires trust in me.

One of the themes of the book, besides prayer, and physical suffering, is the need for learned superiors or educated spiritual directors.  If you are offended by elitists, watch out- she is an elitist in a sense!  The concept of getting advice from uneducated superiors bothered her conscience deeply, because she herself fell into sin and illness because of some bad advice from a superior with bad credentials.  I think delving into her reasons for this conviction in itself makes the book worth reading. She gives many important warnings in shielding ourselves from the Devil's tactics. She also makes an obvious point- if our superiors have gone to the trouble and pain of spending years in prayer and study- why in the world would we neglect to take few minutes to hear their wisdom, and learn from them? Good point, and very true.

Since she is famous for her experiences with "ecstasy" in prayer, I was very curious to understand more about what was meant by this.  It is difficult to put into words what she experienced, and I think you must read her own words to understand more.  I personally found it encouraging, but also a bit too spiritual/confusing to understand at parts.  I have to focus on my task at hand: raising children, being a good Mom, and having peace that I'm not a saint, not even close! I think it was Henri Nouwen who said: read the saints that encourage you and give you peace. I'm going to follow his advice. I think reading more of St. Teresa's work has been enlightening, all in all and I'm very thankful for my time with her book.

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