This is how little I knew about Teresa of Avila and mystics in general: when the editor of Grow Christians asked me if I would like to write about Teresa of Avila, I jumped at the chance. Finally, someone I know about! When confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church, you choose a saint whose name you will take. I chose Teresa. Then as I started reading for this post, I realized that I had actually chosen Therese of Lisieux as a confirmand. That is who I was eager to write about for Grow Christians. In my defense, I was confirmed a really long time ago.
I have just never been interested in mystics. It’s ironic as the last person I wrote about was also a mystic—Mother Sarah, a Desert Mother. I will never forget about her because when I wrote that piece, I was in tremendous pain. I thought I had a pulled muscle, but it was actually a mysterious infection. Thirty-six hours after I turned in my Grow Christians article I was in the ICU with septic shock. I almost died.
In the ICU, I was delirious with pain and exhaustion, and I prayed that I would see visions like the mystic I had just studied. At one point I thought I saw her, but her visit was brief, which left me irritated that she would come and go so quickly. Since I have now studied two mystics and am thus an expert, I feel confident saying that most mystics suffer physically. Often it is in the midst of the suffering that they see their greatest visions. Clearly, I am not a mystic. At one point I had auditory hallucinations and heard the music of U2 for hours. I am fairly certain that doesn’t count.
Teresa’s illnesses started at an early age and continued through her life. A year after entering the convent, she became so ill that she was paralyzed. They didn’t know what was causing the paralysis and even began preparing for her funeral. She was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis and it took three years for her to recover from the paralysis. Yet Teresa emerged with gratitude and greater wisdom, which I find remarkable. Her attitude didn’t seem that unusual until I spent a month in the hospital and almost lost the use of my leg. I was a not a pleasant person. I tried to be grateful when I got out, but I was really just anxious and depressed.
Teresa wrote a great deal during her life. She was uneducated as most women were, but very well read. When she spoke about prayer to people, they begged her to write about it. In one prayer she wrote, “Teach me, my God, to suffer in peace the afflictions which You send me that my soul may emerge from the crucible like gold, both brighter and purer, to find You within me.”
I love this prayer, but I am certain that I could not have prayed it while in the hospital myself. Maybe now, months after…maybe. However, the second half of the prayer is what I find truly incredible. “Trials like these, which at present seem unbearable, will eventually become light, and I shall be anxious to suffer again, if by so doing I can render You greater service.”
Why in the world would anyone be anxious to suffer?
The Desert Mothers were much the same way—eager to suffer because it helped them grow closer to Christ. Honestly, I find the Desert Mothers a bit whacky, but there is something relatable about Teresa. Maybe it is the ambivalence she felt much of her life. She was incredibly torn about entering the convent. Once there, she struggled with the desire to be in constant prayer, while also wanting to be social. She loved interacting with people.
Teresa could have withdrawn from the world, but she didn’t. She ended up reforming the Carmelite order and creating 17 monasteries for women and then 15 for men. She was living in the late 1500s, in a period when some in the Roman Catholic Church were interested in reform. Yet that didn’t mean that they were ready for it. Those who were, entrusted a woman with developing new monasteries for men. Men! She faced incredible opposition but never backed down. Perhaps it was her physical suffering that prepared her to face the church hierarchy of the 16th century.
I have never believed in the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” There were times in my recovery when I felt that the suffering killed a part of me. I will never pray for more opportunities to suffer. However, I believe suffering can teach us things and show us what we are capable of. I did not emerge from the crucible like gold, but I emerged and that counts for something.
[Image Credit: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. via Flickr]