Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Book of My Life by St. Teresa of Avila

Just today I finished reading The Book of My Life by St. Teresa of Avila, translated by Mirabai Starr. My heart just wants to say Thank you, Lord for this incredible gift!

I think it is accurate to say that St. Teresa is the first woman I have ever encountered who my soul immediately wants to call "mother." I read smatterings of her works years ago when I first met the Carmelites (which I wrote about before, including here.) But this is the first that I've read one entire work by her. The translation is modern, and seems to preserve Teresa's own rather earthy and blunt writing style, and also her tendency to ramble. Her growth, her struggles, the temptations she endured and the things she beat herself up over, worrying that they were faults or sins are all laid out for all to see. Of course, she didn't write it knowing it would be read for 400 years by people all over the world. She thought she was writing privately to a few of her confessors. God had other ideas.

And why does my soul want to call her "mother"? Well, it is evident how hard she struggled and wrestled to come to, or to receive from God, the certainty about her experience of prayer, discerning what is of God and what is not. And she did this in a point in history when she (at first) seemed compelled to keep denigrating herself for being unlearned and a woman, and when it was easy for many to dismiss her efforts to reform the Carmelites (really, simply to obey God) as "the silly notions of women." It also made me so happy to read her descriptions of some of her spiritual experiences and say "Yes! I've been there, too! I know just what you are talking about." But it makes me even happier to realize that she went far beyond where I have been, and this was written 20 years before she died! Here's a woman from whom I can learn so much, who has so much to teach me. Really that makes me so happy I could cry.

And I guess it is not for nothing that she is a Doctor of the Church!

I could quote vast chunks of the book that were helpful to me, but I'll restrain myself to one area. I really appreciated her frankness in discussing her relationships with various men in her life: priests, confessors, and lay men, and how these relationships both helped her and blessed her, but also sometimes caused her soul trials. I'll let her do the talking:

I have had this experience many times over the years: whenever I like someone very much, I am filled with nearly unbearable longings. I want to see this person utterly surrender to God. While I want everyone to serve God, my yearning is especially acute when it comes to the people who please me the most. Thus, I fervently beseech the Lord on their behalf. This is what happened to me when I met with the priest I am speaking about.

He asked me to pray wholeheartedly to God on his behalf. But he didn't need to ask. I was already so filled with prayers for him that I could not have done otherwise. (pp. 273-274)

Here is one benefit I derived from [a certain vision]. Before he appeared to me, I had this troubling tendency to become very attached to anyone I thought liked me. As soon as I began to detect that someone had fond feelings for me and I myself found them attractive, I would start thinking about them all the time and recalling every detail of our encounters. I had no intention of forsaking God, but I was very happy whenever I got to see these people. I loved to think about them and reflect on all the positive qualities I perceived in them. This habit was becoming a serious problem and leading my soul astray.

(And then she relates how seeing a vision of Christ made every other attraction dull in comparison.)

I experienced this kind of liberation in the case of one of my confessors. I have always had a tendency to develop a deep fondness for the men who guide my soul. I believe they stand in God's place in a very real way, so my thoughts of them are intimately entwined with my thoughts of God. Because I feel safe with them, I express my affection. This often seems to make them uncomfortable. Being God-fearing servants of the Lord, they are afraid that my love for them -- even if it is a very spiritual love -- might become a dangerous temptation for me, so they have treated me harshly.

...Sometimes when I saw how they were misinterpreting my feelings for them, I would laugh to myself but wouldn't let on how unattached I really was to any human being. But I did reassure them, and as they got to know me better, they realized that my primary attachment was to the Lord. (pp. 304-305)
I was wondering one day if the joy I derived from my relationships with my spiritual guides represented a dangerous lack of detachment. I loved being with these men....Then the Lord spoke to me. "If a man who had been close to death attributed his recovery to a doctor, it would not be a virtue for him to withhold his gratitude and love from that doctor. And so it is with you. If it hadn't been for these people in whom you have confided, what would you have done? Conversation with good people can never be wrong! If you consider well whatever you say and always speak with integrity, you have no reason to avoid their company. Not only are such conversations not harmful, they are beneficial"

This was very comforting to me. I had been worrying that because conversing with these men gave me such pleasure, it must be an attachment. This made me not want to talk to them at all. (p. 341)

Two years ago it was St. John of the Cross who showed up on my doorstep after pretty much keeping silent for two decades of my life (wrote about that one here). Last fall I started in on Edith Stein before writing music pulled me away. (Hmm... just noticed that...) Next I plan to read the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whom I have to admit I've never developed a fondness for. Probably that's because of my own disconnectedness from a sense of ever having been a child. And next Sunday, please God, I will finally get to my very first lay Carmelite formation meeting.

Because maybe I should start taking the hint.

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