In my adult years, I have often turned to St. Teresa of Avila as a spiritual mother. I love her courage, her passion, her wit, and her boldness. Throughout her life, she was always on the go. She was a reformer who brought the Carmelite Order back to its original roots. She got things done, founding over fifteen monasteries. And yet she was a great mystic--a woman who received beautiful graces, revelations and experiences of God in profound ways that are hard to tangibly explain. She went into ecstasies as a result of her deep relationship with the Lord and wrote a book called The Interior Castle about the journey of faith leading to union with God. I love the synthesis of the practical and the mystical in her personality. This synthesis becomes more compelling in our lives today, for it reveals that we are capable of a deep interior life and relationship with God in the midst of the busyness of life.
There is a story about Teresa of Avila that has caused me to laugh in genuine appreciation of her character. According to tradition, Teresa fell off her donkey while journeying to visit one of her convents--causing her to land in the mud and dirty her Carmelite habit. With her quick, fiery Spanish temper, Teresa looked up to heaven and said to God, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you don’t have many.”
I love this story because it beautifully depicts St. Teresa’s humanity and honest relationship with God. It is a raw, unfiltered moment of frankness that I believe is an example of both true prayer and transparency in our relationship with God.
If prayer is ongoing dialogue with God through words, thoughts or actions, what is Teresa’s statement if not prayer? She talks to God with confidence and trust. She is bold about her feelings, knowing that God can handle her honesty. Notably, where does Teresa turn first in her day to day life? To God. He is her crutch, her foundation, even in times of frustration and annoyance. He is at the forefront of her mind.
When I first heard this anecdote, I could completely relate to St. Teresa. Like her, I fall down on the road towards holiness. Furthermore, I often catch myself blaming God for different moments of hardship and frustration. What we sometimes miss as we lie there in the mud is the hand that’s in front of us--the extended hand of Christ that I often imagine in the story of the woman caught in adultery who Jesus saves from being stoned. God is not the one who pushes us down, but he is the one who picks us up. How quick are we to reach for the outstretched hand? Do we even reach out for it? Or are we too proud, choosing to try to get up by ourselves? What did St. Teresa do? In one of her reflections, she writes, “I praise the mercy of God, for it was he alone who gave me his hand.” (Life, Ch 7, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Volume One, ICS Publications, Washington D.C. 1987)
Do we turn immediately to God in our day to day lives? This is a question we can all reflect upon. Taking our reflection a step further, do we respond to the situations in which we find ourselves with joy or a sense of humor?
I believe Pope Francis and St. Teresa would have been great friends. In his homily at the canonization Mass of Junipero Serra, Pope Francis reminded us of St. Paul’s command to “rejoice always.” If we forget this call, we fall into the temptation of becoming “sourpusses”--to use Pope Francis’ term. We are called to be people of joy in the midst of suffering, not in the absence of it. It is this type of transparency in our relationship with God, this type of outlook on the life of faith, this sense of humor that helps us move forward in answering the universal call to be missionary disciples who witness to the Gospel through their encounter with those around them.
Like St. Teresa, may we always have a sense of humor. May we be bold and honest in our dialogue with God. May we be apostles of joy. And may we join in saying the phrase very often attributed to her, “God protect us from sour-faced saints”!
Born in 1873 as Marie-Francoise-Thérèse Martin, St. Thérèse of Lisieux was a Carmelite nun with an intense devotion to Christ. She had a simple yet profound understanding of her faith and her relationship with Christ. She provided examples to us of how to be Christ-like to those in our lives through prayer and acts of charity. St. Thérèse died at only 24 years old of tuberculosis, but lived an immense life of faith.
In his homily at the Mass where she was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1997, now-Saint John Paul II talked about the way in which Thérèse lived: “She counters a rational culture, so often overcome by practical materialism, with the disarming simplicity of the ‘little way’ which, by returning to the essentials, leads to the secret of all life: the Divine Love that surrounds and penetrates every human venture.”
Her example of living your life of faith by practicing little deeds has inspired many Catholics because it is an easy concept to grasp. We are all capable of doing something small to show our love to those around us. In his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis talked about the importance of doing small acts of faith.
“Faith opens a ‘window’ to the presence and working of the Spirit. It shows us that, like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures. ‘Whoever gives you a cup of water in my name will not go unrewarded’, says Jesus (cf. Mk 9:41). These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home.”
The parish in which I grew up is now known as the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, MI. Made famous by the “Radio Priest,” Rev. Charles Coughlin in the 1930s, the building itself became a place of comfort and welcoming for me while in my youth, and the patroness, St. Thérèse, an example and spiritual guide.
As a student in the parish school, I felt a sense of connection with young Thérèse. She made being a saint and apostle of Christ accessible to me in a way that is much more profound in hindsight. Because she was so young and the fact that the Church made such a huge deal about her, through her canonization and being made a Doctor of the Church, was inspiring to me as a child. Maybe I had the ability to follow in her footsteps. Maybe I could live a life worthy of sainthood, even though I was only a kid.
St. Thérèse herself says, “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.” (From No Greater Love by Mother Teresa)
Her love of Christ and devotion to his Church provides all of us with a path for our lives. As Catholics, we do not need to do great things to show others the face of God. Rather, we need to do what we can and do that in the best way possible with the talents God has given us. For some, that may be serving the Church as a lector at Mass or discerning a religious vocation or something as simple as smiling at a stranger on your commute to work.
To this day, I still follow St. Thérèse’s example of living out my faith in little ways. She continues to inspire me to live a life worthy of sainthood.