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”!
Without a doubt, the Gospel of John is my favorite book in the Bible. I love the mixture of philosophy and poetry in Jesus’ monologues. It is beautiful how it captures the whole of Salvation History. And it seems that it has quite possibly some of most quotable and recognizable verses in all of Scripture such as Jn. 3:16. Yet the simplest reason is that it contains the profound dialogue that Jesus and St. Peter have post-Resurrection in the 21st chapter.
The scene is simple: Jesus and Peter are sharing a meal on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus asks a seemingly simple question especially for a man who is supposed to be the “rock” (Mt. 16:18) of the Church- “Do you love me?” Peter affirms his love for Jesus and then Jesus proclaims, “feed my sheep”. This sequence happens two more times, which shows Jesus’ mercy and sense of humor. As you probably know, Peter denied Jesus three times rather than stand up for his faith and Savior. This is Jesus allowing Peter to make up for his threefold denial with a threefold affirmation.
Unfortunately, the English translation does not fully capture the drama of this story and thus, we must look to the original Greek. The Greeks had three words for our word, “Love”: Philia (Friendship), Eros (Sexual Love), and Agape (Selfless, Gift-Love). In the context of this story, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you Agape me?” In his shame, Peter can only respond, “I Philia you” or “I am your friend.” While Jesus loves Peter with his whole heart, Peter is a wounded human. On the third try, Jesus meets Peter at his level and asks if they are friends. To this, Peter can agree.
From November 5 to 17, 2012, I had the tremendous opportunity to be part of a pilgrimage to the Middle East. What made the trip special was that I got to spend the time with my mom, who has been a great role model and exemplar of sacrifice and faith. And while seeing the Pyramids in Egypt and Petra in Jordan were great, the part that I was most excited for was the Holy Land. One of the places that we went to was the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, where it is said that Jesus and St. Peter had this final conversation as told in Jn. 21.
Like many of the other churches that we went to in Israel, I automatically felt the sacred presence of the Spirit. I went into the Church first to say a prayer and then walked along the shore of the Sea. I was so utterly moved to be standing on the ground and touching the water where Jesus and Peter shared this intimate moment. I was speechless to be present there and just gave thanks for this blessing.
The words that I kept praying were the words of Jesus’ command to Peter: Feed my sheep. All my life, I viewed my Catholic faith as an opportunity to be a role model for others. I participated in parish ministry through the Echo Program and taught high school Religion for two years. Now, I am taking a year off to discern my next step in my life journey and where exactly God is calling me to serve his people, to “feed [his] sheep”. Wherever I end up, I will be grateful and remember the incredible time that I spent on the shore of Galilee. The place that Jesus asked Peter a simple question for all of humanity, “Do you love me?”
Tae Kang has his MA in Theology from The University of Notre Dame through the Echo Faith Formation Program and has worked both as a Lay Ecclesial Minister in a Parish and as a High School Religion Teacher.