Today is the feast day of St. Teresa of Jesus, who was a 16th century Carmelite nun from Avila, Spain. She was, by all accounts, brilliant and charming, as well as physically beautiful. She entered the Carmelite monastery at the age of 20. At that time, the monastic life was very lax. There were always people coming and going at the monastery, with people sharing local gossip with the nuns who often lived in varying degrees of comfort – even luxury – within the walls of the monastery. In this environment, Sr. Teresa, being very popular, felt herself torn. She enjoyed the socialization and the worldly conversation, but she also felt within her a desire for a deeper encounter with God. It was part of her prayer life that the Lord God help her to devote herself more completely to Him.
It was only after 20 years of life in the monastery that Sr. Teresa had the conversion experience that changed her life. She encountered a statue that depicted Christ bound and scourged and she found herself intensely moved by what Our Lord, out of love for her, willingly suffered. In that moment, she suddenly recognized her own lack of gratitude for what He had done for her, and she asked Him through her tears to strengthen her desire to belong to Him alone. For the next four years, her life with Christ intensified and deepened. She eventually initiated a great reform of the Carmelite Order, which made her deeply unpopular among the nuns of her community. Her mystical experiences also made her the object of suspicion among prelates and Churchmen. Despite the intense suffering she experienced because of this resistance, which was compounded by physical illness, she persevered in the mission and personally founded 16 monastic communities of Carmelites before she died in 1582.
Throughout her life in religion, St. Teresa struggled against the temptation to be afraid. Fear held her back in her early years from giving herself completely to the Lord. She was afraid of the consequences of pursuing the reforms she believed were needed. She was afraid that she was mistaken about God’s will for her. She was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to do what the Lord was calling her to do. What allowed her to move forward in the face of her fears was the intense love of Christ – the love He had for her, and the love she had for Him. This gave her the strength to persevere in freedom despite her struggle with fear. Even though her mission was incredibly difficult and there appeared to be many great obstacles that threatened her success, she trusted that the Lord would take care of everything – and He did. Obstacles seemed to vanish, and the new communities improbably flourished.
The example of the life of St. Teresa of Jesus is helpful for us, because we are often held back from giving our lives to Christ because of our fears. We might have the desire to know and love the Lord more, and to live the faith more authentically, but simultaneously be afraid of what we think that will mean for us, what we might have to give up in the way of habits, lifestyles, and relationships in order to respond to His invitation to friendship. During a period of crisis in her life, she heard the consoling words of Jesus speaking to her: “Be not afraid, daughter, for it is I and I will not forsake you. Fear not.”
St. Teresa of Jesus famously composed a beautiful prayer that is helpful to meditate on in those moments when we resist the invitation of Christ to devote ourselves more completely to Him. Here it is: “Let nothing disturb you/ Let nothing frighten you/ All things are passing/ God never changes/ Patience obtains all things/ The one who possesses God lacks nothing/ God alone suffices.”