Reflection by Anthony Lilles and Dan Burke
Toledo, March 1569
To Doña Maria de Mendoza
Letter of condolence. The foundation at Toledo.
May the Holy Spirit be with you!
I have made this journey with a very heavy heart, for I deeply regretted leaving Valladolid after receiving a letter from his Lordship the Bishop stating that you were undergoing a severe trial, although not explaining what it was. Had it not come on the eve of my departure, I would not have left you in such trouble; however, it has had the great advantage of leading me to pray much to our Lord for you. I do not know why I fancy that your trial may be connected with the Administrator’s opposition to the Lady Abbess. The idea consoled me, for although it would be a cross, God might permit it for the benefit of her soul. May it please His Majesty to dispose of matters as I beg of Him!
I was very glad to hear that your health is excellent. Oh, if only your self-control equaled your control over others, how little would you care for the world and all its troubles! . . .
Thank God you set them so good an example. And how do you think you must do so now? By bearing the many crosses by which our Lord begins to fan the love for Him which He has lit in your soul in order that it may enkindle others. So that I entreat you to take courage: think of what our Lord suffered at this time. Life is short; our trials last but a moment. . . .
Your Ladyship’s unworthy servant and subject,
Teresa de Jesus, Carmelite
These words reflect a great spiritual principle that is important to meditate on often in our service to the Lord. Without knowing the details of the circumstances surrounding this letter, we know that St. Teresa had already faced many trials and hardships. It had been a little more than ten years since she fell on her knees before a statue of the humiliated Christ “Ecce Homo,” begging Him to give her the grace not to backslide.
She had already begun to realize the power of God at work in mental prayer to make all things new. The renewal of the Carmelite charism and the renewal of the Church required a re-dedication to contemplative prayer. One would not think that something as beautiful and simple as deepening one’s devotion to prayer would upset anyone or that pursuing this would meet with any objection. The Lord, however, allows His work as well as those He loves to be purified and strengthened by all kinds of testing and trials.
When, at that time, she felt the Lord call her to the particular vocation of starting a reform of contemplative life, St. Teresa could never have imagined the trials she would face. Even less could she have guessed the trials that those who collaborated with her would have to endure. She stood in solidarity with them: she was distressed by anything that caused them distress. At the same time, she bore these trials with a contagious hope because she bore them all with love.
By the hope she had in God, she knew that such distress was not really an obstacle to the work of reform or even a threat to contemplative prayer. Instead, hardship, trials, setbacks, disappointments, betrayals, and all kinds of other necessary sacrifices were the pathway forward. She knew this because she had already grasped that the success of the reform would not be realized by clever tactics and strategies, but instead by love alone.
Mental prayer and the contemplative vocation are all about love at the center of the Church, and the only love that is really worth anything is that which is disciplined by trials and spent in sacrifice.
Love has its own law of gravity: hardships born in love and for love only fan love’s flames, drawing others to its warmth and light. Love patiently rises above hardship and all kinds of persecution, even in what seem to be insurmountable circumstances and crushing setbacks. Love does not need to force circumstances or control situations, but makes use of everything, even failures and inadequacies. Even the open hostility of others furthers love’s hidden purpose, implicating everyone in a deeper solidarity of misery and mercy, of prayer and penance, and, most of all, of holiness and hope.
When we go to serve the Lord, there are bound to be all kinds of trials. If we want our marriages to work, or we want to put the Lord in the center of our family life, or if we desire to renew the devotion of our communities, we must expect great trials as we turn to the Lord in prayer.
How can our love be great if there is no trial, no testing, if everything comes too easy? How important it is to remind ourselves that the secret of serving the Lord has so little to do with the success of the programs we are involved in!
It has even less to do with the personal agendas we bring into our households and communities, no matter how pious our intentions. The secret of witnessing to the presence of the Lord instead is love. In our own day, as St. Teresa of Calcutta observed, we cannot love except at our own expense.
Anthony Lilles is an author and theologian who serves in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as academic dean of St. John’s Seminary and academic adviser to Juan Diego House. Dan Burke is the executive director of EWTN’s National Catholic Register. Together they compiled reflections on the letters of St. Teresa of Avila in 30 Days with Teresa of Avila.