Reflection by Anthony Lilles and Dan Burke
Valladolid, December 28, 1568
To Doña Inès Nieto, at Madrid on the admission of a postulant into the recently founded convent at Valladolid.
May the grace of the Holy Spirit be with you!
Although I have not written before, you may be sure that I have not forgotten you in my poor prayers to our Lord and that I shared your happiness. May He permit you to enjoy it in His service for many years, for I hope your happiness will not impede this service, whatever obstacles may arise. For the so-called goods of this miserable life are impediments, and your having spent your past years for God will have repaid you by teaching you to estimate things rightly and so to care nothing for what is fleeting. . . .
Your unworthy servant,
Teresa de Jesus, Carmelite
Ever growing union with God consists both in an elevation of the entire person through contemplative wisdom, and a cleansing of the heart through detachment. Detachment is: “the withholding of undue affection for creatures for the sake of the Creator. When mortal sin is involved, detachment is imperative for salvation. Detachment from creatures that are an obstacle to complete service of God is a normal condition for growth in holiness.”
The “undue affection” of attachment is simply a disordered occupation of the heart. Not every movement of heart is noble, and many ignoble attachments can cause us to betray ourselves and those who are counting on us, especially God Himself. Any loving, desiring, or clinging to some person, place, or thing that is not purely for the glory of God renders the soul incapable of giving that same love to God or others to whom, for the glory of God, it is owed. At the same time, precisely because our affections are misdirected, we are not as open or vulnerable to the blessings that God might otherwise desire to pour out on us.
Because God, in a certain sense, relies on our faithfulness to Him and His loving plan for us, we have an obligation to order our affections in accord with His wisdom for our lives. It is a matter of saving our strength and internal resources for the Lord and His purposes. It is a matter of letting go of our own whims and earthly dreams to make room in our hearts for heavenly things and the will of the Father.
The great mystic recognizes that Dona Ines Nieto has a difficult lesson to learn. Teresa herself came to estimate material things rightly only after many difficult setbacks in her own walk with Christ. It is always futile and a waste of energy to place one’s security in anything that is not God. The Saint knows that even one’s own happiness can become an obstacle, an impediment. Indeed, every form of self-satisfaction blocks us from receiving even greater blessings than we might otherwise know.
This kind of wisdom comes many ways. To some, it comes through physical or emotional suffering, others the traumatic experience of the death of a loved one, and still others the deep sadness that invades the heart when what is desired is gained but fails to satisfy the desire that only God can satisfy. The answer? Shed as much as we can as quickly as we are able. Give to anyone who asks. Love nothing in this life but God. Pursue only God and His will. This is the only hope of true and lasting peace in this life, and joy in the ascent to God.
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.