Reflection by Anthony Lilles and Dan Burke
Avila, circa September 14, 1572
Reply to a spiritual challenge of the friars and nuns at Pastrana.
On reading the challenge, we thought we could not brace ourselves to encounter in the field such mettlesome and puissant knights. For no doubt they would conquer us and leave us rifled of all our goods—we might even be so daunted as to leave undone the little that was in our power. Therefore not one of us took up the gauntlet—least of all Teresa de Jesus—and this is the simple truth.
We agreed to try our strength and perhaps, when we have practiced the art, with the goodwill and help of those who wish to meet us in the fray, we may be able, in a few days, to sign the challenge.
Yet this must be on condition that our assailant does not turn his back and shut himself up in a hermitage, but descends to the arena of the world we live in. Perhaps, when he finds the fighting is incessant, that he cannot lay down his arms, stand off his guard, nor take a single moment’s rest in safety, he will not be so warlike, for there is all the difference between words and deeds as we have some reason to know.
Let him sally forth! Let him and his comrades leave their peaceful life! Perhaps, when they have gone a little way and begin to stumble and fall, they will need our aid to rise, for it is terrible to be in constant danger, weighed down with arms, with nothing to eat. Since the quartermaster has such store of rations, let him send us what he promised without delay, for it would win him little profit or glory to starve us out.
A ‘free lance’ declares that if the Commander of the forces will obtain for him from God the grace required to serve Him perfectly in all that obedience requires, the said ‘free lance’ will give in return all the merits obtained by such service during the year.
For those knights and daughters of the Virgin who ask our Lord that Sister Estefania Samaniego may serve Him and may never offend Him, and that He may give her living faith and gentleness, she will recite daily the prayer O bone Jesus! and will give them the merits won during a year by her sufferings and temptations in the past.
Sister N. de la Gila pledges the third part of the merits gained by her suffering and illnesses during her life to all knights and daughters of the Virgin who will recall daily for a few minutes our Lady’s sorrows and will beg her help (of which Sister N.’s soul stands in great need), and also that the life of our Mother Prioress, Teresa de Jesus, may be prolonged for the benefit of our Order.
To any of the knights of the Virgin who will once daily make a firm resolution to bear during his whole lifetime with a superior who is extremely foolish, vicious, gluttonous, and ill-tempered, Teresa de Jesus offers half of what she merits on that day, both by receiving Holy Communion and by the many pains she suffers—and after all, it will not amount to much. The knight must meditate upon our Lord’s humility before His judges and how He was obedient unto death.
This contract is binding for the next six weeks.
The knights and ladies of Our Lady referred to throughout this strange letter are none other than Carmelite friars and nuns. This is in fact a famous response to a spiritual challenge offered in jest, but even more, in love.
The friars of Pastrana had written out a formal challenge, in something like the style of the Spanish Royal Court. St. Teresa and the nuns of the Incarnation were challenged to match their penances as if they were squaring off with each other in mortal combat. This original document, in accord with the knightly code of the time, required signatures of acceptance. It was of course meant as a witty encouragement to heroic Lenten practices. In response, Teresa of Avila issues her own challenge, and with it, a little spiritual wisdom.
Her response is completely light-hearted, but not light-minded. Adroitly veiling her rejection of their challenge under the pretext of intimidation, she changes the battlefield and introduces her own spiritual taunts. She does not feel capable of entering onto the battlefield of great spiritual exploits. Instead, she invites the friars down into the world where she and her cloistered nuns struggle incessantly: the arena of real life. She is teasing in good fun when she challenges the friars to “Sally forth,” but the constant vigilance and dangerous difficulties of living vulnerably and humbly before God that she presents here are no laughing matter.
Our solidarity with one another in the Church is a solidarity of weaknesses, and this requires not only bearing with one another patiently but, most of all, a lot of prayer for and with each other. Notice how St. Teresa indirectly identifies foolish and ill-tempered superiors with herself and counts her own sufferings (that were in fact very great) as of so little account.
The free lance (or knight-errant) refers to St. John of the Cross who is spiritual director at the Monastery of the Incarnation at this time. The friars proposed a challenge that would test one another’s spiritual strength. Teresa wrote an invitation to share in one another’s weaknesses and frailties. Sister after sister is listed, not according to their spiritual achievements, but according to their spiritual poverty. In fact, some of them are dying.
If the friars will help the nuns by praying for them, the nuns agree to share the gifts that Christ gives them as a result. Such is the communion of the saints, a communion of frailty and blessing, because it is through our mutual love for one another that the glory of God is revealed.
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.