The month of October celebrates two great saints and doctors of the Church, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux. These two great Carmelite sisters, while from very different backgrounds, nationalities, times, and attitudes, share much in common with each other. What they share in common also unites us to them especially in regard to their spiritual doctrine. They have much to say to us during this time of the coronavirus pandemic as well as many other serious situations facing our world and nation.
Saint Teresa of Avila was born in Avila, Spain, on March 28, 1515. She entered the Carmelite monastery at the age of twenty and shortly after became seriously ill for over three years. After her illness, she endured a period in her spiritual life which she considered mediocre, although she continued to pray ardently. At the age of twenty-nine, she had an intense experience of God’s love through her meditation on the suffering of the crucified Christ. Devoting herself even more profoundly to her spiritual life, she founded a reformed Carmelite order much in keeping with the original and austere foundation of the congregation. She received the grace of extraordinary religious experiences and wrote several volumes on the mystical and spiritual life. She died on October 4, 1582, was canonized in 1622, and was proclaimed the first woman doctor of the Church in 1970. Her Feast is now celebrated on October 15.
Saint Therese of Lisieux was born in Alencon, France, on January 2, 1873. Therese’s early years were close to her family and filled with a great desire to please God. She had a very simple and innocent outlook on life that never left her. At the age of sixteen, she entered the Carmel at Lisieux having met with some resistance because of her young age. Her early days at Carmel were filled with much peace. However, time brought her terrible spiritual and physical suffering through which Therese continued to grow in deep union with God. Her interior suffering was not reflected in her exterior attitude which always was one of joy with the other sisters. She endured terrible dryness in prayer, scruples, and temptations of faith but through them all she was a model of love in her monastery. She died at the young age of twenty-four on September 30, 1897, after a prolonged agony. Again, through all of her physical suffering, she was an example of prayer and patience. Saint Therese of Lisieux was canonized in 1925, and declared a doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II on October 19,1997. Her feast is celebrated on October 1.
These two women saints and doctors have much in common and much that separate them. Saint Teresa of Avila was extremely rigorous in her spiritual doctrine, received many supernatural and mystical experiences, wrote many volumes regarding the mystical life, and reformed a religious congregation which affected the movement of consecrated life within the Church. She lived to be sixty-seven and was widely influential even in her own times. Pope Francis, in a letter on the fifth centenary of St. Theresa of Avila’s birth stated, “As she did then, also today the Saint opens new horizons to us, she calls us to a great enterprise, to look at the world with Christ’s eyes, to see what He sees and to love what He loves.”
Saint Therese of Lisieux’ spiritual doctrine was not a rigorous one but concerned the “little way” of finding God in ordinary tasks and performing them joyfully. She had many deep spiritual experiences, but they all surrounded her everyday activities, dealings with others, and own sufferings. Although she composed several poems, prayers, plays, and much correspondence, her basic writing, in which her doctrine is contained, is her autobiography. She was relatively unknown in her short life and was influential only in her own family and among the other sisters at Lisieux. However, the influence of this simple and holy child of God who lived a short life made a tremendous and speedy impact upon the lives of popes, bishops, priests, religious, and those of every other vocation in life. Last year, Pope Francis remarked that St. Therese accompanies him as “an old man,” and that “She is a faithful friend.”
At the request of others, both of these great women wrote about their lives and their spiritual experiences in an autobiography, Saint Teresa of Avila’s, Life, and Saint Therese of Lisieux’, Autobiography of a Soul. Again, their experiences share much in common but at the same time are very different. The teachings of these two saints have much to say to us so different from them and yet so much like them. Both struggled with prayer, both suffered emotionally and physically, both had joy and disappointments, and both experienced God in all of these.
Looking at the lives and attitudes of these two mystics who had such intense spiritual experiences, one thing becomes crystal clear about prayer. Prayer results in love and love is the measure of prayer. Saint Teresa of Avila expressed this by stating that prayer does not consist “in thinking much but in loving much.” Saint Therese of Lisieux expressed this by stating that prayer is “a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy.”
We do not have to have great supernatural or mystical experiences to be in deep communion with God. In fact, the advice of our two mystical doctors is that we should not even seek such experiences as they are not proof of prayer. Love of God and love of others are the results of prayer even when we may feel distracted in prayer and far from God. Saint Teresa of Avila found it difficult to pray the Divine Office and, as I mentioned on my previous column, Saint Therese of Lisieux found it difficult to say the Rosary. However, this did not lessen their attempts to do so knowing that love is at the basis of such prayer and faithfulness to prayer results in love.
The Church proclaims doctors to help us find our way to God. The experiences of these two doctors of the spiritual life help us greatly on our own journeys. We are all called to live in communion with God and we can only do that in the midst of our daily activities, joys, and tribulations. Prayer helps us to deepen our union with God and we must take time to be in communion with Him. However, the time we put into prayer is not measured in terms of how much bliss we may derive from it. Saints Teresa and Therese teach us what the Lord made clear: love alone is the measure.
If we follow the teaching of these two saints, we find God in our daily activity through prayer and grow in love. If we want to know how well we are praying, even when we feel we are not, we look for the results in love. Saint Paul makes very clear what these criteria are. “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interest, it is not quick tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoings but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7). Such love can only come from true prayer as Saint Teresa and Saint Therese knew and is commonly found not in extraordinary visions, but in daily life, especially in the difficult times we find ourselves in this October.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
October 16, 2020