Some have asked if Carmelites have a particular message or word of advice and counsel to offer to the Catholic Church as she continues to pass through profound crises concerning sexual abuse, the abuse of power, and the abuse of conscience. Of course, the answer is a resounding, “yes”.
Let us turn to the teaching of our Doctors of the Church, and in particular, let us learn from their feminine genius, to be attentive to the wisdom that emanates from Carmel.
When she was a young nun, Saint Teresa was attached to a priest with fallen morals in Becedas, and she talks about this relationship in Chapter 5 of her autobiography, The Book of Her Life.
“I was so fascinated with God at that time what pleased me most was to speak of the things of God. And since I was so young, it threw him into confusion to observe this; and by reason of the strong love he had for me, he began to explain to me about his bad moral state.
This was no small matter, because for about seven years he had been living in a dangerous state on account of his affection and dealings with a woman in that same place; and, despite this, he was saying Mass. The association was so public that he had lost his honor and reputation, and no one dared to admonish him about this.
To me, it was a great pity for I loved him deeply. I was so frivolous and blind that it seemed to me a virtue to be grateful and loyal to anyone who loved me. Damned be such loyalty that goes against the law of God!
This is the kind of nonsense that goes on in the world, which makes no sense to me: that we consider it a virtue not to break with a friendship, even if the latter go against God, whereas we are indebted to God for all the good that is done to us.
Oh, blindness of the world! You would have been served, Lord, if I had been most ungrateful to all that world and not the least bit ungrateful to You! But it has been just the reverse because of my sins.”
“Oh, blindness of the world!” (St. Teresa of Avila)Tweet
The wisdom of our Carmelite doctors teaches that practicing the presence of Christ is essential in the Christian life to weather every trial. “Keeping Christ present is what we of ourselves can do,” wrote Saint Teresa (The Book of Her Life, 12:4).
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection agrees:
“The holiest, most ordinary, and most necessary practice of the spiritual life is that of the presence of God. It is to take delight in and become accustomed to his divine company, speaking humbly and conversing lovingly with him all the time, at every moment, without rule or measure, especially in times of temptation, suffering, aridity, weariness, even infidelity and sin.” (Maxims, 2:6)
“The holiest, most ordinary, and most necessary practice of the spiritual life is that of the presence of God” (Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection).Tweet
“A soul in sin is without any power but is like a person completely bound, tied, and blindfolded” (St. Teresa of Avila, 1571).Tweet
Saint Teresa teaches us the necessity of avoiding sin at all costs. In her Spiritual Testimonies, No. 20, Saint Teresa describes her 1571 vision:
“[A] soul in sin is without any power but is like a person completely bound, tied, and blindfolded; for although wanting to see, such a person cannot, and cannot walk or hear, and remains in great darkness. Souls in this condition make me feel such compassion that any burden seems light to me if I can free one of them.”
In the Interior Castle (First Dwelling, Chapter 2) she described the torment to a greater extent:
“[T]here’s no darker darkness nor anything more obscure and black… Nothing helps such a soul; and as a result, all the good works it might do while in mortal sin are fruitless for the attainment of glory… Since, after all, the intention of anyone who commits a mortal sin is to please the devil, who is darkness itself, not God, the poor soul becomes darkness itself.”
But, it was her vision of hell in 1560 that compelled her first and foremost to serve God with the greatest fervor, to avoid sin at all costs, and to “give a thousand lives to save one soul” (Way of Perfection, Chapter 1). She explained the horror of the vision in The Book of Her Life, Chapter 32:
[W]hile I was in prayer one day, I suddenly found that, without knowing how, I had seemingly been put in hell. I understood that the Lord wanted me to see the place the devils had prepared there for me and which I merited because of my sins. This experience took place within the shortest space of time, but even were I to live for many years I think it would be impossible for me to forget it…
What I felt, it seems to me, cannot even begin to be exaggerated; nor can it be understood. I experienced a fire in the soul that I don’t know how I could describe… This, however, was nothing next to the soul’s agonizing: a constriction, a suffocation, an affliction so keenly felt and with such a despairing and tormenting unhappiness that I don’t know how to word it strongly enough. To say the experience is as though the soul were continually being wrested from the body would be insufficient, for it would make you think somebody else is taking away the life, whereas here it is the soul itself that tears itself in pieces. The fact is that I don’t know how to give a sufficiently powerful description of that interior fire and that despair…
I was left terrified, and still am now in writing about this almost six years later, and it seems to me that on account of the fear my natural heat fails me right here and now. Thus I recall no time of trial or suffering in which it doesn’t seem to me that everything that can be suffered here on earth is nothing; so I think in a way we complain without reason…
Consequently, it is hardly surprising that Saint Teresa shrugged off so many hardships with her “grande y muy determinada determinación“; that is to say, her “great and very determined determination,” a typical Teresian turn of phrase that gives us a glimpse into her unflinching character. Not only was her heart aflame with divine love, but her soul bore the traces of this unquenchable fire and disconsolate despair.
“Souls in this condition make me feel such compassion that any burden seems light to me if I can free one of them” (St. Teresa of Avila, 1571).Tweet
Saint Teresa responded to the Church’s most profound crisis in centuries by practicing prayer, silence, and striving for evangelical perfection. She continues her account of the 1560 vision of hell with these remarkable words: “from this experience [the vision of hell] also flow the great impulses to help souls and the extraordinary pain that it caused me by the many that are condemned (especially the Lutherans, for they were through baptism members of the Church). It seems certain to me that in order to free one alone from such appalling torments I would suffer many deaths very willingly” (The Book of Her Life, Ch. 32).
When the professor of moral theology at Wittenburg University sent his Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz on 31 October 1517, few could have foreseen that the 95 theses in Professor Luther’s Disputatio would wound the Church so deeply, or that the wound would grow so infected that it would spread even to Spain.
Teresian scholars Rodriguez and Kavanaugh describe the context of the times for Saint Teresa: only a few short years after the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the Inquisition in Spain promulgated a decree (1525) against the “heresies of Luther”. The restrictions of the Inquisition in those days were so oppressive that even Saint Ignatius of Loyola was forbidden to preach for three years.
In the months following her harrowing vision of hell, Saint Teresa continued to hear distressing reports concerning the spread of the Lutheran sect, as she called it. While she prayerfully, carefully laid the plans to gather a “few good friends” to found a Carmelite monastery of strict observance, the damnation of Lutherans – made more urgent by the terrifying vision of hell – was her constant concern. As she puts it, she had “some good motives”; we’ll let her explain:
When I began to take the first steps toward founding this monastery… it was not my intention that there be so much external austerity or that the house have no income; on the contrary, I would have desired the possibility that nothing be lacking. In sum, my intention was the intention of the weak and wretched person that I am — although I did have some good motives besides those involving my own comfort.
At that time news reached me of the harm being done in France and of the havoc the Lutherans had caused and how much this miserable sect was growing. The news distressed me greatly, and, as though I could do something or were something, I cried to the Lord and begged Him that I might remedy so much evil. It seemed to me that I would have given a thousand lives to save one soul out of the many that were being lost there. I realized I was a woman and wretched and incapable of doing any of the useful things I desired to do in the service of the Lord.
All my longing was and still is that since He has so many enemies and so few friends that these few friends be good ones. As a result, I resolved to do the little that was in my power; that is, to follow the evangelical counsels as perfectly as I could and strive that these few persons who live here do the same (The Way of Perfection, ch. 1, nos. 1-2) [The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the evangelical counsels in Nos. 1973 and 1974; a further explanation of the counsels in relation to the Ten Commandments is found at No. 2053].
Saint Teresa’s motives, methods, and goals are clear: she hears the distressing news, comprehends the gravity of the situation, and her immediate recourse is to “arise, cry out in the night,” and, clinging to her Spouse, to pour out her heart “like water before the presence of the Lord.” (Lamentations 2:19)
Much in the same way that Elijah stands on God’s holy mountain, speaking to Him when he hears the gentle breeze, rendering an account for his presence and actions saying, “with zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of Hosts,” (Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum, the motto of the Carmelites), even so Saint Teresa is driven with zealous zeal at this moment. She who desired in her reform to lift up the holy founders of the order as models and exemplars, the “holy fathers of the past, those hermits whose lives we aim to imitate,” (Way of Perfection, Chapter 11) Saint Teresa is following their path into the Wadi ‘Ain Es-Siah to pursue prayer and silence. For Teresa, a rugged hike along the way of perfection is the best remedy to the Church’s greatest crisis of the second millennium.
“I resolved to do the little that was in my power; that is, to follow the evangelical counsels as perfectly as I could” (St. Teresa of Avila, 1566).Tweet
“Oh! how necessary it is to pray for priests!” (Céline Martin, letter 22 July 1890).Tweet
In her infinite wisdom, the Virgin of Carmel, who is our sister and teacher, impresses upon us the necessity of prayer for priests. During her summer vacation in July 1890, Celine Martin writes to her sisters in the Carmelite monastery back home in Lisieux, “Oh! how necessary it is to pray for priests!” (Letter, 22 July 1890)
Nearly five years later, Saint Thérèse took her sister’s urgent request to heart as she penned the first draft of her act of Offering of Myself as a Victim of Holocaust to the Merciful Love of the Good God. The opening lines of her first draft state:
“O My God! Most Blessed Trinity, I desire to love you and make you loved, to work for the glory of Holy Church by saving souls on earth and liberating those suffering in purgatory. Finally, my God, I want to make myself worthy of my vocation by helping your apostles to conquer for you all hearts.”
Thérèse eloquently expressed that desire in the final months of her life to the one apostle to whom she confided her deepest dreams and celestial aspirations: the Missionaries of Africa seminarian, Maurice Bellière. In an extraordinary letter dated 24 February 1897, Saint Thérèse plainly states her life’s mission:
“If the Lord takes me soon with Him, I ask you to continue each day the same prayer, for I shall desire in heaven the same thing as I do on earth: To love Jesus and to make him loved” (St. Thérèse of Lisieux).Tweet
The eminent Carmelite authority on the theology of the saints, François-Marie Léthel, O.C.D. expounded upon Saint Thérèse’s deepest desires as the preacher of the 2011 Lenten Exercises for Pope Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia. In the seventh meditation, which focuses on the Christocentrism of Thérèse, he explains, “the light of Christ, which we contemplate with Thérèse in this meditation, is the total Truth of God and Man that shines forth in Love. Inseparable from scientia fidei, the scientia amoris of Thérèse makes him shine; and, by making him loved, she gives him easier access to our hearts” (Léthel 2011).
This “total truth of God and Man”, which Thérèse loved so passionately that she desperately hoped to die of love, is the same incarnate truth whom she sought so passionately throughout her life. Let’s join her sister, Pauline and the prioress, Mother Marie de Gonzague at her bedside after Vespers just before the community gathers to pray as she draws her final, labored breath:
After Vespers, Mother Prioress placed a picture of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on her knees. She looked at it for a moment and said, when Mother Prioress assured her she’d be soon caressing the Blessed Virgin and the Child Jesus:
“O Mother, present me quickly to the Blessed Virgin; I’m a baby who can’t stand anymore! . . . Prepare me for death.”
Mother Prioress told her that since she had always understood humility, her preparation was already made. She reflected a moment and spoke these words humbly:
“Yes, it seems to me I never sought anything but the truth; yes, I have understood humility of heart. . . . It seems to me I’m humble.”
Saints Thérèse and Teresa, these two great Doctors of the Church teach us the immediacy and power of these words: Dios es suma Verdad, y la humildad es andar en verdad (God is supreme Truth; and, to be humble is to walk in truth).
Thérèse embodied the eminent teaching of her Holy Mother Teresa when she said on the day of her death, “Yes, it seems to me I never sought anything but the truth…”
“Yes, it seems to me I never sought anything but the truth” (St. Thérèse of Lisieux).Tweet
The holy Martin family’s pressing call to pray for priests was echoed nearly fifty years later by a spiritual brother of Saint Thérèse, the Discalced Carmelite friar Père Jacques of Jesus. A friar from the same province as Brother Lawrence, Père Jacques was the headmaster of the Discalced Carmelite friars’ boarding school in Avon. In September 1943 he preached the annual retreat for the community of Discalced Carmelite nuns in Pontoise, France. In his opening conference of the retreat, he wasted no time in addressing the Carmelite’s call to intercession for priests, in particular for priests in dire need of prayer:
Carmel is a community of human beings who reveal God to other human beings. There should be a Carmel in every city, and then there would be no need of works. One would see God through these human beings who live for him and him alone.
In reading the history of the Church or the history of our own order, like all the other orders, except for the Carthusians, we find periods of decline and need of reform in the wake of intervals of laxity and even scandal. Even among priests and religious, we find cases of spiritual death. We learn that a particular priest grew spiritually cold and left the priesthood, only to embark upon a life of degradation. You need to be aware of such cases and, in turn, to pray for priests. As you can see, it is not enough to experience a period of surpassing spiritual fervor. Gradually, one can abandon retreat instead of intensifying it. Gradually, one can return to the world left behind by readopting its norms instead of embracing God’s standards ever more fully.
Ultimately, it is through embracing the teaching of the Carmelite Doctors of the Church that one finds peace in troubled moments; calm for our fears; reminders of God’s immutable nature and the unsurpassed value of patience; and, the most timely counsel of all, which comes from Saint Teresa herself:
“whoever possesses God lacks nothing. God alone is enough.”
Jacques, P 2005, Listen to the silence: a retreat with Père Jacques, translated from the French and edited by Murphy F, ICS Publications, Washington DC.
Lawrence of the Resurrection, B; De Meester, C 1994, Writings and Conversations on the Practice of the Presence of God, translated from the French by Salvatore Sciurba, OCD, ICS Publications, Washington DC.
Lethel, F 2011, La lumière du Christ dans le coeur de l’Église : Jean-Paul II et la théologie des saints : retraite de carême avec Benoît XVI, 13-19 mars 2011, Parole et Silence, Paris.
Teresa of Avila, St. 1985, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, translated from the Spanish by Kavanaugh, K; Rodriguez, O, ICS Publications, Washington DC.
Translation from the French text of La lumière du Christ dans le coeur de l’Église : Jean-Paul II et la théologie des saints : retraite de carême avec Benoît XVI, 13-19 mars 2011 is the blogger’s own work product.
Thank you, Sisters, for sharing the wisdom of our Carmelite Saints with your readers as we continue to confront sexual abuse in the Church and in the world around us. My condolences, too, on the passing of Mother Regina; may Our Lady, Regina Decor Carmeli, grant Mother Regina a favored place in the heavenly court.
It is good to look to the great Carmelite Doctors of the Church to find the correct attitude to sexual and other forms of abuse. Ultimately, though, it is by embracing the teaching of Christ, as written in the Gospels, that one finds peace in troubled moments. St Teresa would be the first to point to Sacred Scripture, rather than her own writings, to find the right response. Which is not to say that so much good can be found in reading and reflecting on her writings.
Great reminder, Father!