In 1571, 450 years ago, Saint Teresa set out on a journey from Medina del Campo to return to her hometown of Avila. As St. Edith Stein explains in her Teresian biography, Love for Love: The Life and Works of St. Teresa of Jesus, “in the midst of her work for the reform, she now had to undertake a task that for all intents and purposes appeared impossible” (Love for Love, 14).
The representative of the Holy See had appointed Teresa to become the prioress of the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation: the same monastery that she had left eight years earlier to begin the Discalced reform. Only her deep love for the Lord and obedience to Him and to the Church enabled her to fulfill this task.
In this year’s novena, we will listen to St. Teresa teach us about obedience as she understood and lived the virtue of obedience — not merely as a religious observing the evangelical counsel but also as a Catholic woman of faith.
Interestingly enough, St. Teresa’s most extensive teaching concerning obedience is linked to prayer and these passages appear at the beginning of her book of The Foundations, in the fifth chapter. She says that this chapter is very beneficial for those engaged in active works; certainly, then, today’s lay faithful may want to take notice.
It is not my intention or thought that what I say here be taken for certain and as an infallible rule, for that would be foolish in things so difficult. Since there are many paths along this way of the spirit, it could be that I will manage to say certain useful things about some of them. If those who do not walk along the path of which I’m speaking do not understand what I’m saying, it will be because they are walking by another. And if I do not help anyone, the Lord will accept my desire. He knows that even though I have not experienced all of which I speak, I have seen it in other souls.
First, I want to treat, according to my poor understanding, of the substance of perfect prayer. For I have run into some for whom it seems the whole business lies in thinking. If they can keep their minds much occupied in God, even though great effort is exerted, they at once think they are spiritual. If, on the contrary, without being able to avoid it, they become distracted, even if for the sake of good things, they then become disconsolate and think they are lost.
(The Foundations, 5:1-2)
We’ll stop here for a moment because the subject of distractions in prayer is one of the most common questions that Carmelites are called to discuss in spiritual direction. St. Teresa mentions distractions in three of her major works — The Book of Her Life, The Way of Perfection, and The Interior Castle. She understands what it is to be distracted in prayer: “I strove to picture Christ within me, and it did me greater good — in my opinion — to picture Him in those scenes where I saw Him more alone. (…) I remained with Him as long as my thoughts allowed me to, for there were many distractions that tormented me” (The Book of Her Life, 9:4).
Perhaps this is why, in her instruction on prayer at the outset of The Foundations, St. Teresa chose to emphasize:
I do not deny that it is a favor from the Lord if someone is able to be always meditating on His works, and it is good that one strive to do so. However, it must be understood that not all imaginations are by their nature capable of this meditating, but all souls are capable of loving. I have already at another time written about the causes of this restlessness of our imagination, I think…
And indeed, Teresa did just that in those three major works we cited above (cf. Life, 17:5-7; Way of Perfection, 31:8; and, Interior Castle, IV, 1:8).
But what St. Teresa wanted most to explain was that “the soul is not the mind, nor is the will directed by thinking, for this would be very unfortunate. Hence, the soul’s progress does not lie in thinking much but in loving much.”
In the nine novena meditations that follow, she will explain how loving much, prayer, and obedience are all joined together in the soul’s progress along the path to perfection. We invite you to join us — each day, any day, or all at once — to meditate on her counsel and to pray for the progress that leads to perfection.
- Day 1: He doesn’t want the soul who truly loves Him to take any other path than the one He did (The Foundations, 5:3)
- Day 2: Oh, happy obedience and happy the resulting distraction that could obtain so much! (The Foundations, 5:7)
- Day 3: Don’t be sad when obedience draws you to involvement in exterior matters [like pots and pans] (The Foundations, 5:8)
- Day 4: The devil sees there is no path that leads more quickly to the highest perfection than obedience (The Foundations, 5:10)
- Day 5: Obedience is the true path (The Foundations, 5:11)
- Day 6: It means making Him Lord over the free will He has given us (The Foundations, 5:12)
- Day 7: To excavate from this mine of obedience (The Foundations, 5:13)
- Day 8: Make your will one with God’s: this is the union that I desire (The Foundations, 5:13)
- Day 9: He came from the bosom of His Father out of obedience to become our slave (The Foundations, 5:17)
O most loving Heavenly Father! We thank you for the great gift you gave us through Saint Teresa of Avila, Virgin and Doctor of the Church. Her life was a great example of fervent prayer, heroic sacrifice, profound humility, tireless patience, unwavering trust, and determined faith in you. We humbly pray for her intercession…
(Mention your intentions)
Saint Teresa, you yourself have said that there is no path that leads more quickly to the highest perfection than obedience. Pray for us, that we may grow in obedience and thus follow the example of our Savior Jesus Christ, who became obedient unto death.
Saint Teresa, light of the Church, teach us the way of perfection, and lead us to the eternal mansions where Christ has his home.
Saint Teresa of Avila, pray for us!
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.