For since my arm has been in the state it is, I am very careful in this regard. It is still swollen, as is also my hand, and covered with plaster, which looks like armor, and so I get little use out of it…Saint Teresa of Avila
Letter 230 to Father Jerome Gracián
Avila, 16 February 1578
From her youth until the moment of her death, Teresa was assailed by bodily illnesses; sickness was one of the great battles of her life. Keenly observant, she has written of these illnesses with impressive objectivity, precise description, and great simplicity. […]
A further difficulty in the Mother Foundress’s case, exacerbating an already delicate condition, was the penchant to take lightly any need for rest and care. It is somewhat surprising to us that the doctor had to tell her that her head would be in a better condition if she did not stay up until two in the morning writing letters and also warn her never to write after midnight [Cf. Letter 182 to her brother Lorenzo].
If her trials could affect her physical state, her bodily illnesses, by the same token, could affect her psyche. She confesses:
“Often I complain to our Lord about how much the poor soul shares in the illness of the body. It seems the soul can do nothing but abide by the laws of the body and all its needs and changes” (Cf. The Book of Her Foundations, 29:2).
To add to her infirmities, on Christmas eve in 1577, Teresa fell down the stairs at St. Joseph’s in Avila and broke her [left] arm. Since it did not set properly, a well-known but unlicensed practitioner from Medina del Campo performed an osteoclasis. In thus breaking her bone again so as to correct the deformity, a most painful procedure, he not only failed to remedy the matter but made things worse. Teresa’s arm was left maimed and useless; for the rest of her life, she needed help, even for simple tasks such as dressing and undressing.
If Madre Teresa shied away from caring for herself, her own experience of bodily infirmities and spiritual trials heightened her capacity to feel compassion for other suffering people.
In a letter to Gracián, speaking of how a soul can have no better sustenance than trials, she also makes it clear that this conviction does not remove the pain of seeing others suffer. “I mean there must be a whole world of difference between suffering oneself and seeing one’s neighbor suffer” (29 April 1579).
Thus, she orders that the sick, especially, should be cared for with fullness of love, concern for their comfort, and compassion.
Kieran Kavanaugh, o.c.d.
Translator and editor, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila
The Book of Her Foundations: Introduction
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.
Featured image: The relic of the incorrupt left hand of St. Teresa is venerated in the Church of La Merced under the custody of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Ronda, Spain. This is the same relic that the Prioress of Ronda was forced to hand over to the Communists in 1937; the relic that Generalissimo Franco reportedly slept with and even wore until he died. | Credit: Teresa de la rueca a la pluma