At the beginning of this New Year, I was blessed to get to know another Carmelite saint. Juanita, an early 20th Century Chilean, was given the name Teresa of Jesus when she entered the convent at 18 years of age. She would die less than a year later of Typhus in 1920. Yet, she had been a contemplative and mystic since her childhood, having espoused herself to Christ at 15 and pledged herself to the Carmelite vocation. As a contemplative, she loved life, enjoyed parties, horseback riding and tennis. None of this diminished her devotion for the Lord. Influenced by St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, the writings of St. Teresa of the Andes are part of the same spiritual mission. In fact, she began to read St. Elizabeth of the Trinity at 16, and on her 17th birthday develops seven counsels for herself from her older sister in the spirit’s spiritual doctrine:
1. Live a Divine Life by loving God with a pure love, giving oneself to Him without reserve.
2. Fulfill God’s will in everything, meeting all of one’s obligations with joy and not allowing anything to disturb one’s peace.
3. Live in silence to allow the Holy Spirit to draw forth harmonies in the soul by which the Holy Spirit and the Father may form an image of the Word in me.
4. Suffer, because Christ suffered His whole life long and was the praise of the Father’s glory. I resolve to suffer with joy for my sins and for sinners.
5. Live a life of faith, considering everything from a supernatural perspective, reflecting Christ as a mirror in all our actions.
6. Live in a continual state of thanksgiving so that every thought, word, and action may be a perpetual thanksgiving.
7. Live in continual adoration, like the angels, repeating “Holy, holy, holy… ” and since prayer cannot be uninterrupted, renewing our intention before each activity, and thus we will be a praise of glory inflamed with zeal for Divine Glory. (See her Diary, #28; July 15, 1917)
Pondering her words in relation to her short and difficult life, I am amazed by the repetition of “live” throughout these counsels. Very early on she had discovered the secret of Christianity, the hidden joy that those who know Jesus live by. Because she chose to live by love, life had become for her an opportunity to give thanks to God – a thanksgiving evoked in her because of her conviction about how much He had already given her.
A certain love for life that faith in Jesus opens up is a message that this American mystic helps us to ponder. We should not be afraid to let her witness contradict the cultural status quo that we too readily accept. We should allow her to help us question our own societal assumptions.
Whereas she celebrated every moment of life as a gift from God to the end, we have long allowed even places as tender as the womb to become dangerous for life. Whereas she pondered the value of life in suffering for others, we question whether those who suffer should have any part in our society. Whereas her heart was moved to befriend homeless children, our own homeless do not often know our love. Whereas her brother’s struggles with substance abuse moved her to seek him out and accompany him, we are quick to disrespect those that we believe have given up on life. Whereas she approached death as her supreme moment of life, we live as if the terminally ill should be shunned at all costs. We spend our lives fearfully pursuing the limited exigencies of the here and now, she shows us the joy that is ours no matter our present circumstance if we would dare to live for heaven.
Our attitude has not increased the tenderness or goodness of our humanity, but hers did -and not only her own, but everyone around her. So it is time to consider the witness of her short but rich life. If we refuse to listen to her warm voice speaking from the heart of the Church, we risk becoming cold. If we will not let the truth she witnesses to touch us, we may soon be tormented by the meaninglessness that we have brought on ourselves. If someone were looking for a way out of such nihilism, St. Teresa of the Andes is a sign that love of God offers a pathway forward. She is a charming witness that an encounter with the One who is Risen from the dead helps us live by this love. In Him, there is a love for life that not even fear of death can diminish – and St. Teresa of the Andes is an American prophet of this truth for our time.