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Courage in Times of Trouble

Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross

Courage in Times of Trouble
Monday, April 20, 2020

Tessa Bielecki is a Christian hermit in the tradition of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. Co-founder of the Spiritual Life Institute, she was a Carmelite monk and Mother Abbess for almost 40 years, establishing experimental monastic communities of men and women in Arizona, Colorado, Nova Scotia, and Ireland. She has written extensively on the life, spirituality, and enduring legacy of Teresa of Ávila. Bielecki writes that Teresa has much to teach us about suffering:

For over forty years, [Teresa] never spent a single day without physical pain. For most of her life she suffered such nausea that she vomited daily and couldn’t eat until noon. She suffered the little illnesses that afflict us all—colds, headaches, stomachaches, toothaches, and flus. But she also suffered from high fevers, fainting spells, heart trouble, neuritis, tinnitus, her maimed left arm, a three-year paralysis, severe convulsions, a four-day coma, and the influenza that almost killed her in 1580, aged her terribly, and left her palsied for the last two years of her life. . . .

As a result of her experience, Teresa teaches us that poor health is not an obstacle to spiritual growth but actually enhances it. Why? We learn patience and surrender. We learn how to transcend the body and rise above both sickness and health altogether. . . .

Through this, as in all else, Teresa learned how to let go of her own will and trust in God. She vehemently asserts that we must “determine once and for all to swallow death and the lack of health,” or there will be no hope for us. [Italics mine.] [1]

In a letter to the convent at Seville that she had founded, Teresa writes:

Courage, courage, my daughters. Remember, God gives no one more troubles than [she] is able to bear, and [God] is with those who are in tribulation. [2]

And in a letter to one of her spiritual directors, the Dominican Father Gracián, she reflects:

One must not think that a person who is suffering is not praying. He is offering up his sufferings to God, and many a time he is praying much more truly than one who goes away by himself and meditates his head off, and, if he has squeezed out a few tears, thinks that is prayer. [3]

Richard again: Suffering, of course, can lead us in one of two directions. It can make us very bitter and close us down, or it can make us wise, compassionate, and utterly open. Our hearts open either because they have been softened, or perhaps because suffering makes us feel like we have nothing more to lose. It often takes us to the edge of our inner resources where we “fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

Let us all pray for the grace of this second path of softening and opening.

References:
[1] Tessa Bielecki, Teresa of Ávila: Mystical Writings (Crossroad Publishing Company: 1994), 111–112, 113.

[2] Teresa of Ávila, Letter no. 264 (January 31, 1579). See Bielecki, 130.

[3] Teresa of Ávila, Letter no. 122 (October 23, 1576). See Bielecki, 149.

Adapted from Richard Rohr: Essential Teachings on Love, eds. Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger (Orbis Books: 2018), 177–178.

Image credit: A Vision of the Holy Trinity (detail), anonymous Brazilian painter, 17th century, Museu de Arte Sacra da Universidade Federal da Bahia, Salvador, Brazil.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: I like to say that Teresa and John were part of the “final supernova” of nondual, mystical consciousness in 16th century Spain, before it all but disappeared in Europe for five hundred years in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the invention of the printing press. Both Teresa and John wrote detailed accounts of their lives and experiences with God, which makes them very accessible teachers. —Richard Rohr
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