>Some years ago when I was living in London, I regularly attended two different parishes. I was an acolyte at the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception in Mayfair, more popularly referred to as “Farm Street”. On Sundays or Holy Days when I did not have to serve on the altar however, I would often go to the Church of St. James in Marylebone, commonly known as “Spanish Place”, as it was the Catholic parish for the southern half of Marylebone village, where I lived.
One Saturday while doing errands on Marylebone High Street I stopped in at Spanish Place for confession, and lo and behold the priest hearing confessions was an Augustinian from Madrid. Spanish Place has had a long association with the Spanish crown, though it was the first time I had come across an actual Spanish priest there. When I realized that Father was from Spain and seemed to be struggling a little with his language skills, I switched from English to Castilian and proceeded to give my confession in that language.
Father asked what I was reading at the time, and I mentioned “The Dark Night of the Soul” by the great Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross; I also mentioned that I found it rather difficult reading as it was not really resonating with me. “Oh no!”, cried Father, “You’re basically a happy young layman enjoying life, why are you reading THAT? If you want to read some Spanish mystical writing at your age, I recommend that you go get some of the easier works of St. Teresa of Ávila.”
Of course, Father was not intending to disparage the great significance of St. John of the Cross’ most famous work. Nor was he intending to say that St. Teresa was somehow in a lesser category – after all, she is a Doctor of the Church. Moreover, some of her more complex books are just as difficult for a semi-formed mind such as my own to penetrate.
Yet at the same time, being a reformer who was instructing the nuns in the various convents in writing as to how to get on the right track, particularly with respect to how they treated one another and the activities of their prayer and their daily lives, St. Teresa was very often a practical, no-nonsense woman when it came time to deal with such things. There is something very specifically Spanish about her character that comes through in her writing. I think this is one aspect of her thoughts on the life of the individual soul in the context of the Church which continues to draw people to her today, more than four centuries after her death.
So as today is her feast day, I thought to share with my readers an example of St. Teresa’s thinking in this regard, in one of my favorite passages from her “The Way of Perfection” of about 1567. No doubt greater minds than my own would disagree with some aspect of her counsel, or perhaps my reading of it, but taking it at face value I believe it is just as sound advice for those of us sitting in the pews on Sunday as it was for her sisters in the Carmels of the 16th century. I am not a theologian, nor do I possess a mind particularly well-suited to entering into philosophical or theological debate; at one time this fact bothered me, but I have come to be grateful for the fact that from the very first, I was brought up with the idea that when I do not know what to do or whom to listen to, that I go to Rome and do what Rome says. In so doing, I leave those who are passionately at odds with some aspect of doctrine, liturgy, etc., whether they see themselves as traditionalists or modernizers, to argue amongst themselves, and worry instead about myself.
This is not to say that St. Teresa – who often found herself in trouble with Church authorities – is advocating here what is often referred to as “pay, pray and obey” Catholicism (though is that such a bad thing for most of us?) Neither is she writing to John Calvin or to St. Robert Bellarmine and thereby needing to adopt a loftier, more complex tone. Rather she is giving practical, broadly applicable advice, to a group of women over whom she has authority. Her goal is to give that advice in as generally applicable a way as possible, both for those of high intellectual and spiritual capability, as well as to those who are more simple.
In this passage, St. Teresa is addressing some of the worries that her sisters have, about being led astray on matters of religious teaching and practices. It was a concern which, in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, was certainly a legitimate one. Yet her advice on this point is something which has always resonated with me.
Cease troubling about these fears, then, sisters; and never pay heed to such matters of popular opinion. This is no time for believing everyone; believe only those whom you see modeling their lives on the life of Christ. Endeavor always to have a good conscience; practice humility; despise all worldly things; and believe firmly in the teaching of our Holy Mother [the Roman] Church. You may then be quite sure that you are on a [very] good road. Cease, as I have said, to have fear where no fear is; if any one attempts to frighten you, point out the road to him in all humility. Tell him that you have a Rule which commands you, as it does, to pray without ceasing, and that that rule you must keep.St. Teresa of Ávila
Way of Perfection, Ch. 21