Somehow it seems fitting that today is not only the birthday of Friedrich Nietzsche, but it’s also the Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila.
Nietzsche, of course, not only proclaimed that “God is dead”, but he also gave us the concept of the “Übermensch” or “Superman”. In his book, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” – which, if you ever studied advanced German, you probably had to struggle through at one point – the Superman was a kind of new human, brought about through a rejection of Christian hope in the next life. The materialism espoused by Nietzsche sought a perfection of the physical and mental capabilities of human beings in this life, since he believed that there was no afterlife to follow, and that whatever creator-god there may once have been, he had faded away leaving only a cloud of dust, like the remains of a supernova.
In creating the post-religious superman as a goal for mankind to strive toward, Nietzsche laid the groundwork for all sorts of monstrosities, from eugenics to Nazism. In fact, when the comic book character of the same name was first conceived back in the 1930’s by two Jewish kids in Cleveland, he was actually a super-villain, along the lines of the materialist, amoral ideas of Nietzsche then being championed by Hitler, et al. It was only later that Superman was changed to become an anti-Nazi champion and the world’s biggest goody-two-shoes.
St. Teresa of Ávila was probably just about as opposite a thinker to Nietzsche as you can get. A woman whose childhood piety was muffled in young adulthood as she was drawn to seek the material pleasures of this world, she later rejected those comforts in order to draw herself and others closer to God through her life of prayer, her many writings, and her work. She also gave us something far better than the concept of the Superman: an encapsulation of her thinking which today is referred to as “St. Teresa’s Bookmark”, so called because it was found written on a prayer card which she kept in her breviary, the book of daily prayers centered around the Psalms still used to this day in the Church.
ST. TERESA’S BOOKMARK
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.
I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve shared this counsel of St. Teresa’s with others, particularly non-Catholics who have never heard of it, and there’s always a positive reaction. It’s really a reflection of what Christ told His listeners in the Sermon on the Mount (St. Matthew 6:25-34) about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. It’s also a reflection of St. Paul’s exhortation in his Letter to the Philippians: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)
We all have choices to make in this life. We can conform ourselves to this world, saying that this is all there is, as Nietzsche did, so let’s all have a good time. I can then put on the rather tight tights and the cool (if admittedly pointless) cape, and go around pretending that I’m invincible, but in the end suffering and death are my kryptonite just as they are yours. Sooner or later I’ll be made painfully aware of the fact that I’m not invincible after all, and material satisfaction is just as much a passing fantasy as leaping tall buildings in a single bound.
If however we choose to see this life as a kind of training ground for the life to come, as St. Teresa did, then we can find meaning even in our suffering. She demonstrated how invincibility comes not through a reliance on material ends, but rather through spiritual means. If the goal becomes obtaining eternal life in Heaven, and not the finite, ultimately futile effort to conquer the world rather than ourselves, then we realize that there, at last, lies the permanence we are seeking.
This only happens, as St. Teresa came to understand, through the surrender of our will to God. “Christ does not force our will,” she observed. “He takes only what we give him. But he does not give himself entirely until he sees that we yield ourselves entirely to him.”
On her Feast Day then, let’s try to exercise that real superpower, by making the same choice to show our invincibility through our surrender.