2 Doctors, 2 Ways, 1 Goal: St. Teresa and St. Therese
Many of you probably have seen the 1965 film entitled The Sound of Music starring Julie Andrews as Maria Von Trapp and Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp. The first verse of the theme song goes like this:
Climb every mountain,
Search high and low,
Follow every highway,
Every path you know.
Do you remember when the young Maria came into view over the hills with the mountains framing the background and the meadow abundant with spring flowers? As she ran forward, filled with life and freshness, singing with full voice and without labored breathing, mountain climbing looked like an easy goal. But we know better! Whether our goal is to climb a physical mountain or a spiritual mountain they are both strenuous and demand total focus.
Pope Benedict XVI, during an Angelus address from the courtyard of the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo in August of 2007, stated,
The goal of every pilgrimage is the city of ‘solid foundations’, whose architect and builder is ‘God’: a goal that is not of this world, but of ‘heaven’.
Every pilgrimage, therefore, has a beginning and an end and the desired end of our earthly pilgrimage is the perfection of charity or heaven. To pursue a goal we must choose a path. Catechism #1696 states:
The way of Christ ‘leads to life’; a contrary way ‘leads to destruction.’
This pilgrimage of life can be compared to climbing a mountain. The final goal is to reach the summit and to get there one must choose a path. But to reach a good decision the mountain we set our sight on must be studied. How many possible paths are there and what criteria would determine the one that we would choose? The choice of a route will depend on various criteria from the goal and perspective of the climber: scenery, ease or difficulty of climb, safety risks, traffic and its altitude acclimatization characteristics. Much has been written on what to expect from particular mountain climbs and one can find charts rating the above criteria, as well as maps showing the possible routes. Some routes converge or cross others; some are well-traveled, others less so. Very detailed information for each route on a mountain is available so that the climber can be well prepared before and during the climb. It may, in some cases, be necessary to forge one’s own route.
Any climber who chooses a particularly challenging mountain needs a team and especially guides who are well-experienced. Edmund Hillary said, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
Mountain climbing offers us a picture of life. Just as mountain climbers are wise to choose experienced guides, so too in life we can benefit from those who have already made the journey up the mountain and reached their goal.
During this month of October we celebrate two Carmelite Saints who scaled the heights of Mount Carmel: St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. These two women lived in different eras, were of different backgrounds, had distinctive temperaments, but both entered cloistered Carmelite convents, became canonized saints, were recognized as Doctors of the Church, shared the same goal but followed it through different paths.
Both of these saints experienced alienation when they lost their mothers at an early age: St. Thérèse, shortly before the age of four and St. Teresa while she was still a teenager. They each were strongly influenced by their fathers. Both suffered ill health. St. Thérèse never left the cloister once she entered and was basically unknown except by her family and close friends. St. Teresa spent a good deal of time outside the cloister recuperating from illness and then founding convents and was quite well known by many people.
Both of our saints had mountains to climb on their spiritual journey through life. Both experienced severe trials, setbacks, failures, and misunderstandings as they struggled to continue the upward climb. Both needed to keep the goal (or summit) constantly in view.
St. Thérèse’s father had taken her to Switzerland before she entered Carmel where she viewed for the first time “its mountains whose summits were lost in the clouds”. She later wrote in her Story of a Soul:
When I saw all these beauties very profound thoughts came to life in my soul. I seemed to understand already the grandeur of God and the marvels of heaven…. I shall remember what my eyes have seen today. This thought will encourage me and I shall easily forget my own little interests, recalling the grandeur and power of God, this God whom I want to love alone. I shall not have the misfortune of snatching after straws.
The beauty that she experienced was a grace that aided her perseverance in all of life’s trials. Even though life presented her with many challenges she was still able to view and delight in the scenery as she journeyed to her goal.
St. Teresa of Avila cautioned her Sisters not to lose courage regarding the path that would lead them to the summit of Carmel by the following advice:
Do not be dismayed, daughters, at the number of things which you have to consider before setting out on this divine journey, which is the royal road to heaven. By taking this road we gain such precious treasures that it is no wonder if the cost seems to us a high one. The time will come when we shall realize that all we have paid has been nothing at all by comparison with the greatness of our prizes. (Way of Perfection, Chapter 21)
Both saints succeeded in reaching their goal but the paths they followed were quite different. And although both are invaluable guides to us, the path that God marks out for us may be similar or look very different. Life may offer many peaks for us to climb and each one becomes a new challenge, a hard-earned lesson. It is the transformation that takes place as we struggle to reach the peak that enables us to climb the next one until we finally reach the ultimate peak of life’s journey.
When Thérèse, the over-sensitive child who cried because she cried, passed from childhood to the beginnings of adulthood she knew that God had granted her a miraculous conversion on that Christmas when for the last time she received gifts in her shoes, a custom reserved for children. Now she felt strengthened and was ready for the spiritual climb!
How did the two ways or the two paths of our two saints differ?
In our spiritual journey we all descend into the valleys and climb back up the slopes of the mountains. Sometimes we slip or fall back, get hurt, or need to re-evaluate the path we are on. St. Teresa saw these as ebbs and flows in the spiritual life which provide us with the skills that we need to progress on our journey. We gain new understanding about ourselves and the lessons that we learn aid us in overcoming new difficulties that lie ahead.
Teresa of Avila did not have a theological background; her education was limited. But God led her on the path of mystical prayer. What was unique in her was her ability to understand and reflect upon the gift she had received and to articulate that gift especially in her writings. The benefit that the Church received from this led to her being acclaimed as a Doctor of the Church. She anticipated in her Interior Castle what the Second Vatican Council would proclaim in Lumen Gentium: that these different stages of prayer, both ascetical and mystical, are a natural progression in the Call to Holiness for all of us.
On the other hand, St. Thérèse gave us a glimpse of the path that she was called to follow when she wrote:
You know, Mother, that I have always wanted to become a saint. Unfortunately when I have compared myself with the saints, I have always found that there is the same difference between the saints and me as there is between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and a humble grain of sand trodden underfoot by passersby. Instead of being discouraged, I told myself: God would not make me wish for something impossible and so, in spite of my littleness, I can aim at being a saint. It is impossible for me to grow bigger, so I put up with myself as I am, with all my countless faults. But I will look for some means of going to heaven by a little way which is very short and very straight, a little way that is quite new[…] It is your arms, Jesus, which are the lift to carry me to heaven, And so there is no need for me to grow up. In fact, just the opposite: I must stay little and become less and less. (The Story of a Soul).
Therese found the little way of holiness by scattering the flowers of good deeds and sacrifices. For her everything was a grace and she used every opportunity that presented itself in her ordinary life to give back to Jesus the love He showered on her. She presented herself to Him as a trusting child. So well did she do this that the Sisters in her own Carmel wondered what the Prioress would say about her on her death since they felt she had done nothing.
Climb every mountain,
Search high and low,
Follow every highway,
Every path you know.
Thérèse did climb every mountain in her brief life; she considered the highways and paths that other great saints had taken and realized that in her weakness she needed a different route. So she searched high and low in Scripture to find a short cut to holiness and at last wrote:
We live in an age of inventions. We need no longer climb laboriously up flights of stairs; in well-to-do houses there are lifts. And I was determined to find a lift to carry me to Jesus, for I was far too small to climb the steep stairs of perfection. So I sought in Holy Scripture some idea of what this life I wanted would be, and I read these words: “Whosoever is a little one, come to me.” It is your arms, Jesus, that are the lift to carry me to heaven. And so there is no need for me to grow up: I must stay little and become less and less.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to spend the days of my retreat by the ocean. I would arise while it was still dark and make my way up upon the deck overlooking the ocean to enter into prayer. Being January it was freezing cold but it was a time of solitude and silence with only the sound of the waves breaking on the rocks below. As dawn began to creep up from the east, the colors of red, orange and yellow would begin to spill into the sky above creating a breathtaking panorama. As I marveled in the display before me I thought that there could never be another sunrise this striking. But the next day and the ones after it repeated the spectacle but never quite the same and every day seemed more beautiful than the previous one. Such an experience is a foretaste of what the Lord has in store for us at the end of life’s journey. We cannot begin to even imagine what this will be.
Mountain climbers who reach the summit of a peak or mountain must experience something like this. When they are at the base of a mountain looking up at the top, they have an experience of the mountain’s beauty, but when they actually arrive at the top and look around, the scenery spread before them is exhilarating and far beyond anything they could have imagined previously. All the trials, struggles, and difficulties of the climb are forgotten as they bask in the grandeur of what they now experience. They will go back down the mountain and when they look up again it will be with new eyes, for what they have witnessed will have changed their perspective. They may never be able to put into words what they have experienced but they will never view the mountain the same again.
Our two Saints may not have climbed a physical mountain but during their lifetime they scaled the spiritual mountain that would lead them to their goal. They too experienced the trials, struggles and difficulties that life put before them and along the journey glimpses and foretastes of the beauty that awaited them. They also were at a loss of words at times to express these encounters, but their resolve was strengthened to keep climbing, to persevere in reaching their goal.
When Thérèse had read in the words of St. Paul that charity is the excellent way that leads most surely to God, she recognized that she had found the key to her vocation. This perfection of charity could not wait for Thérèse until the end of the journey but because of her delirious joy was begun immediately. She had broken free and was coming into full blossom enjoying that lofty contemplative prayer that St. Teresa of Avila described in her Interior Castle.
Thérèse saw herself as Love in the Heart of the Church; Teresa founded her monasteries to be love within the Mystical Body of the Church. Two Saints, two Doctors, two ways, one goal. Both saints were rooted in the Gospel, both burned with divine Love.
Let us give thanks to God for their lives and turn to them in prayer to assist us on our journey as we strive to reach the perfection of charity!