Life of St. Teresa - F. A. Forbes

The Great Mistake

"They who would follow Christ, if they do not wish to be lost, must walk in the way He walked Himself."

If Don Pedro was delighted to see his niece clothed in the religious habit, he was no less distressed at her condition. He surrounded her with every care during her short stay at Hortigosa, and the little book on prayer which he gave her as a parting gift soon became Teresa's chief treasure. The long hours of suffering and weakness, during which she could neither work nor read, she resolved to spend in a union with God which should be closer than ever. It was the only way, as she had learnt by experience, to be cheerful and patient when in continual pain. Now, with the help of her uncle's little book, she set to work to make prayer the chief occupation of her life. She used to try, she tells us, to imagine Jesus Christ her Lord present within her soul, and with a loving heart to follow Him through all the mysteries of His earthly life, praying the while that she might serve Him to the utmost of her power. Her father and sister, knowing that she now belonged to God and not to them, were careful not to disturb her; but if they were thoughtful of her, she too was thoughtful of them. When they were with her, no matter how much she might be suffering, she was always gay and merry, and the greatest treat for Maria's two little children was to be allowed to visit their aunt.

So the months wore on; but to Don Alonso's grief Teresa grew no better. The air of Castellanos, that was to work such marvels, seemed to have lost its magic. When the early spring arrived and it was time to set out for Bezedas, the journey had to be taken more slowly than ever, for Teresa was so weak that even the most careful movement brought on alarming fainting fits. The quack doctor from whose skill Don Alonso had hoped so much turned out to be an ignorant woman, whose violent remedies were utterly unsuited to anyone in Teresa's condition. Under her treatment the invalid lost the last remnants of strength that she possessed. Racked with pain from head to foot, burning with fever and wasted to a skeleton, she was brought back to Avila by her heart-broken father in a condition more dead than alive.

It was the Vigil of the Assumption, and Teresa wished to make her confession. Her eagerness, however, alarmed Don Alonso, who feared that it might be prompted by the thought that she was dying. In order, as he imagined, to reassure her and to convince her that there was no real danger, he refused to send for a priest. That very night Teresa became unconscious, and lay for four days in a trance. It was reported in the town that she was dead; her grave was dug at the Convent of the Incarnation, and two sisters were sent to watch by her coffin. Don Alonso alone refused to give up hope, even when the doctor despaired. Reproaching himself bitterly for his refusal to grant Teresa's last desire, he knelt night and day by her bedside, chafing her cold hands in his, and beseeching God that she might not die without the Sacraments, through his fault. His prayer was granted. On the fourth day Teresa opened her eyes, smiled at her father and her brothers, who were gathered round her bed, and repeated her request. This time the poor father did not hesitate; the priest was sent for at once.

Teresa made her confession and received her Lord with tears of joy, after which the cruel sufferings, for a moment interrupted, began again more violently than ever. For nearly seven months she lay in agony, expressing only one desire—to return to her convent. Don Alonso at last yielded to her wish, and she was transported with the greatest care to the Incarnation, an object of pity to all who beheld her. For eight months more she remained unable to move, at the end of which time, to her great joy, she was able to crawl about on her hands and knees.

During these weary days of suffering and helplessness, prayer was her one comfort and charity her only thought. It was said that in her presence the absent were always safe, for she would allow nothing to be said against them. Her cheerful patience astonished her sisters; they could not understand how it could endure amidst such sufferings; a talk with her was like a tonic for those who were in difficulties or sad at heart.

The doctors had decided that the paralysis was incurable; but to the young nun of twenty-four, who had already suffered so much and who lay looking forward to a life of helpless inaction, there came a great longing to work for our Lord as well as to suffer for Him. Earthly doctors had failed her; she would appeal to the heavenly. She had always had a great devotion to St. Joseph, and it was to him she now addressed herself. "To other Saints," she wrote in after life, "our Lord seems to have given grace to succour men in some special necessity, but to this glorious Saint, I know by experience, to help us in all. He helps in a special way those souls who commend themselves to him."

The answer to her prayer was a complete cure.

Teresa had asked for health that she might serve God better, and He had granted her request. The time had come to put into practice all that had been planned during the hours of prayer and suffering.

Looking back on the past in after years, Teresa declared that she had been wrong in thinking that she could serve God better in health than in sickness. "He knows what is for our good," she says, "and His Holy Will is best." For in spite of all her desires, sixteen years were to pass before, leaving the things of earth behind her, she was to reach those heights of holiness to which God had called her.

The Rule of the Order of Mount Carmel, drawn up by St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, on a foundation much older still, prescribed silence, solitude, prayer and perpetual abstinence. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, when the Great Schism had brought with it a relaxation of the religious Orders, men began to grow weary of austerity, and the Carmelites obtained from the Pope a mitigation or softening of their Rule. The severe fasts and abstinences were done away with, enclosure was given up, and the spirit of prayer that had been the characteristic of the Order rapidly declined.

The Convent of the Incarnation had been founded lately under the mitigated Rule; the nuns knew no other. They led good holy lives, but not very different from those which they might have led as good Catholics in the world. Visitors were allowed at all hours; the religious were permitted to leave the convent to stay with friends and relations; silence was not observed, abstinence not practised. The friends and families of the nuns availed themselves largely of their opportunities, and frequented the parlours and the garden of the convent.

Teresa, warm of heart and affectionate by nature, could not refuse to receive the many visitors who flocked to see her on her recovery, conscious though she was that such visits did not tend to a spirit of prayer and recollection. People declared that she did them good and helped them, which was undoubtedly true, for she had the gift of leading souls to God. Other nuns whose virtue she admired did the same thing, she argued to herself; it was the custom of the convent. But all souls are not called to the same perfection, and the results soon made themselves felt in Teresa's spiritual life. The prayer and union with God which she had practised in the infirmary began to be impossible under these new conditions, amid the distractions caused by these incessant visits. Teresa began to think that it would be better for her, imperfect as she was, to content herself with the vocal prayers prescribed by the Rule. Why should she aspire to a closer union with God than those amongst whom she lived?

Yet she could not be at rest, for the voice of God spoke continually in her soul, urging her to be faithful to her earlier aspirations. Although in the eyes of all a faithful and fervent religious, Teresa knew in her own heart how far she fell short of the perfection to which God was calling her. Neither was she without warning, for one day when talking with a friend, whose acquaintance she had lately made, she became suddenly aware of a horrible toad-like creature crawling rapidly towards her. On another occasion while she was with the same person, our Lord appeared to her, His sad and reproachful face haunting her for long days afterwards.

Don Alonso, who had taken to heart Teresa's instructions of earlier days, was advancing rapidly in the way of prayer and holiness. Smitten to the heart by the veneration with which he regarded her, Teresa told him that she no longer prayed as of old, but she did not disturb him in his belief that it was her health, which was still far from good, that prevented her. She little knew that the death of her beloved father was to be the beginning of her own new life. Suddenly struck down with a dangerous illness, he sent an imploring message to his best-beloved daughter to come to his bedside. Teresa, with the permission of her Superiors, hastened to give him the comfort he desired. Though in great pain, the holy old man thought only of his soul and of the life to come, and bore his sufferings with heroic patience.

The end was near, and it was at her father's deathbed that Teresa found courage for the light. She had been much struck by the fervour and piety of the Dominican friar who had assisted Don Alonso in his last hours, and determined to have recourse to lion for the needs of her own soul. He understood at once to what heights God had called her. In the first place, he told her, she must hold fast to mental prayer, and under no condition give it up.

Teresa obeyed; but it was hard to preserve the recollection necessary for that intimate union with God in the midst of the distractions to which the intercourse with her numerous friends exposed her. For years the conflict raged in her soul. She had not the strength to give up her friendships, although she felt that God desired it of her. The hours of prayer were hours of anguish, sometimes spent in a frenzied longing for the clock to strike, sometimes in tears and contrition at the thought of her own weakness. Teresa was nearly forty years old when the grace of God at last triumphed in her soul. One day at the end of Lent, on entering the chapel she caught sight of a statue that had just been placed there. It was her Lord that stood before her, covered with wounds and suffering the bitter pains of His Passion. A sudden understanding of what He had endured for her and her own ingratitude pierced Teresa's heart like a sword. Falling at His Feet, she besought Him with bitter tears that He would give her strength to do His Will. With the prayer came courage. The work that was to be so gloriously achieved was begun.