Fatima Center Pilgrimage Highlights:
Saint Teresa of Avila
A summary of a lecture series given by Edwin Faust on the Carmelite Mystics
by John Vennari
The Fatima Center organized a Pilgrimage to Spain in late August 2005 to visit various Carmelite foundations of Saint Teresa of Avila. The Pilgrimage featured well-known Catholic writer, Edwin Faust, who has studied the Carmelite mystic for over twenty-five years. The lectures given by Mr. Faust are now available on audio cassette and CD (to order, click here).
These lectures, unlike anything produced before, follow the Pilgrimage to St. Teresa’s Convent of the Incarnation, and to her foundations at Avila, Medina del Campo, Alba de Tormes, Toledo and Segovia. The talks are recorded on location, sometimes on a moving bus, sometimes outside the convent, sometimes inside, other times walking through a convent museum. Mr. Faust is a superb storyteller, and brings St. Teresa and her world alive. We learn of her attempt at age 7 to run away from Avila with her brother Rodrigo to be martyred by the Moors. We sympathize with her adolescent vanities, which she regarded as great sins. We marvel at her years at the Incarnation Convent and of her foundations throughout Spain where she launched her historic Carmelite reform.
Though many Carmelites in St. Teresa’s day lived good and holy lives, there were others who had become lax and even a bit worldly. In some convents, nuns were allowed to come and go, have dinner with family and friends, bring news and gossip of the town back into the convent. Avila’s convent of the Incarnation, the Carmelite house Saint Teresa first joined, suffered from these abuses.
Teresa knew that she was called to a higher life. She also knew that Carmelite monastic life should be more disciplined, more silent, more centered on the crucified Christ without the attractions and distractions of the world. When she launched her reform, founding new convents to live the strict Carmelite rule in prayer and poverty, she encountered fierce opposition almost impossible to believe were her life not so well documented.
The stories of her foundations are battle sagas of the complacent against those seeking a more perfect life. Saint Teresa’s actions were interpreted by many people of her time as an indictment against Carmelite convents to which peasants and nobility sent their finest daughters. Town councils were called to prevent her foundations. Saint Teresa, accompanied by a priest and two nuns, had to sneak into town at midnight to establish their foundation at Medina del Campo, one of the most fascinating and entertaining stories of her reform.
She Shows Us Obstacles
in the Way of Our Perfection
But as interesting as her life is, her contribution to true Catholic mysticism and mystical prayer is of greatest value to us. Saint Teresa achieved an eminent degree of perfection and contemplation, and she teaches us how we may likewise accomplish it. Saint Teresa is thoroughly human, much like us in many ways. We learn of her faults, her pitfalls, and her ability, with the help of God’s grace, to rise above these imperfections to attain a high degree of spiritual life. She shows us all the obstacles we meet in the life of prayer and how to overcome them. Her words are always words of encouragement.
St. John of the Cross
We also meet along the way another Doctor of the Church central to the Carmelite reform, Saint John of the Cross. Outside of Saint Teresa, perhaps no one suffered more for the reform of the Carmelites than this exceptional religious.
Saint John of the Cross, in an effort to make him renounce the reform, was imprisoned by the lax Carmelites of his time and treated in an abominable fashion. He never broke, and wrote some of his most magnificent mystical poetry while being imprisoned, starved and beaten.
Saint John of the Cross continues to give invaluable lessons to us through his writings. He teaches that love creates a likeness between that which loves and that which is loved. In other words, if you want to know who you really are, ask yourself what you love. What does your mind constantly turn to? Where do your thoughts most easily rest? This self-awareness, which is essential to the spiritual life, can be disturbing when we find that what we most love is either not of God, or leading us away from God.
Saint Teresa helps us in similar manner. Her words teach us how to enter into meditation and contemplation. She stresses the need for the daily practice of mental prayer, which she says is simply a conversation with Christ. She knows the pitfalls and tricks of the devil, and teaches us what they are and how to overcome them.
Saint Teresa of Avila’s life is one of the most adventurous we will ever encounter, and learning of it from the animated lectures of Mr. Faust makes it even more enjoyable.
Mural in Convent of the Incarnation in Avila. Here Teresa, seven years old, persuaded her brother Rodrigo, eleven, to journey with her from Avila to Morocco, N. Africa so she could be martyred and go to Heaven for all eternity. She thought this was a good bargain.
“God Save Me From Long-faced Saints!”
It was Saint Teresa who said, “God save me from long-faced saints”, who insisted that those who are truly holy are also truly happy, and that melancholy and joyless rigor are not of Heaven. A melancholy postulant would be tossed out of St. Teresa’s convent in two days, as these souls do great damage to a religious house.
Saint Teresa’s life was one of constant miracles: visions, levitations, ecstasies, supernatural rescues from danger. One miracle follows upon the next in every aspect of her life, including her holy death, at which her nuns saw wondrous supernatural manifestations. One nun saw ten thousand martyrs at Saint Teresa’s deathbed waiting to escort her to Heaven.
Her life was also one of never-ending trials, from constant sickness, to ill-informed Papal Nuncios excoriating her, to diocesan councils condemning her foundations after the bishop had already given permission, to near-riots in the streets when she was made Prioress, to the flabbergasting story of the one-eyed Princess of Eboli.
And all throughout, there is the presence of Saint Joseph, to whom Saint Teresa had absolute trust and devotion. “I took for my advocate and lord”, says Saint Teresa, “the glorious Saint Joseph and commended myself earnestly to him ... I do not remember even now that I have ever asked anything of him which he has failed to grant.”
Saint Teresa held Saint Joseph as her special patron and as patron of the interior life. She constantly urged devotion to him. All but two of her convents were named after Saint Joseph, who, together with Our Blessed Mother, once appeared to her. “To other saints”, says St. Teresa, “the Lord seems to have given grace to succor us in some of our necessities but of this glorious saint [Joseph], my experience is that he succors us in them all and that the Lord wishes to teach us that as He was subject to him on earth, just so in Heaven He still does all he asks.”
Mr. Faust’s lectures will benefit those who have always been attracted to the Carmelite mystics. They will especially benefit those of us who in the past may not have been drawn to these great saints. There is probably no better and easier introduction to Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross than these talks given at the Spain foundations. The lectures also fill a void in many of our lives. Mr. Faust explains that he had never once, throughout twelve years of Catholic school and four years of Catholic college, heard a sermon from any pastor on the Carmelite mystics and their teachings. It seems there had been a reluctance to teach Catholics of this higher life of prayer to which we are all called. Even members of the laity are called to this life, though lay people, as Saint Teresa said, usually make spiritual progress at a hen’s pace. But a hen’s pace is better than standing still or going backwards.
Catholic Principles of Mysticism
A sound knowledge of the Catholic principles of mysticism such as taught by Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, would save countless Catholics from falling into false mysticism, from the emotionalism of the charismatics, from the errors of false visionaries, from the false mysticism of the New Age.
In fact, Mr. Faust explains that in his wandering years, after Modernist Jesuits at his college destroyed his Catholic Faith, he stumbled upon the writings of Saint John of the Cross in a New Age bookstore in Hollywood. At age 30, he had never been told of these before. And it was reading the works of Saint John of the Cross that freed him from certain New Age practices he himself had adopted.
Evidence of the reluctance of many in the Church to teach the principles of Catholic mysticism is found in the Introduction to The Selected Writings of St. Teresa of Avila, compiled by Msgr. William J. Doheny. Here, Msgr. Doheny observes, “There is a somewhat widespread impression that mystical books may turn the heads of certain persons of heated imaginations and suggest to them that God and the saints may come and converse with them and direct their conduct. It is recognized that my book [that is, the writings of Saint Teresa], far from presenting this danger, is a vigorous remedy against these flights ...”
Essential Teaching for Our Times
A familiarity with the teaching of the Carmelite Mystics is thus essential for all times, and especially our time. The Church Herself prays in the Mass of the Feast of Saint Teresa that “we may be nourished with the food of her heavenly doctrine.” It was Pope Leo XIII who said, “There is, in St. Teresa’s writing, a certain power that is more celestial than human, marvelously efficacious to reform of a life, so that they may truly be read with profit, not only by those engaged in the direction of souls, or who aspire to an eminent holiness of life, but also by everyone who thinks seriously of the duties and virtues of a Christian, that is to say, of the salvation of his soul.”
Mr. Faust’s final presentation in this 5-part collection introduces us to the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross. Here we learn of Saint Teresa’s Autobiography, Way of Perfection, and Interior Castles. We are introduced to Saint John of the Cross’ Ascent of Mount Carmel, Dark Night of the Soul, Spiritual Canticle (which he began while imprisoned) and Living Flame of Love.
At a time in Church history when we are bombarded with bad news about Church authorities and bad examples from Church prelates, when our modernist priests abandon us and our liberated nuns scandalize, it is heartening to take refuge in the life of Saint Teresa of Avila, who always encourages and edifies. Through Mr. Faust’s lectures we get to know her personally. She becomes our friend, ally and advocate. Once we welcome her into our world, our lives will never be the same, and we will be the better for it on earth and in eternity.