The particular characteristic of Saint Teresa as a guide of souls lies not so much in the fact that she teaches us the most profound truths of the spiritual life – this indeed she does – as in the fact that she illustrated them in practice in her own life, and recorded that life in a setting of the simplest character, and in words easily understood by all. The Autobiography is the spiritual life personified. We will now consider how her teaching as to the place that suffering holds in the Little Way of Spiritual Childhood finds expression in the story of her life.
From the very first, Saint Teresa’s life was one of suffering. “As I was to be the spouse of Our Lord at so tender an age, it was necessary that I should suffer from childhood.” Suffering first came to little Teresa with the loss of her mother when she was only four and a half years old. “With my mother’s death,” she writes, “began the second period of my life, the most sorrowful of all, especially after you, my little Mother, had entered Carmel.” The death of her mother was a shattering blow. Teresa lost much of her gaiety, was driven in upon herself, and became sensitive and silent. Less than four years later, before she had been able to recover from that blow, she saw Pauline, who had taken her mother’s place, leave home herself to enter Carmel. “In a flash,” she says, “I beheld life as it really is, full of suffering and constant partings, and I shed most bitter tears. At that time the joy of sacrifice was still unknown to me.” At first, then, suffering seems to have been to Saint Teresa just suffering, stark and naked, as indeed it so often appears to most of us; but, three years later, soon after her First Communion, it was very different. “Once in preparing me for my Communion my sister Marie spoke of suffering, and said that in all probability, instead of making me walk by that road, God, in His goodness, would carry me always like a little child. The following day, after Communion, these words came back to me, bringing with them an ardent desire for suffering, as well as a conviction that I should have many a cross to bear. Then a wave of consolation swept over my soul. Suffering became my treasure; I found in it charms that held me spellbound, though as yet I did not appreciate it to the full.” Her conviction was prophetic. Almighty God, just because he was her Father and she so truly his little child, was indeed going to carry her in his arms, not away from suffering but into it and through it, right to her home in heaven. When she was still only a girl of fifteen Teresa entered Carmel. In the description of her entry we see how this mysterious blend of peace and joy with great suffering, had become still more firmly established. She describes with what suffering she said good-bye to her father and sisters, and how the door closed upon her. Then she continues: “My desire was now accomplished, and my soul was filled with so deep a peace that it baffles all attempt at description. This peace has been my portion during tile eight and a half years of my life within these walls, never forsaking me even amid the hardest trials... Suffering opened wide her arms to me from the very first, and I took her fondly to my heart... Unknown to anyone this was the path I trod for fully five years.”
At this point we inevitably ask ourselves what it was that enabled Saint Teresa, at the age of fifteen, to realise completely how precious suffering is, and thus to grasp the central secret of sanctity, which we, so much older, find so very hard to learn. The answer lies in her vivid sense of the eternal. She saw everything sub specie aeternitatis. Usually that consciousness of the eternal is made real to us only through the inadequacy of this world of time, brought home to us through sickness, failure, or the loss of someone we love. Saint Teresa’s sense of the eternal, and of the consequent transitoriness of this life, was with her from the very first in a quite extraordinary degree. With the death of her mother this world became less than ever her home: this world with its sorrows and its joys was but a broken fleeting thing which had no meaning apart from heaven.
Suffering and sadness have now entered into the life of little Teresa, and although, as we have seen, she suffered intensely, and temporarily lost much of that gaiety which later she was completely to regain, yet, deep down in her soul, suffering is doing its appointed work by turning her thoughts more than ever from earth to heaven, and by developing her soul in prayer.
Henceforth suffering becomes for her inseparable from its background of heaven and the love of her Father who is in heaven. Almighty God’s eternal plan of restoring his children to himself through suffering is beginning to be realised in Teresa at the age of seven. That understanding develops from then onwards with amazing rapidity. At the age of thirteen she left school, and, only three years later, while still a novice in Carmel, she writes, in a letter to her sister Celine, words which, in view of her sixteen years, must surely rank among the most remarkable in the history of the Saints: “I find only one joy, that of suffering, and this joy, which is not a pleasure of the senses, is above all joy. Life is passing and eternity drawing nearer. Soon we shall live the very life of God.” Looking at life from the standpoint of eternity, she was not overwhelmed by this world’s sufferings, she did not see them merely as happenings in time –disjointed, jarring, apparently purposeless, and therefore often almost more than she could bear – but as the greatest possible treasure, to be accepted with joy as being the means specially chosen by Almighty God whereby his children should be made perfect in love, reunited to their Father in their home in heaven, and, in the Saint’s own words, “live the very life of God”.
Let us not imagine for a moment that those words were the ecstatic utterance of a novice in her first fervour; on the contrary, they were written in the midst of the most acute sorrow. Teresa’s father was seized with a paralysis which gradually deprived him of all his faculties, including his reason. She loved her father more than anyone else in the world, and this suffering cost her, many tears, for it penetrated her sensitive nature to its very depths. Never for a moment, however, did she lose her inmost peace, or feel herself abandoned by her heavenly Father; on the contrary, it was to her the mark of God’s special love for her. “I cannot fathom the infinite love which has led Our Lord to treat us in this way. Our dear Father must indeed be loved by God to have so much suffering given to him.” All is seen in the light of eternity.
Suffering, then, is the supreme expression of her heavenly Father’s love for her, because it is his chosen means of making her one with him in supernatural love. The loving acceptance of suffering, therefore, and a joyous surrender to it because through it her heavenly Father works out his designs for her soul – this with inexorable logic becomes in turn the supreme expression of her love for him. She will offer herself to be the joyous victim of his Merciful Love.
“Crushed by a heavy load of suffering
As grapes are crushed ere they turned to wine,
Let me thus prove my love. Let this one thing,
The joy of daily sacrifice, be mine.”
In suffering she found the means of “loving Jesus even unto folly” as he had loved her, of satisfying her insatiable longing “to die the death of love” as Jesus had died for her upon the Cross.
Further, since suffering is the chosen means of union with God, it is for Teresa the beginning of glory here and now. Suffering was the condition of Our Blessed Lord’s glory. “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things and so to enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26) So it shall be with her: her sufferings are, to her, the beginning of that eternal glory which the Father had ordained for her through the sufferings of his most beloved Son, and for which she had been predestined before ever the world was made. “Time is but a shadow, a dream. Already God sees us in glory, He rejoices in our eternal happiness... How this thought sustains my soul. I understand then why He lets us suffer.”
It is important that we should pause here for a moment, for there will be some who feel that all this is beyond them; the very language is becoming too much like that of the great mystics. Clearly Saint Teresa was given a very special grace not granted to us. We can indeed trace the lines upon which her soul developed in its realisation of the role of suffering, and we can admire their beauty, but for us it remains but a vision, an ideal. We are conscious of a growing gulf between us and the Saint: we can see no point of contact whereby we can put this into practice. How, we ask ourselves, can all this be expressed in our everyday life?
It is true that Saint Teresa had a very special grace, apt for her very special vocation, but the vital point lies not in the fact of that grace but in the fact of her cooperation with it, and that co-operation was fulfilled through the medium of the ordinary sufferings of life. There is our point of contact. It lies in the last two words of the poem we have quoted above – “chaque jour”. Everyday life with its sufferings – her mother’s death, the separation from her sisters as, one after the other, they entered Carmel, her father’s tragic illness, misunderstandings and sufferings of every kind in the daily routine of her convent life – those were the medium through which she co-operated with the grace of her vocation.
Further, the power which enabled her thus to cooperate was that gift of supernatural grace which is common to us all, which the Church plants in our soul at Baptism, and by which we become the children of God, sharing his very life. In other words, it was the grace of Spiritual Childhood – and here again we are on common ground with her. We are all children of God, and heaven, not this world, is our home: we are all immortal souls destined for a supernatural end. Moreover, since these immortal souls of ours are enshrined in finite human bodies, therefore every detail of our human life within us, and all our contacts with people and things around us, are charged with the supernatural, and are related to our last end, as the means by which We are to be made perfect in supernatural love, and so prepared for our home in heaven. As a result of the Fall, this restoration to union with God through supernatural love, this loving obedience to the will of God – for obedience is ever the core of love – has to be wrought out in a human nature prone to disobedience, and in a world alienated from God. It follows, then, chat this work of restoration can be accomplished only by suffering; only with pain can the will learn to go the way of God’s will and not the way of its own all but mastering inclination.
It was so with Our Lord. “Whereas indeed he was the Son of God, he learned obedience by the things which he suffered. And being consummated, he became, to all that obey him, the cause of eternal salvation.” (Hebrews 5:8-9) Again, “It became him for whom are all things, who had brought many children into glory, to perfect the author of their salvation, by his passion.” (Hebrews 2:10) As it was with the Author of their salvation, so it must be with each of the children thus brought to glory: as it was with the Head of the Mystical Body, so must it be with every individual member of that Body. It is by the loving acceptance of the sufferings that come to us in our daily life, and by the joyful uniting of them with those of Our Blessed Lord upon the Cross, it is by that alone that we are made one with Almighty God, and by that alone is Almighty God’s work of supernatural love perfected in our souls. There is no other way: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
To offer ourselves as victims of the Merciful Love as it purifies our soul through suffering, that is our daily vocation: to die the death of love with Jesus on the Cross, to that we are pledged. There is nothing new or extreme here. It is merely that the clarity, the simplicity, the directness of Saint Teresa’s language lights up our ordinary vocation afresh, and we, who thought we saw, find that we have never really seen, and are embarrassed.
Thus far we have been considering Saint Teresa as she met with the sufferings of everyday life coming to her in her home, at her school, and during her first years in Carmel. All the writings and all the incidents so far noted, incredible though it may seem, come from her life before she was seventeen. For the next five years she continued thus, but it is the last eighteen months of her life that are about to claim our attention. We are now to follow her along that path of special suffering by which Almighty God took her to himself by the way of the Gross, and perfected in her that act of love which she so desired to offer him. We shall see how, safe in her Father’s arms, she moves serenely along the road of physical pain and spiritual desolation, and how at last, through death, she enters into life. The first warning came in the early morning of Good Friday, April 3rd, 1896. She tells the story with characteristic simplicity:
“In the early hours of Good Friday – how precious the memory of it is to me! – Jesus gave me the hope that I should soon join Him in His beautiful heaven. Not having obtained permission to watch at the Altar of Repose throughout Thursday night, I returned to our cell at midnight. Scarcely had I laid my head on the pillow when I felt a hot stream rise to my lips, and thinking I was going to die, my heart was overwhelmed with joy. I had already put out our lamp, so I mortified my curiosity till morning and went peacefully to sleep. At five o’clock, the time for rising, I remembered immediately that I had some good news to learn, and going to the window I found, as I had expected, that our handkerchief was saturated with blood. What hope filled my heart! I was firmly convinced that on the anniversary of His death my Beloved had allowed me to hear His first call, like a sweet distant murmur heralding His approach... On this Good Friday I shared in all the austerities of Carmel without any relaxation. Never had they seemed so consoling, the hope of soon entering heaven filled me with joy. When I returned to our cell in the evening of that happy day, I was still full of joy and I was quietly falling asleep when, as on the previous night, Jesus gave me the same sign of my speedy entrance into eternal life. My faith at this time was so clear and so lively that the thought of heaven was my greatest delight... But during the Paschal days, that time so full of light, Our Lord allowed my soul to be plunged in thickest gloom, and the thought of heaven, so sweet from my earliest years, to become for me a subject of torture. Nor did the trial last merely for days or weeks: months have passed in this agony and I still await relief. I wish I could explain what I feel, but it is beyond my power. One must have passed through the tunnel to understand how black is its darkness; the fog that surrounds me finds its way into my very soul, and so blinds me that I can no longer see there the lovely picture of my promised home... It has all faded away! When my heart, weary of the enveloping darkness, tries to find some rest and strength in the thought of a life to come, my anguish only increases. It seems to me that the darkness itself, borrowing the voice of the unbeliever, cries mockingly: ‘You dream of a land of light and fragrance, you believe that the Creator of these wonders will be for ever yours, you think one day to escape from the mists in which you now languish. Hope on! Hope on! Look forward to death! It will give you, not what you hope for, but a night darker still, the night of utter nothingness!’ This description of what I suffer, dear Mother, is as far removed from reality as the painter’s rough outline is from the model he copies, but to write more might be to blaspheme... even now I may have said too much. May God forgive me! He knows how I try to live by faith, even though it affords me no consolation. I have made more acts of faith during the past year than in all the rest of my life... Sometimes, I confess, a feeble ray of sunshine penetrates my dark night and brings me a moment’s relief, but after it has gone, the remembrance of it, instead of consoling me, makes the blackness seem deeper still. And yet I have never experienced more fully the sweetness and mercy of Our Lord. He did not send this heavy cross when it would, I believe, have discouraged me, but chose a time when I was able to bear it. Now it does no more than deprive me of all natural satisfaction in my longing for heaven.”
This passage has been quoted in full because the Saint’s own words speak more directly to us than any commentary upon them could ever do. They show us a childlike triumph of love and faith in the midst of great suffering of both body and soul. To Saint Teresa the first haemorrhage is a message from the Father calling his child to himself.
Saint Teresa’s sickness made rapid progress, developing into intestinal consumption of a very painful nature. Wasted with fever as she was, and in continual darkness, the certainty that her Father’s love was always enveloping her, and that the divine will was tenderly working out its purpose in her, never left her. We find a quiet conviction in the reply she made on one occasion to Mother Agnes, who had remarked on the severity of her sufferings. “No,” she said, “they are not terrible. How can a victim of love find anything terrible that is sent her by her Spouse? At each moment sends me what I am able to bear – nothing more – and if He increases the pain, He increases also my strength to bear it.” Then she added: “But I could never ask for greater sufferings – I am too little a soul; besides, being of my own choice, they would have to be borne by myself, and I have never been able to do anything when left to myself.”
If suffering could not cloud the certainty of her Father’s love for her, still less did it quench her love for him; it did but serve to deepen and refine it. “Is it hard to suffer much?” she was asked. “No,” she replied, “I am still able to tell God that I love Him and that is enough.” Later on she was at times unable even to do that. The infirmarian found her late one night with her hands joined and her eyes raised to heaven. “What are you doing?” she asked. “You ought to go to sleep.” “I cannot, Sister,” was the reply. “I am suffering too much, so I pray.” “What do you say to Jesus?” “I say nothing; I just love Him.” At the last, unable to formulate any prayer at all, she says: “What is my spiritual life in sickness, you ask me. It is to suffer, and that is all.” Saint Teresa takes the only thing remaining, her suffering, and instead of saying that all spiritual life was made impossible by pain, she offers her pain to her Father in heaven as the greatest proof, the perfect expression of her love for him.
On the eve of his Passion Our Blessed Lord prayed that in the midst of their earthly sufferings his disciples should possess a joy and peace, supernatural, not of this world, which the world could neither give nor take away. It certainly was so with Saint Teresa. The doctor, after one of his visits, said to the Mother Prioress: “If you but knew what she is suffering! Never have I seen such suffering borne with such supernatural joy.” As we have already noted, she writes to her sister Celine: “I find only one joy, that of suffering, and this joy, which is not a pleasure of the senses, is above all joy.” Speaking of her great trial of faith, she says: “Notwithstanding this trial which deprives me of all feeling of joy, I can still say: ‘Thou hast given me, O Lord, a delight in thy doings’, for is there a greater joy than to suffer for Thy Love?” Again, “Aridity increased, from neither heaven nor earth did I receive any consolation and yet in the midst of the waters of tribulation, I was the happiest of beings.”
Along with that supernatural joy went an equally supernatural peace, a peace which suffering, physical or spiritual, was utterly unable to touch. “Why are you so sad today, Mother?” she asked her sister who was praying by her sick-bed. “Because you suffer so much,” replied Mother Agnes. “Yes,” said Saint Teresa, “but what peace as well! What peace!” In the midst of her spiritual desolation, and ceaselessly assailed by temptations against faith, that peace prevailed. “My soul, notwithstanding the darkness, enjoys a most astonishing peace.” It was indeed “the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), given by Our Blessed Lord specially to those whom he draws closest to him through suffering – “peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:20) “The death of love that I desire is that of Jesus on the cross.” That desire, so long cherished by Saint Teresa, is now to become an accomplished fact, but to die thus did not mean to her to die in ecstasy. She is at pains to explain this to her sisters: “Do not be troubled if I suffer much and if you see in me, as I have already told you, no sign of happiness at the moment of my death... Our Lord died a Victim of love indeed, and you know well how great was His agony.” And again: “Our Lord died on the cross in the midst of anguish, yet there, nevertheless, was the most glorious death of love that has ever been seen! To die of love is not to die in transports... I tell you quite frankly that such, it seems to me, will be my experience.”
At the last, Saint Teresa’s sufferings were intense. She became so weak that she could no longer make the slightest movement without help, the faintest sound in the sick-room was a source of acute distress, and she could get her breath only in gasps. Early in the morning of September 29th, a rattle in the throat seemed to announce the end, but she lingered on during another night, the night of her deepest suffering and darkness. In the morning, casting a glance at the statue of the Blessed Virgin which was facing her bed, she said: “Oh, with what fervour I have prayed to her, but it was pure agony without any consolation. Earth’s air is failing me, when shall I breathe the air of heaven?” All day the fever consumed her. “Ah,” she said, “if this is the agony, what then is death?” Then, addressing the Prioress: “O Mother, I assure you that the chalice is full to the brim. My God, Thou art so good.” Then, in tones of deep conviction: “All that I have written of my desire for suffering is really true. I do not repent of having surrendered myself to love.” A little later she was heard to murmur: “I would never have believed it was possible to suffer so much, never! Never! I can only explain it by my intense desire to save souls.”
At five o’clock Mother Agnes, who was alone with her, noticed a change. This time it was indeed the death agony. A hurried summons of the bell called the Community to the infirmary. For two hours the struggle continued, but towards seven o’clock, as the sufferer appeared to grow no worse, the Mother Prioress dismissed the Community. Looking towards her, Saint Teresa murmured: “Has the agony not come yet, Mother? Am I not going to die?” “Yes, my child, this is the agony, but God wishes perhaps to prolong it a few hours.” “Very well then,” she whispered, “let it be so. Oh, I would not wish to suffer less!” Then fixing her eyes on the crucifix she held in her hands, she murmured: “Oh, I love Him... My God, I... love... Thee.” Those were her last words – an act of supernatural love, made utterly in the dark. Then suddenly, she, who for so long had been unable to move without the help of others, raised herself up and, opening her eyes, which shone with a joy which her sisters say no human words can describe, she fixed her gaze just above the statue of Our Lady. Remaining thus for the space of a Credo, she then surrendered her soul into her heavenly Father’s arms, to the last his little child, the little victim of his Merciful Love.
Thus we see how faithfully Saint Teresa, in her Little Way, followed in the footsteps of Our Blessed Lord. Seeing everything sub specie aeternitatis, she, from her earliest days, knew that she came from God and went to God, that God was her Father and she his child, that heaven, not earth, was her home, yet that all that came to her in her life on earth lay within his infinite love, and was ordered by his eternal will. So when suffering came, seeing it in that eternal setting, she was not dismayed nor did she regard herself as abandoned by her Father’s love. So, as she goes to meet the suffering of her everyday life, a calm rhythm possesses her in all her ways. Suffering, so far from disposing her soul to despondency or despair, is seen to be the central secret of the spiritual life, the divine means of union between her soul and God, bringing forth in its womb the first three fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace.
Just as Our Blessed Lord was conscious that he had a baptism wherewith he was to be baptised, and was straitened till it was accomplished, so too have we seen Teresa pressing forward along the path of suffering till she dies a death of love like that of Jesus on the Cross. We have seen how tenderly her Father’s love led her along the path of spiritual childhood to that long-desired consummation. Never was she more securely in her Father’s arms than when, in utter darkness, she made her last act of supernatural love. But that is not the end. “I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God.” (John 20:17) In these words of Our Risen Lord the fullness of God’s plan through suffering is revealed; and Christ crucified, so baffling to merely human wisdom, is indeed seen to be both “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:24)
Similarly, by the rapid ascent of Teresa into heaven, and by the supernatural power and glory with which he has endowed her, God has given us in our own time a further and most vivid vindication of the fact that all the sufferings of this life lie within the hollow of his hand, and that “to them that love God all things work together unto good.” (Romans 8:28) Saint Teresa has been given directly to us in our own day to lift our vision beyond this world, and enable us to see our present sufferings in the light of the glory that is to come. “For which cause we faint not... For that which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation worketh for us above measure exceedingly, an eternal weight of glory. While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal: but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)