I almost could not look away from the decimated left arm of St. Teresa of Avila. Hovering above her elaborate coffin in a bent glass tube rests this saint’s arm. The heart that experienced the transverberation still bears the scar of that mystical event and is perched in its own crystal case opposite of the dismembered arm. Between these relics two white marble cherubim dance atop her ornate coffin.
I have prayed many times at the burial tombs of saints. Three times even at the incorrupt bodies of St. Vincent de Paul, St. Catherine Laboure, and even St. John the XXIII (before he was canonized). Relics and elaborate coffins and marble slabs marking the holy souls’ resting places are wonderful experiences for most Catholics.
I was ill prepared; however, for the sight of the shriveled brown heart and dismembered left arm of St. Teresa of Avila.
Yes, I know Catholics do strange things with first class relics (like put body parts on display in glass cases), but that wasn’t it. I felt a strange draw to St. Teresa having never really had a strong devotion to this saint. However, sometimes saints find you, not the other way around.
Recently, my husband and I took a long pilgrimage across the Iberian Peninsula. The trip was to honor the 100th anniversary of Fatima, our first stop on the journey. Alba de Tormes was one of our first stops. This is the final resting place of St. Teresa of Avila (as well as her place of birth). She died there during a visit, and her body (most of it) remained in that location. Avila has a finger of St. Teresa, but she is not buried in Avila.
St. Teresa’s corporal remains moved me to tears, and it was hard to leave her. I couldn’t figure out this reaction at first. I admired her whit and intellect. Her spiritual writings are almost incomparable, and her life was not without drama and hardship (Spanish Inquisition and all that), but none of that ever made me feel a strong connection to her, or even a particular interest. Teresa just didn’t feel very real to me, as if all her spiritual heavy lifting and suffering placed her in a category so far removed from my life experience that I could never relate to this medieval mystic. However, she was about to make her message known to me and my heart was ready to receive it.
Around this point in our pilgrimage, the topic of suffering and holiness was raised for discussion. One rather inquisitive pilgrim asked, “Do you have to suffer in order to become a saint [holiness]?” St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross were offered as excellent examples of suffering leading to holiness. Following a rather long dissertation by one of the priests on the bus ride across Spain, the answer was given, “Yes.”
Hold on a minute I thought! Some important clarification was needed! I could feel my fellow pilgrims shrink back into their seats thinking they would rather pass on all that suffering business (I’ll settle for just being a good person). I could see the calluses toughen over their hearts toward a god who demands suffering (not trusting that guy). Some no doubt got busy tallying the moments of suffering they could offer up to the angry accountant in the sky (did I hit my quota yet?). Somewhere between the heretical theology of faith alone/prosperity gospel (don’t bring any of the suffering business into my spirituality) and Pelagianism (have I earned my salvation yet?) a bit of clarification is warranted. Actually, three clarifications:
- Suffering may be necessary (as it is unavoidable), but it is not sufficient for holiness. As long as suffering includes experiences like hunger and boredom, I think it is safe to say that suffering is universally experienced. It is a bit ridiculous to say it is necessary if it is a basic truth of existence. Claiming it is sufficient for holiness is contrary to observations of human behavior. I think we all have that one friend in our minds right now who experienced the suffering of a great loss for example and the result has been bitterness and loss of faith. So, suffering is unavoidable, but not sufficient in itself to create holiness.
- Not everyone is called to “great” suffering. Although all are called to be holy and in this way saints, only certain “victim souls” are called to cooperate with God’s Will to offer themselves in martyrdom and other such substantial suffering. Thinking of saints like Maximilian Kolbe and St. John of the Cross we must recognize the special mission given to these men to suffer for the Kingdom. St. John the Evangelist was the only apostle not martyred. Was his call to holiness less important or valued than the others? If God calls me to suffer and sacrifice in the context of the vocation of marriage should I consider this less than the holiness achieved through great suffering like St. Teresa of Avila? Is it a competition? Is not pride a bit on display if I desire a suffering not willed by God? My particular path to holiness in God’s plan may be small and hidden. Should I not accept with praise and thanksgiving the little way God might want to perfect me, if He chooses that, and not great dramatic suffering for my life?
- Holiness can develop in the context of suffering, but because of an encounter with Christ and a falling ever deeper in love with Him. Often suffering can help us grow in virtue as suffering sometimes teaches us to behave in ways contrary to our nature (learning patience or controlling anger) due to negative consequences of our choices. However, if we stay on the surface level of suffering’s importance we don’t make much progress in the spiritual life. Like the woman at the well who had been ostracized by the community for being a fallen woman with five husbands (still didn’t change her behavior), she encounters Christ at the well (something that happened only in the context of her social rejection and isolation). Having now encountered Christ (and not because of her suffering social rejection), she abandons herself to His truth and runs to tell others. Suffering had been the context that readied this woman to receive Christ and abandon herself, but not the cause of her conversion. Is this not what love is? When we meet the object and source of love (God), we abandon ourselves. This is the catalyst for spiritual transformation, abandoning ourselves in the meeting of Love, which often happens in the context of suffering. No one is transformed by God without Love. Free will being what it is, we can always reject Love and that my friends is true suffering. No one who suffers without Love is ever improved by suffering or willingly cooperates with God’s plan for redemptive suffering. They may survive their suffering, but not grow and develop in holiness.
Now I return to St. Teresa of Avila. No, I was not drawn to her because of the drama or suffering in her life. I could not stand to leave her because my own heart, I believe, responded to the great love she had for God in her heart. What has been beautifully immortalized in the sculpture of Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (her transverberation) is a small snapshot of the experience of Love St. Teresa had. According to her description, before Teresa appeared an angel carrying a fire-tipped arrow or spear. The angel pierced her heart repeatedly and she was sent into a spiritual ecstasy. She wrote, “The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God.” – The Life of Saint Teresa, by herself.
Even in Bernini’s art, formed in rigid marble, she appears to fully abandon herself to this person of Love! She surrenders completely and falls back in ecstasy. In the end, I think a bit of the golden arrow touched my heart as well.
I’ll conclude with one of my favorite quotes on suffering from St. John Vianney, and I hope the heart and spirit of his words have been honored in my meandering thoughts:
“Once they’ve been transformed in the flames of love, crosses are like a bundle of hawthorn that you throw on the fire, and that the fire reduces to ashes. The hawthorn is thorny, but the ashes are soft. Hawthorn exudes balm and the cross exudes sweetness. But you’ve got to press the thorns in your hands and clasp the cross to your heart if you want them to distill the essence they contain.”