Lent with the Saints

We’re already midway through lent, a time to rejoice at being given yet another opportunity to reflect and meditate with Christ Jesus the direction our life is taking; a time of healing, blessings and purification; a time for the soul to be nourished in various ways – through our cenacolo retreats, Lenten sermons, the daily readings at mass – all helping us to recognize how we’ve sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and reminding us that we can re-embrace God’s mercy and forgiveness. As St Teresa of Avila put it

Let them trust in the mercy of God and not at all in themselves, and they will see how His Majesty brings them from the dwelling places of one stage to those of another…and they shall enjoy many more blessings than one can desire – blessings even in this life, I mean.” (The Interior Castle)

The following is an excerpt from Ralph Martin’s “The Fulfillment of All Desire”, a book Andrew had quoted in his talks in our Lenten retreat in 2010. This book is a perfect accompaniment not just at the time of lent, but at any stage in one’s quest for spiritual progress. It brings together, in a language that is easily understood by the non-scholarly, writings from seven Doctors of the Church – St Augustine, St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Catherine of Siena, St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, St Francis of Assisi and St Thérèse of Lisieux. It is written in a way that penetrates the soul that seeks to be guided on the journey to eternity.

Here I have chosen to focus on just 3 points St Teresa of Avila mentions, points that are fitting to meditate on at this time of lent. May they fill us with hope as they inspire us to seek to grow in holiness on this pilgrimage towards our heavenly destination.

“Sometimes people who are baptized as infants simply grow up in an atmosphere of faith, gradually maturing into a life of deep holiness and mission. On the other hand, there are others who, while they may be living some measure of Catholic life, often do so with lukewarmness or significant compromise.

We know that lukewarmness is not a state pleasing to the Lord (Rev 3:15-16). People seem to be stuck “serving two masters” or simply blind or unaware of what the call to holiness really involves, and don’t make much progress on the spiritual journey. The Lord often gives grace to people in this situation to awaken them to a fervent Christian life.

Teresa of Avila testifies that she was among the lukewarm whom the Lord needed to awaken. After a few years as a Carmelite nun, she settled into a routine that contained within it many compromises with worldliness and vanity, which blocked further progress. It was after a number of years that she was reawakened again to a fervent life and began to make progress on the journey by focusing single-heartedly on loving and serving the Lord. As a result, she experienced the grace of deeper conversion.

Beginnings and rebeginnings are important in the spiritual life. Lessons are learnt about sin and grace, about our efforts and God’s mercy, that are valuable not just at the beginning but all along the way to full union, in order to continue to shape and mold the soul.

What blocked Teresa’s Progress?

In her writings, Her Life, Teresa identifies a number of things that blocked her progress.

1. Carelessness about Sin

As for venial sins, I paid little attention; and that is what destroyed me.

She points out that this was partly the case because of “liberal and permissive” advice given to her by priests.

What was venial sin they said was no sin at all, and what was serious mortal sin they said was venial…I went on in this blindness until a Dominican Father enlightened me about many things.

Yet, at the same time, Teresa acknowledges that she probably should have known instinctively what was really right and wrong. There is an inclination in all of us to look for advice that will let us follow our selfish desires.

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths (2Tim 4:3-4).

Making a decision never to freely choose to commit even a small sin is an important point in the spiritual journey. As Teresa points out, freely choosing to commit a “small” sin isn’t really a little thing if we are trying to live a life pleasing to God.

2. Not avoiding occasions of Sin

One of the most common reasons why people fail to make progress in the spiritual journey, frequently falling back into the same sins is a lack of wisdom about avoiding those occasions that usually contribute to our sinning. This was true of Teresa who alludes to some problems to which she was vulnerable when engaged in conversations with certain persons. Not avoiding people, places and situations associated with sinning may in turn weaken our resolve to avoid sin, and is a reason why many people don’t make progress in the spiritual life. We need to ask God for the wisdom to identify those situations that weaken our resolve to resist sins and avoid them as much as possible.

3. Self-reliance

This self-reliance was what destroyed me.

One of the most common reasons why people begin the spiritual journey but then turn back is because they find themselves failing, wearing out, or getting tired and discouraged as a result of relying on their own strength rather than on the Lord. Teresa has some advice about what to do about it.

Don’t think that through your own strength or efforts you can arrive, for reaching this stage is beyond your power; if you try to reach it, the devotion you will have will grow cold. But with simplicity and humility, which will achieve everything, say: fiat voluntas tua (your will be done).”