Holy Week: Christian life in miniature

“Forever and ever and ever,” St. Teresa of Avila and her brother used to repeat to each other when they were little. For them, the saying was a reminder that the joys of heaven last forever, but the joys of earth are fleeting.

This week we celebrate two important moments in history—the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Teresa of Avila and the beginning of Holy Week 2015. As I look ahead at the events that marked Christ’s path to Calvary and remember the story of St. Teresa of Avila, I am struck by how they mirror the path of conversion that each of us is called to walk.

St. Teresa of Avila was born Teresa de Ahumada on March 28, 1515 in Avila, Spain. The fifth of 12 children, she displayed a strong faith in her early childhood, even plotting with her brother to find a way to become martyrs.

Palm Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, reminds me of this kind of faith. When Christ first enters into our lives, forgives us of our sins, and claims us as his own, we welcome him with joy. We respond with childlike faith similar to St. Teresa’s and sing God’s praises. And each time our hearts undergo conversion, we are called back to that kind of love and devotion.

But life is not always easy. When Teresa was 13 years old her mother died, dealing a blow to her faith. Her worried father intervened and sent her to a convent school run by the Augustinians, where a kind nun befriended her and helped her return to a deeper faith. The pivotal moment for St. Teresa came when she was reading the “Letters of Saint Jerome,” which convinced her to stop resisting the calling she heard to be a nun. At the age of 20, she entered the Carmelite order and two years later made her perpetual vows.

Like St. Teresa of Avila, we might also stray from the path leading to the Father, but for these times he gives us himself in the Eucharist and forgives us in reconciliation. He accompanies us in our every-day life with grace and mercy. On Holy Thursday, we participate in this reality when we celebrate the institution of the holy Eucharist.

Because of our fallen nature, Good Friday comes to us all. Soon after she professed her vows, St. Teresa became sick with a fever and had fainting episodes. The doctors couldn’t determine the cause or find a cure. In a last ditch effort, her father sent her to an herbalist, but this intervention made things drastically worse, putting St. Teresa in a coma for four days. When she emerged from the coma, St. Teresa was paralyzed. She didn’t regain full mobility for almost three years, and from that point on her health was poor. This was her Good Friday.

When we suffer and unite our sufferings to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross we experience it too. In these trials, we can be purified and our love can grow. Father Kieran Kavanaugh observed in “Teresa of Avila: The Way of Prayer” that “one of the amazing features of her life was her ability to rise above her illnesses and carry out her many and complicated affairs with exceptional diligence and enthusiasm.” She was driven by her love for Christ, just as Jesus’ love for us compelled him to embrace the cross.

Those of you familiar with St. Teresa will realize that I haven’t mentioned the two things she is most known for: her spiritual writings about prayer and the numerous Carmelite monasteries she founded.

During her religious life there were many “Holy Saturdays”—times when God seemed silent. At one point, she was caught in the middle of a power struggle between the King of Spain and the superior of the Carmelite order. For a time, St. Teresa’s superior required her to leave the communities she had founded and return to the convent where she first became a nun. On the spiritual front, she also experienced periods when God seemed absent. As we mature spiritually, there are always “Holy Saturdays,” periods when God seems far away.

St. Teresa of Avila’s most famous work, “The Interior Castle,” presents us with the path to Easter Sunday that she experienced in her prayer life. Within the interior castle there are seven spiritual dwelling places, and in the final one, the soul experiences the intimate communion of the Holy Trinity. This communion of life and love is the seat of the power that raised Jesus from the dead.

In our Christian walk, each of us is destined for eternity; we are made to live “forever and ever and ever” in communion with God. As you move through Holy Week, I encourage you to reflect on where you are on the lifelong path of conversion and turn to God for the grace to seek him more fervently and grow in intimacy with his son.

COMING UP: Mother Mary: Modeling joy even in suffering

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Where would we be without our mothers? We wouldn’t be! Father Gregory Cleveland, OMV, shares a beautiful quote from Cardinal Mindszenty on the importance of motherhood: “The most important person on earth is a mother. She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral. She need not. She has built something more magnificent than any cathedral—a dwelling for an immortal soul, the tiny perfection of her baby’s body. . . . Mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creature: God joins force with mothers in performing this act of creation (Beholding Beauty, Pauline Books & Media, 2020, 106).  

The same principle applies in the spiritual life. Mary cooperated with God in such a unique way that without her we simply wouldn’t be the spiritual sons and daughters of the Father that he wants us to be. The Creator came into the world through her, enabling all of us to be reborn. On the Cross, Jesus gave everything to us, including his mother: “Behold your mother” (John 19:27). She cares for us as her son’s own beloved disciple, extending to us her motherly love, and showing us the true model of Christian love. As we show our appreciation to our own mothers this Mother’s Day, Mary models for us the joys of motherhood that endure even the most difficult moments.  

Father Cleveland, the director of the Lanteri Center for Ignatian Spirituality in Denver, helps us to reflect on Mary’s essential role as mother and model in his book Beholding Beauty: Mary and the Song of Songs. The book uses passages from the Old Testament poem, the Song of Songs, as a springboard to come to know Mary as in her deep love for God. The biblical book speaks of the love of Solomon and his beloved, referring allegorically to God’s love for his people. Rather than offering a Bible study, Cleveland connects the Song to the New Testament, offering a portrait of Mary as God’s beloved and how we can come closer to Jesus through her, imitating her spousal love of God. Each chapter offers practical examples and questions for reflection, making the book ideal for daily meditation.  

The book explains the unique privileges of Mary, while using them to invite us to share in them as well: “No human being ever received God’s love and grace as fully as did Mary, to the point of God becoming man in her. She conceived Christ in her heart and then in the womb. Mary, as spouse of the Holy Spirit, shows us our capacity to receive God and be entirely possessed by him. In receiving Christ, she was also empowered to completely give herself to him, spirit, soul, and body, in love as his mother. She became his partner in the work of salvation and was exalted to reign with him as Queen of heaven and earth” (2). Mary models the life of the disciple in giving oneself completely to God so that he becomes fully present in our lives and through us to others.  

Mary’s vocation of motherhood leads directly to her queenship in drawing others closer to her Son. Her motherhood is founded in her fiat, her “yes” to the will of God at the Annunciation. In her role as Queen Mother, she asks us to imitate her obedience when she says at the Wedding of Cana, “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Fathe Cleveland explains the need for a daily obedience that will inconvenience us and even interrupt our lives: “Mary invites us to do whatever Jesus tells us. When we come to serve the Lord, we first listen to what Jesus is asking of us. . . . As servants of Christ and others, we are willing to be available and inconvenienced in offering people our practical and substantial help. We allow ourselves to be interrupted by people crossing our paths and overturning our plans with their claims and petitions” (153). Mothers know better than anyone else that love requires this willingness to stop everything to attend to others’ needs.  

Even after much sacrifice, however, we know that so often things do not turn out as we expect. Mary models the necessity of suffering in giving our lives to Christ and sacrificially loving others: “Just as Christ gave the blood of his heart to the last drop, so Mary completely gave of her heart, broken in compassion. Mary’s yes to God, her vocation to motherhood, her purpose in life, all seemed to be extinguished. She would naturally have cause for the deepest possible despair, and yet she was given supernatural hope. She abandoned herself to the Father’s will and trusted his plan. Her fiat was then realized in a completely new way and offered with Christ in those ignoble circumstances. We too are called to co-offer Christ’s sacrifice” (138). Mary’s suffering shows the full extent of her motherhood — not just bringing life forth but offering it to God. Giving birth is painful and the bringing forth of spiritual life, likewise, requires sacrifice. The Song of Songs shows how greatly God desires us and calls us to put him first, sacrificing other things to focus on him above all else. God asks us to trust in him even when things do not make sense or when we’ve been hurt by those we love.  

Overall, Beholding Beauty invites us to focus on the eternal a wedding feast of the lamb, to which God is calling us, a perfect union that Mary already models for us. Father Cleveland explains how Mary’s relationship with God serves as both a model and invitation for us: “Our encounter with Mary will always lead us to Jesus. She is one with Jesus in the desires of his heart. Her only desire is that we share the same life of heavenly beatitude that she enjoys. Mary is the queenly maiden of the Song of Songs .  . . We entrust our lives to her as our exceedingly beautiful queen, knowing that she will guide us to Christ our King” (229). In giving herself completely to God and loving him completely, Mary could serve as God’s mother and our spiritual mother as well. 

This Mother’s Day, let’s be grateful for our earthly mothers and also for our heavenly mother who teaches us how to love God and our family more fully.  

Featured image: The Annunciation, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1660