Sermon Notes on Saint Theresa, by Father Basil William Maturin

detail of a painting of Saint Teresa of Avila by Peter Paul Rubens, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, AustriaAnd when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet. – 2 Kings 13:21

The historian is describing for us one of those events that at first may look strange and unmeaning, but that on closer examination proves not to be merely an event that causes bewildered surprise. The ministry of Elijah was followed by that of one who was in every way a contrast to him. Elijah was a destroyer, Elisha was a builder-up. Elijah stood alone, the child of the desert wrapped in the solitary grandeur of his own great personality. Elisha dwelt in cities and mingled with the people; his life full of miracles was one of benevolence and kindness. Elijah was wafted into Heaven in a chariot of fire and horses of fire a fitting end to that extraordinary life; Elisha died in his house full of years and influence. Elijah’s life was one long warfare against the weak king and his strong masculine wife, whose influence had ever been in antagonism to the religion of God s people and who spread far and wide throughout the land the idolatrous worship brought from Sidon. Elisha represented the hopes of Israel against the power of Syria. He was the inspirer of the hopes of God’s people. He roused the enthusiasm of the army. His last act was placing his hands upon those of the King of Israel to bid him shoot the arrow of his Lord and of deliverance from Syria.

And now he was dead; his sixty long years of prophetic ministry had ended and his voice was no longer heard, and his presence, the source of constant inspiration, was seen no more. And the power of Syria began again to assert itself, and the people were disheartened. It was then that this strange miracle took place and it is easy to see its purpose. The work of great men is soon forgotten, and the power of the living voice is very different from that of the memory of a voice long silent. By a signal and stirring miracle, therefore, wrought at the tomb of the dead prophet wrought by contact with the bones of the dead a new interest would be aroused in the memory of Elisha’s words and deeds. Once more the enthusiasms that he knew so well how to inspire would be stirred afresh, and the people would go forth to do battle with their enemies with the long forgotten voice of the prophet living and ringing again in their ears. The miracle would assure them that Elisha was still living, and that his prayers had power with God.

But this miracle at the tomb of Elisha is not only an historical incident, it is a type. It is a dramatic representation of the power of the past over the present.

Elisha was dead and buried, and the teaching and inspiration of his life had largely, as is always the case, lost its vividness by which alone it could still act upon the people. The dead lay buried in his tomb. The man who had lived and spoken lay hidden and for gotten, yet no sooner do they bring the dead present in contact with the dead past than it asserts its reviving power and quickens the dead into life again. There is a power in the past to revive the present. Those dead bones can stir into energy this life that is paralysed or gone. Again and again we find how in the lives of individuals the past, dead and buried, can quicken the present into energy and awaken it from its lethargy.

It is through contact with the great men and deeds of the past that a nation is awakened from its lethargy in the present. It was the memory of God’s greatness and love in the past that ever stirred the heart of Israel. It is the memory of the innocence of childhood that has recalled many a man from a life of sin. In the tomb of the past lies the power to rouse the dead to life. And the Catholic Church living in the present, building for the future, strikes her roots deep into the past. She bids us look forward indeed. She bids us work and struggle now, but she ever points us back, uttering in our ears day by day through the passing years the wonders that God has wrought in His saints of old. We hear of the courage, the faith, the sacrifice of those who were men and women of like passions with ourselves, and our hearts burn within us.

Yes, the tombs of the saints have been the scenes of the wakening of many a dead man to life.

And it is so, brethren, in a special degree with the saint of today. Saint Theresa was born at a moment in the world’s history when two ages were wrestling together for the mastery. The Middle Ages were about to pass into the modern world. The whole aspect of life was beginning to undergo a change, and the first stirrings of the activity and energy of the modern world were felt and heard. The noise of religious conflict and the bitter invective of controversy filled the air. The Church began to prepare herself for the new order of things. Saint Ignatius was born sixteen years before Saint Theresa, and already his drilled and disciplined army was spreading over Europe, rallying round the Holy See, and seizing the arms from the hands of their opponents to fight in the cause of the Church. Soon with the growing needs there spread over Christendom a multitude of devoted men and women who banded themselves together in different orders and congregations to meet every conceivable need, and to all these there has generally been given their due measure of approbation. The world itself, which may reject the claims of the Church, can appreciate its philanthropic work. But this could not be all. It is a glorious thing indeed to minister to the poor and sick, and to educate the ignorant, and to realise the reward Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me/ But there is another side of the life of the Christian Church as there was to the life of its Head. Our Lord’s life has in it different types and forms of character from which, as from an inexhaustible fountain, all kinds of people can draw. Out of His thirty-three years on earth there were only three spent, so far as we are told, in the direct ministry for others; though no doubt in another sense every hour of His Incarnate Life was spent for others. But not directly. Thirty out of the thirty-three were hidden at Nazareth, and in His public life we hear of His withdrawing with His disciples to be alone, of nights of solitude and prayer upon the mountain side. If the chief work of man on earth is by the direct ministry to others what was all this for? The hidden life spent itself in such ways. No, we feel as we read the life of Christ that all this is so marked, so strongly in contrast with the rest that it needs an explanation, and it no doubt is that He would in this, as in all else, set us an example. The lesson is that the highest life of man is direct worship of and devotion to God. Out of that inner hidden life came the public life. It was built upon it and rested upon it. For every year in public ten in private. There on the hills of Nazareth that human character grew and formed. The breezes that blew up from the distant sea came laden with the cries of men, burdened with their sorrows and their sins. The sun rose and set over the little village, the child grew to man’s estate. He seems to leave the world to itself; but He is living for it, praying for it, offering Himself a sacrifice for it. Those years at Nazareth, those days of labour and nights of prayer have spoken to many as the public life could not; they came back from Heaven in showers of blessing upon a barren and thirsty earth. In all this He would teach us that Christianity is devotion to a Person – not a code of ethics, nor a school of philanthropy – but a personal service, a personal love. He would tell us that more can be done for the world through close and personal union with God than with all the labour of hands and head. That as evil came in through man turning to the Creation from the Creator, evil can be driven out by prayer and love, though men never heard the voice nor saw the face of Him that prayed.

In all the new awakening of the life of active charity in a new world was no place to be found for that other side of Christian life the life hidden as His was and consecrated and offered with Him in atonement for the world’s sin?

If there was not, then we may well ask how could the Church have stood that sudden and extraordinary strain that was put upon her? It wanted a clear vision indeed to see the true need, and a stout will to withstand the rising cry for help in a land over which the blight of schism and rebellion was spreading with such rapidity. It was a woman who stood on the threshold of that new age with its bounding pulses and throbbing temples and eager cries for aid, and said: others can help the world by action, I will help it by love, and by sacrifice and prayer. While men went forth to work she withdrew into a deeper and deeper seclusion that she might find God, and being alone with Him might grow so to know Him, so to live with Him alone, so to yield to the absorbing passion of devotion to Him that she might have such power with Him that her prayers could not be refused – such power against Hell that she might hold it at bay. It makes anyone who has read that history smile when he hears men talk of the cowardice of flying from the world and the selfishness of striving to save one’s own soul when there is so much work to be done.

1. Theresa felt that the best way to help the world was to get so close to God that her prayers must have power with Him.

2. The law of vicarious suffering a fact that makes some angry she turned her sufferings back upon the world in blessing.

All of us who have ever tried to pray and have taken the first few steps in the path that leads to the temple of prayer know how beset with difficulty it is, how full of discouragement, how uncertain, how after years of effort one finds one has only begun to learn some of its deeper mysteries and its greater difficulties. Obstacles besetting every step forward, within and without.

But she was not content to start upon the road, she would penetrate into the very sanctuary of the Temple itself, where the foot of man had seldom trod, where, if she will enter she must enter without a guide; venturing alone like Peter upon the stormy waters. Ah, brethren, as we think of our early discouragements and our hasty flights, our complaints of coldness and distractions and that God does not hear us, think of her for twenty years in sickness of body and failing health and a soul beset with darkness pressing on. We sometimes think if we were permitted such revelations as she had we too would go on, but we look upon her in the light of her attainments. She had to fight her way step by step in the dark, and when the light came it was so bewildering, so unexpected, so startling, and so strange, that she often knew not whether she was deceived. She was warned back, opposition met her on all sides, but her undaunted courage never failed her. Her characteristics:

1. Courage.

2. Whole-souled surrender.

3. Love.

For her life was not for herself alone – it was for her order. She was opening the way for others to follow. She forced her way up that thorny and intricate path. Her great mental gifts were used to draw for others the chart of those unsounded seas.

For what is that hidden life? It is a life of prayer and sacrifice. It is a life in which the soul sets aside all else that it may draw ever nearer to God and win from Him what it wills for the world.

She knew two things:

1. The power of prayer.

2. The law of vicarious suffering.

Two things will always make her life attractive:

1. It is almost entirely subjective the history of a soul.

2. She has an extraordinary power of calmly analysing and describing the processes through which she passes.

Men say in the busy world of these later days, with ever increasing population and ever deepening human needs, there is no time for and no place for those who would shut themselves out from lives of active charity. It belonged to a day when the world’s pulse beat slower. People have no right to forget others in the selfish efforts to save their own souls. It is true, brethren, there is such a thing as spiritual and religious selfishness, and selfishness never looks so ugly as when it is dressed in the garb of religion. But is it so? Are these lives selfish? Not as Saint Theresa taught them, not as she lived her life. They are the lives of victims. The love for souls grows deeper. Is it selfish for one to leave home and kindred and to go alone into a far country to make peace between a rebel country and its king?

One word more. There are the sons and daughters of Saint Theresa who wear her habit and follow her footsteps. But these are not her only children. She has a larger family. There are those all the world over who are as truly though less markedly called to the hidden life. Those whose lives in illness or as invalids are forced back out of the press and competition and are thrown back upon prayer. Or those who, full of enthusiasm, have all their lives been looking forward to work for others and find the time slipping by and their opportunity passing.

1. Her twenty years of mental coldness and physical suffering.

2. Her extraordinary humanness and practical common sense, living as she did in the unseen.

3. Her intellectual power, able to analyse and describe all that passed in her soul. Like one drawing the chart of hitherto unsounded waters.

It came to pass from that time forth that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears and shields and bows. . . Everyone with one of his hands wrought in the work and with the other held a weapon. – Nehemiah 4:16-17