Published on March 31, 2015.
THOSE of us who imagine the saints as dour, reproachful personalities should make the acquaintance of Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite reformer and mystic whose 500th birthday the Catholic Church marked last Saturday.
She could startle with her candor. In Chapter 30 of “The Way of Perfection,” Teresa wonders aloud about how the “Lord’s Prayer,” the prayer Jesus himself taught his disciples, could be improved. “There is something it seems to me that should be noted: Couldn’t You, my Lord, have concluded the Our Father [‘Lord’s Prayer’] with the words: ‘Give us, Father, what is fitting for us.’? It doesn’t seem there would have been need to say anything else to One who understands everything so well.”
She could be disarmingly self-aware. She starts her “Life” by confessing that “among the Saints who were converted to God, I have never found one in whom I can have any comfort. For I see that they, after our Lord had called them, never fell into sin again; I not only became worse, but, as it seems to me, deliberately withstood the graces of His Majesty …”
And she had what we can agree to call a modern sensibility when it came to books—the reading and the writing of them. When she was young, she was much taken by the vanity of reading: “I thought there was no harm in it when I wasted many hours night and day in so vain an occupation, even when I kept it a secret from my father. So completely was I mastered by this passion, that I thought I could never be happy without a new book.” And while initially reluctant to obey her spiritual confessors who imposed on her the task of writing (her books are filled with writerly complaints), once she got going, it became a source of joy: In Chapter 41 of “The Way,” for instance, we read: “How lengthy I have been! But not as lengthy as I wanted to be, for it is a delight to speak about the love of God.”
But she was not only “real” in the sense that we understand authenticity today; her practice of the faith was shaped by profound insight into the sources of that faith.
There was, for instance, a perfect explanation for her proposed improvement of the “Lord’s Prayer.” Perhaps it should have ended with the invocation to “give us … what is fitting for us”—instead of the specific language of the second half of the prayer—because (here she is addressing Jesus again) “Between You and Your Father these words would have sufficed.” But she was nothing if not rooted in ordinary reality, and spoke its language.
“Yet, You know us, my Lord, that we are not as surrendered to the will of Your Father as You were. You know that it was necessary for You to make those specific requests so that we might pause to consider if what we are seeking is good for us, so that if it isn’t we won’t ask for it. If we aren’t given what we want, being what we are, with this free will we have, we might not accept what the Lord gives. For although what He gives is better, we don’t think we’ll ever become rich, since we don’t at once see the money in our hand.”
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It was a delight to hear Lisa Macuja Elizalde deliver her commencement address before the School of Humanities and the John Gokongwei School of Management of Ateneo de Manila last Saturday; her speech, a copy of which she was kind enough to e-mail to me the day after, was an instant classic. It satisfied the strictest requirements of that difficult art, and was spoken with such poise and inspired by such a vital sense of occasion, that online readers responded readily to it. It was yesterday’s single most read article on INQUIRER.net, with tens of thousands of shares.
Based on the essential arithmetic of dance, she offered her own eight-count of advice. It is difficult to choose a single favorite, because each insight was informed by her own, sometimes arduous experience as a ballet artist of the first rank. But her words on the value of preparation are worth repeating:
“Treat every time you get to practice your profession as a performance. Don’t save your best effort for another day. Always give 100% so you never have to regret anything. But BE PREPARED. You know in jumping, the deeper you do this step called a “plié” which means to bend (in this case your knees) the higher you are able to propel yourself into the air. The plié is your preparation. The soaring into the air is the goal.”
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In two other Jesuit universities, the presidential adviser on the peace process, Teresita “Ging” Deles, was the guest of honor. Xavier University’s conferral of an honorary doctorate on her was much more controversial than the honorary doctorate from Ateneo de Naga; her speech in Cagayan de Oro became a lengthy recounting of her personal narrative, in the context of a collective one—the Mindanao people’s search for peace.
I was inspired by the four “insights” she had learned over the years, and struck by her clear-eyed exposition of the two fault lines that now threaten the peace process. But it was her recollection of the start of the Social Development Index (a nondescript place I was happy to visit many times in my college years) that really moved me.
“This quest for alternative careers was born in the disconnect between weekday and week-end. And so Social Development Index, or INDEX for short, came into being which I founded along with Karen Tañada and Jojo Deles, who would become my life partner in embracing the joys of marriage and family life and the challenges of our lifetime social causes. INDEX’s motto could very well have been: not all roads lead to Makati, for corporate life is not the only choice there is…. So how to develop an alternative lifestyle? How can you be an alternative doctor? How can your profession be of service to others?”
The fundamental questions remain the same.