Life of St. Teresa - F. A. Forbes

The Call of God

"Let him begin by not being afraid of the Cross, and he will see how our Lord will help him to carry it."

Teresa was courageous by nature, and the long talks with her uncle in the garden at Hortigosa had reawakened all the desires of her childhood. A long life of experience had taught the old man what the child had learnt by intuition, that "to get to God" was the one thing in the world worth striving for.

What was the surest way to Paradise? was the question Teresa asked herself. In spite of the fact that her nature shrank from the thought of the religious life, with all that it entailed of self-sacrifice, she earnestly prayed that God would show her what He desired of her, and give her the strength to do it. How would it be for her in the future if she remained in the world? She had been weak once already in the presence of danger.

That the religious life was the highest life she was certain; she soon became convinced that for her at least it was the safest. As for its hardships, its self-denial, if other people had borne them, why not she? Could she not suffer a little for that Lord who had suffered so much for her? And after all, was not He Himself the Strength of those who chose the rough was for His sake?

So it was, in quiet communing with her own soul, weighing the things of earth against the things of Heaven, that Teresa chose the latter, with all that the sacrifice entailed. It remained to break the news to her father. That he would suffer Teresa knew, but, once assured that her resolve was taken, she had no doubt but that he would give her generously to God. In this, however, she was mistaken; Don Alonso absolutely refused his consent. Entreaties were of no avail, arguments could not move him. In vain Teresa appealed to her sister Maria, to her uncle, Don Pedro; in vain her brothers, touched by her evident distress, pleaded her cause with their father. Teresa was his favourite child, said Don Alonso; he could not and would not part with her; he wished to hear no more of the matter.

But if Don Alonso was resolute, Teresa was resolute too, for God had spoken, and she saw clearly where her duty lay. Although her heart was breaking at the thought of parting from those she loved so dearly, and the home life that was so sweet, she determined to take things into her own hands.

Close to the town of Avila, in the midst of its quiet gardens, lay the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation. Thither a few years before, Juana Suarez, a beloved friend of Teresa's, had gone to give her young life to God in the cloister. From her Teresa had learnt something of the peace and happiness of the religious life, and the prayers of Juana and of her sisters in religion had been enlisted to win Don Alonso's consent. One of Teresa's brothers—not the faithful Rodrigo, who was already making a military career for himself in the New World, but Antonio—showed her much sympathy, for the desire of his heart also was to belong to God. Brother and sister at last resolved to leave their father's house together and to enter, Teresa at the Incarnation and Antonio at the Dominican monastery near by. Early in the morning before the household was astir, as in the old days Teresa had crept out with Rodrigo to seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors, the two set forth. Teresa herself tells us that the agony she felt at leaving the beloved home of her childhood was so great that she did not think the pains of death could be greater, but not for that would she pause.

Once within the convent walls a deep peace fell on her soul. On that very day, as was the custom, her beautiful hair was cut off and she was clothed with the novice's habit and veil. Kneeling before the Tabernacle, she thanked God who had given her the strength to do what she knew was His fill, and offered herself to Him for ever. A few days later her happiness was complete, for lion Alonso, who had been thinking things over in his heart, came himself to the Convent of the Incarnation to give his daughter the consent that he had so long withheld. The bond between the two was now deeper and stronger than ever, ennobled as it was by sacrifice. Humbly Don Alonso asked Teresa to teach him, now that she herself had chosen the higher life, how to serve God better. The parlour of the Incarnation became for him and for Teresa's brothers the sunniest spot in Avila. There each one brought his troubles and difficulties; careers were decided on and plans discussed for the future; the bright young novice had help and advice for all. Even Antonio would come from time to time from his monastery to talk about the spiritual life with the sister who had helped him so much to understand its meaning during their last days at home together. As for the little Juana, Don Alonso brought her himself to the convent, that her education might be carried on under Teresa's care.

If the struggle was still sometimes keen in the novice's heart, no one was allowed to suspect it. She performed her humble duties with such a radiant face that everyone who saw her was cheered by the sight. She prayed with so much fervour, and atoned for her mistakes with so much humility, that her sisters used sometimes to wonder what the little novice would become in after life. Her greatest joy was in helping others; she was always on the lookout for such little opportunities; but the old and the infirm were her special care. When she knelt at her bedside at night, if her chances of practising charity throughout the day had been few, she would grieve over it and ask God's pardon. Sometimes it would happen at that very moment that an uncertain footfall would pass her door, and she would know that in the darkness one of the sisters was groping her way to her cell. Then Teresa would spring up and, taking a little lamp in her hand, hasten to light her on her way, rejoicing that God had sent her the chance of doing one more kind action before she slept.

So highly was her thoughtfulness for others appreciated that she was named to help in the infirmary, an employment usually given to the professed alone. She loved the sick, and they loved her. They knew that they could ask any service of her, and that she was never weary of waiting on them, however tiring and unpleasant to her nature the duties might be. There was one amongst them who suffered from a terrible disease and whose poor body was a mass of open sores. Teresa, who knew that many of the sisters, in spite of themselves, shrank from approaching her, made herself her special nurse. Not content with dressing the gaping wounds, she would sit beside her patient by the hour, kiss her hands, and do everything she could to show that, far from being a mortification to serve her, it was her greatest joy. Filled with admiration at the courage and resignation with which the sufferer bore her terrible malady, Teresa would ask God that if ever she should be herself attacked with illness, she might have grace to bear it with the same love and patience.

It seemed as if God had heard her prayer, for not long after Teresa herself began to fail in health. At first she took no notice of the continual sickness and weariness that assailed her, for she was not given to thinking about her own ailments. The day of her profession was drawing nigh, and everything else was forgotten in the thought that she would soon belong wholly to our Lord.

But the happy day came and passed, and Teresa grew rather worse than better. Her Superiors took alarm; treatment after treatment was tried, but in vain. It was now her turn to accept the services of others and to practise patience. The days and nights in the infirmary were long for one so young and full of life and energy. The dear community life of work and prayer that she loved so much had to be given up; she was too weak even to read.

Yet, as she lay helpless on her bed and contrasted the old happy days with the present time of suffering, there were no complaints, even in her own heart. "Since I have received good things from my Lord," she would say gently, "why not also evil?" Her sisters were touched at the sight of the cheerful content that never seemed to waver. As of old she thought of others more than of herself, and did her best to give as little trouble as possible.

Don Alonso, in great distress, sent physician after physician to see his daughter, but all declared that nothing could be done; the illness was incurable. At last in despair he resolved to take her to a woman doctor who had a reputation for working wonderful cures. The nuns of the Convent of the incarnation were not cloistered, but were allowed to go and visit their intimate friends and relations; there would be therefore no difficulty in taking Teresa to Bezedas, where the woman lived. Juana Suarez, the friend of Teresa's girlhood, was permitted to go with her, for the nuns were anxious to do all they could for one whom they felt certain they would never see again. In the early winter the three set out together for Hortigosa, the first stage on their journey. The treatment was not to begin until the spring, but Don Alonso had planned that Teresa should spend the winter months with her sister Maria. Since the air of Castellanos had done her so much good before, who could tell what it might not do again? It was, at all events, worth trying.