What St. Teresa is teaching me about the new year

I’m giving myself an hour or two to write this morning. As with a lot of my writing, I don’t know where this will go. But today seems significant. It’s the last day of the year; tomorrow is a new decade. It seems right to pause, to linger over my coffee and enjoy a bit of solitude before tonight’s festivities.

Something about reflecting on a year past makes me think of the brevity of life. It goes so fast. Life just seems to speed by faster every year. I appreciate more and more how precious each day is, and I want to make it count.

Lately I’ve been reading a biography of the life of St. Teresa. Teresa lived in Spain in the 1500s and is one of the most revered saints of all time. I knew she was famous for her mystical experiences. What I didn’t know was that these visions did not begin happening until later in life. She entered a convent around age 20 and lived there for 20 years or so with an often dry spiritual life, according to her biographer. She was also sick for long periods of time. Then one day after reading the Confessions of St. Augustine (where he recounts his spiritual awakening) she began to have visions.

Teresa faced skepticism and ridicule as a result of her visions. Some in the church doubted her experiences, even saying they were the work of the devil. Nevertheless, Teresa persisted and shortly thereafter established a new order of nuns that was devoted to living a simple, prayerful life. She was convinced the monastic orders had become much too worldly, with comforts and luxuries that didn’t fit with a contemplative life. Again she faced criticism and controversy. In the end, though, she won people over to her side and spent the rest of her life traveling around Spain opening new monastic houses. She is known as one of the key figures of the counter-reformation, reforming the Catholic church from within against the backdrop of the Protestant Reformation.

What I see in St. Teresa is a deep faithfulness. She endured years of dry spiritual life but remained committed to her calling and sought out many spiritual confessors and mentors along the way. She inspires me to remain faithful to my various “callings,” even when they seem to bear little fruit. She motivates me to write, even though writing seems hard and I often lack ideas and words. She motivates me to pursue my spiritual direction work, even though it’s been hard to find people to work with and the way forward is often fuzzy.

It’s easy to get discouraged about our life path, especially when things don’t go our way. So many times we only focus on the immediate moment and forget easily our successes last week or last month. Or we wonder if we will ever attain the goals we seek. I wonder if Teresa felt that way as she approached middle age, not much younger than me.

As a writer I often feel only as good as my current output. I suspect others feel the same way. It can be a challenge to maintain confidence, yet perhaps that struggle to create is also a key part of moving forward. As Wendell Barry writes: “The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Going into 2020, I want to put away discouragement and myopic views of success. Instead, I want to embrace mystery. Sure, I will set some goals and make some resolutions. Some I may even attain. But I also realize life is full of mystery and divine encounters and experiences, not just for saints but for everyone. There are just so many things I can’t anticipate or even will to happen. I look forward to the books I’ll read, movies I’ll see, conversations I’ll have, words I’ll write, prayers I’ll say, and places I’ll travel, both real and imaginary.

I have to laugh when I think back to last year at this time and remember that instead of St. Teresa, I was reading about a modern day “saint” of sorts, Marie Kondo, the queen of tidying up. I got caught up in her message of tidying and I managed to apply her philosophy to my overstuffed bookshelves, getting rid of books that no longer brought me joy and organizing the ones that did. It was one of the most enjoyable things I did all year. You can read my post about that here. I hadn’t planned on that, it just sort of happened–sort of like stumbling across the biography of St. Teresa, which I found in the used section of my neighborhood bookstore.

What is clear about this year is that I won’t be the same person in 2021 as I am today. None of us will. That may be scary but it’s also exciting.

Prayer for 2020:

God, may you take this heart and mind
that sometimes feel empty,
that lack words, lack spirit, lack direction,
and fill me with
your wonder, your words, your creativity
Equip me to travel to places both far away and near,
To encounter fellow travelers,
But also to be at home with the page and person in front of me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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