Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Four Teresas: Love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves by Gina Loehr

It can get a little intense around here some days. Like when the baby’s crying and bites through my jeans just as the three-year-old suddenly cries out, “I hafta go to the baffroom!” just as it’s time for my husband to leave for work with the preschooler and first grader who are wandering around trying to look for school socks…or was it a backpack?...ummm...oh, look! Our missing toys! Yes! Hey, do you want to make a fort?...

Moms’ days are intense no matter what your situation. No one can combat that kind of crazy alone. Thankfully Gina Loehr has carefully prepared a guidebook to help you enlist some spiritual giants as friends for the good fight: the four Teresas. She’s distilled the rich lives and lessons of St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Liseux, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta into a beautifully written, thought-provoking, easy-to-read yet carefully researched reference guide.

Just like Real Women, Real Saints Gina Loehr has presented these beloved saints in a fresh, thoroughly human and inspiring way. Almost every page in my book is highlighted, either by a saint’s direct quote that I’d never heard of before or by Loehr’s own insightful, encouraging commentary.

The four chapters are divided into detailed biographies of the saints, lessons the saints have given to us, and ways that we ourselves can model their good example in our own lives. Loehr encourages to learn from the Teresas how to “ask, prepare, open, and encounter” Jesus in our lives.

Therese of Liseux

Loehr shows us that St. Therese was the queen of asking Jesus for things. The youngest daughter of blesseds Louis and Zelie Martin who would eventually join the Carmelites became universally loved after her death for her “Little Way” of loving Jesus with every action. Loehr writes, “As she said, ‘[T]here’s only one thing to do here below—strew before Jesus the flowers of little sacrifices, and win Him with caresses.’” (19)

However, Therese knew that if she wanted to love Jesus with all her heart, she needed to ask Him for His to do it. While praying to Jesus St. Therese said, “To love You and You love me, I would have to borrow Your own Love, and then only would I be at rest.” (16)

St. Therese has given me the courage to ask for Jesus’s heart throughout my own crazy days. It’s a bold request, but motherhood, too, is a bold request of us from God. Only His Heart could contain the love that my family members so very much need.

Loehr encourages us to ask for His Love so that we can give it to others, especially those to whom the giving can be difficult.  Loehr offers this for our consideration, “She approached her relationships, especially the trying ones, as opportunities to express her love for God…what difficult relationships in my life give me opportunities to offer loving sacrifices to God?” (23)

Teresa of Avila

Gina Loehr looks to Teresa of Avila, the “big Teresa,” for guidance on loving God with our whole soul, something Teresa was given the grace to do as she matured in the spiritual life. It should be reassuring to us that the author of the spiritual masterpiece Interior Castle had humble beginnings in the spiritual life, even well into her life with the Carmelites. It wasn’t until a special statue of Jesus depicting the wounds from His Passion arrived at their convent when Teresa’s heart was forever changed. From then on she would grow in the spiritual life until arriving at perfect union with Christ in prayer.

Loehr encourages the reader by pointing out, “Anyone can be a recipient of this grace in the soul. Teresa knew this because she knew the tremendous dignity of every human soul.” (34) And lest we despair of reaching this type of sanctity Loehr tells us, “Saint Teresa once told her sisters, ‘God deliver us, sisters, from saying ‘We are not angels,’ or ‘We are not saints,’ whenever we commit some imperfection. We may not be; be what a good thing it is for us to reflect that we can be if we will only try and if God gives us His hand!’” (43)

I was enchanted by Loehr’s beautiful but simple explanation of the St. Teresa’s Interior Castle. I had read it myself years ago but was really moved by Loehr’s notes on the work. I felt a pang of envy at Teresa’s experiences in prayer but was again encouraged by Loehr’ s point that we are all called to be saints. Anyone who wants to can grow closer to God in prayer!

Loehr concludes, “Loving God was more than religious rhetoric for Saint Teresa. She backed her words with her actions. When she wrote about the importance of the virtues of humility and detachment, she knew from her own experience that developing these virtues helped her love God with her whole soul. Consider: How can I consciously try to cultivate humility and detachment?” (45)

Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Gina Loehr naturally chooses Teresa Benedicta of the Cross as our model of how to love God with one’s whole mind. Teresa was born into Jewish family at the end of the nineteenth century. Gifted with an exquisite intellect, she flourished in school and naturally gravitated toward intellectual pursuits. In her mid-teens, however, Teresa made the decision to stop praying and thus began a period of atheism in her life. She did, however, remain committed to seeking the truth and became very interested in psychology, which led her to the study of phenomenology and to a community that assisted her in her eventual conversion to the faith. She would later enter the Carmelite order.

A crucial event in Teresa’s conversion was an encounter with her friend’s widow who had such a calm about her that she had helped Teresa in her sorrow. Teresa then saw clearly the power of faith. “It was my first encounter with the cross and the divine strength it gives those who bear it…It was the moment in which my atheism collapsed…and Christ shone brightly: Christ is the mystery of the cross.” (53) Loehr writes, “It was the mysterious power of the cross, not an intellectual theory, that brought this philosopher to her knees.” (63)

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross encourages us to see the contradiction in our earthly life as proper to our call as Christians. She writes, “To suffer and to be happy although suffering, to have one’s feet on the earth, to walk on the dirty and rough paths of this earth and yet to be enthroned with Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry with the children of this world and ceaselessly sing the praises of God with the choirs of angels—this is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth.” (67)

Loehr encourages us to consider: “How do I respond to Christ’s call to take up the cross in my life?” And  “how much does belief in heaven console me during times of trial?” (71)

Teresa of Calcutta

In Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta Loehr finds the ideal model of how to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The little nun who became world renowned for her great acts of charity knew that the only way she could see each encounter with another, especially the poor, as an encounter with Christ was through prayer. Blessed Mother Teresa said, “My secret is very simple: I pray.” (84) She knew that do try to do anything on her own would be folly. “Recognizing our dependence on prayer is liberating,” she said.  “It frees us from the futile pressure to do difficult things on our own.” (85)

Once Mother Teresa had encountered Jesus in prayer, she was ready to encounter and love Him in the other. “He satisfied her deepest longings,” writes Loehr, “and then she did her best to satisfy his.” (91)  This made a deep impression on me. Motherhood is simply exhausting in every sense of the word. I was grateful for the reminder that Mother Teresa wasn’t super-human. But she was able to give of herself supernaturally because she had filled up on Him first. And I would be wise to do the same.

Blessed Mother Teresa was also known for her smile. The spiritual darkness she’d experienced for so much of her life, however, remained a secret to all.  “My smile is a great mantle which covers a multitude of sufferings,” she once said. (94)  Loehr writes, “She shows us that even in the midst of our miseries and struggles we can act with love.” (93) This, too, struck a nerve. I didn’t need to wait for everything to be perfect to start smiling. And what courage that would take.

“What would our life be if the Sisters were unhappy?” Mother Teresa once asked. “Slavery and nothing else. We would do the work but we would attract nobody. This moodiness, heaviness, sadness, is a very easy way to tepidity, the mother of all evil.” (95)

Game on, Mother Teresa. It’ll take your intercession, but I’m going to start smiling more. Starting now.
The Teresas are a loyal and ever-so-helpful group of friends to have at the ready when the day’s work feels overwhelming and the call to love too heavy to bear. For so much more wisdom, insight, and beautiful quotes from these tremendous ladies, read Gina Loehr’s The Four Teresas.

“The more united I am to Him, the more also do I love my Sisters.” –St. Therese (114)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Real Women, Real Saints: Friends for Your Spiritual Journey by Gina Loehr

Gina Loehr’s Real Women, Real Saints is really, really good.

Categorized according to the virtues, the lives of the women highlighted in the book truly show that sanctity can live in any soul determined to work for it.

Gina Loehr writes:

Every story in this book tells of a relationship between the Savior of the universe and a woman who loved him enough to live in harmony with his will. This harmony-in-action we call virtue, “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it (CCC , 1803). These women lovingly made a habit of doing God’s will—that is, “the good”—though they had to work and pray hard to form that holy habit. The canonization process recognizes this extraordinary effort with a formal declaration that a person lived a life of heroic virtue. (p.2)

Much like Lisa Hendey, Gina Loehr helped me see already-beloved saints in a fresh light thanks to countless direct quotes. From St. Monica, “Guard your tongue when your husband is angry.” (154) And St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, before her conversion to Catholicism, writing to her sister about her Catholic friends, “How happy would we be if we believed what these dear souls believe: that they possess God in the Sacrament.” (15)

Loehr also introduced me to new saints, like Blessed Anna Maria Taigi, who sanctified her chaotic household by her good example and who firmly believed that “laziness is the mother of all the vices.” (76)

Practical advice abounds in the book from women who have been there. Gina Loehr writes, “Difficult decisions didn’t scare Mary MacKillop. Instead of getting nervous about what to do, she put matters in God’s hands by praying before she made decisions. This peaceful surrender to God’s divine wisdom is a fruit of the virtue of prudence.” (88)

And then there’s my husband’s favorite story about a wise lady named Saint Catherine of Bologna:

Catherine was a perfect fit for the role of the abbess because she was a prudent woman. She ruled simply and practically, helping the women under her care thrive by insisting on three things: positive speech, the pursuit of humility and not meddling in others’ affairs. Catherine had crafted these three rules carefully to help women overcome tendencies toward gossip, vanity and nit-picking. Her devotion to the rule of prudence sets a good example for any woman who desires to shape her femininity in accord with virtue. (78)

In these strange days of modern isolation, it is such a gift to have this collection of female saints at hand when you’re in need of advice, friendship, and understanding. What trustworthy friends we find in these pages.

Mass in the Bride's Room

I was in the bride’s room with my toddler, a non-flower girl as she had angrily discovered fifteen minutes earlier at the beginning of my brother-in-law’s nuptial Mass. She sat in my lap, her heavy lashes still wet with tears. I rubbed her back. The ring bearer was with us, too, sunk deep in the corner of the worn velvet couch, too tired from the rehearsal dinner to stand in the pews and hot in his vest. We were there for the long haul as I dared not bring the tired-eyed toddler back into the church past her cousins beautifully arrayed in their matching dresses. In the little corner of the cathedral, a room tucked away in a gathering area, I felt a thousand miles away from the ceremony. I sighed and sunk back into the couch and stared at the blank wall ahead.

Time passed and I could hear the vows over the loud speaker. I imagined my brother-in-law and his lovely fiancĂ© exchanging consent. I thought sadly of my mother-in-law who had died suddenly this past Christmas. I considered the enormity of Jesus soon becoming present in the Eucharist and knowing that I’d miss Him. And then I thought of a book my mother had given me recently.

The book, 7 Secrets of the Eucharist by Vinny Flynn, had been a beautiful, simple, yet profound reminder that our participation in Mass is truly a participation in the Divine Liturgy eternally unfolding in Heaven. I could hear the Sanctus over the speakers and recalled Flynn’s writing about our union with all of heaven at that very moment.
Flynn writes:
So, in reality there is only one Mass, one eternal Liturgy of the Eucharist, and it’s taking place in heaven all the time. Christ, the One Great High Priest, is celebrating it, perpetually offering His once-for-all sacrifice to the Father in the heavenly court, surrounded by Mary and the saints, and by the angels, who sing His praise in endless adoration…
As the Catechism explains it…by our celebration of the Mass in our little parish church, anytime, and anywhere, ‘we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life’(# 1326). (44-45)

Flynn adds, “The Mass is the most complete experience of unity possible for us on earth, for we are praying together with the whole Church—all over the world and in heaven.” (46) He includes a quote from Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper, “We go to heaven when we go to Mass.” I suddenly didn’t feel so far away from everyone in our little room.

The prayer of consecration would come next and my mind turned to the Eucharist. What had really drawn my mom to the book was the chapter entitled “Christ is Not Alone.” In it Flynn writes about the reality of all of heaven being present with Jesus in the Eucharist. He writes, “When He becomes present for us in the Eucharist, Christ is not alone.” (19) Flynn reminds us:

As the Son of God and the Son of Man, the King of Kings, glorified now in body and soul and seated at the right hand of the Father, He is surrounded by the whole heavenly court of angels and saints, and eternally reunited with His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary who, having been assumed into heaven, body and soul, now reigns with Him as Queen of heaven and earth.
Christ is never alone. When He becomes present in the Eucharist as He is in heaven, without leaving heaven, that means that all of heaven is present with Him. (26)

I imagined not only the bride and groom and our family gathered with the priest around the altar, but all of heaven, praying and praising God at the same Mass. I hoped very much that my mother-in-law wasn’t merely present in our memories and love for each other but really and truly there with us, as real as Jesus in the Eucharist.

I could hear the scuffle of people getting up from their spots to head up for communion. With the little energy left I tried to make a spiritual communion, a practice encouraged in Flynn’s book. Vinny Flynn references St. Thomas in the Summa when he writes, “Sacramental eating is when I receive with at least some understanding of the sacrament and some intent to receive it. Spiritual eating is when my sacramental eating is accompanied by a real longing for union with Christ. I thus receive not only the sacrament itself but also the sacramental effect whereby I am spiritually joined to Christ in faith and love.” (83)

He elaborates, “Kolbe stressed what we’ve already seen from St. Thomas Aquinas, that the graces of the Eucharist are received in proportion to our spiritual condition, our desire to be united with God. And, since God always honors our desire for union with Him, these graces are not limited to sacramental Communion. ‘At times, Kolbe explained, ‘spiritual communion brings the same graces as sacramental.’” (86)

Even though I could not carry my fragile daughter and sleepy son up to communion, I felt solace knowing that I could unite my heart spiritually with Christ’s until I could receive Him again. I tried to think on this and offer a little token of love to the Sacred Heart.

The priest gave the final blessing and a few minutes later I could hear the bride and groom’s joyful chatter from behind the door. We straightened up the room and I slowly opened up the door and peeked out. The whole wedding party and family and friends were all gathered together.

I felt the stress and fatigue melt away as we joined up with the happy faces of our family. No one had noticed the outburst, and my littlest girl was now standing next to one of the other two-year-olds, posing for pictures as she held a pink rose that a lovely flower girl had plucked from her bouquet. I looked around the room, saw the beautiful bride and her handsome groom. The dashing groomsmen looked for their families. The bridesmaids chatted happily and my father-in-law greeted the well-wishers with a brave smile. And I hoped very much that my mother-in-law had truly been there with us.

“It was beyond them that all the joy of heaven had entered one small, exiled heart, and that it was too weak to bear it without tears. As if the absence of my mother could make me unhappy on the day of my first Communion! As all heaven entered my soul when I received Jesus, my mother came to me as well.”  –St. Therese of Liseux (35)