In her autobiography, St. Teresa of Avila describes a challenge she was not able to meet. It was around 1542, and Teresa was having experiences that caused her serious concern.
I arranged that the priest I said was such a servant of God would come to speak to me. … I was most embarrassed to find myself in the presence of so holy a man, and I gave him an account of my soul and my prayer; but I didn’t want him to hear my confession. I told him I was very busy – and that was true. He began with a holy determination to guide me as though I were a strong person – for by rights I should have been so because of the prayer he observed I was experiencing – in order that I might in no way offend God. When I saw him at once so determined about little things that, as I say, I didn’t have the fortitude to give up immediately and so perfectly, I was afflicted. Since I saw he was taking my soul’s attachments as something I would have to die to all at once, I realized there was need for much more caution.
In sum, I understood that the means he gave me were not the ones by which I could remedy my situation, because they were suited to a more perfect soul. As for myself, even though I was advanced in receiving favors from God, I was very much at the beginning with regard to virtues and mortification. Certainly, if I were to have had no one else but him to speak to, I believe my soul would never have improved. For the affliction I felt in seeing that I did not do – nor did it seem I could do – that which he told me would have been enough to make me lose hope and give up everything.
A passage like this, told by someone who became a Doctor of the Church, is very reassuring to those of us who keep struggling with sins and weaknesses. Teresa was a committed religious, and the priest she writes of was Gaspar Daza, a devout and learned priest. Despite his learning and devotion, at this time in her life, Daza was not the spiritual director Teresa needed. He thought she could change herself according to his directives. In time, after Teresa had found the guidance she needed from other directors, she and Daza became good friends.
Teresa’s subsequent directors were not less demanding, but they were more patient. They understood that there are some changes that need to be made slowly, little by little, with baby steps, not giant strides. The weaknesses she struggled with lasted for some 10 years, from approximately 1543 to 1554. She describes her efforts when after many years, she had made no progress. Moreover, she even defended her actions: “Nor did I think that I could succeed in this matter; I had already tried it, and the distress it caused me was so great since the attachments didn’t seem to me to be improper, I abandoned the effort.”
Her regular confessor was transferred, and she began confessing to another one: “This Father began to lead me to greater perfection. He told me that to please God completely I must leave nothing undone; he did so also with great skill and gentleness because my soul still was not at all strong but very fragile, especially with regard to giving up some friendships I had. Although I was not offending God by them, I was very attached, and it seemed to me it would be ingratitude to abandon them.”
I think that we can all identify with Teresa in these struggles. We all have weaknesses, and often it can be virtually impossible for us to overcome them. There are people who can break a serious habit with a simple act of the will. Others will need help, and still others will need help and time—a long time and a lot of help. Teresa was no weakling. As a child, she had convinced her younger brother to run away with her and go to North Africa and be martyred by the Muslims so they could go straight to heaven. (An uncle happened to meet the children before they had gone very far and took them back home.) Another sign of strength was her decision to enter the convent. Her father loved her dearly and he refused to give his consent to her religious vocation, so she ran away from home, again persuading one of her brothers to imitate her and enter a religious order.
Yet, she couldn’t break her attachment to her friends. John of the Cross gives examples of similar attachments:
Some examples of these habitual imperfections are: the common habit of being very talkative; a small attachment one never really desires to conquer, for example, to a person, to clothing, to a book or a cell, or to the way food is prepared, and to other trifling conversations and little satisfactions in tasting, knowing, and hearing things, and so on. Any of these habitual imperfections to which there is attachment is as harmful to progress in virtue as the daily commission of many other imperfections and sporadic venial sins that do not result from a bad habit. These latter will not hinder a person as much as will the attachment to something. As long as this attachment remains, it is impossible to make progress in perfection, even though the imperfection may be very small.
Someone will certainly say that these are trifling matters, not mortal or even grave sins. But that is the legal language of a contract, not the loving language of a Covenant. Jesus said, “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father”. Our relationship with Him is not that of a contract, where there are stipulations of what transactions are acceptable and what are not, of limits beyond which the contract is broken and becomes null and void. Our relationship with Him is that of friendship, of family ties. This is even more strongly expressed in the prayer He taught us: “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven.”
Family relationships and friendships do not measure actions in a legal way. Whatever action damages a friendship is a serious matter. That is, if we value the friendship and we truly want to be united with our friend—with our Father. John of the Cross expresses it this way:
It makes little difference whether a bird is tied by a thin thread or by a cord. Even if it is tied by thread, the bird will be held bound just as surely as if it were tied by cord; that is, it will be impeded from flying as long as it does not break the thread. Admittedly the thread is easier to break, but no matter how easily this may be done, the bird will not fly away without first doing so. This is the lot of those who are attached to something: No matter how much virtue they have they will not reach the freedom of the divine union.
We cannot pull ourselves up to a virtuous life by tugging on our own bootstraps. Our weaknesses are too deeply rooted in our hearts. As one of our Carmelite Friars put it: “Yet no one man can pass this threshold by one’s own will. He has to be carried as the bride is carried across the threshold of her new home, for her father’s house is too much loved to leave it and all the simple and sweet memories of girlhood cling to her heart and mind.”
Recently, there have been a number of articles about receiving communion in a state of “grave sin” and very learned articles about something called “proportionalism.” I’m not good with long words. I only have a “Sr.” in front of my name, and an “O.C.D.” at the end, and I did not get those from a university. I am sure that those who write about “proportionalism” know what they are talking about, but I don’t. I am one of those many millions of Catholics who want to love God and my neighbors, and who keep failing time after time. Pedro Gabriel has written several articles for us weak sinners. There may be other articles on other websites, and I would be glad to read them. Articles condemning “proportionalism,” whatever it is, simply tie me up in knots of scrupulosity.
Ultimately, it comes down to this question: is every sin, whether grave or not, performed with clear knowledge of the gravity of the sin and full consent of the will? If this is the case, then every sin in grave matter is ipso facto mortal sin, and never in any situation a sin of weakness. There is a hymn to the Sacred Heart that contains this verse: “Too true I have forsaken Thy flock by willful sin.” I grind my teeth every time we sing this. Is that really true? Do people who choose to sing hymns to the Sacred Heart also choose to willfully disobey His commandments? It will take a lot of facts to convince me of this. Certainly, there are those who do willfully choose to sin in grave matters, but I doubt if they sing to the Sacred Heart on a regular basis. Are they the majority? Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Does this mean that only those who succeed in keeping His commandments in every time and circumstance can consider themselves His friends? I doubt it. Those who try and fail and who nevertheless keep trying show how much they want Him as their friend.
St. Paul learned this through experience: “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
St. Thérèse of Lisieux also understood this well: “For me to become great is impossible. I must bear with myself and my many imperfections; but I will seek out a means of getting to Heaven by a little way—very short and very straight, a little way that is wholly new. We live in an age of inventions; nowadays the rich need not trouble to climb the stairs, they have lifts instead. Well, I mean to try and find a lift by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection. I have sought to find in Holy Scripture some suggestion as to what this lift might be which I so much desired, and I read these words uttered by the Eternal Wisdom Itself: ‘Whosoever is a little one, let him come to Me.‘ Then I drew near to God, feeling sure that I had discovered what I sought; but wishing to know further what He would do to the little one, I continued my search and this is what I found: ‘You shall be carried at the breasts and upon the knees; as one whom the mother caresseth, so will I comfort you.’”
To one of her novices who was discouraged by her imperfections, Thérèse wrote: “You make me think of a little child that is learning to stand but does not yet know how to walk. In his desire to reach the top of the stairs to find his mother, he lifts his little foot to climb the first step. It is all in vain, and at each renewed effort he falls. Well, be like that little child. Always keep lifting your foot to climb the ladder of holiness, and do not imagine that you can mount even the first step. All God asks of you is good will. From the top of the ladder He looks lovingly upon you, and soon, touched by your fruitless efforts, He will Himself come down, and, taking you in His Arms, will carry you to His Kingdom never again to leave Him. But should you cease to raise your foot, you will be left for long on the earth.”
The great St. Teresa also knew this from experience. Still trying to justify her behavior, she agreed to do what her confessor told her, a very simple thing: “So I questioned why I would have to be ungrateful since I was not offending God. He told me to commend the matter to God for some days and to recite the hymn Veni Creator so that God might give me light about the better course of action. One day, having spent a long time in prayer and begging the Lord to help me please Him in all things, I began the hymn; while saying it, a rapture came upon me so suddenly that it almost carried me out of myself. It was something I could not doubt, because it was very obvious. It was the first time the Lord granted me this favor of rapture. I heard these words: ‘No longer do I want you to converse with men but with angels.’ … These words have been fulfilled, for I have never again been able to tie myself to any friendship or to find consolation in or bear particular love for any other persons than those I understand love Him and strive to serve Him.”
Blessed are the weak who keep trying to love as He loves. No matter how often they fail, they will be “gathered like lambs in His arms, and carried in His bosom.”
 “Life”, ch. 23, 8-9
 “Life” 24, 7
 “Ascent of Mt. Carmel”, 1, 11, 4
 Jn 15, 15
 Matt. 6, 9. Cf. Lk. 11, 2
 “Lovelier than the dawn – Four meditations on the mystical teachings of St John of the Cross”, By Fr. Noel Dermot O’Donoghue, O.C.D, Carmelite Centre of Spirituality, Dublin 1984
 Jn 15, 14
 2 Cor., 12, 7-10
 “Story of a Soul” chap. 9
 Pope Francis’s devotion to St. Therese is well known. It is worthwhile to compare this passage by a Doctor of the Church to his well-known but usually mangled statement: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” (Interview, July 29th, 2013, emphasis added.)
 Counsels and Reminiscences of Soeur Thérèse, the Little Flower of Jesus
 “Life”, 24, 5-6
 Is. 40, 11
Image: Good Shepherd statue in the garden of the Flemington Carmel. Provided by the author.
Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.