This is the second article in the series “The Once and Future Lord.” The first was “Uniting Treasures Both Old and New.”

Recently, the Washington Times posted a pair of articles on mental health and mental strength. The question had been raised in the summer of 2021 when the gymnast Simone Biles, after experiencing the “twisties,” stepped aside from her Olympic training to focus on her mental health. “Twisties” is a word that athletes use to describe a mental block that “can cause you to lose your sense of where you are in the air.” The “twisties” can affect others besides gymnasts, but obviously when it hits you up in the air so that you don’t know where you will land, it can be quite disturbing and even dangerous.

Simone Biles took time out to face the challenge of the twisties and to focus on the larger picture of her mental health in general. In May 2021, she scored a first in performing a Yurchenko double pike vault, and she returned to take part in the World Championships in 2023, thus proving that she had not retreated from the challenges of athletic competition.

At the time of her decision to leave the Olympic team to focus on her mental health, she received much support but also some severe criticism. One commenter said that Biles is the “biggest quitter in sports,” another, a fellow Texan with Biles, described her as “our selfish, childish national embarrassment, Simone Biles,” though he later apologized.

The mental attitude which focuses on pushing through difficulties no matter what the consequences has long been strong in athletics and the military. Since Simone Biles set it aside to focus on her overall mental health, it has come under scrutiny from various angles. Courage is a valuable quality, and we gladly applaud Kerri Strug for stepping up to the mat to make her gold-winning vault despite an injured ankle.

Courage is necessary in the spiritual life also. St. Paul encouraged the Corinthians to imitate the single-minded focus of athletes: “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.” (1 Cor 9:24) Probably the older members of the Church remember being urged to “make a sacrifice.” The saints are set before us as examples of heroic spiritual athletes who pushed through the pain to victory.

Yet surprisingly there were saints who couldn’t make that push, who turned aside at the challenge. The best known of course is St. Augustine who accepted that a chaste life was an integral part of living the faith but who couldn’t bring himself to live it. “Lord, give me chastity and continency, but not yet.” (Confessions 8, 7)

Another example, less well known, is St. Teresa of Avila, the first woman doctor of the Church. In her “Life,” chap. 23, she tells how she finally began to practice prayer in earnest and was rewarded by spiritual favors, especially periods of deep recollection. This caused her great fear lest it be a deception from the devil, and she writes, “I thought to myself there would be no remedy if I didn’t strive to have a clean conscience and withdraw from every occasion, even if it concerned venial sins.” She heard about a priest who was known to be an experienced director, Fr. Gaspar Daza. She arranged to meet with him, and the result was not what she had hoped. “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.”

Teresa’s “attachments” were to the friends and benefactors who visited her at her monastery. Unlike Augustine, there was nothing sexual about these relationships, but they focused her life on people to the point that she had given up prayer. She felt that she was unworthy to pray since she could not break her addiction to her friends. Another confessor, Fr. Baltazar Alvarez, SJ, treating her more gently than Fr. Daza (who later became a great friend and supporter of Teresa’s reform), brought her back to the practice of prayer and slowly strengthened her in her spiritual life. But she still could not break her attachments to her friends. They were for the most part benefactors of the monastery where she lived, and she told her confessor that she was duty-bound to be friendly with them.

Teresa, at this stage in her life, was one of the “bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks[i] that Isaiah mentioned, those struggling believers who do believe and who do want to live what they believe, but who don’t have the strength to do it. Augustine was another of these weak believers, and even St. Paul, for all of his encouragement of the Corinthians to “run so as to win,” admitted to the Romans that “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” These are the believers who can’t bring themselves to push through the pain and live as they know they should. They can’t break the cords that bind them, the attachments, the habits, the behavior, the attitudes, that keep them from a vibrant life in God.

John of the Cross, who knew Teresa well, wrote of these struggling believers: “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.”

Like every one of us who has tried to break a habit and failed, Teresa tried to justify her addiction. She couldn’t break the attachments. “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.” Since she didn’t see anything wrong with her friendships, she told her confessor, “It seemed to me it would be ingratitude to abandon them. So I questioned why I would have to be ungrateful since I was not offending God.”

Instead of lowering the bar and telling her that she could continue with her friendships, Fr. Alvarez tried another tack. “Since my confessor saw me so attached in this matter, he hadn’t dared to say definitely that I should give up such attachments.” Instead “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.” Fr. Alvarez encouraged her to strive for the same high level of holiness that Fr. Daza had set, but he went about it more gradually and he sent her to God to be lifted up to that level. Teresa admits that this was her mistake: she had tried to save herself, to break the attachments that were binding her by her own efforts. “I used to pray to our Lord for help; but, as it now seems to me, I must have committed the fault of not putting my whole trust in His Majesty, and of not thoroughly distrusting myself. I sought for help, took great pains; but it must be that I did not understand how all is of little profit if we do not root out all confidence in ourselves, and place it wholly in God.”

Fr. Alvarez’s guidance was effective. A wise director, he “had to wait for the Lord to do the work.” Teresa, obedient to his directions, describes what happened: “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; nor is it in my power to do so.”

St. Augustine had a similar experience when he obeyed the sing-song voice that told him to “Take and read, take and read.” “Interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find… Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” St. Paul, too, found his release in the same source: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Nor do such graces belong to the past. God continues to bestow them on those who are willing to accept them, as we hear in the testimonies of young people at the various World Youth Days.

This article began with a consideration of two different attitudes toward winning: the “push through the pain” attitude, and what I consider to be a more holistic attitude that puts mental health first. We find the same two attitudes in the spiritual life. In a recent article, I quoted a passage by Servais Pinckaers, OP, in which he shows that moral theology in the Catholic Church has been dominated since the 17th century by what he calls “the morality of obligation,” in which “obligation is given priority and invades the entire domain of the moral life.” This is very similar to the “push through the pain” attitude in athletics. He contrasts this approach to morality with the earlier, traditional teaching with its focus on the practice of the virtues and the emphasis on grace. There is a strong undercurrent of Pelagianism in the morality of obligation, and those struggling believers who, like Teresa, Augustine and Paul, cannot pull themselves up by their own spiritual bootstraps, are likely to give up in despair.

In a recent talk, ending his teaching on discernment, Pope Francis spoke of spiritual accompaniment. Unlike the proponents of the “morality of obligation,” he does not insist on strength in the spiritual life. Instead, he shows the value of fragility, of weakness: “we are rich in fragility, all of us, the true richness which we must learn to respect and welcome, because when it is offered to God, it makes us capable of tenderness, mercy, and love. Woe to those people who do not feel fragile: they are harsh, dictatorial. Instead, people who humbly recognize their own frailties are more understanding with others.” Opening oneself to another “helps to bring clarity to ourselves, bringing to light the many thoughts that dwell within us, and which often unsettle us with their insistent refrains… He or she who accompanies does not substitute the Lord, does not do the work in the place of the person accompanied, but walks alongside him or her, encouraging them to interpret what is stirring in their heart, the quintessential place where the Lord speaks.”

We have seen how Fr. Baltazar Alvarez accompanied St. Teresa, encouraging her in her desire for holiness while teaching her to depend on Jesus instead of on herself. Accompaniment is not easy. As one priest said to me, “Accompaniment is messy.” It demands patience and wisdom, and the humility to point to Jesus: “Do whatever He tells you.” Yet wise accompaniment can make great saints of weak, struggling believers. It can turn a bruised reed into a towering cedar of Lebanon and a dimly burning wick into a flame of that blazing fire that Jesus longs to see burning upon our earth.


[i] Isaiah 42, 3. In his description of the Messiah, Isaiah writes: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”

Image: Simone Biles. By Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil – Ginasta holandesa ganha ouro nas traves, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76706656

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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.

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