Saturday, November 5, 2011

Scruples and Teresa of Avila?

This week, I began reading Saint Teresa of Avila: Collected Works translated by Kieran Kavanaugh OCD and Otilio Rodriques CD starting with “The Book of Her Life.” 

I'd looked forward to connecting with this great lady. My first reaction, however, was one of irritation. Why did Teresa continually insist that her actions were so sinful? Wasn't this just a case of scruples? The Catholic Encyclopedia defines scruples as "An unfounded apprehension and consequently unwarranted fear that something is a sin, which, as a matter of fact, is not.

Her vagueness about her so called “sins,” bothered me. To what loose and dangerous activities did she allude, save for some hints at friendships that were perhaps more secular than spiritual. Yet how were these friendships sinful when she was always trying to encourage these persons to a life of prayer?  What could be sinful in that, save that perhaps she sought some degree of personal glory in the attentions and love of these persons?

Then I remembered that saints do not view their behavior the way we do. Aware of God’s tremendous love for them, they view anything that might distract them from God, as sinful. While we might deem these “sins”  simply as distractions due to our humanity, saints view everything through the lens of love – God’s love for them and their feeble response to that love. I remember once having tried to become a saint and remember how the sense of sin tainted everything, even my efforts at prayer, so aware was I of wanting to excel.

During the intervening years, I've had to come to terms with my "sinfulness." While once shame had me praying while hiding my face in shame, I now view sin -- not as something deserving punishment but as something we do to ourselves.By choosing to ignore the movement of grace we block the door to the gift God brings us. My spiritual director once suggested that rather than berate myself for my failures of grace, why not celebrate the times I did respond. Why not view our failures as reminders that God is waiting to assist us. They force us to acknowledge our helplessness and dependence on our constantly loving creator.

Teresa (thanks to that infinitely loving God she remembers to praise constantly throughout her autobiography) speaks much the same way. She asks how God can work within us if we avoid opening ourselves to that loving presence because we are ashamed of our imperfections. If we take the time to turn to God, she reminds us, God will shower his graces upon us. 

Whether or not Teresa suffered from a surfeit of scrupulosity, no longer troubles me. Her efforts, despite her reluctance (and even repugnance), to live a life of prayer provide us with a mirror in which to observe our own unwillingness to pursue a similar course. “Don’t give up,” I hear her telling us. "Yes. You’ve been a miserable failure thus far, but keep turning toward God. That’s all that’s necessary. God will guide you the rest of the way.”

Pastel by Beryl: Fall on a Lake Superior back road
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