From an article dated April 1998
“Of what use are monks and the religious orders?” This question, out of place in a Christian environment, has become almost banal in our secularized society. Pope John Paul II was even able to write, on March 25, 1996, “Today, many seem to be puzzled and ask: Why the consecrated life? Why embrace such a life, whereas there are so many urgent necessities in the area of charity and evangelization, to which one can answer without the burden of consecrated life? Isn’t such a life just a ‘waste’ of human energy which, according to the criteria of efficiency, could be used for a greater profit for humanity and the Church?” (Apostolic Exhortation, Vita consecrata, 104).
To this question, the Holy Father responds, “For the person captivated in the secret of his heart by the goodness and beauty of the Lord, that which might appear a waste in the eyes of men is an unequivocal reply of love; it is enthusiastic gratitude for having been admitted in a very special way to the knowledge of the Son of God and to partaking in His divine mission in the world” (ibid.) Consecrated life is a loving response to God’s call: You have attracted me, O Lord, and I have been attracted (cf. Jeremiah 20:7). This overwhelming attraction leads to a particularly intimate share in the mystery of Christ, by exclusive consecration of one’s person to Him.
“God alone suffices”
Before entering Carmel in 1918, a young eighteen year old Chilean girl, attracted by Christ, explained thus to her hurt and scandalized brother the reasons for her vocation: “There is, in the soul, an unquenchable thirst for happiness. I do not know why, but in me, this thirst is increased tenfold. I want to love something infinite, and I do not want the one I love to change or be a plaything of its passions, circumstances of time and life. Love, yes, but love the immutable Being, God, who has loved me infinitely from all eternity.” The natural desire for happiness is of divine origin; God put it in man’s heart in order to draw him to Himself who alone can fulfill it. “True happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievement-however beneficial it may be-such as science, technology, and art, or indeed in any creature, but in God alone, the source of every good and of all love.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 1723).
On March 21, 1993, at the canonization of Saint Teresa of the Andes, Pope John Paul II declared: “To a secularized society which lives with its back to God, I have the joy to present, as a model of the everlasting youth of the Gospel, this Chilean Carmelite. She brings to men of today the limpid witness of a life which proclaims that it is in the love, adoration and service of God that grandeur and joy, freedom and the full realization of the human creature are found. The life of Blessed Teresa cries out softly from the cloister: God alone suffices!”
“My little Father, let’s go to Heaven!”
Juana Fernandez Solar was born on July 13, 1900 in a well-to-do family if Santiago, Chile (Latin America). From her childhood she manifested an ardent personality, full of heart and intelligence and animated with a great desire for God. “I remember,” tells a priest, friend of the Fernandez family, “that one day, taking me by the hand, she said: ‘My little Father, let’s go to Heaven!’-‘Very good, my child,’ I answered, ‘let’s go to Heaven!’ We went out of the house together and I asked her, ‘Well, Juanita, which way do we go to Heaven?’-‘That way,’ she said, pointing to the Cordillera Central. ‘Very well, my child,’ I replied; ‘but you should realize that when we have climbed the highest mountains, Heaven will still be very, very far. No, Juanita, that is not the way to Heaven: Jesus in the tabernacle, He is the royal way there.’ “.
In spite of these good dispositions, Juana did not lack defects. She was stubborn, vain and egoistic, given to pouting and whims. “I sometimes went into a ferocious rage,” she would later say. With the help of her family (she had five brothers and sisters) and especially by the grace of her Baptism, she led a tough battle against her evil inclinations, especially against her hot and emotional temper, which was influenced by her fragile health. One day, her sister Rebecca was so taken away with Juana that she hit her with all her strength. Juana wanted to strike back with the same vigor. Her face red with anger, she grabbed her sister, and suddenly, stopped: instead of a blow, she hastily gave her a kiss. Rebecca did not understand this heroic gesture of her sister and chased her away saying: “Get out of here! You have given me the kiss of Judas!” Victorious over her anger, Juana went meekly away.
Hospitalized at the age of 13 for acute appendicitis, Juana suffered deeply from solitude: “Then I fixed my eyes on a picture of the Sacred Heart,” she wrote, “and I heard a very gentle voice saying to me: ‘What, Juanita! I am always alone on the altar because of My love for you, and you cannot bear being alone for a moment?’ Since then, my Jesus speaks to me. And I spent whole hours conversing with Him… He was teaching me little by little how I should suffer and not complain. I did everything with Jesus and for Jesus.”
During adolescence, frivolousness made her lose part of her fervor. But frequent illness, by keeping her from amusements, maintained her in God’s presence, and soon she was disgusted at the thought of those vain and sensual recreations.
On the way to the heights
On December 8, 1915, with the permission of her confessor, Juana consecrates herself to God by the vow of chastity. Pope John Paul II has reminded us of the eminent worth of this vow: the joyous practice of perfect chastity bears witness to” the power of God’s love in the weakness of the human condition. The consecrated person attests that what the majority holds to be impossible becomes, with the grace of the Lord Jesus, possible and authentically liberating. Yes, in Christ, it is possible to love God with the whole heart, by putting Him above all other love, and to thus love every creature with the freedom of God! This is one of the testimonies which are more necessary today then ever, precisely because it is so little understood by the world” (Vita consecrata, 88).
In 1916, Juana made her first retreat according to the method of Saint Ignatius Loyola. After meditating on the “Call of Christ the King,” she wrote: “Be disposed to follow Jesus wherever He wants. He chose poverty, humiliations, the cross. Will I not also receive these gifts since He created me, preserves me in life and has freed me from Hell? Still better, He has suffered for thirty years all kinds of pain in order to finally die on the cross as the most foul of men… And I would not want to suffer anything for His love?” These considerations penetrated her soul so deeply that penance, in imitation of the suffering Christ, became a real need for her. Her sister Rebecca later told that she resorted to a thousand devices in order to mortify her taste and cross herself in all things. However she obeyed her mother who asked her not to deprive herself of the food necessary for her weak health.
In spite of her trials and illnesses, Juana remained a joyful and expansive young girl. On vacation on the Pacific Coast, she went horse riding sidesaddle with friends, and together they helped the priests in the countryside missions to catechize the peasants. She also loved very much taking care of the poor.
“I thirst for souls”
Juana heard God’s call: “How happy I am, my dear little sister!” she wrote Rebecca on April 15, 1916. “Each day I long to go to Carmel to be occupied with Jesus alone, to be merged into Him and no longer live but on His life; to love and suffer to save souls. Yes, I thirst for souls because I know that is what my Jesus loves most. I must offer to my Fiancé the blood He has shed for each of them.”
And Juana was now committed to holiness, in answer to the love which God has shown us in the redemptive Incarnation: In this is charity; not as though we had loved God, but because He hath first loved us, and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10). The demands of conversion concern all the children of the Church. But persons who have embraced the consecrated life live up to these demands in a total gift of themselves which goes as far as giving up even legitimate goods. By the vow of poverty, they forsake the personal possessions of earthly goods; by the vow of chastity, they renounce marriage; by the vow of obedience, they surrender legitimate autonomy in the direction of their life. Thus they follow more closely the Lord Jesus in poverty, chastity and obedience. This absolute love is a valuable example for all Christians.
In September 1917, Juana wrote to the Prioress of the Carmelite Convent of Los Andes, situated at the foot of the mountain range of the same name, 70 km from Santiago, and expressed her desire to enter the convent, “The life of a Carmelite is suffering, love and prayer, and such is my ideal. My Reverend Mother, my Jesus has taught me these three things ever since my childhood.”
Nevertheless, the young girl still experienced falls. She accused herself of affection and on October 18, 1917, confessed: “Today, a Sister distributed some candy, and since she only gave me a small piece, I got angry and threw it out and then refused another piece she offered me” (Journal). Our faults, by showing our human weakness, help us to understand that holiness is less our work than that of the Holy Spirit. To get there, Juana will continue the struggle and put all her fervor in the service of the Divine Spirit.
The heart’s call
In the spring of 1918, she offered herself as a victim of love and expiation I’ve got some young, in answer to an inspiration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Shortly afterwards, her soul was shrouded in darkness. She confided to a priest her state of interior suffering, adding: “I am not surprised, my Reverend Father, because I have asked Christ to deprive me of all consolation, so that other souls whom I love may find peace and joy in the sacraments and prayer.”
The redemptive Passion of Christ has conferred a new meaning upon suffering which is a consequence of original sin; it can now be a share in the salvific work of Jesus. I fill those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His Body, which is the Church, says Saint Paul (Colossians 1:24). Suffering is certainly not good in itself, but Jesus has deigned to take it upon Himself for our spiritual regeneration. So, by walking in the footsteps of the suffering Christ, we cooperate with His work of saving souls and, moved by the Holy Spirit and charity, we can obtain for ourselves and for others graces of sanctification with a view to eternal life. There is a constant bond of love and an abundant exchange of all goods among the faithful-those in Heaven, in Purgatory and on the earth-which is called the communion of saints. In this admirable exchange, the merits of each profit the others.
On January 11, 1919, Juana and her mother visited the Carmelite Convent of Los Andes, chosen because it was the poorest in Chile. During the preceding days, Juana had been tempted against her vocation; it appeared to her that she could do more for the salvation of souls by entering an active Order. But hardly had she gone into the small convent when all her doubts dissipated: “I felt such great peace and happiness that it is impossible to explain it. I saw clearly that God wanted me there and I felt in myself strength to overcome all obstacles in order to be a Carmelite and enclose myself there forever.”
The enclosure of contemplative monks and nuns is a way of living out the paschal mystery of Christ. From an experience of death to self, it becomes an overabundant life and appears as a joyful announcement of the possibility offered to every person of living for God alone, in Jesus Christ. The enclosure calls to mind the “cell of the heart” in which each of us is called to live in union with the Lord (cf. Vita consecrata, 59).
“Saint Joseph has done the miracle!”
Towards the end of 1917, Juana and her mother were leaving church one day after Mass when the young girl said abruptly: “Do you know, Mom that I want to become a Carmelite?” Mrs. Fernandez had been observing the action of grace in her daughter’s soul. Her answer was calm and simple: “If your father gives his consent, I will not be opposed.” In the spring of 1919, Juana, who was staying with some friends, wrote to her father in order to obtain his consent. She put her whole heart and her entire faith into this letter dated March 25, feast of the Annunciation. Conditions were not favorable, for the financial situation of the family was going down hill, and it was not sure whether the dowry, at that time necessary for entering the convent, could be paid.
The days went by, and even though Juana had come back home with her parents, her father made no allusion to the letter. Finally, as she was getting ready to leave, Juana, catching sight of her father, sprang towards him. With all the tenderness and delicacy which were hers, she begged him to give the requested consent. Going against the natural instincts of his heart, he answered, “My child, if such is the will of God, I am not opposed.” Filled with joy, Juana exclaimed: “Saint Joseph has done the miracle!”
In a letter to her brother Lucho, Juana revealed the interior fire with which she was burning: “The soul which is locked in chains by the demands of the body, by those of the social milieu in which it lives, is exiled and aspires ardently to contemplate unceasingly the infinite horizon which broadens as it is gazed upon, without ever meeting with any limits in God. Dear Lucho, you cannot understand this now, but I will pray so that God will show Himself to your soul some day, just as, in His infinite Goodness, He manifests Himself to mine… Above all, reflect that life is so short; you already know that this life is not life.” Indeed, compared to eternal life where we will see God face to face with ineffable and unending bliss, delivered from every suffering, from all tears and death, earthly life does not deserve to be called life.
On May 7, 1919, the doors of the Carmel of Los Andes closed definitively behind the postulant who will henceforth be called Sister Teresa of Jesus. “Blessed be God.” She wrote to her mother the following day. “I am in my little convent, I am taking great care to walk in wooden shoes. I am overcome with uncontrollable laughter when I see how awkward I am. In sum, I am happy, for even though I have nothing, I find all in God.” She had lost nothing of her sense of humor: “Here we mend and darn a lot of clothes, for we are poor. Just imagine that the habit I am repairing has more than a hundred and fifty patches. There’s nothing left of the original tissue!”
In every religious community, poverty is in honor. Without denying the worth of created goods, voluntary poverty places them in their true, contingent perspective. Its first meaning is to bear witness to God who is the true wealth of the human heart, out of imitation of Christ in poverty: Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:3). In a materialistic world so often eager to possess, oblivious to the needs and sufferings of the weakest, evangelical poverty forcefully exposes the idolatry of money. It is a call to a moderate use of worldly goods. (cf. Vita consecrata, 89-90).
On October 14, 1919, Sister Teresa received the Carmelite habit, in the presence of her family and a number of friends. She began her novitiate. During that time of probation, she alternately went through extraordinary mystical favors and great temptations, especially against faith. But her natural cheerfulness was not shaken.
Ripe for the harvest
At the beginning of March 1920, Sister Teresa affirmed that she would die in a month. In fact, on April 2, Good Friday, she fell seriously ill with typhoid fever. On Easter Monday, she received the last sacraments with great fervor, and the following day, was allowed to make profession of religious vows. On the 12th, after just eleven months of Carmelite life, Sister Teresa of Jesus entered into the joy of Heaven.
Just a few days after her death, Father Julian Cea announced: “She will shortly perform miracles.” Since then, a countless number of persons have attributed to her intercession all kinds of graces and favors. The Carmelite Convent of Los Andes which just celebrated its centennial (February 2, 1898-1998), has become the most popular pilgrimage of Chile, and many young people there receive the grace to undertake or come back to a Christian way of life. The posthumous influence of Saint Teresa of the Andes are surprising for a young girl who died at the age of twenty. Her life, inconspicuous for a society impressed with temporal success, is nevertheless proposed by the Church as an example of human achievement. The secret of Chile’s saint is found in her deep union with Christ and in the practice of true love, poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us (Romans 5:5). This love, unlike the false love which seeks egoistic pleasure, is identified with the gift of self without counting; it procures true happiness for man.
Pope John Paul II declared at her canonization: “God made the light of His son Jesus Christ shine in her in a wonderful fashion, so that she might be a beacon and a guide for a blind world which is incapable of discerning divine splendor… To youths who are continually being attracted by the messages and suggestions of an erotic culture, to a society which confuses authentic love which is the gift of self, with the hedonistic use (for one’s own pleasure) of other, this young virgin of the Andes proclaims the beauty and the happiness which flows from pure hearts.
“In her home, she learned to love God above all things, and feeling that she belonged entirely to her Creator, her love for neighbor became even more intense and lasting. That is what she explains in one of her letters: ‘When I love, it’s forever. A Carmelite never forgets. From her small cell, she accompanies the souls she has loved in the world (August 1919).Teresa’s burning love moved her to long to suffer with Jesus and like Jesus… She wanted to be an immaculate victim offered in constant and silent sacrifice for sinners. ‘We are co-redeemers of the world, and the redemption of souls is not accomplished without the cross’ (Letter, September 1919)… In a world in which people struggle to assert themselves, possess and dominate, she teaches us that happiness is in being the last and the servant of all, following the example of Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve and give His life for the redemption of many.”
We entrust to Saint Teresa of the Andes, as well as to the Immaculate Virgin and Saint Joseph all those who are dear to you, living and deceased.
Dom Antoine Marie, osb