This week … words from someone else … Teresa of Avila (1515 – 1582) … which I found challenging.
It is needless for me to warn you against the earthly peace which comes from honours, be-cause the poor never meet with much honour. However, unless you are careful, praise from others may harm you greatly, for when once it begins it never ceases, and generally ends in running you down afterwards. This usually takes the form of telling you that you are more holy than others and such-like flattering speeches which seem to have been inspired by the devil. Indeed, they must be, sometimes, for it they were said in your absence it would not matter but when uttered in your hearing, what other fruit can they produce than evil, unless you are most wary?
For the love of God, I implore you never to find your peace in such speeches, for they might gradually do you so much mischief that at last you would come to believe them, or to think you had done all you need, and that your work is finished. Never let such things be said of you without strongly repudiating them; you can easily do this if you make it your constant practice. Re-member how the world treated our Lord Jesus Christ, yet how it had extolled Him on Palm Sunday! Men so esteemed St John the Baptist as to mistake him for the Messiah, yet how barbarously and for what motive they afterward beheaded him! Never does the world exalt any of the children of God, save to dash them down again.
I know this well by experience. I used to regret that people praised me so blindly, but now I laugh as at the words of a madman. Remember your sins, and that even if there is some truth in what is told you, the good is not your own but you are only under an obligation of serving God more strictly. Dread lest you should take pleasure in this treacherous kiss given by the world; look upon it as the kiss of Judas; although no harm may be meant by it, the devil is al-ways alert and may despoil your soul unless you defend yourself. (St Teresa of Avila, ‘Conceptions of the Love of God’ in Minor Works of St Teresa [London, 1913] p. 131, 132; cited in Forum Letter Vol. 47 No 3 [March 2018])
I can imagine people reading such words and wondering about things like self esteem and self worth. The view that life is tough – words are more often used to bruise, hurt, cut, maim, even kill – so the truth is that we need praise and support. I can imagine people reading such words and thinking medieval mystical nonsense. After all we wouldn’t want the world to say bad things about us and to us! But that raises the issue of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ according to the world?
What struck me as I read Teresa’s words was whether we find ourselves – our identity, even our worth – in the perspectives, views, sentiments and above all words of others. And the answer is that we do! The question then becomes ‘Whose words?’. And for the Christian among all the words – a cacophony no doubt at times – comes the still small voice in Baptism, as one encounters the Bible messages in all their forms, in the intimacy of Holy Communion telling us that we are loved, forgiven (which says something about us!), that we are not alone, that we are blessed, that we are who we are as receivers of God’s grace which leads us to grow in Christ (not full of ourselves). In all these words we find love and security that will never change.