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7 March 2020

Message of the General Provost on the 250th anniversary of the death of St. Teresa Margaret of the Heart of Jesus

March 7th of this year is the 250th anniversary of the death of St. Teresa Margaret of the Heart of Jesus, a Carmelite nun of Florence. She was born in Arezzo on July 15, 1747, the second of thirteen children, and was baptized on the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel with the name of Anna Maria. Her father, Ignacio Redi, was descendent of a family distinguished for its solid cultural tradition and profound faith life. (Among the family’s ancestors was Francesco Redi, one of the most important natural scientists of the 17th century, as well as poet and author.) The gentleman Ignacio was Anna Maria’s first and most important spiritual guide. He introduced her into the knowledge of God, the practice of prayer, and the exercise of the virtues. She found in him a man graced with a keen intellect, together with the tenderness of a loving father.

The day that our Order has chosen to celebrate the liturgical memorial of St. Teresa Margaret is the 1st of September, the day when Anna Maria crossed the threshold of St. Teresa’s monastery in Florence at the age of 17. There she remained a little more than five years, until the day of her death on March 7, 1770.

A simple but strong faith runs through the entire life of Teresa Margaret: the Heart of Jesus, her religious name, her program of life, and her primary inspiration. Despite resistance that devotion to the Heart of Jesus found in some areas of Tuscany due to Jansenist tendencies, Anna Maria, thanks to the influence of her Jesuit uncle, Fr Diego, and reading the life of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, nourished herself on this spirituality, the core of which is the actuality of the passion and glory of the Lord Jesus: Christ loves us now, as he also rejoices and suffers now. The popularity of the devotion was based precisely on this actualizing principle which made Christian life an effective participation in the sufferings and joys of Jesus. In one of St. Teresa Margaret’s most famous texts, Resolutions during the Spiritual Exercises of 1768, the young Carmelite followed this fundamental approach: her joys and sufferings took on meaning only when united to those of the Heart of Christ. This approach is not oriented so much toward attaining perfection, but rather a surrender in faith. This is precisely why Teresa Margaret, after having declared that Love is the only goal towards which she strives, asks: What is needed to assume with determination and fidelity this project of life? The answer is: “What is necessary is total abandonment to God… so that only You operate in me.” Teresa Margaret’s experience is profoundly characterized by this attitude of confident abandonment, humility, and an ever-deepening offering and surrender to the loving work of The Father.

The event that brought renown to St. Teresa Margaret was the grace of “Deus caritas est,” for which she was prepared through a simple yet arduous assignment as assistant-infirmarian. The assignment began practically with religious profession and was for her the most concrete means of expressing to the Lord her impatient desire to love Him. The office of infirmarian was added to those already demanded of her, in a community that was experiencing a period of frequent infirmities.   All the testimonies about her reveal a natural and spiritual disposition for this service in which she generously deployed all her delicate charity. The mystical grace was thus described by one of her most attentive sisters in the deposition given in the canonization process:

I observed also in the year 1767 […] another significant change in her outward behavior on an occasion that, finding myself one day seeing her leave her cell and following behind her without her noting my presence or realizing that I was following her, I perceived that her entire face was illuminated and she had an air of abstraction or transport and with a clear, deliberate voice, she uttered these Latin words: «Deus charitas est, qui manet in charitate in Deo manet, et Deus in eo,» and, often uttering these words, she went to the choir, and even after she had finished the services, she continued, when she thought she was not heard, to utter these words for several days, always in a tone and appearance conforming to the above described, so that what was heard became known to the other nuns, although she was overwhelmed by her thought and did not believe anyone heard her.

From this day on, it was as though the young nun was being stalked by some sisters. They followed her to find out just what was happening in her, as if they wanted to hear those “inexpressible sighs” with which the Holy Spirit manifested Himself after having established Himself in a free heart. In fact, the nuns testified that from that graced experience, Teresa Margaret “began to act” in a new way, she changed course, redefined by a new goal. To be possessed by inflamed Love. Soon, however, Teresa Margaret experienced that her flame not only warmed and illuminated, but also burned and consumed to the point of leaving her deprived of all security and possession.

The letters she wrote to her spiritual director, the learned and wise Fr. Ildefonso di S. Luigi, during the last two years of her life are cries for help sent out from a person who is shipwrecked in the darkness of a mystery that surpasses her.  If, on the one hand, her commitment to service grew to the point of leaving her no time even for the care of her spiritual life; on the other hand, the feeling that invaded her was one of radical poverty, of the inability to respond to a Love that has manifested itself to her with such strength. Coldness, insensible, abasement, repugnance are the terms that most frequently come out of her pen to describe the spiritual state in which she was immersed. She could not explain the contrast she felt; repugnance towards any act of virtue, and at the same time, the desire to conform herself in everything to the Heart of Jesus. She understood that the time had come to “suffer and be silent … and to be in all things unperturbed as if I am insensitive”, which is easier to write than to do.  Her only recourse was to surrender to the only certainty that endures, not that of her virtue, but rather that of the love of God: “But I am consoled also feeling that, despite so much indifference towards my good God, He never backs down from always searching for my heart.”

This is the full, mature, radical faith to which St. Teresa Margaret arrived. It was not just a matter of an intellectual assent to the truths of faith, which in any case form an integral part of them; rather, faith is the attitude that made her seek and find in God – and not in herself – her security. On that faith, St. Teresa Margaret rested as on the cross in a more complete abandonment the deeper the darkness accompanied her until the last day of her life. Believing and loving come together, they tend towards the same goal, they are but two declensions of the same childlike confidence in God, to whom hope “in [his] mercy … and in his charity” must be indissolubly united.

St. Teresa Margaret’s testimony is a reminder to all of us, Discalced Carmelites of the 21st century, that union with God is and always will be the goal to which our vocation tends, a “hidden” union, as our Constitutions say, as is the presence of God in the midst of world history. Precisely because it is obscure, that is, hidden, the form of this union does not consist in extraordinary mystical phenomena, in special and outstanding charisms for which the religious flesh is so avid. It is an ordinary form; indeed, it is a servile and self-giving form, the same form that Jesus took in his earthly life. It is the form of a human creature who submits day by day, piece by piece, his whole being into the hands of the Father with the sure certainty that he will have it renewed by Him and made a member of the wounded and glorious body of the Risen Christ. This submission is the consequence of a greater desire that God himself has placed in the depths of the human heart, of an “excess” without which Christianity would lose its meaning, and even more so its contemplative vocation. As has been written recently,” only from this movement of vulnerable imbalance, in which we make everything we are available, even knowing that it is not enough, can Christianity speak to contemporary man again, and be heard, because it touches a tender nerve.” [1].

[1] C. Giaccardi – M. Magatti, La scommessa cattolica, Il Mulino, Bologna 2019, p. 82.