Saints and Scholars Newsletter October 21, 2022

Saints and Scholars Newsletter October 21 2022

Words from our Principal

Dear families and friends of Lumen,

“When departing from a place, I will leave it better than I found it.” In our school Honor Code, these words generally apply to our physical surroundings – leaving our cafeteria cleaner than we entered, for instance, or our classrooms tidier. Yet in many ways, to leave the world a better place than we found it is part of the call of the Christian life. It is exemplified by the great reformers of the Church, such as St. Francis, as well as great missionaries, such as St. Teresa of Calcutta – and even by cloistered nuns like St. Therese of Lisieux, who said that her mission of making earth a better place would continue after her death, writing: “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth!”

To want to make the “world a better place” is not just a Christian aspiration. It has inspired secular songs (like this Michael Jackson classic), news commentaries, and advice lists (a quick Google search reveals that everyone from the New York Times to Oprah has something to say about this topic). However, I do think that the Christian understanding and application of this principle look somewhat different than the purely secular one – and St. Teresa of Avila, whose feast day we celebrated on October 15, gives us some insight into how.

Teresa of Avila lived in the sixteenth century, at a time in which, as she herself described it, “the world was on fire.” The Protestant Reformation was tearing the Church apart. The Church itself was full of indolence and greed. Teresa longed to do something “in the Lord’s service” to address these evils – so she committed herself to “do[ing] the little that was in me – namely, to follow the evangelical counsels [of poverty, chastity, and obedience] as perfectly as I could.”

It isn’t at first glance obvious how committing oneself to the perfect practice of the evangelical counsels could make the world a better place. How could one woman’s perfect practice of poverty, chastity, and obedience change anything about the disunity and moral laxity of the Church?

In the first place, Teresa believed that these practices could purify our prayer – and Teresa believed in the power of prayer. In her classic treatise The Way of Perfection, she urged her sisters to stop praying for themselves as much and pray instead for souls at risk, especially for the souls of those in power in the Church and the world:

Let us strive to live in such a way that our prayers may be of avail to help these servants of God. . . Some people think it a hardship not to be praying all the time for their own souls. Yet what better prayer could there be than this? You may be worried because you think [such prayer for others] will do nothing to lessen your pains in Purgatory. . . well, let it remain. After all, what does it matter if I am in Purgatory until the Day of Judgment provided a single soul should be saved through my prayer? And how much less does it matter if many souls profit by it and the Lord is honored? Always try to find out wherein lies the greater perfection.

And here we get a first clue as to how the Christian endeavor of making the world a better place transcends the secular: it is rooted in prayer and is focused on the final end for which the world is destined. We strive to make the world a better place not for its own sake, but because we want it to achieve its end of glorifying God and giving Him honor.

In addition to purifying our prayer, Teresa believed that the evangelical counsels were essential to helping us attain the detachment, humility, and love that are necessary to serve others – and serving others is at the heart of making the world a better place. Teresa knew that the greatest gift we can give the world is by the perfection of ourselves in virtue, because it is only when we are striving for virtue that we can fully give ourselves to others.

And this is another way in which the Christian principle transcends the secular: it is rooted in personal virtue, in personal conformity to Jesus Christ in faith, hope, and love. In her chapters on love, Teresa gives very concrete and practical advice on how to make our daily communities better:

  • “Considerate treatment of [your sisters] is part of perfect love. . . Take compassion on each others’ needs.”
  • “It is also a very clear sign of love to try to spare others household work by taking it upon oneself. . .”
  • “Be careful about your interior thoughts. May God, by His Passion, keep us from expressing such thoughts as these: ‘But I am her senior!’, ‘But I am older!’, ‘But I have worked harder!’, ‘But that other sister is being treated better than I am!’”
  • “Remember that there must be someone to cook the meals and count yourselves happy in being able to serve like Martha. . . [T]rue humility consists to a great extent in being ready for what the Lord desires to do with you. . . If contemplation and mental and vocal prayer and tending the sick and serving in the house and working at even the lowliest tasks are of service to the Guest who comes to stay with us, what should it matter to us if we do one of these things rather than another?”

Teresa’s small-scale advice went on to have a large-scale outcome: inspired by the example of her original convent, the leaders of the Carmelite order invited Teresa to begin new monasteries all around Europe. Her writings on prayer and contemplation secured her legacy as a “Doctor of the Church,” and she is remembered today as a great religious visionary and reformer – whose reforms began with a desire to “make the world a better place” through personal conversion, prayer, and the pursuit of God’s glory.

Though we are not cloistered nuns and monks vowed to the evangelical counsels, we can still participate in Teresa’s program for loving service in a community, rooted in prayer, virtue, and the desire to give glory to God. When we ask our scholars to practice the principle of caring for their surroundings by leaving a place better than they found it, we are inviting them to consider how their actions both honor the people who came before them and how it will impact the people who come after; to act with humility by taking upon themselves a “lowly” task; and by seeing their work as an act of hospitality to Christ and a means of glorifying God. And our own prayer is that, by practicing this principle on a small scale at school, we can prepare them for the greater task of transforming the world and leaving it better than they found it, just as St. Teresa did.

Pax et bonum,

Karen Celano

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