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St. Teresa of Avila and the fearful Catholic

The great Carmelite showed the world that there is no such thing as a fearful saint, and that a life lived with God and for God—and with and for God’s people—is one of both heavenly rapture and earthly confidence.

Detail from "St. Theresa" (1827) by François Gérard. (Wikipedia)

Fear is antithetical to the Catholic heart, as is retreating into seclusion out of fear. Ours is a boldly incarnational faith with an attitude of universal togetherness, and the secular agenda at large is one of fearful de-incarnation and isolation. Say what you will about COVID-19, much of this dehumanizing fear and politicized separation is anti-Catholic and undermining our freedom in a palpable, even perverse, way. But in Octoberthe very month in which Americans celebrate fearCatholics celebrate the life of a saint that showed us how to be fearless in togetherness with Christ and His Mystical Body.

Though many Catholics struggle with anxiety—whether COVID induced or otherwise—Catholicism should be a cure for anxiety. If Christ taught us anything, it was that we should not be afraid, and that those plights which we fear, are actually occasions for beatitude. Holiness is a kind of happiness, therefore, and good cheer is the strongest sign of saintliness. As one of the merriest and wittiest saints in the calendar used to say, “God defend me from gloomy saints, and we might paraphrase, “God defend us from fearful Catholics.” For all her heavenly humor, even Saint Teresa of Ávila had to conquer the gloom of fear.

Teresa was a cheeky girl born in Ávila, Spain in 1515 to a romantic mother and a rigid father. When her mother died, fourteen-year-old Teresa was sent to an Augustinian convent, where she became very ill. With her recovery came a new sickness, however: the sickness of fear—fear for life’s wasted opportunities, fear in her folly and weakness, fear of everlasting damnation. Consumed with fear, Teresa vowed to live a life of strict penance, and though the prospect distressed her sorely, she ran away from home to join the Carmelites.

The Carmelite Order was founded upon poverty and austerity, but in 16th century Spain it had become more like a club for single ladies, complete with a social life, fashionable pursuits, and pleasure trips. Teresa, with her quick wit, became popular among the sisters and, with easy living, effectively distracted herself from her anxiety.

Then something happened. While in prayer, Teresa collapsed before a crucifix, suddenly and strangely transported by Divine Love. When she emerged from her ecstasy, she was not afraid anymore. Her path was clear and bright. She would live courageously for Love alone and renounce all the worldly troubles that had hitherto held her from her heavenly Bridegroom.

The closer Teresa drew to Jesus, the more she saw how far afield the Carmelites had drawn. With characteristic cheer and spirit, she boldly undertook to return the order back to its roots of simplicity and selflessness. Though she was aggressively contested by the Inquisition for her revolution, setting King Philip II and Pope Gregory XIII at odds over her efforts to reform the Carmelites, Teresa’s charm, persistence, and wisdom overcame her opponents as she fearlessly founded new convents dedicated to the ancient canon.

Would we all could be so brave in the face of fear, and even persecution, and fly to those  who might profit from our unabashed, human resistance of the falsehoods that are drawing us apart as a race, a nation, and a church. While I applaud President Trump’s rejection of the Zoom-o-sphere, the unfortunate cancellation of the second presidential debate due to contagion concerns surrounding the coronavirus is the next national stunt of hyper-emphasis on separation, on isolation, even at the expense of the American people and the American republic. The mandates of “distancing” have taken us by storm, primed as we were with the self-imposed distancing of the Internet and the cell phone. Now all are six feet apart lest we end up six feet under.

Frankly, this insanity has been a long time coming. The news media is a confirmed barrage of biasunclear and disingenuousand the antiseptic online existence is admittedly toxic. But these have nevertheless colluded to hole people up in their houses with the fear of death on them, even as they hang plastic skeletons on their porch and prop up zombies in their yard for Halloween. Fear has become part of the trappings of our times and Americans are trembling in their boots whether because of getting sick, the economy rollercoaster, a second Trump term, rioting Marxism, creeping totalitarianism, or fill in the blank. But Saint Teresa said, “I am more afraid of those who are terrified of the devil than I am of the devil himself.”

We are living among people pounded and paralyzed by fear, as Saint Teresa was and then warned against, and we are in need of a similar mystical reconnection that will give us the courage, the humility, and the humor to save our country as she saved the Carmelites. That will be difficult without the psychological comfort of faces, handshakes, or group events. We are mired by social distancing, distance learning, remote working, political soundbytes, and mail-in ballots. We are becoming like Chesterton’s madman in Orthodoxy:

[I]n many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

And all with a cynical (and sometimes sinister) posturing about caring for people by staying away from them. Shortly before becoming pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger famously said in a 2005 homily that modernity struggles under a “dictatorship of relativism,” whereby we are “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine.” While the doctrines of fashionable fear concur with the pronouncements of our Pope Emeritus, it should also be noted that nothing goes with dictatorship so well as cynicism, which our society has in spades and is a far cry from the wit Saint Teresa sported.

Georges Bernanos, the author of Diary of a Country Priest, once said, “Democracies cannot dispense with hypocrisy any more than dictatorships can with cynicism.” When truth and basic freedoms are rejected or relegated to relativism, a sardonic dismissal from a position of assumed superiority is an invaluable asset. And that is the sneer underlying “Black lives matter,” or “Science is real”—(though science isn’t real enough to acknowledge that all lives matter at conception).

The dictatorship of relativism has taken a new turn in its cynical tyranny. There is nothing so relativist, so individualistic, so personally true as isolation. Live your truth, as the saying goesand, better yet, do so all alone, unencumbered by everyone else’s truth. The only common principle is physical and mental distance. Disengage from the real, become disembodied relativists. Lives lie in the balance. As the mad-scientist monster movie put it back in the 80’s, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Of course, Our Lord said, “Do not be afraid.” Saint Teresa of Ávila was not afraid to build walls of wood and stone that holy men and women might build interior castles for the Lord. And she made sure that they were both strongholds of joy, knowing well that “there is a time for partridge and a time for penance.” But when penance came unlooked for and Christ whispered, “This is how I treat My friends,” Teresa’s wry repartee was, “No wonder You have so few.” We could all benefit from a little humor these days.

Let us follow her lead and strike out with courage to speak the truth and the love of Christ openly and cheerfully in a society that has buried itself in COVID fear. It’s like the challenge of navigating the postmodern mess of Halloweendrawing the emphasis away from the symbols of sheer terror and towards those of merriment and the meaningful. Believers must not fear death, for a true faith resists those influences that render death ultimately fearful. Saint Teresa of Ávila showed the world that there is no such thing as a fearful saint, and that a life lived with God and for God—and with and for God’s people—is one of both heavenly rapture and earthly confidence.

(Editor’s note: This essay was first published, in slightly different form, at CWR on October 15, 2020.)

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About Sean Fitzpatrick 19 Articles
Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pennsylvania. He teaches Literature, Mythology, and Humanities. Mr. Fitzpatrick’s writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, the Cardinal Newman Society’s Journal for Educators, and the Imaginative Conservative. He lives in Scranton with his wife, Sophie, and their seven children.


  1. Yes, it certainly does help if, as Christ’s followers, we bear the Cross, and conduct ourselves in a manner that conveys our trust and hope in the resurrection.
    Thank you for this timely reminder, Sean.

  2. It’s not so much fear, it’s that after decades of being faithfully Catholic and sacrificing and suffering for the Faith, God hasn’t done anything to help yet the situation is worsening all over. It’s like God’s not there. So, I’m on strike. You do something God; and until you do, don’t expect anything else from me. I did my part and you did nothing. Ball’s in your court.

    • Don’t you think that He did more than enough when He gave up Himself for you and for many? Do not wait around, now it is our turn to do something for God, like to work with His grace to preserve and pass on to others His teachings, and the salvation He already won for us.

    • Kevin,
      I don’t think you understanding God. For this, you first need humility (Note: your post displayed much pride.) Also, please keep in mind that it’ll likely get much much worse before it’ll get better.

    • Suggest you pick up a good history book on the beginning of Christianity. It isn’t just a movie like St. Paul the Apostle or Quo Vadis–Nero really existed and used oil-covered Christians as torches to line Rome’s streets. And this kind of thing went on for nearly 300 years until the Edict of Milan in AD 313.
      God Himself said he would visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children until the third or fourth generation of those that hate him (Exodus 20: 5).
      Society only started up with the mass use of fornication, contraceptives, and abortion (and now post-birth infanticide) in the 70’s.
      Hold on, Kevin, it’s gonna be a long, rough ride.

    • While not usually recommended for those down at heart, it might be a clarifying task to sit down with the Old Testament over the next few months and read at least Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and maybe Kings.
      It sounds like a lot but it really isn’t.
      Read them with an eye particularly for their anthropology. The human condition is revealed in its full frontal brutality. Nothing has changed, particularly God’s infinite patience with our fallen nature.
      Place yourself in the story and you will come to understand. You say you’ve done your part. You — we — have not yet begun.

    • Do you not know your Old Testament? God rebuked and chastised the innocent along with the guilty when Israel was unfaithful.
      And He tells us in Scripture that if we — the collective, national “we”— turn back to Him, He will bless us. You are not someone exempt from this, as I am not exempt. The innocent suffer along with the guilty…or have you bought into the “God is a Great Cosmic Easter Bunny” mentality of the post Vatican II Church?

      • Very few Catholics know or care about the OT. As a matter of fact when I entered the church (nearly 26 years ago), I was told we were a NT people—the old testament didn’t apply anymore. That in spite of having OT readings at mass.

        • Kay,
          For a new convert, I’d say that the NT isn’t terribly relevant; however, for the more mature Christian, the OT is required background material.

        • Whoever told you that had no understanding of how the New Testament, the life of Christ, builds on the Old. The New Testament makes much more sense in terms of the Old. It shows how God kept the promises and the covenants he made with his people, starting with Adam, going through Abraham, Moses and the prophets. Jesus came to fulfill the law found in the Old Testament. There are many studies of this available, particularly those of the St. Paul Institute, Scott Hahn’s group in Steubenville.

        • Suggest you pick up a Navarre Bible. The OT is explained very well (as is the NT).

          It has certain given me much greater understanding of God’s ever present actions, as well as much greater Trust in Him.

          • Although your recommendation was for someone else, thank you for highlighting this book on the OT. So far my reading of OT is limited to Genesis and Exodus. Been meaning to buy this complete OT book but have been putting it off, now I will buy it.

    • He created you and He also sent a guardian angel to watch over you in this ‘free will’ world.

      You have food in your belly and a roof that sheds the rain. Use your gifts to help others.

    • Look at it this way Kevin—you can go to your Covid death whining and sniveling or you can go bravely into the arms of your Lord. Which would you rather do? Now answer me this:Is your personal life really worse because of Covid or is it worse because you sit in front of the TV every day in fear and absorbing more fear? Why don’t you pray the prayer that never fails—-“Thy will be done, Lord”.

    • How many generations passed in Egypt before God sent Moses? Many. The Jews must have felt very forsaken. Unfortunately, God does not operate on our timetable. Your prayers and sacrifices will contribute to miraculous events in a future, perhaps generations from now, that we can’t imagine.

    • Dear Kevin, God went through the same experience you are having, for He Himself said, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” He knows how you feel. You are not alone. All those who have said the same words are with you.

    • It’s not about exchanging our activities, faith or any other thing for a return from God. That’s why Jesus upset the tables of the money changers in the temple……it’s not doing business, it’s about devotion.

  3. Kevin T, your pain and dismay are poignantly expressed; and you’re not alone in feeling as you. At the same time, I’m reminded of the Manhattan Island rabbi who responded to members of his synagogue when they expressed similar feelings some forty after World War II: ” How can you dare to dishonour your ancestors, who entered the gas chambers singing Hosannas?!” Christ himself expressed a profound sense of abandonment on the cross – continuing, as you do, to place his plight before God, whose ways are wiser and whose hands are stronger than our own.

  4. Many thanks for your article on fear. You’ve hit the bete noire of the Catholic and danger right on the head! I know people who are afraid to come to Mass because of Covid. One woman has not been back for 6 months. To be without the Eucharist should be the source of a greater fear, for why would anyone want to be without the Beloved, whatever the price? You’d think the bishops at least, would know better. But I suppose they are afraid of law suits. “Perfect love casteth out fear. ” Doesn’t seem to be much around, does there? God bless you.

    • What we’re really being emotionally blackmailed by is fear of hurting others. “Wear a mask because you might infect someone else,” we’ve been told. “Just because you think you’ll be all right or you aren’t afraid to die doesn’t mean you might not infect your parents or your grandparents; don’t be selfish, stay home, don’t go anywhere.”

  5. When Francis bows down to the Chinese communists out of fear rather than openly condemning religious persecution what can one expect from the flock?

  6. “…the unfortunate cancellation of the second presidential debate due to contagion concerns…” The Trump camp should have anticipated that Trump would have to debate the moderator in a single candidate forum; but a remote debate would have found another way to stifle him. That is a case of the public (press) deliberately causing isolation.

    “Catholicism should be a cure for anxiety” That’s a catchy phrase but somewhat equivocal for there are common and clinical anxieties. Catholics acknowledge reason. Reason recognizes the sciences of psychology and pastoral care to heal clinical anxiety. Some fears are very deep-seated and it appears from your description that grace healed Theresa, not Catholicism per se (which, granted, is the best faith to embrace against anxiety). And you are of course right that good humor can alleviate common anxiety.

  7. Let nothing disturb you,
    Nothing frighten you,
    All things are passing.

    God never changes.
    Patience obtains all things.
    Whoever has God lacks nothing.
    God is enough.

    St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

  8. I’m not afraid of covid19. I’m afraid of many other things: of ill will, of dying unshriven, of being fearful. It’s well worth praying to be delivered from anxiety and fear, to be given courage and faith, to trust in God. I’m afraid of a venomous society viciously trying to destroy grace; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, it’s needed! And share with one another because the economic effect calls for kindness where times get hard. But pray for the strength to defend our faith and for the preservation of Christianity because the ignorant have forgotten Rome before Christ, and think that they can expect protection while at the same time trying for anarchy.

  9. “Believers must not fear death.” That is true, but there is the virtue of prudence, which helps us judge risks that are beneficial from those that are not. The foolhardy are not fearless; rather, they lack prudence.

  10. In 2022, now that the plague of COVID is pretty much behind us, St. Teresa of Avila has a lesson about something other than pandemic fear. St. Teresa spent twenty years trying to discern whether her private revelations were real, or whether they were demonic deceptions…

    But, not to fear, today we have Cardinal Grech reporting confidently that the LGBTQ+ lifestyle is an upstart revelation from the Holy Spirit! He announces from on high that the Holy Spirit is speaking through the LGBTQ+ “community.” Butt, it’s not really about a fictional gay gene–And, the flippant remarks of clericalist functionaries won’t make it so (“God made you that way.”)

    Instead, “We scanned the entire human genome and found a handful – five to be precise – of locations that are clearly associated with whether a person reports in engaging in same-sex sexual behavior,” said Andrea Ganna, a biologist at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Finland who co-led the research. He said these have “a very small effect” and, combined, explain “considerably less than 1% of the variance in the self-reported same-sex sexual behavior.” This means that non-genetic factors – such as environment, upbringing, personality, nurture – are far more significant in influencing a person’s choice of sexual partner, just as with most other personality, behavioral and physical human traits, the researchers said.

    In the 1941 Bogart movie, the Maltese Falcon, we see a dramatic scene where the stolen bird sculpture turns out to be a fake. Not the falcon after all (and certainly not the Holy Spirit!) Today, the Maltese Cardinal Grech, also a fraud: where, pray tell, is truthful compassion for the band of unfortunate victims of early sex abuse, victimizing grooming, or confusion wrought by absentee or abusive fathers, or by a social culture gone off the rails?

    It’s not only about fictional “new paradigm” theology any more: it’s about stupidity and betrayal in a red hat, stupid.

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