St. Teresa Margaret could be a model for all who strive to grow in virtue. She approached the exercise of all the virtues in an intelligent and carefully planned manner. The little table in her cell contained many small scraps of paper with her resolutions carefully written out as reminders to her of her plan of action. The particulars in her practice of the virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience may not be wholly imitable for us who live outside the monastery but the motives which underlie her practices are the motives which drive us all in our spiritual lives, the desire to love and serve God and neighbor.
Her approach to the practice of the virtue of poverty is representative. An examination of this approach will be an inspiration to our own attempts to practice this or any virtue. We can trace three related motives in her plan of action; the imitation of Christ, openness to God, and generosity towards our neighbor.
It was from St. Frances of Assisi that St. Teresa Margaret first developed a love for the virtue of poverty. On the grounds of her family’s villa was a small chapel decorated simply with frescos from episodes in the life of St. Francis. She took St. Francis as her patron and before her entrance into Carmel, her father, always sensitive to her unspoken desires, took her on a pilgrimage to La Verna to visit the places made holy by this Saint.
In the cave where St. Francis prayed and slept she saw and appreciated first hand the great physical rigors of the Saint’s life. At the site where he received the stigmata she prayed and entered an ecstasy during which she came to a deep understanding of how a soul in love with God must be transformed into an image of Jesus Crucified. Here her love for the virtue of poverty as an entering into the poverty of Christ and in response to the great love of God became even more clearly defined in her heart. It was her desire to imitate St. Francis of Assisi in every way and to repeat with him, “Deus meus et omnia”. With this background it was easy for Teresa Margaret to understand and embrace the words of St. Teresa of Jesus:
“Poverty of spirit is a good that includes all the others and renders those who have it master of all the goods of the earth, because it makes us despise them”. (Way of Perfection 2,5)
In Carmel, Teresa Margaret was perfection itself in the externals of the practice of poverty. The oldest, the shabbiest, the least convenient were her choice and ambition, and nothing made her happier than to be allowed to exchange some useful article for one that was faulty.
Her habit was the oldest and most patched. In the convent in Florence a new postulant was not given a new habit, but the habit of a deceased nun. Teresa Margaret was happy to take the oldest she could find. She was not content with what was permitted her but was always seeking in everything for her use “the worst, poorest and most disdained,” and even “the leftovers and discarded articles of others”. She was careful in the smallest things, never wasting anything, not a thread of silk or a drop of oil, or even a small piece of paper. Little bits of paper, even if they had been used, she would treasure to write down her thoughts and her resolutions; some of these are still preserved in the convent. She was always most pleased “with something old or used by a deceased religious, wishing to be treated as the poor little ones of Jesus Christ”.
She never liked to see even crumbs of bread wasted; she would sweep them off the floor to feed the birds. One day she was being chided about her zealous concern over these crumbs of bread. To this she responded that nuns, who are Christ’s poor, should render an account even of such little things. “These little crumbs are of no use to any one, so I scatter them on the terrace and feed the sparrows, who have come to expect them, and yet I am not sinning against holy poverty,” she said.
She never showed a desire for anything, yet she did this without drawing attention to it, even at times managing to go without necessities in spite of the careful watch of the fraternal charity of her community. When she did lack for necessities it pleased her to be able to really experience what she called “at least a little the weight of religious poverty”.
Her practice of poverty extended to the use of objects of piety and devotion. She seemed to practice a particular vigilance in this, and many times she gave back something to the mistress or to the prioress in order to deprive herself of it. She seemed also to honestly feel that if someone else had it, it might be put to better use.
Careful not to accumulate anything, hers was the poorest of poor cells. When a new novice entered the community, Mother Anna Maria would search the cells of the sisters for articles which might be given to the newcomer. She recalled having had a difficult time ever finding anything useful in Sr. Teresa Margaret’s cell.
Her spirit of poverty lead her to a love for manual labor. It was a natural impulse that from the first days urged her to give herself, to spend herself for the community even to not having a minute for herself, while the desire of a true solidarity with the poor stimulated her to an “assiduous and diligent” zeal for work that permitted her, notwithstanding an apparent slowness, to finish by herself in one day “as much as could have been done by all together”.
Of all this Teresa Margaret was unaware. Mother Anna Maria said: “From her demeanor it was easily observed that she truly kept before her eyes the point of our Rule of having to work, as moreover on the other hand to earn one’s sustenance with the work of one’s own hands, and sometimes with humble sorrow she expressed to me that she did not merit the common allowance of food because it seemed to her to deviate from the counsel and point of the Rule: ‘For the charge we gave you when we were with you was this: that whoever is not willing to work should not be allowed to eat.’” (Rule of St. Albert Art. 20)
At the same time she tried invariably to select the worst tools to work with, the most inferior or worn out ones, and yet she would take the greatest care of them, as would a poor person who had nothing else.
When she was not at work she was at prayer. Any free time she did find was spent in her cell or in the chapel remembering the words of the Rule: “Each one of you is to stay in his own cell or nearby, pondering the Lord’s law day and night and keeping watch at his prayers unless attending to some other duty”. (Rule of St. Albert Art.10)
One might ask: “Is it worth the time and energy to be so careful about crumbs of bread, using the worst materials, etc.?” Today we might ask, is it worth the time to clip and save every coupon, travel to several different markets to get the best price? St. Teresa Margaret was intelligent and these types of questions occurred to her too. She discussed them with her confessor Fr. Ildefonse.
The response of Fr. Ildefonse was “that seeking it on purpose was not to be done, but do it for love of religious poverty when the chance presented itself”. Again, Teresa Margaret had in mind our Holy Rule: “Our Lord, at his second coming will reward anyone who does more than he is obliged to do. See that the bounds of common sense are not exceeded, however, for common sense is the guide of the virtues”. (The Rule of St. Albert Art. 24)
There are some people who due to a careless or even slovenly nature are not concerned with the condition of their cell, their habit or of the materials they use. This is not the virtue of poverty. Teresa Margaret was very fond of propriety and neatness. Although she took for herself the poorest of everything she cared for them as though they were the best and most precious.
It is very important to be clear on the underlying rational for Teresa Margaret’s behavior and not just focus on the externals. The externals were expressions of the interior virtue and the proof of the deep spiritual insights that motivated her.
For Teresa Margaret poverty was a means to imitate Christ. As with so many of our saints, her meditations were focused on Christ Crucified. She saw Christ on the cross as the ultimate poverty. To practice poverty was for her to conform herself “to the life and spirit of her beloved Lord”. She wanted to reach the state of a person who was poor and had not the right of ownership of her own goods. Her poverty had at origin an attraction of love, an insupportable need to imitate Christ “in his earthly condition of annihilation”. (Phil 2:7)
She also saw in the practice of poverty a means of being open to God. The practice of poverty bears fruit in receptivity for God, making room for His presence and His word. “The one who allows herself to be dispossessed and reduced to interior poverty, is the one who can truly hear God”. Her solicitude for poverty, obvious in her whole manner of being was due to the desire to imitate Jesus but also to the need of being truly free to love Him. In the liberating freedom of poverty, Teresa Margaret experienced profoundly that “God alone suffices”.
Teresa Margaret also saw in the practice poverty a means of practicing charity. Choosing the poorest of everything for herself allowed others have what was better. Working harder and longer than anyone relieved burdens from others.
Her spirit of poverty and charity little by little left her with no free time at all. Her entire day was absorbed, not only by the community acts, the hours in choir, and by her duties as infirmarian, but by never refusing acts of charity and of service to all who asked her. Often a sister in the infirmary would ask Teresa Margaret to pray the Office with her. Although she had already prayed the Office in Choir, she would take the time to pray it again. Or she would be asked by a sister to join her in her private devotions. Giving up her own prayer time, she would stay in the infirmary to pray with the one who asked.
St. John of the Cross teaches us that when we leave our prayer for the service of charity we will gain more from the Lord than we would have gained in doing our prayer. Certainly this seems to have been the case for Teresa Margaret. While loosing the precious time for private prayer she continued to make great strides in her spiritual life until receiving from the Lord the gift of Spiritual Marriage by the tender age of twenty-two.
Teresa Margaret seemed to be truly unaware of all she accomplished each day. At the end of a very busy day, the only comment she would make was that of attributing the fruit of the day to the Lord: “Do you not see how God aids us, and at the end of the day, everything is done?”
And yet even at the end of the day, she was not done. When all was quiet and the daylight faded, the over worked saint had one more task. She who meditated on the mystery of Christ who came to serve and identify with the poor and suffering could not keep from making one last round of her patients. The sisters saw her, when it was already dark, make her last round from one patient to the other, lighting the darkness of the long halls with a faint light obtained by burning spoiled walnuts: it was the last loving touch of a day spent in poverty and charity. It was the final proof that all her acts of poverty were manifestations of her love of God and neighbor.
Once when questioned by Mother Anna Maria on her practice of poverty and detachment, Teresa Margaret gave the following counsel: “Always receive with equal contentment from God’s hand either consolations or sufferings, peace or distress, health or illness. Ask nothing, refuse nothing, but always be ready to do and to suffer anything that comes from His Providence”.
Many will be put off by the extremes of St. Teresa Margaret’s practice of poverty, obedience, penance, etc. Perhaps only when one has meditated as deeply as she on the charity, humility and poverty of the Sacred Heart of Jesus can one begin to grasp the dimension of her exalted soul. One of the readings for the Mass of St. Teresa Margaret is taken from Ephesians:
Out of his infinite glory, may he give you the power through his Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; until, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God. (Eph 3:16)
St. Teresa Margaret truly knew the love of Christ. But we must not simply look at her marvelous spirit in awe; we must allow her to inspire us to do the same. The closing words of this reading tell us that it can be done:
Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3:20-21)