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St. Teresa of Avila and the search for enoughness

Teresa's “interior castle” image can help us believe that we're fundamentally worthy of love and belonging.
Our Faith

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the canonization of St. Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582). Such a milestone is a fitting occasion for exploring and celebrating the transformative wisdom that Teresa speaks into our contemporary world. In my own life, her thoughts have helped me resolve a fundamental question about my worthiness of love and belonging, prompted by my engagement with the works of New York Times bestselling author Brené Brown.

Fundamental to Brown’s work, and indeed to Teresa’s work, is the idea of wholeheartedness—living and loving with our whole hearts. According to Brown, the key to wholehearted living is believing that whatever our strengths or weaknesses, our achievements or unfulfilled potential, we are enough. We are worthy of love and belonging just as we are.

I love this and truly think Brown is onto something. But as I’ve tried more and more to lean into and live from Brown’s vision of wholeheartedness, I find myself wrestling with this essential question: Where does that lived belief in my “enoughness” come from? My default position is to muster up a belief that I’m enough from my internal world, from my psychological makeup. In other words, I try to tell myself that I’m enough. But that venture quickly falls apart. It turns into a futile exercise of giving myself a gold medal and losing the race at the same time.

You can hear this futility at work in this section of a recent entry in my prayer journal:

How do I believe I’m enough?
It seems ridiculous,
of course I’m not enough.
I can’t read two sentences of a book in a row without checking Twitter or Facebook.
I nurse grudges.
I say stupid things in Zoom meetings.
I’m not clever and I’m not holy.

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And so I go on!

Another alternative is to get my belief in my enoughness from other people’s perceptions of me. But this too, I have found, is futile. Compliments generally just bounce off me because I figure that the person who is saying the nice thing just doesn’t know yet that I’m a fake. Leaning into the words and actions of people who love me gets me some of the way. But all it takes is a little ripple in a relationship with someone who loves me—an ambiguous tone, a cross word, a misunderstanding—and my enoughness gets rippled along with it.

You can probably see where I’m going here. I have come to realize that I can only derive the belief that I’m enough from God. While others might have different ways of anchoring their precious enoughness, for me, only God can guarantee my fundamental worthiness of love and belonging.

It’s precisely in the dawning of this realization that Teresa’s insights have been so profoundly helpful to me. Teresa famously describes the interior self as an exquisite crystal castle with many rooms, where God dwells in the innermost room. She insists that we cannot get our minds around how beautiful our inner reality is and the sheer wonder that we are the capacity for the living God.

Inviting us into her amazement at the splendor of the interior castle, Teresa writes:

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“There is no point wearing ourselves out trying to fathom the great beauty of this castle with our mere minds. Even though the castle is a created thing, there is a vast difference between Creator and creature, so the fact that the soul is made in God’s image means that it is impossible for us to understand her sublime dignity and loveliness” (The Interior Castle).

It’s difficult to deny that I’m fundamentally worthy of love and belonging when I’m being told by this great woman of wisdom that I’m a paradise in which the Lord takes delight. Teresa helps me to grasp that my enoughness is not something that I will finally discover within the storehouse of my own resources if I just look hard enough. Rather, it’s divinely bestowed and contained within the very reality of my God-given existence.

Teresa’s interior castle image does more than reveal to me the grounds of my enoughness. It also brings me to a fresh understanding of my daily experiences of “not enough.” If I have been created for a splendor that is beyond my ability to fulfill, if I’m ultimately a dwelling in which God makes God’s home, then my own attempts to orchestrate my fulfillment will inevitably leave me wanting. My often painful experience of everything within and around me being not enough is the flipside of the glorious truth that I’m the capacity for the infinitude of divine love.

It’s one thing, though, for me to be brought by Teresa’s writings to the source of my worthiness. It’s another for me to actually live from this divine wellspring. What is required is a fundamental shift in where I place authority regarding my identity. It’s a matter of me relinquishing control, of surrendering, and of actively choosing to give God’s love the authority to underwrite my enoughness.

Here, Teresa’s teaching on prayer comes to my aid. Teresa speaks of prayer as a person-to-person sharing between loving friends. It’s about being vulnerably present to the One who is intimately present within us. With all the authority of one who truly knows, Teresa affirms, “If you speak, strive to remember that the One with whom you are speaking is present within. If you listen, remember that you are going to hear One who is very close to you when He speaks” (The Way of Perfection). Teresa wants us to know that Jesus is living, available, and held by desire for us.

That kind of relationship is transformative. It pries away my grip from my tight hold on my self-perception and enables me trustingly to yield to how God sees me. It empowers me to actually believe Brown when she writes, “Worthy now. Not if. Not when. We are worthy of love and belonging now. Right this minute. As is” (The Gifts of Imperfection, Hazelden Publishing).

The society of Teresa’s time was obsessed with family pedigree and social standing. Yet, in Teresa’s reformed Carmelite monasteries, surnames were dropped and discourse on ancestry was forbidden. The nuns were to ground their self-perception and view of all others in the sheer wonder of our divine origin. All these centuries later, Teresa offers me that same kind of liberation. Through her writings, she awakens me to the truth that I do not have to be the guarantor of my own enoughness. The One who calls me by name, holds me in existence, and dwells within me has taken care of that from all eternity.


Image: Flickr/Lawrence OP [CC BY-NC-ND-2.0]

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About the author

Michelle Jones

Michelle Jones is a Presentation Sisters Lecturer in Theology at BBI: The Australian Institute of Theological Education.

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