While struggling to find bright spots of hope and light in a world of uncertainty during the pandemic, I had the happy fortune to stumble upon a treasure trove of spiritual reading: I picked up a copy of Saint Teresa of Avila’s “Story of Her Life,” and began to read. Before long, I noticed that I felt much happier and whole after reading her diary than I felt after reading dramatic novels. I haven’t abandoned the novels, but I have begun to appreciate the beauty of the diaries of such female saints as Saint Maria Faustina, Saint Therese of Lisieux, and Saint Teresa of Avila. (If this has sparked your interest, there are other saints’ diaries, as well as saints’ letters, that are widely available.)
The diaries are spiritual reading, and they confer all the benefits of spiritual reading: meditation on God, theological food for thought, and so on. Yet in addition to the obvious benefits, I would like to share three less-obvious reasons why the saints’ diaries can be such a valuable asset to our modern faith life:
1. Faith-filled foundations
Unlike modern movies and novels, in which I intentionally try to discover the producer’s worldview in order to better assess the story’s message, the diaries’ worldview is refreshingly straightforward. The undercurrent in these saints’ diaries is: faith! It’s a faith that’s so different and so much deeper than what we commonly see today that it’s absolutely fascinating. Unlike a story set against the backdrop of nihilism, these diaries focus on themes of faith, hope, and love as part of everyday life, such that reading them feels like theology by immersion, rather than step-by-step instruction.
After her father’s death, St. Teresa of Avila “suffered much in prayer; for…I was not able to shut myself up within myself — that was my whole method of prayer.” She prayed like this for years, but what strikes me most (in addition to her transparency and relatability) is her conclusion. When reflecting on her own surprise that she didn’t give up prayer (despite her suffering), she concludes, “I know well that it was not in my power then to give up prayer, because [God] held me in His hand…that He might show me greater mercies.” I read her words and wonder with desire at the strength of her belief. When I read the saints’ diaries, I hope to discover the faithful assumptions that the saints made about God’s presence on the world — even through suffering — so that I might try them out, and perhaps have the privilege to believe them too.
2. Relatable and humble
The diaries tell the stories of the saints’ lives through their own eyes. Moreover, each autobiography was written (obviously) before the saint was canonized. She didn’t write to tell others, “Here’s my success story; do what I did.” Instead, most of these diaries were written in obedience. For example, St. Therese of Lisieux never intended to write about her life. But when her superior asked her to do just that, she obediently picked up her pen. What this means for us readers is that these books are not didactic tomes, but rather real women’s accounts of God working in their lives.
As an example, St. Therese doesn’t wax on about hefty theology willy-nilly. Instead, she shares tidbits from her happy early childhood, when her father and mother taught her the faith. On learning of the splendor of heaven, she told her mother, “I wish you were dead!” out of sincere desire that her mother should have such joy as eternal life with Jesus. When her mother died young (St. Therese was 4 years old), it changed Therese’s life forever, and in her diary she shares the progression from that grief to begging to enter the convent as a teenager. She writes of God in a very personal and emotional way, her writings born from lived experience and a true and sincere relationship with Christ. She is a young woman to get to know through her diary, someone relatable, accessible, and completely honest.
St. Faustina writes about awkward moments, such as, on at least one occasion, the difficulty of keeping silence when she had been instructed to do so during a retreat. It was hard! One of the visiting sisters came to her room with something to tell her, but St. Faustina didn’t answer her. “I didn’t know you were such an eccentric, sister,” her visitor said, and left. Yikes! If this is not relatable theology, what is?
Like just about everyone today, my free time is limited. Often, I pick up a book with good intentions and never get around to finishing it. It sits at my bedside or on my shelf and I feel like I should finish it, but the timing never works out. The saints’ diaries are wonderful in this regard because they are spiritual and uplifting, but they were never written to be read cover-to-cover in a short period of time (or at all!). There are sections of these diaries that fizzle into a collection of thoughts or notes taken day-by-day that weren’t designed to be consumed like a novel. In a sense, this structure gives the reader “permission” to put the diary down. Unlike other theological texts, such as those of St. Thomas Aquinas, in which one paragraph and one chapter leads logically to the next and the next, the saints’ diaries can be disjointed in a wonderful way. I like to pick them up and read enough to uplift my soul and give me food for thought, and then — if I wish — set the book down until a future week, month, or year, when I’d like to “pick the brain” of Saint Teresa of Avila or Saint Maria Faustina. Of course, there are some sections that truly are engrossing, in which the story of the saint’s life compels me to keep turning pages. In that case, I go for it! My point here is simply that the diaries are flexible enough to healthfully work with the life of the reader, just like a good friend.
If you haven’t given the saints’ diaries a chance, pick one up and start reading. You may be surprised how much you learn and how much your heart moves. Then, when you set the book down, you may observe your day-to-day life and see — as the saints saw in theirs — God’s hand at work.