St. Teresa of Ávila: “If this is how You treat your friends….”

The story runs along these lines: St. Teresa of Ávila had an unfortunate happenstance. Sometimes it is said that she fell off a horse into the mud; sometimes it’s a carriage accident and mud; sometimes there’s no mud at all and it’s an insight she received in prayer. Whatever the circumstances, she heard Jesus say to her, “This is how I treat my friends,” to which she replied, “If this is how You treat your friends, it is no wonder You have so few!”

Did it happen? Someone asked me and I went looking …

Googling for the phrase turned up lots and lots of hits, with no citations. Not good.

Wikiquote doesn’t mention it.

Google Books found it in a 1956 Saturday Review article, quoted as a well-known saying.

And here the trail seemed to go dry. I was suspicious because of the various forms of the story, but I wasn’t quite sure.

So I decided to look for the story in Spanish. With the help of Google Translate, I decided to search for Si así tratas a tus amigos (“If this is how you treat your friends”) which turned up many hits. But the remainder of the phrase varied:

* con razón no tienes muchos.
* con razón tienes tan pocos!
* ahora comprendo por qué tienes tan pocos.
* por eso tienes tan pocos.
* ¡no en balde tienes tan pocos!
and one site had the whole possible-quotation arranged differently: Señor, no me extraña que tengas tan pocos amigos si así tratas a los que tienes.

So I thought for a bit. The story didn’t seem to fit into the general tenor of her autobiography, but I checked the English translation for “friends” and for “treat” without finding the story. I checked the Spanish edition of the first biography written of her,  by Francisco de Ribera, one of her confessors, for the words amigos and tratas, again without finding the story.

I was about ready to throw my hands up in despair and say that the Saturday Review article was passing along a story from I-know-not-where whose reliability cannot be verified when I thought, “Wait! I bet before 1950 they told the story with thou instead of you!” So I Googled for If this be how thou treat thy friends.

Google very kindly tried to turn thou back into you and showed me all the same results I’d already seen. (Why it didn’t search for thou when I asked for you early on, I couldn’t say.) When I insisted on thou (putting a word in quotations will usually convince Google that you really mean it) it still showed me hits for you, but it also showed me hits for thou, and that struck gold. Or gold-ish, in the form of The Life of St. Teresa, a 1912 translation by Alice Lady Lovat “taken from the French of ‘A Carmelite’ Nun,” which gives the following story on page 548. In January of the last year of her life, 1582, she left Ávila to establish convents in Burgos and Grenada, and this befell her along the way:

Teresa describes the journey thus: “We had to run many dangers. At no part of the road were the risks greater than within a few leagues of Burgos, at a place called Los Pontes. The rivers were so high that the water in places covered everything, neither road nor the smallest footpath could be seen, only water everywhere, and two abysses on each side. It seemed foolhardiness to advance, especially in a carriage, for if one strayed ever so little off the road (then invisible), one must have perished.” The saint is silent on her share of the adventure, but her companions relate that, seeing their alarm, she turned to them and encouraged them, saying that “as they were engaged in doing God’s work, how could they die in a better cause?” She then led the way on foot. The current was so strong that she lost her footing, and was on the point of being carried away when our Lord sustained her. “Oh, my Lord!” she exclaimed, with her usual loving familiarity, “when wilt Thou cease from scattering obstacles in our path?” “Do not complain, daughter,” the Divine Master answered, “for it is ever thus that I treat My friends.” “Ah, Lord, it is also on that account that Thou hast so few!” was her reply.

I have been unable to find out anything about the French work from which this was taken, but it is at least certain that the whole story is not a 20th Century invention. I am still curious what the original source might be–the memoirs of one of her compatriots, perhaps? Someone’s letter from the journey? Carmelite oral tradition? But I’m not curious enough to keep looking.

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