It is with straws that I light My fire

Today, 7 Jun 2012, is the happy memorial of Blessed Anne of St Bartholomew, a close companion of St Teresa of Avila and a very early member of the Discalced Carmelite Order. Blessed Anne of St Bartholomew’s life started out in Spanish peasant poverty and after all kinds of unexpected twists and turns ended with the acclaim of the whole city of Antwerp.

Blessed Anne of St Bartholomew was born around 1550 to a peasant family of Almendral, a place close to Avila. At this time of her life she was known as Anne Garcia or Ana Garcia Manzanas. From early childhood the Lord Jesus favoured her with mystical gifts. At the age of 10 her parents died, and Anne was raised by her brothers. Until the age of 20 she worked as a shepherdess and the longing in her heart to dedicate her entire life to God grew. One night Anne was given a dream or vision in which Mary and Jesus both encouraged her to join the Discalced Carmelite convent at Avila. Her family wasn’t  impressed and opposed her plans. Anne then experienced sickness until she was able to make a pilgrimage to the hermitage of St Bartholomew for his feast day (Aug 24), where upon she was completely healed.

Permission was now given for Anne to follow God’s plan for her life. In gratitude she added ‘of St Bartholomew’ as her name in religion. Joining the convent in late 1570, Anne became th first lay Sister of the Order because she was uneducated and because she humbly wished to be of service to all of her fellow religious. It is the lay sister who runs all of the errands for the convent because the choir sisters remain in the cloister. Without the lay sister the choir sisters would not be able to go so deep into prayer because they would have so many petty distractions to attend to. Within a few short years St Teresa of Avila found her service to be so invaluable that she took Anne as a companion on just about all of her travels. In order to be of greater service, Anne learned at last to read and write. We owe her our gratitude for that because it enabled her to serve as St Teresa’s secretary and to give a written witness about St Teresa’s last moments on earth.

Following St Teresa’s death, Anne returned to normal convent life and normal convent duties for a few years. When a new convent in Paris was to be founded, Anne was chosen as a founding member. It says a lot about her humility, her practicality, her attention to others needs and her spirit of service that when the sisters were officially greeted in Paris that Anne slipped away to prepare meals. It was in Paris that her superiors made her accept, under obedience, the life of a choir sister. 

As more convents opened up in France, Anne was appointed prioress firstly at Pontoise and later on at Tours. She found this role very difficult, not only as a peasant woman in charge of noble ladies but also as the exact opposite of her desires to live humbly in humble service. To reassure her that it was indeed His holy will, Jesus consoled her with the words, ‘It is with straws that I light My fire’. By 1611, Anne was sent for a short while to the convent at Mons before becoming the founding leader of the convent at Antwerp in 1612.

To what must have been her dismay, noble ladies flocked to the new convent at Antwerp because they wanted to learn how to love God as a religious from someone who had been so close to St Teresa. God Himself showed her off by granting miracles in response to her prayers and by granting her the gift of prophecy. In those times battles between the Catholics and Protestants intensified and the whole city of Antwerp was placed under siege by the Prince of Orange. Praying all night, Anne interceded for the city and obtained from God the sparing of Antwerp. The Lord Jesus came to claim His bride in death on 7 June 1626, the feast of the Most Holy Trinity. Upon the news of her death, 20,000 people came to pay their respects to this most holy woman and to touch their rosaries to her body lying in state.

Some of her writings are still extant, and here are two quotations…

“Silence is precious ; by keeping silence and knowing how to listen to God, the soul grows in wisdom and God teaches it what it cannot learn from men.”

“What infinite love burned in that Sacred Heart of Yours, Lord Jesus! Without uttering a single word You spoke to us ; without a word You worked the miracles You came to accomplish – teaching virtue to the ignorant and blind.” 

May the good Lord grant that Blessed Anne of St Bartholomew, this loving straw of His, to be canonised soon so that the renewed memory of her holy life in souls may lead a whole new conflagration of souls to sanctity.

Blessed Anne of St Bartholomew, pray for us.