Teresa of Avila
bY Raymond G. Helmick S.J.
Professor of Theology, Boston College
in residence, Saint Theresa of Avila
Parish, West Roxbury
Teresa of Avila was a visionary, mystic, subject of a famous statue by the Baroque artist Bernini, and one of only three women to be declared Doctors of the Universal Church. Teresa of Avila: patroness of our parish.
Spain of the 16th century bristled with the masculine pride of the hidalgos. It was alive with suspicions of everything new, in reaction to the Protestant Reformation in countries to the North. It was consumed with self-righteousness over its recent expulsion of its Jewish and Muslim populations. Many of them had chosen forced conversion to the Catholic faith instead of exile. Determined to prevent any relapses into their former faith and practices among these, Spanish society made use of the Inquisition to enforce their conformity. It would seem an improbable place for a woman of Jewish origin to have made her mark as the intrepid reformer of her Carmelite Order of nuns, foundress of new religious houses over the length and breadth of the country, establishing, through her recognized wisdom and insight, such authority with religious men as to become the reformer of their branch of the Carmelite Order too.
Teresa, known to us as Saint Teresa of Avila and to her contemporaries as Teresa of Jesus, was born in 1515, daughter of Don Alonso de Cepeda and Dona Beatriz de Ahumada, in the Castilian city of Avila, one of twelve children, three girls and nine boys. The family, pious and respected, were of the lower nobility. Most of her brothers went out to Spain's new American colonies -- Argentina, Peru, Mexico -- as conquistadores. Of her sisters, one died young. The other, her older half-sister, married.
After her mother's death, Teresa was brought up in a convent of Augustinian nuns. She entered the Carmelite Order in 1535, at aged twenty. She felt dissatisfied with the religious character of her life until, after eighteen years in the order, she began in 1553 to experience God in a new way in her prayer. Her practice of a mental prayer, her visions and raptures were met with consternation and disbelief by her sisters in the convent, by her priest-confessors and by the town fathers of Avila. The Jesuit Saint Francis Borgia encouraged her in her contemplative prayer in 1555, and Saint Peter of Alcantara, reformer of the Franciscan Order, gave her strong reassurance in 1560.
She was urged to write of her experiences, but by 1562, now 47 years old, her relations with the other sisters at the Convent of the Incarnation had become so tense, her life seen as such a reproach to the rest of them, that she left that convent, with a small band of nuns who had accepted her leadership, and founded the new Convent of Saint Joseph, still in her home city of Avila.
The break had been very turbulent, resistance strong. Once established in St. Joseph's she had five years of relative calm to build up the life of her new community on the basis of the oldest traditions of the Carmelite Order. She wrote, for the instruction of her nuns in the practice of prayer, her very down-to-earth and practical book, not at all the formidable treatise it sounds like, The Way of Perfection.
To her aid came St. John of the Cross, a priest of the Carmelite Order of men, and between them they established the Reform for both the men's and women's orders. Beginning in 1567, and for the remaining 15 years of her life, the now 52 year old Teresa of Jesus embarked on strenuous journeys, on mules and in primitive ox-carts, all over Spain, to found and constantly visit 17 new convents of nuns who followed her reform vision of the Carmelite life, alongside 15 new monasteries of the men's order. Her life of contemplative prayer and the pursuit of Christian perfection never flagged during those years. Despite a constant threatening watch over her and her work by the Inquisition, she wrote several more books on prayer and accounts of her life and the foundation of her convents. Opposition and harassment from the parent branch of the Order continued unabated until, in 1580, two years before her death, the two ways of Carmelite life were separated into different Orders. Teresa's Carmelites, as part of their reform, had discarded their shoes, as had the earliest Carmelites of many centuries before. Hence they were called "Discalced," un-shooed, to distinguish them from the "Calced" Carmelites. In fact, in the harsh climate of Spain, they soon found that they had to put their shoes back on, but the term has remained as the name of Teresa's order.
Teresa died in 1582, at the age of 67. She was canonized a Saint in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. Both he and, before him, Pope Urban VII in 1590, had commented that Teresa's writings were equal to those of a Doctor of the Church. It never occurred to anyone to declare any woman Saint a Doctor until, on September 27, 1970, Pope Paul VI added both Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Catherine of Siena to the roster of Doctors of the Church. In 1997, Pope John Paul II named Theresa of Lisieux the third woman Doctor of the Church.
A Brief Biography of Saint Teresa of Avila
From early in her life Teresa was ready for daring adventures. A brother, Juan de Cepeda, distressed when his family's Jewish background was held against him, had run away at the age of 14, joined the army, and had been killed fighting the Moors in North Africa. The family regarded him as a martyr, and Teresa, at the age of seven, decided to join him in glorious death
In her autobiography Teresa writes about her brother Rodrigo, five years her elder:
We used to get together to read the lives of the saints.... When I considered the martyrdoms the saints suffered for God, it seemed to me that the price they paid for going to enjoy God was very cheap, and I greatly desired to die in the same way. ...My brother and I discussed together the means we should take to achieve this. We agreed to go off to the land of the Moors and beg them, for the love of God, to cut off our heads there. It seemed to me the Lord had given us courage at so tender an age, but we couldn't discover any means. Having parents seemed to us the greatest obstacle. We were terrified in what we read about the suffering and the glory that was to last forever. We spent a long time talking about this and took delight in often repeating: forever and ever and ever.
An uncle, Fernando, found the two truants, and brought them back to their worried parents.
This readiness to charge on into the unknown in pursuit of her conviction would characterize Teresa all her life. When she came to write The Book of her Life, she saw this childish flirtation with martyrdom as too easy a way out, a get-rich-quick scheme without any love of God. But many other times she went just as unflinchingly against what others around her thought good sense.
When, as a teenager, she got interested in boys, she found servants in the house who would cover for her as she went off by night to see them. It was for this reason that, at sixteen, she was sent away to be brought up in a convent of Augustinian nuns.
When she decided to become a nun herself, at twenty, it was entirely against her father's wishes. That left Teresa without the required dowry. A problem like that could not stop Teresa. Rodrigo, the brother with whom she had run away as a child, was leaving for the Indies in Pizarro's expedition to Peru, and though he left behind an illegitimate child and its mother, he wrote a will leaving all he hoped to acquire to his sister Teresa to serve as dowry.
Her father, seeing the fait accompli, provided the dowry once she was ensconced in the Convent of the Incarnation. Years later, leaving the Incarnation to found her own convent with its distinctive rule pitted her against nearly everyone she knew, and she faced, intrepidly, just as bitter opposition at the foundation of nearly every one of her convents.
Teresa's Jewish Roots
Teresa was of a converso family, converted Jews. It was held against her always, and put her at actual risk at the hands of the Inquisition. Of this we hear not a word in Teresa's own writings. It was too dangerous to write, and it is only in the twentieth century that this aspect of her life has come out, largely from the accusations, many of them startlingly scurrilous, made against her to the Inquisition.
Her grandfather, Juan Sanchez, and two of his sons, including Teresa's father, had been arrested by the Inquisition in 1485, seven years before the final expulsion of all Jews from Spain, as nominal Christians who were secret Jews. Only because they recanted were they not sent to be burnt at the stake, robed in the hooded full-length white garment, painted with flames and devils, the sambenito, as were nearly a thousand persons a year in the Spain of that time. Instead, they were condemned to wear the sambenitillo, the knee-length yellow garment, marked with black crosses, shoulder to hem, back and front, and in that state to march in penitential procession on seven successive Fridays to all the many churches of Toledo, showered with stones and spittle all the way. Teresa's father changed his name and fled to more tolerant Avila after this. It was because of that humiliation that he was so unwilling to have his daughter enter a convent.
Later in life, her father became a devout Catholic, having discovered from Teresa, and from the books she lent him, the ways of mental prayer. This was at an ambiguous stage in Teresa's own life when. having discovered mental prayer for herself, and recovered from a long and dangerous illness, she had stopped practicing it, and found herself dissembling unconvincingly to him.
The Role of Women in 16th Century Spain
Being a woman in that society was a further obstacle. Spain was experiencing a great population boom, but sending off a vast proportion of her young men to the new colonies in "the Indies," where most of Teresa's brothers went. Husbands were hard to find. The ideal marriage was seen as that between a teen-age girl and a man more than twice her age. Women beyond that age were seen as no longer marriageable, and had few other choices except convents. In many of those, they were more likely warehoused than seriously devoted to a religious life. In a large convent like Incarnation, with its hundred and fifty nuns, they were not really expected to give up their social life, staying frequently with family and men and women friends, and being constantly visited and entertained by them. It suited Teresa's intense style not at all to be satisfied with that kind of life.
As she recovered from her years of inner turmoil, Teresa set out to create the opportunity for women to lead a life of prayer, in a secluded enough atmosphere to develop it seriously, sheltered from the distractions and allures of the world outside, and in a small enough community to give mutual support in that life without letting the individual woman be reduced to a number.
It took her a long time to formulate this project. After her first year in the convent she fell into an illness that brought her first home, and then into the hands of a quack healer whose cure almost killed her. She came so near death that her grave was actually dug. Her father nursed her through three years of near paralysis, a favor she later returned to him, coming home to nurse him through his final illness after he had become so adept at the prayer she was then finding so difficult.
The Protestant Reformation had by this time set Europe aflame. Spain reacted vehemently against it, and the grim visage of the Inquisition loomed all the more dangerously over everyone who took religious life and practice earnestly. Anyone given to mental prayer, any kind of prayer other than the recitation of memorized formulas or the reading of prepared texts, or interested in any private reading of Scripture, was automatically suspected of heresy. If, in addition, the person were of Jewish background, still worse if it were a woman, the suspicion was all the heavier. Teresa was subject to ferocious denunciations on this score all her remaining life, whether for her own prayer, or for that of her nuns, and many an Inquisitor looked forward to making a bonfire of her.
Her father's death, in its way, freed her from a sense of guilt. She became fascinated in this time with the figures of the Magdalene and of Saint Augustine as penitents who had gone on to achieve great things in the spiritual life, and she returned to the practice of mental prayer that she had for several years abandoned.
She felt a need for the supervision of those better instructed than herself, letrados or those learned in theology. The newly founded Jesuits began to appear in Spain at this time, but labored under the disability that their founder, Saint Ignatius Loyola, refused to share in the antisemitism of his countrymen. That meant he had failed a perverse but crucial loyalty test. His successor, James Lainez, the second General of the Jesuits, was himself of a converted Jewish family. Jesuits remained suspect and on the defensive in Spain until, under their fourth General, Fr. Everard Mercurian, they made some rather servile concessions to the antisemitic coloring of the rest of the culture, and thus made themselves far more acceptable in Spain.
Teresa, looking for Jesuit confessors and counselors, was referred to a succession of young men in their twenties, half her own age, all on guard against getting themselves and their Order in trouble through association with this suspect woman; all intellectuals as well, and as such more disposed to analytic thinking than to the unfocussed openness to God of Teresa's kind of prayer. They were little help to her. The best Jesuit help she got was from the Spanish Provincial of those years, Saint Francis Borgia, who had been Duke of Gandia, at the very top of the traditional nobility of Spain, before he joined the Jesuits. He was then soon to become the Third General of the Jesuits. He recognized in Teresa's early prayer experiences much that resembled his own, and gave her encouragement.
But the really important influence in her life of prayer and her career as a religious reformer was a Franciscan, Saint Peter of Alcantara, the great reformer of his own Order. Teresa had, in fact, as later commentators would observe, far deeper insight into prayer than he. She understood, for instance, as he never did, that excesses of penance were no help, and that there was no need to abandon hygiene for the sake of holiness. But his reputation and endorsement came to her aid at a critical time, in 1560, as she was first planning to break out of her Convent of the Incarnation and found a new convent of her own. And when, two years later, she was at last ready to make the move, his influence counted decisively with those who might otherwise have stopped her. He did this from his death-bed, and his death then freed Teresa, once again, from what might have become a dependency and limitation. The two years she knew him had been enormously important to her
Teresa went to Dominican priests as confessors too, seeking to use their influence on the Inquisition, which their Order ran, as a protection. As a measure of her consistent daring, Teresa would characteristically go to those who could most harm her for help against the very harm they could do her. Some, like the high-ranking nobleman Father Garcia de Toledo, were in fact a great menace to her.
Father Domingo Banez gave her the greatest support she encountered among Dominicans, but exacted the price of always demanding protection for himself against any unpleasant consequences of dealing with her. It was on his orders that she wrote the autobiography, The Book of her Life, one of the most frequently read books in the Spanish language. Its purpose was to be examined by the Inquisition to exculpate himself and Father Garcia from any blame they might attach to her. The other great narrative book among her writings, the Foundations, which describes the founding of each of her many convents, resulted also from the demands, by a whole series of confessors, that she write what would protect them from the threat of the Inquisition.
Teresa would requite Father Domingo Banez for his kindness to her in a most practical way. For in later years, when he was unwilling to abandon an illegitimate son and his mother, as men commonly did at that time, Teresa arranged to have the mother received as a nun in one of her convents, despite what was meant at the time to be an absolute ban on accepting women of color into any religious Order. She placed the child as a page to one of her noble friends, and saw to his later advancement.
Teresa's Way of Prayer
Teresa's way of prayer, which she taught the nuns of her convents, is the main topic of her writings and one of the principal values she brings to us since. She had been brought up to think of prayer only as recitation of texts, whether of the prayers she had learned to repeat in private or of the Latin Psalms she recited together with her community in choir, and had realized that there was another whole world in mental prayer, the free prayer that breaks away from all these formulas. We misrepresent this prayer if we think of it primarily in terms of visions and raptures. She does report these herself, though far more seldom than do those around her who let their imaginations get away with them. The visions came mostly in the earliest years of her life of prayer, notably the vision of an angel with a fiery dart. But she came to regard even that as far less important than the experience of simply letting herself be quiet in God's presence. From an early stage, she describes her prayer thus:
I tried as I could to keep Jesus Christ, our God and our Lord, present within me, and that was my way of prayer. If I reflected upon some phrase of his Passion, I represented Him to myself interiorly.
Here is the substance of her prayer. If she experienced a sense of a response from God, or from Christ, to whom she referred consistently as "His Majesty," "Su Majestad," obtaining this was not the purpose of her prayer, but a free gift on God's own part. The perfection of prayer did not consist, nor was it ever to be measured, in being rewarded with such favors. She found it far more important to persist in loving attention to God and Christ, despite the more normal lack of any such favors, despite even dryness and the lack of any sense of response. Nothing has to be said in Teresa's kind of prayer, neither the words of pre-existing texts, nor any words of our own. Nothing has to be thought through, in the manner of a discursive "meditation," even though this can have its value if we are up to it at the time. Contemplation: simply being present with the Lord, with su Majestad, His Majesty. This is Teresa's way.
The vision of the angel with the fiery dart symbolizes this stance of Teresa's prayer, and can be understood as a visualization of something much more simple and direct, and yet the deepest form of prayer. The experience is within herself. The thrust of the angel goes very deep. It is an experience of joy, not simply of pain, and Teresa's prayer is never understood if we do not recognize that element. It is further an experience of passionate love of God. There is no disinterested or cerebral philosophy here. The angel, furthermore, comes to her. She does not go to the angel. This experience of prayer is all gift. She can wait in silence, prepared for her divine lover, but the initiative is all God's. God seeks her out: she waits. She had no ambitions of "success" in prayer. She knew it was vital to be ready for the divine initiative, but the seeker, the Lover par excellence, was God rather than herself.
Nor was Teresa's prayer something only for an elite, a few specially chosen souls blessed by a very picky God. Instead, in her Constitutions, the Rule of her Order, she describes in this way the young women whom she saw as candidates for this advanced prayer, with all the kinds of spiritual betrothal and mystical marriage that she had experienced herself:
These aspirants should be at least seventeen. And if they are not detached from the world, they will find the way we live here hard to bear. It is better to consider these things beforehand than to have to turn these persons away afterward. Aspirants should be healthy, intelligent, and able to recite the Divine Office in choir.... If some of these qualities are lacking, she should not be accepted.... An applicant with whom the nuns are pleased should not be turned away because she has no alms to give the house.... When someone is accepted, it should always be done in accordance with the majority of women in the community.... They should spend a year before receiving the habit so that it may be seen whether they are fit for the demands of such a life, and so that they themselves may see whether they can bear up with it
Many features of the warm communal life of Teresa's convents can be heard in this passage: the consensus and close association of a small group of women who know and help one another, the kindliness of the convent's regime and its simplicity. But what stands out especially is that this life of prayer and perfection is not for odd women or for frail swooners, but for very normal people. Teresa does not neglect the value of the communal vocal prayer in choir, or of the liturgy, nor of the common household tasks and mutual service among the nuns, as she recommends and teaches this mental prayer. Instead, in The Way of Perfection, she teaches:
True humility consists to a great extent in being ready for what the Lord desires to do with you, and happy that He should do it. If contemplation, mental and vocal prayer, tending the sick, serving in the house, and working at the lowliest tasks are of service to our divine Guest, what should it matter to us if we do one of these things rather than the other?
Continued Jesuit Influence
Teresa turned regularly to Jesuits, "the Fathers of the Company," for help, the Jesuit Order's foundation and early growth being nearly simultaneous with her own. This normally brought such disappointing results that we do well to see the contrasts between the Jesuit and the Carmelite ways of prayer. For Jesuits, too, contemplation, the wordless placing oneself in the presence of God, formed an ideal. Our founder, Ignatius Loyola, looked for the "contemplative in action," the one who could put himself into a state of contemplative prayer very readily, though out of long training and practice, and maintain it through active work. Though the Jesuit Novice was to devote an hour each morning and another half hour each afternoon to mental prayer, the formal times of the mature Jesuit's prayer were to be reduced to a minimum, in contrast to Teresa's lifelong prescription of two hours each day of contemplative prayer for her nuns, one each morning and one each afternoon.
The Jesuit's prayer is oriented to action Christ, living Lord, is sought outside the person, in "the world," in this view of prayer. We go into the world to conquer it for him. The work is part and parcel of the prayer.
For Teresa, by contrast, the quest for God is within herself. She has no hesitation about the interiority of this kind of life. If there are places the length and breadth of Spain where this kind of interior life of prayer is carried on, then the whole country will be affected by it. She goes deeper into herself to discover Christ and hear His voice. This is the central image of her Interior Castle. The person's interior life is like a castle made of crystal. Within the castle are rooms, each one within the others, as in concentric circles. Teresa pictures advancement in prayer as an entering in from one of these rooms to another. One enters the outermost first, and by degrees progresses farther and farther in, the innermost space being at one and the same time the deepest within the castle and the closest to God.
In this deep interior peace, she discovers her voice. Teresa always carried a conviction that in the inner voice that erupted within her she heard Christ Himself. She retained always sufficient distrust to consult constantly with confessors, so that she would not simply delude herself, but retained her confidence in her inner voice.
Saint John of the Cross always had a consummate suspicion of all such inner voices or visions, and in their last meeting he and Teresa differed painfully over whether she should trust such a voice in the question of whether to found a new convent in Burgos, as she intended, or one in Granada, for which John of the Cross had made arrangements. It is not necessary to believe that these were miraculous revelations made to Teresa to admire her fidelity to her inner voice. It was with her very much as Ghandi, another obedient follower of an inner voice, has written in our own century:
To make a life of prayer accessible for many other women, Teresa set out, from 1567, to found new convents. She had had five years since she founded her first new-style convent, St. Joseph in Avila. Over the remaining fifteen years of her life, this now 52 year old woman would found another 16. She did it under horrendous travel conditions. No modern road existed anywhere in Spain. She traveled on mule-back, in coaches, in stifling enclosed ox-carts, not unlike the covered wagons of the later American frontier, crowded in with all the nuns for a new convent.
She was dependent on the support and patronage of powerful persons: the dictatorial Duchess of Alba, the scandal-ridden Princess of Eboli, the King, Philip II, himself, bishops, Cardinals, Grand Inquisitors. Her skills in diplomacy and her adaptability proved formidable.
From the time she first set up a convent in Medina del Campo, against opposition as strong as she had faced when founding St. Joseph's in Avila, she adopted the policy of acting by fait accompli. One of the lessons she had thoroughly learned, growing up on the defensive as a woman in a society of dominating men, was that to manage them she had to deceive them. About that, she had no scruples.
Typically, she would first rent a house in a new city, have a Mass celebrated in a make-shift chapel and the host reserved. It then became sacriligeous for others to interfere with a place so consecrated or remove the host, and she would go to the authorities, full of charm and diplomatic wiles, to negotiate a license for the convent. Renting the first quarters gave her the opportunity to look for a better situation before purchasing a piece of property.
In some cases she had less choice. The Duchess of Alba at Malagon, the Princess of Eboli at Pastrana made it a condition of their assistance elsewhere that she set up convents right alongside their country mansions. At Pastrana, in 1569, the house was so situated that she was exposed to malaria, and carried on all her arduous travels from that time under its recurrent plague.
But from the time she embarked on this course of founding convents, she understood clearly that she could not succeed without having a men's Order of discalced Carmelites as well. Men and only men could get things done in the society she knew. From the Superior General of the Carmelites, then visiting Spain from Rome, she obtained licenses to found two monasteries for men, which would then be free to found others, as well as those for women. Her first Discalced Friar was an improbable one, Father Antonio de Heredia, whom she had come to know as ambition-ridden and ambivalent toward her and her reform, who would remain a major force in the Order and would be with her at her death-bed, still a problem as he had always been. The second was Saint John of the Cross.
Every new convent had its vast teething problems. In Salamanca she obtained a house occupied by students of the city's famous university, who would agree to leave only when the new occupants arrived. Reluctant to bring all her nuns for the new foundation under those circumstances, Teresa took with her only the one required companion and went ahead to take possession. She describes herself as so constantly ill on the journey that she had most of the time to lie down. Teresa persisted with her convents. To get to Beas, a remote village on the borders of Andalusia, she had to travel two months under horrendous conditions, her strength drained by a bleeding she had undergone to relieve a malarial fever. She was kept under house arrest in Toledo while the Inquisition gathered evidence against her. The Provincial of the Calced Carmelites, determined to frustrate her reform, had her elected Prioress of her original Calced Carmelite convent of the Incarnation in Avila, where she and her reformed ways were met with overt hostility by many of the nuns. In this way he managed to delay her work by three years.
She brought John of the Cross to Incarnation as the convent's confessor as she finished her own term as prioress and set out on further journeys for more foundations. In this way she brought new religious life to that convent. But then a cudgel-bearing band of his Calced brethren had John of the Cross kidnapped, his companion beaten to the point that he was vomiting blood. John managed to escape their clutches just long enough to double back to his place and destroy all his writings. Had he not done so they would have been brought before a hostile Inquisition in an effort to get him condemned. Recaptured, he was imprisoned nine months in Toledo, in a stone-walled closet so small that even he, tiny though he was, could not lie at full length, the only light coming from a narrow air-hole near the roof. It was out of this experience that John of the Cross wrote his best-known book, The Dark Night of the Soul.
Teresa's Last Years
Old age set in for Teresa when, in 1577, she fell down a flight of stairs at St. Joseph's in Avila and broke her left arm. It never healed properly, and she was never again able to dress herself or put on her own veil. For this reason, she was given as her companion and nurse, for her last five years, Sister Anna of Saint Bartholemew, who dressed her and cared for her, was her devoted friend and wrote later one of the most moving accounts of her. Even in this condition, she continued her strenuous work, traveling to all her convents, writing the book of her Foundations and The Interior Castle, caring for family members, including her brother Rodrigo, now back from the Indies and sick, and his children, founding more convents in Villanueva de la Jara, in Palencia and in Burgos.
At the end, she was still on her journeys, being pushed aside by many jealous and ambitious figures in the men's and women's orders, and left in isolation by a hostile prioress at her convent in Alba de Tormes, with only her faithful Anna of Saint Bartholemew for companionship, when the life ebbed from her. All who were in the convent, including Father Antonio de Heredia, wanted afterward to tell stories of how they had attended to her in those last days, but in fact her end was very bleak. On her deathbed, after her long struggle to be faithful to Christ and his Church, dogged by the Inquisition, pursued by hateful rumors and accusations, she commented, as if in surprise:
After all, I die a daughter of the Church.
The chorus of obloquy and the struggle to wrest her heritage from her let up once she was dead. Her Sisters had her buried hastily and obscurely there in Alba where she had died, and for a quarter century she lay there forgotten. But a small band of her followers complained that the hasty burial had been almost indecent, and she ought to have been brought back to Avila, to her convent of Saint Joseph. Eventually a grave was prepared there. What really made Teresa famous again was that, when the body was exhumed, it was found to be incorrupt.
She was canonized a Saint just forty years after her death, and her writings on prayer have been recognized as classics of the Golden Age of Spanish literature. They are among the most valuable guides to the spiritual life in our Catholic tradition, cited frequently in the chapter on prayer of the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church.
In our late 20th century, as women have so widely discovered their voice, Saint Teresa has gained a new public. Many in the women's movement of our own time have come to know and care far more about her than, typically, Catholics do, and have found her an extraordinarily capable feminine figure, a woman who, in the 16th century, lived with the freedom and self-directedness that otherwise only men could enjoy, and led and influenced others, both men and women, in original, creative ways that put her among the leading figures of her time. No other woman of that century accomplished this unless Queen Elizabeth of England, and Teresa's accomplishments have, in numerous ways, outlasted hers as a still continuing influence.
Teresa had no illusions about herself. Often we find that saints complain of their own sinfulness in ways that leave us feeling they are mistaken, that they were really far better than they thought. But Teresa, in her ebullient way, did things that would curl your hair. That, and her sincere contrition for the wiles she had exercised on others around her, left her non-judgmental, superlatively able to accept and understand the faults of others, never expecting perfection from others while excusing herself. Her morality was directed, not toward finding what was wrong with everyone else, how it could be proven and how they could be punished for their offenses, but accommodating, finding instead how to live and cooperate with those who made themselves her enemies, forgiving them and herself in the effort to do something constructive.
She struggled against the popular culture of her time, with its relaxed, self-indulgent, thoughtless pleasure-cult alternating with frenzies of hurt pride and outbursts of cruel vengeance. Hardly another saint in the list had the counter-cultural skills she possessed, and exercised with such charm, ease of manner and fearlessness.
The fearlessness had its root in that great confidence in God that is the substance of the Good News we are all given, the sure and confident awareness that God is with us and we consequently need not fear, need not fear anything. Theresa had that, and it is the root perception behind her whole life of prayer. There was much to be done, and she could do it in face of whatever sort of opposition, even in the face of grave physical threat and moral intimidation, because Christ, her King, su Majestad, stood with her. And her attention must be given to him. That attention is the very manner of her prayer, and as she well knew, it is a kind of prayer natural to any of us, once we realize the truth of Christ's presence with us, and within our reach.
She had, too, an awareness that God called her to some special work. It was not clearer to her than to most of us just what that work would be. She is altogether improvisatory about it right down to the last, open to the leading from God that she will receive in the very events she lives through, and in that she marks out a way for us too, as individuals and for those parishioners in her parish. Her prayer, with its silences and its readiness to hear what God will let her know, is fundamentally a seeking to understand where God is leading her, a readiness to pursue His will as she will come to understand it, and to accept with good grace whatever sacrifices it may entail.
Let nothing disturb you,
Nothing affright you.
All things pass,
God is unchanging.
Patience obtains all:
Whoever has God
Needs nothing else.
God alone suffices.
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