On October 15th we celebrate the Memorial of the great Spanish saint and the first woman declared a “Doctor of the Church” – Teresa of Jesus, also known as Teresa of Avila.
Saint Teresa grew up in the early 1500’s and at the age of 20, entered the Carmelite convent in Avila. She freely admitted that for twenty years she had a very difficult time with prayer and distractions. Compounding the problem was the lifestyle of her fellow nuns. In the 16th century, Spanish convents were very relaxed places since a festive, vain, and worldly attitude was prevalent. The idea of strict discipline, contemplative prayer, and living a life of poverty and service was not a priority.
At the age of forty, Teresa’s life suddenly changed. While she was praying she had a profound religious experience. She fully realized the depth of the sacrifice God’s Son Jesus had made for humanity and vowed to pursue a life of spiritual perfection, centering on poverty and developing the art of mental prayer known as contemplation.
She realized that the Carmelite convent that she was living in was not contributing to her spiritual life; and with characteristic energy, she decided to break away from it. With her friend St. John of the Cross, she founded a reformed Carmelite order for friars and nuns known as the Discalced Carmelites. Her new order met with great hostility both from within the Church hierarchy, the regular Carmelite Order, and from the local parishioners, yet, she didn’t give up on her vision of reformation from within the Church.
What does her witness have to say to us today?
First she teaches us the value of perseverance. Both in prayer and in the vision we have been given by God to do whatever He asks us to do. Getting up, going to work every day, reforming a religious order or providing a home for your loved ones, completing your work for the Church – all of this – no matter how mundane or important, is fulfilling the will of God and is evidence of your love for Him.
Second, her life was a model of charitable patience. St. Teresa of Avila received a great deal of verbal, emotional, and spiritual abuse by fellow Catholics. This woman suffered both from physical and mental pain. The physical pain was caused by numerous ailments, however, her emotional pain was caused by people, fellow Catholics, that should have known better, yet, sadly, were far from practicing the cardinal virtues or willing to see the need for internal reformation.
But most importantly, her experiences give us a wonderful description of the art of contemplation and love of God. In one of her books she says, “Mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing other than an intimate sharing between friends – between Jesus and ourselves; it means frequently taking the time to be alone with Jesus whom we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much about saying a lot of words, but to love much, and do those actions which best stirs you to the love of our Lord. [What is this spiritual love?] Love is a desire to please God in everything.”
Saint Teresa of Jesus died in 1582 at the age of 67. She disliked gloom and always attempted to radiate joy, cheerfulness, and good spirits. In spite of her many physical ailments and emotional sufferings she kept her sense of humor and her vision of reformation: of self and of her beloved religious community. Her books are filled with optimism as well as a profound understanding of prayer, human nature, and spiritual warfare. We would be wise in applying to our own restless spirits the advice she gave to her fellow nuns, she said: “Let nothing trouble you, let nothing make you afraid. All these things pass away. God never changes. Patience obtains everything. God alone is enough.”
Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on the painting: The above painting is by one of the great painters of the early 19th century – Francois Gerard. Gerard, who died in 1837, painted this masterpiece of St. Teresa of Avila ten years earlier. It was commissioned for a hospital and before its placement was shown in the salons of Paris. It is one of the great masterpieces of French Romanticism. It is painted in oils, on canvas, and measures approximately 3 feet by 5.6 ft.