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St. Teresa of Avila, mystic and multitasker



Often overshadowed by her ‘little’ namesake, the first woman doctor of the church was a force to be reckoned with


by Patricia Morrison

The enterprising duo had almost made good on their escape. The young sister/brother team were running away from home. Inspired by the stories of Christian martyrs, they decided they’d join their ranks, but figured the only way to do so would be to get out of their hometown and to “the lands of the Moors.”

We don’t know how far the small adventurers got but, before long, a relative spotted them and promptly yanked them back home. Instead of getting beheaded as they’d hoped, 7-year-old Teresa and her closest brother, Rodrigo, most likely got a good scolding — if not more. Describing the escapade some 40 years later in her autobiographical “Life,” Teresa, the instigator, recalls wryly: “Having parents seemed to us the greatest obstacle.”

Earlier this year, almost 500 years after the two siblings of the Sánchez Cepeda y Ahumuda family attempted their escape out of Avila, Spain, thousands of pilgrims and visitors from around the world streamed through those same city gates to honor Spain’s most beloved “santa.”

March 28 of this year marked the 500th birthday of St. Teresa of Avila. The spunky little girl who wanted to be a martyr grew up to become a reformer, writer, exalted mystic and foundress of the Discalced Carmelite order.

The entire Carmelite order and the church worldwide pulled out all the stops for this, the fifth centenary of Teresa’s birth, to introduce 21st-century people to her writings and spirituality — and to encourage those already familiar with her to deepen their understanding of the saint’s teachings on prayer and love for God.

When many North Americans hear “St. Teresa,” they immediately think of Thérèse of Lisieux, the popular young 19th-century French nun depicted with a crucifix and an armful of roses. But without her 16th-century patron saint, the revered St. Teresa of Avila, Thérèse — the Little Flower — would not have been who she was.

It was the first Teresa’s single- minded quest for God that made possible the Discalced Carmelite convent Thérèse of Lisieux entered — and its way of life. Today it’s hard to imagine, but St. Teresa — the first woman to be declared a doctor of the church (for the perennial richness of her spiritual teachings) — had to dodge the Inquisition during her lifetime and was described by critics as “that restless, gadabout nun.”

Teresa of Avila was smart, popular, witty, stubborn, a bit of a flirt and too enmeshed at times with family and friends. She could be a savvy politician, knowing how to wheel and deal within the restrictions placed on women in 16th-century Spain to get what she wanted (and what she was convinced God wanted) from bishops and kings, in order to advance her Carmelite reform and her new monasteries where it would be lived.

She was also a consummate expert in human psychology, knowing firsthand how we humans operate. “Today I don’t pray because I have a headache,” she wrote, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “Tomorrow I don’t pray because I might get a headache. And the day after, I can’t pray because I had a headache.” (Apart from shedding light on Teresa’s insight into the human condition, it explains why she is a patron of headache sufferers!)

A down-to-earth mystic

One of the most well-known representations of St. Teresa of Avila is Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s magnificent marble sculpture of the saint in ecstasy. The life-size statue in Rome’s Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria depicts the piercing of her heart recorded in her life.

In the statue, Teresa is reclining (some would say swooning), her bare foot dangling sensuously off the cloud she lies on, while a small smiling angel is poised to shoot a flaming dart into her heart. The sculpture is based on an actual event in her life, in which Teresa describes being filled with God’s love.

But while ecstasies and other spiritual experiences were common in Teresa’s mystical life, they never prevented her from being grounded in reality or from being totally human. When a prioress fretted about a nun whose fainting spells were supposedly due to ecstasy, the practical foundress told her to make sure the woman was eating enough and to keep her busy. And, for those who would have preferred a stroll in the garden to kitchen duty, Teresa reminded them (from firsthand experience) that “God walks among the pots and pans.”

For this great contemplative, prayer was never navel-gazing self-focus. The immense needs of the whole world were always to be at its heart. In advice as relevant today as when she wrote it, Teresa exclaimed: “The world is in flames! Now is not the time to be bothering God with trifles!”

This was a woman who was warm, outgoing and unfailingly loyal. She deeply loved her nuns, family and friends, and longed for their news. Her down-to-earth letters are full of motherly concern about their health and even their financial problems.

She wanted her nuns to have fun; in fact, in her Rule, she called for two periods of recreation every day — a healthy balance to the intense hours of prayer and work. “La Madre” herself even brought out the castanets and tambourine, dancing and singing for convent recreations. Teresa had no patience with gloomy personalities. “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord deliver us!” she wrote.

As happens with many saints, legends and sayings attributed to Teresa of Avila have multiplied. Many of them have no historical basis, but they do reflect accurately what we know of her. In perhaps the most famous (based on a true event), Teresa’s wagon lost an axle while the driver was negotiating a steep river bank. The disabled wagon, its driver and the nuns inside all landed in the muddy water. The saint supposedly complained loudly to God about it, and God is said to have replied, “My daughter, this is how I treat my friends.” To which Teresa shot back, “Then no wonder you have so few!”

While the conversation is probably not factual, this story shows us the real St. Teresa at her best: fully human, often challenged by life and always in honest relationship with the God she loved so much.

Reluctant reformer

Before she died at age 67 in 1582, Teresa had covered thousands of miles, founding 17 monasteries of nuns and two of friars, crisscrossing Spain by covered wagon or mule cart. She had written major works of deep spirituality and hundreds of letters. But Teresa, the cloistered nun, never set out to be a traveler or a writer, much less a religious reformer.

Religious renewal, however, was in the air in 16th-century Spain, thanks to the Council of Trent and the Counter- Reformation. Several leading figures set out to rekindle Catholics’ fervor, among them the Jesuit Francis Borgia, Franciscans such as Peter of Alcantara, and, unwittingly, Teresa herself.

The Convent of the Incarnation, which Teresa entered at 20, was a large place — and financially strapped. In Teresa’s day, up to 200 nuns lived there. The nuns often were home with family and friends, or spent time cultivating benefactors in the convent parlors due to the religious community’s difficulty in feeding that many people,. Nuns who came from wealthy families had servants and comfortable quarters; Teresa herself had a large suite with its own kitchen, which can still be seen today. With this busy round of socializing and coming and going, the nuns’ personal prayers went on the back burner.

As Teresa realized that God was calling her into a deeper relationship with him, she felt that, in her current setting, she couldn’t achieve the recollection and attention to prayer she needed. She and some friends brainstormed about starting a small convent, based on the hermit roots of the Carmelite order in the Holy Land. Here, a loving community of only a few nuns would focus on a life dedicated to prayer — so that in Teresa’s plan, “all would be known, all would be loved,” which she felt couldn’t happen easily in a huge religious house.

Being few in number, Teresa reasoned, the nuns also would have few needs. This would free them for the life of prayer they came for. But the prayer Teresa envisioned was not simply to be repetitive recitations or purely out of obligation. It was to flow from a deep friendship with Christ. Prayer, she explained in “Life,” “means taking time frequently to be alone with the One who we know loves us.”

Teresa wanted all her nuns to enjoy mutual respect and equality. She set the example herself by putting aside her title of Doña, common among upscale Spanish families, and chose to be called simply Teresa of Jesus.

Teresa’s grass-roots movement caught on quickly. More and more women were attracted to her Discalced (meaning “shoeless”) Carmelite life. Soon, Teresa was traveling to found other monasteries throughout Spain — first of nuns and then, with the help of St. John of the Cross and others, of friars as well.

Now, 500 years later, Discalced Carmelites number about 12,000 contemplative nuns in 98 countries, nearly 4,000 mendicant friars in 82 countries, and some 40,000 lay Carmelites throughout the world.

A saint for today

During the period of her life when she had already reached the highest stages of mystical prayer and union with God, Teresa was simultaneously juggling many demanding down-to-earth duties that would challenge the busiest multitasker. Her whirlwind of activity, recorded in the book “Foundations,” reads like a blend of an entertaining travelogue and a Fortune 500 executive’s schedule. While reediting her manuscript on prayer (her censor/editor was aiming to keep her away from the clutches of the Inquisition), she was corresponding with superiors of her convents about issues ranging from personnel problems to property lines. In one case, a bishop attempted to renege on his promises to her regarding a convent, and Teresa had to call in a lawyer on the matter. In the meantime, she noted, college students who had taken over the building had trashed the place.

If this doesn’t mesh with your idea of what a mystic’s life is about, that is precisely Teresa’s message. She wanted to sweep away the cobwebbed notions that we grow in holiness only when life is tranquil and untroubled. Teresa might have preferred that kind of calm, stress-free life (she did, after all, set out to be a cloistered nun!), but she discovered through experience that it wasn’t going to happen. And she learned in that process that being very busy and having worries and problems didn’t prevent God from loving her — or her from loving and serving God.

Perhaps St. Teresa’s greatest gift to busy people committed to the spiritual journey is the truth that ordinary life and holiness are not in conflict. There need be no separation from immersion in the real world and its challenges, and ongoing, prayerful union with God.

When she died, the following thoughts in her handwriting were found written in the margins of her breviary. We don’t know if Teresa composed what has come to be called “St. Teresa’s Bookmark” or not, but its message is one we know inspired her. It’s one she might well share with us today for her 500th birthday:

Let nothing disturb you.

Let nothing frighten you.

All things pass away.

God never changes.

Patience obtains all things.

They who have God

lack nothing.

God alone is enough.

Pat Morrison is editorial director for ICS Publications, the publishing ministry of the Discalced Carmelites in the United States. A longtime contributor to the Catholic press, Pat is a vowed laywoman in the Carmelite tradition. Morrison writes from Miamisburg, Ohio.

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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