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01 Celebrating the holiness of St Teresa of Avila

posted Oct 11, 2018, 5:59 PM by Neil D'Souza
Recent popes have showered praise on St Teresa. In 1970, Blessed Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Church, and in 1982, St John Paul II travelled to Spain to commemorate the 400th anniversary of her death. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI described her as "one of the peaks of Christian spirituality of all time" and "a true teacher of Christian life for the faithful of every time." Pope Francis called her "a sure guide and attractive model of total donation to God" in a message to Fr Saverio Cannistrà, the Discalced Carmelites' superior general, on March 28, her 500th birthday.

Entering religious life - Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was born in Avila, Spain, in 1515. Teresa's father had three children by his first marriage. After he was widowed, he remarried, and Teresa was the third of nine children of the new marriage. When Teresa was a child, she loved to read the lives of saints, and one day, she and her brother decided to run away in order to seek martyrdom among the Moors in Africa — only to be stopped by an uncle who took them home. When she was 13, her mother died, and at 16, her father sent her to an Augustinian convent school.

Desiring the safest way to avoid hell, she resolved to enter religious life when she was 18. After her father refused his consent, she and a brother ran away from home one night — he to seek admission to a Dominican friary, and she to enter a Carmelite convent. The Carmelites sent her father word that she was with them, and he finally gave his consent. The early years of Teresa's religious life were years of joy, interior struggle and serious illness. In the years that followed, she received many interior graces that led her to a deeper practice of prayer.

A new order - Four years later, St Teresa was granted a vision of the place she deserved in hell, and she began to desire a stricter observance of the Carmelite life, noting that in her convent, "the Rule also was kept, not in its original exactness, but according to the custom of the whole order, authorised by the bull of mitigation" of Pope Eugene IV (1432).

One day, as she received holy Communion, she sensed a command from the Lord to proceed with the founding of a new convent that followed the original Rule. She found much opposition to her plan among her convent's nearly 200 sisters. During her last decades, she also wrote books through which she has exercised a lasting influence on Catholic spirituality: the autobiographical Life (1565); The Way of Perfection (1566), written for novices; her classic Interior Castle (1577), et al. Teresa of Jesus died on October 4, 1582, and was canonised in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV.

A sure guide - In celebration of the opening of the jubilee year honouring St Teresa on October 15, 2014, Pope Francis sent a message to the bishop of Avila, in which he said, "At the school of the saintly traveller, we learn how to be pilgrims." The first path, said Pope Francis, is the path of joy. Because she knew the Lord loved her, St Teresa was a woman with a "contagious and unconcealable joy." This joy, the Pope noted, "is not reached by an easy shortcut that bypasses sacrifice, suffering or the Cross, but is found by enduring labour and pain, looking to the crucifix and seeking the Risen One."

St Teresa described the second path, the path of prayer, as "being on terms of friendship with God." St Teresa's emphasis on the absolute necessity of prayer "is of perennial relevance," said Pope Francis. The saint's third path, the Pope continued, is "the way of fraternity," or brotherhood and sisterhood, "in the bosom of the Mother Church." In response to immense problems in the Church and society of her time, St Teresa saw the importance of creating small communities in which women could together journey toward Christ as sisters, in mutual charity, detachment and humility.

The final path is that of time, of recognising that the Lord meets us moment by moment, even "amidst the pots and pans," as St Teresa put it. In response to difficulties, she did not give in "to bitter complaining," the Pope observed, but accepted them "in faith as an opportunity to take a step forward on the journey." "Teresian realism," Pope Francis said in summary, thus "requires work instead of emotions, and love instead of dreams"; it is "the realism of humble love," rather than "anxious asceticism." Five centuries after her birth, we can ask this Carmelite reformer to help us travel the paths of joy, prayer, fraternity and time in our own pilgrimage to God.

J.J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina. Source: OSV
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