St Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church

St Teresa of Jesus, usually known as Teresa of Avila, the ‘great’ Teresa as distinct from the ‘little’ Thérèse, the eagle not the dove, is one of those saints whose character seems forged by the landscape and townscape in which they lived. The stony beauty of Avila — its cold, clear light in winter and its burning, intense sunshine in summer— have always struck me as factors in Teresa’s strength of purpose, her passionate love of God, and her equally passionate but commonsensical approach to life. The intelligence, the drive, the shrewd understanding of what makes people tick and her ability to win over opponents with flashes of humour bespeak her Jewish ancestry (her grandfather was a converso or convert from Judaism). I find her both engaging and mysterious: a saint who attracts but who is also, in some measure, alien, ‘other’.

If you want to learn about contemplative prayer, read Teresa, not John of the Cross. She misses nothing out and takes her readers stage by stage, through mansion after mansion, until the seventh is reached. Her letters, too, are full of wisdom. Today, at Midday Office, we’ll read one in which she teases her sisters about their dislike of choir, their feigning of excuses, little headaches and so on, that prevent their serving His Divine Majesty. But it is her actions that make me realise what a very different world Teresa inhabits from the one in which I live. When, as children, she and her brother set off to meet martyrdom at the hands of the Moors, she displayed a zeal, a fervour I find completely alien. The nearest we come to it today is among those young men and women seduced by Islamic extremism who set off to fight in the ranks of IS or Boko Haram. Is it the same impulse at work? I don’t think so; but I also hesitate a little because the explanation I would give will not make sense to everyone.

St Teresa of Avila is a very great saint; and she is great not because she was fervent or full of zeal or reformed the Carmelite Order but because she loved much — both God and her fellow human beings. As her friend and confidant St John of the Cross remarked, ‘At the end of the day, it is by the quality of our loving that we shall be judged.’ Teresa of Avila has been judged and not found wanting. May she pray for us who go along but limpingly in the way of holiness.

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7 thoughts on “St Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church”

  1. I did not known her ancestry was Jewish, that explains much.
    The martyrdom of which you speak is the martrydom of the Saints, the giving of life, not the taking of it.

  2. “Is it the same impulse at work? I don’t think so; but I also hesitate a little because the explanation I would give will not make sense to everyone.”

    This comment intrigues me… Here’s a shot at an explanation of my own.

    Teresa, like Augustine, is writing an account of God’s mercies towards her, in the course of many many years of ‘getting things wrong’. She recognises how God works with crooked timber, correcting misdirected impulses towards the good. Like Augustine, she has no illusions about the innocence of childhood, but she can be gently amused at a child’s naivety, whilst recognising as an older person looking back that there are no short-cuts to heaven in fact ; it’s not something one can really play at ; one’s called to serve God for love, not for personal advantage or rewards.

    Another note I specially pick up is the seriousness with which even as a child, she and her brother regarded what’s eternal.

    [Incidentally, one notices as well her testimony to the power of reading the lives of saints, as encouragement to Xtn heroism. How this recalls what Ignatius related in chapter 1 of the Memoriale about his reading matter when recovering from his wound and gruesome surgery ! — Ignatius who himself so insists on utter disinterestedness and self-denial in serving the Divine Majesty.]

    It’s on account of these factors at least (I may have left some out) that it seems to me there is indeed a world of difference between Teresa (and Ignatius), and what goes on among Islamists of a certain stripe.

  3. [Here, for convenience’s sake, is the relevant text from the Vida:

    “4. Pues mis hermanos ninguna cosa me desayudaban a servir a Dios. Tenía uno casi de mi edad, juntábamonos entrambos a leer vidas de Santos, que era el que yo más quería, aunque a todos tenía gran amor y ellos a mí. Como veía los martirios que por Dios las santas pasaban, parecíame compraban muy barato el ir a gozar de Dios y deseaba yo mucho morir así, no por amor que yo entendiese tenerle, sino por gozar tan en breve de los grandes bienes que leía haber en el cielo, y juntábame con este mi hermano a tratar qué medio habría para esto. Concertábamos irnos a tierra de moros, pidiendo por amor de Dios, para que allá nos descabezasen. Y paréceme que nos daba el Señor ánimo en tan tierna edad, si viéramos algún medio, sino que el tener padres nos parecía el mayor embarazo. Espantábanos mucho el decir que pena y gloria era para siempre, en lo que leíamos. Acaecíanos estar muchos ratos tratando de esto y gustábamos de decir muchas veces: ¡para siempre, siempre, siempre! En pronunciar esto mucho rato era el Señor servido me quedase en esta niñez imprimido el camino de la verdad.

    “5. De que vi que era imposible ir a donde me matasen por Dios, ordenábamos ser ermitaños; y en una huerta que había en casa procurábamos, como podíamos, hacer ermitas, poniendo unas pedrecillas que luego se nos caían, y así no hallábamos remedio en nada para nuestro deseo; que ahora me pone devoción ver cómo me daba Dios tan presto lo que yo perdí por mi culpa.

    “6. Hacía limosna como podía, y podía poco. Procuraba soledad para rezar mis devociones, que eran hartas, en especial el rosario, de que mi madre era muy devota, y así nos hacía serlo. Gustaba mucho, cuando jugaba con otras niñas, hacer monasterios, como que éramos monjas, y yo me parece deseaba serlo, aunque no tanto como las cosas que he dicho.

    ” 7. Acuérdome que cuando murió mi madre quedé yo de edad de doce años, poco menos. Como yo comencé a entender lo que había perdido, afligida fuime a una imagen de nuestra Señora y supliquéla fuese mi madre, con muchas lágrimas. Paréceme que, aunque se hizo con simpleza, que me ha valido; porque conocidamente he hallado a esta Virgen soberana en cuanto me he encomendado a ella y, en fin, me ha tornado a sí. Fatígame ahora ver y pensar en qué estuvo el no haber yo estado entera en los buenos deseos que comencé.”

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