I wonder how many of St Teresa of Avila’s admirers realise what a radical person she was or how much hostility she endured from others because she did not conform to their ideas of what a contemplative nun should be? We have a tendency to sanitize the history of the saints. Whatever hardship or opposition they endured in life becomes after death a demonstration of their triumph over adversity, an expected hagiographic trope. The opposers are either written out of the narrative or relegated to a footnote. Thus, the opposition to her reforms that Teresa encountered from within the Carmelite Order tends to be glossed over today because we see the fruits of those reforms in the abundant holiness they have produced. In 1576 the outcome was far less certain. People genuinely questioned whether St Teresa’s contemplative insights were from God or the devil and worried that her reforms would destroy, rather than purify, the Order.
Religious reformers in every age come in for their share of misunderstanding and opposition. What I think is striking about St Teresa is the way in which, after she had identified her goal, she secured the support and interest of others and waited patiently, though never passively, for any opposition to disappear. She never wavered, either in her determination or in her obedience. The explanation, I suspect, is to be found in that intense life of prayer that characterised her. Perhaps those who feel called to be religious reformers in our own day would do well to reflect on that. Prayer, discipline and sheer hard work, allied to fidelity to the Church’s teaching and tradition, can indeed achieve wonders; but only prayer can keep all the others in harmony, for it is not only the expression of love but its origin and source. Without prayer to keep us ‘in touch’ with God, every activity tends to go astray. May St Teresa teach us how to keep our focus.