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.