St. Teresa of Avila– A Renewer of the Church, A Saint and A Child of God
By Rob Durocher, Minister of Worship and the Arts
We tend to think of saints in terms of the grandiose (St. John, St. Peter, St. Patrick, St. Margaret, St. Joan, etc.) but we often forget that we too are saints! The word “saint” reminds us that we are set apart for the Lord and His kingdom. The word “saint” derives from the Greek word hagios, (consecrated to God, sacred, holy and pious.) In scripture, the word “saint’ is usually used in the plural, “saints.” (for example, in Acts 9:32, we read, “Now as Peter was traveling through all those regions, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda”, and in Philippians 4:21, we read, “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus…”.) We also tend to think of ‘reformers’ as being Protestant but that is not always so!
One such saint and reformer or renewer of the church that we know very little about is St. Teresa of Avila. In the Roman Catholic Church, she is revered as a Saint whose commemoration feast is on October 15th. For us, we celebrate the life and ministry of St. Teresa of Avila as a renewer of the church and part of the Reformation!
St. Teresa was born in Avila, Spain on March 28, 1515. Her name at birth was Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada (later known as Teresa de Jesus). She was partly of Jewish ancestry and was one of ten children whose father was a wealthy wool merchant and whose mother died when she was fifteen.
Teresa of Avila lived during the time of reformation, remaining a devoted Roman Catholic and became a prolific writer of devotional books. Throughout the centuries, her mystical writings would inspire and influence many writers and authors, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and would eventually invite the scrutiny of the Spanish Inquisition.
At the age of 14, she entered Our Lady of Grace convent, but in 1532 she developed a weak heart and rheumatoid arthritis which bothered her for the rest of her life. Teresa was greatly influenced by the writings and teachings of St. Jerome, a 5th century Roman Catholic priest and theologian whose Commentary on the Gospels inspired her to become a Carmelite nun. At the age of 20, she entered a Carmelite convent in Avila but fell severely ill. She was said to be in a coma for short duration of time and emerged partially paralyzed for about three years. By her own account, she had been poorly disciplined in her prayers and devotional life, but following her illness both her prayer and devotional life deepened and she experienced visions and ‘a vivid sense of the presence of God’ and dedicated her life to extreme devotion.
It was just a little after her rededication that she realized that ‘abuses and great harm were being done to the church from within the church and that the works of the abusers were flourishing.’ She wrote of how distressed she became and wondered if there was anything that she could do to combat these abuses and prayed diligently that God would use her as ‘an instrument to help remedy these evils.’ She also recognized the threat of the new Protestant reformation and understood that this reformation was caused by the abuses of the church that she loved.
By herself she also knew that there was very little that she could accomplish, but, prayerfully, followed the ‘evangelical counsels as perfectly as she could. It was her desire that “since the Lord has so many enemies, and so few friends, that his few friends should be good ones . . .”
During this struggle within the church, she met a young Roman Catholic priest and friar, Juan de Yepes y Álvarez also of the Carmelite Order (he would eventually be called St. John of the Cross and would be canonized in 1726). Teresa became his friend and mentor and he would join her in ensuring that its members in the Carmelite Order would live the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience with greater zeal and vigor. By their example, they would prove to be witnesses against the corruptions of the Church and inspire others to see the radical witness of holiness of life. John of the Cross would eventually become Teresa’s spiritual director, confessor, and advocate.
In 1560, she was led to reform her monastery which she felt had fallen very short of what the monastic order’s intention were. These reforms included strict discipline over the social lives of the nuns and sisters of the convent who were attending parties, and ‘unsavory’ social gatherings in town as well as receiving social visitors at the convent. She saw to it that the nuns stayed within the convent to pray, study and tend to the poor during their waking hours and to live a simple life fully dedicated to God and his service. This included renewed vows, a simple life uncluttered by luxuries and other distractions.
By 1562, she opened a new monastery in Avila, despite great opposition from the city and from her old monastery. Eventually, Teresa was given permission to proceed with her reforms, travelling extensively throughout Spain. In time she had established many houses of Carmelites of the Strict Observance, which was now a reformed order of what others called ‘The Carmelites of the Ancient Observance. These reformed houses were disciplined, poor, small and strictly enclosed.
Although she was being recognized as a true servant of the Lord, towards the end of her life Teresa began to fear another raging violence within the church known today as the Spanish Inquisition (established in 1478 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain for the purpose of driving out alleged heretics, non-believers and mystics from the church and many were arrested, tortured and burnt at the stake). Her humility and success in reforming the Carmelite Order as well as her writings and mysticism caused jealousy and anger amongst certain priests and friars who sought to cast suspicion on Teresa of Avila. Even some town leaders and some of her friends began to doubt whether her piety, mysticism and reforming spirit was from God or the devil. Her diligent work came to the attention and scrutiny of authorities within the church who were condemning her work and writings demanding that these be burned. This caused Teresa to suffer inner turmoil ‘that her mystical experiences might be the work and deception of the devil’. Even with these doubts she tried to remain steadfast in faith and prayer and her response to the persecution was to ‘issue a summons to prayer in all her convents and monasteries’ “in order that whatever is for the greatest service of God may come to pass.”
With the brave assistance of ‘good friends’, including ‘St. John of the Cross’, King Phillip II of Spain was urged to initiate an impartial investigation into the charges against Teresa and her reforms. Finding no abuses or heresy, the king was able to finally silence Teresa’s enemies. In 1581, Pope Gregory VII formally announced the separation of the two Carmelite Orders. Her response to this was, “When I consider the means our Lord has used to turn the malice and cruelty of the enemies of Carmel solely to our advantage, I am speechless with wonder.”
Teresa died on October 4, 1582 having established over 22 Carmelite houses. She was canonized (recognized as a saint) by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. In 1970, Pope Paul VI proclaimed that St. Teresa was a Doctor of the Church because of her devotion to God and her faithfulness to the church.
Her many writings described her personal, passionate, and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ and helped to further revolutionize the Church’s need for that same depth of intimacy and understanding of a spiritual life. Her constant work towards reform became a model of a church changed for the better by sincerely applying the truths of the Gospel that changed her life! St. Teresa’s writings continue to influence and bring spiritual strength, joy and comfort today and are read by many Christians of all denominations. Amongst these ‘books’ are, the Way of Perfection which is a treatise on the Christian walk, written primarily for her sisters of the convent but of help to others as well; The Book of Foundations deals with establishing, organizing, and overseeing the daily functioning of religious communities; The Interior Castle (or The Castle of the Soul) deals with the life of Christ in the heart of the believer. Most of these are available in paperback. 31 of her poems and 458 of her letters survive. (From Teresa of Avila, Reformer)
As we commemorate the life and ministry of St. Teresa of Avila, perhaps this quote from St. Teresa will encourage us to be faithful to the Gospel and to be diligent in being builders of God’s kingdom as children and saints of God!
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which He looks compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.