‘To have courage for whatever comes in life — everything lies in that.’
As a small girl, St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) wanted to become a martyr slaughtered at the hands of the Moors. As a young adult, she was taken up with vanities and worldly concerns. She wanted greatness, but only had to figure out the means to achieve it. It meant struggle and pain, but once she found the answer, she was able to show others how to find true greatness and how to live it.
Teresa came from a family of means, but their wealth was unable to help her find the greatness for which she longed. Ambivalent about marriage and religious life, she experienced restlessness. She entered the local Carmelite convent in her hometown of Ávila, Spain, intent only on trying it because she was desperate for peace and contentment following something of a mental breakdown and a lengthy period of illness.
As with many saints, Teresa hit a spiritual low point before she could identify and pursue the true greatness for which she was longing in the depths of her soul.
The Carmel that Teresa entered was not conducive to the life of prayer she truly desired. She was dissatisfied with the laxity of her initial years in religious life and suffered again from fits of ill health. Convalescing, she decided to take the advice of a friend and commit more firmly to mental prayer. Quickly convincing herself otherwise, she continued to suffer the consequences.
In something of a second conversion, Teresa came to know God’s intimate presence in her life. This was the means to true greatness, and it propelled her to be a woman of prayer and action.
Through perseverance in prayer, she came to greater awareness of God’s presence and his love for her. She experienced how prayer is the necessary means to the unity with God for which we have been made, that our life only has meaning in God.
Teresa was a woman of action who, with this knowledge, set out to reform the quality of religious life in her Carmelite order. In order to strengthen and purify the Church in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, there were many reformers of religious communities who had similar ideas to Teresa’s — namely, that religious life needed to be refashioned. It was necessary to retrieve the way of life intended by their various founders.
Reforming her Carmelite order in Spain was no easy task for a woman in Teresa’s time. Her reforms were heavily criticized and looked upon with suspicion. Many within the order saw the reforms as a threat to their way of life. Few believed her claims that her reform movement was rooted in contemplative visions from the Lord. And yet she persevered with the love of a mother.
Teresa founded nearly 20 convents in as many years, all bound by strict observance of the ancient Carmelite rule. And there were the additional religious houses for men, sometimes opened in collaboration with the other famous Carmelite Spanish mystic and reformer St. John of the Cross. Teresa also authored a number of spiritual works.
Teresa of Ávila’s teachings have survived through the ages, in part because of their multifaceted appeal and universal approachability. In a concise yet profound description, Pope Paul VI described her writings as making known “a mother of wonderful simplicity and yet a teacher of remarkable depth.”
St. Teresa of Ávila was canonized in 1622, and her feast was spread to the universal Church in 1688 — the first female non-martyr saint to be so honored. Her feast is Oct. 15.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic and a graduate of The Catholic University of America. He writes from Indiana. Taken from “Saints in Times of Crisis” booklet from Our Sunday Visitor.