St. Teresa of Avila

(Feast October 15)

Teresa Sanchez of Avila, born in 1565, learned to read by reading the lives of the saints. When she was seven, therefore, she talked her little brother, Rodrigo, into running off to Africa with her to be martyred by the Muslims. Fortunately, the runaways encountered their uncle, who promptly brought them back home.

So Teresa was a saint already at seven? Not at all. Just a good girl with a lively imagination.

At the age of 20 she ran away again, this time to join the Carmelites in their nearby monastery. Her aristocratic father had opposed that idea thus far, but now he consented.

So Teresa was a saint by 20? Not at all, First came three years of illness. Then, when her body recovered, she began to take care of her soul. With proper spiritual guidance she reached those heights of prayer that you and I can never really understand because God has chosen not to raise us to that level.

Only when she had been 25 years a nun did St. Teresa’s task as a reformer begin. Having first reformed herself, she was now ready to help others to become holier.

One of the reasons why the Protestant Reformation had made such headway was that many members of Catholic religious orders had been setting bad example rather than good example. So Catholic reformers now had to jack up, first of all, the ideals and practice of men and women religious. Teresa began by establishing a stricter life in her own Carmelite monastery in Avila. After that, she set up, all in all, about a dozen convents in which poverty was really poverty and prayer was really prayer. No half-measures. She also established two reformed monasteries of Carmelite men, and then let the Spanish Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross, take over the men’s reform from there. This more austere branch of the Carmelites, men and women alike, was called the “Discalced Carmelites” because the members wore open sandals rather than shoes.

A brief sketch of St. Teresa of Avila like the above can only hint at her greatness, for great she was.

She was so great as a spiritual writer that in 1970 Pope Paul VI proclaimed her a “doctor of the Church” – the first woman ever given that title.

She was a great reformer. What she did for the Carmelites had much wider repercussions. It set an example for other religious orders, and the spiritual revival of all these orders quickly percolated down to the Catholic faithful whom they served, and to the Church in general.

She was a great person. Do you picture her as a languishing neurotic? She was anything but! Teresa was plump, pleasant, forthright and had a delightful common sense of humor. A few stories will illustrate.

One night when Teresa was sleeping in the same room as another nun, the nun said, “I was just wondering. If I should die now, what would you do alone with a corpse?” Teresa, though a bit startled, answered, “I will think about that when it happens, sister. Now, let’s go to sleep.”

When she was about to found a monastery at Toledo she discovered she had no cash but five ducats. Somebody asked how she could open a convent with such small funds. “Teresa and five ducats are nothing”, she replied; “but God, Teresa and five ducats, that’s everything!”

In accepting candidates for her order, she looked for intelligence first, piety second, she said; but “God preserve us from stupid nuns!”

These three are true stories. Perhaps the last one is just a legend, but it is still typical.

One day, they say, Teresa was riding a donkey from one of her convents to another. When they came to a big mud-puddle, the sassy donkey balked and threw the saint right into the muck. St. Teresa, always in touch with God, said, “Lord, why this?” He answered, “That is the way I treat my friends.” Teresa came back, “Then no wonder You have so few!”

St. Teresa, help us not to take ourselves too seriously…

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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