Teresa of Avila, a saint for our time and all times

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington

Across the centuries the church has produced numerous holy women named Teresa, among them Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa), Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), the French saint Thérèse of Lisieux (the Little Flower) and the forerunner of them all, Teresa of Avila.

My wife, Terry, tells a fascinating story about how she was named. Her saintly mother, Stella, had a special devotion to the Little Flower, one that had been passed down from her mother. When she was a young girl, Stella became gravely ill and slipped into a coma. Her mother prayed to Thérèse for a miracle. Sometime later Stella regained consciousness and asked, “Where’s the lady with the flowers?” It appears she had experienced a vision of the French saint in an iconic pose.

When Terry was born, Stella intended to name her for Thérèse, but somehow the name on the birth certificate appeared as “Teresa.” So, as it turns out, her real namesake is not the French saint but the Spanish one, Teresa of Avila. Divine intervention? Who knows? But I do know that Terry majored in Spanish in college and went on to have a wonderful career as a Spanish professor.

Melvin Arrington, Jr

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was canonized in 1622 and given the title “Doctor of the Church” in 1970, the first woman to be so designated. She’s my favorite October saint (feast day, Oct. 15), primarily because of her lively personality, the compelling qualities of her mystical writings, and the way she achieved, in the spirit of St. Dominic, a balance between the active life and the contemplative.

In an age when women usually remained in the background, Teresa boldly thrust herself into the forefront of Spanish life. She was beautiful, talented and charming as well as shrewd, self- assertive and determined. She had amazing organizational skills and was blessed with intelligence, common sense, good humor and a quick wit, as seen in the following anecdote.

As Teresa was setting out to enter the Carmelite Order, a gentleman admirer helped her into the carriage. In order to step up, she raised her skirt slightly and, in so doing, inadvertently revealed the lower part of her leg, an exposure not overlooked by the young man. Turning to him, she said, “Go ahead and take a good look because it’s the last time you’re going to see it.”

Unfortunately, Teresa was constantly plagued with serious illnesses, including consumption and malaria. At age 24 she became cataleptic and for three days showed no signs of life. The nuns sealed her eyelids with wax, wrapped her body in a shroud, and prepared a grave for her. But when they came to take her for burial, she awoke. Full recovery from this affliction took many months. Late in life, Teresa looked back on all these episodes of sickness and pain and concluded that suffering was sent from God to draw her closer to Him. In spite of these ailments she maintained her trademark sense of humor, as seen in the comment, “Well, Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”

St. Teresa endured eighteen years of spiritual dryness in the convent until undergoing, around age 41 or 42, a “second conversion.” Afterwards, she no longer looked forward to the frivolity and social visits that had so occupied her youth. The new Teresa would now devote herself to mental prayer and recollection, which involves becoming detached from the cares of the world, turning inward, and focusing on the presence of God. Plunging into the deepest level of prayer, she often received mercedes (favors) from God in the form of visions, locutions and raptures. Of course, some became suspicious of these as works of the devil, but Teresa remained undeterred.

Because of a desire to live under a stricter rule, one that would allow more time for contemplation, Teresa undertook her signature project: the reform of the Carmelite Order. Observing a laxity and absence of discipline in the convent, she singlehandedly toiled with the aim of restoring the Order to its primitive rule. The reform was known as the Discalced Carmelites, although the sisters rarely went without shoes (they typically wore crude sandals).

Teresa began by establishing St. Joseph’s in the city of Avila and then traveled all across Spain founding a total of sixteen convents, often in the company of St. John of the Cross, who helped spread the reform to the friars as well. Despite the opposition of some of the sisters and several high-ranking clergy, she remained dedicated to this project and eventually prevailed.

Today, Teresa is best remembered for two mystical writings, Interior Castle and the Way of Perfection, and a spiritual autobiography, in which she writes candidly of poor health, struggles in prayer, devotion to the inner life and experiences of mystical union. The writing style is natural and spontaneous but often rambling, punctuated with digressions, and difficult to understand. Nevertheless, those who make the effort to read these works will be richly rewarded.

And so, we can look to Teresa today as an exemplary saint on several levels. She’s clearly a model for those devoted to renewal and a deeper prayer life, but also someone that those who suffer from illness and pain can pray to and lean on. Women of all ages can be inspired by the life and writings of this Spanish nun. And for all who believe joy to be an integral part of the faith, we join her in saying, “Good Lord, deliver us from sour-faced saints.”

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)