Wednesday, October 15, 2008

St. Teresa of Avila

St. Teresa of Avila is one of only two female Doctors of the Church (along with Catherine of Sienna). Today, October 15, is her feast day. A woman of faith and Godly wisdom, she lived in a time of upheaval and change in the Church, yet she brought renewal and reformation in a peaceful manner.'s Saint of the Day e-mail this morning read:

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
Teresa lived in an age of exploration as well as political, social and religious upheaval. It was the 16th century, a time of turmoil and reform. Her life began with the culmination of the Protestant Reformation, and ended shortly after the Council of Trent.

The gift of God to Teresa in and through which she became holy and left her mark on the Church and the world is threefold: She was a woman; she was a contemplative; she was an active reformer.

As a woman, Teresa stood on her own two feet, even in the man's world of her time. She was "her own woman," entering the Carmelites despite strong opposition from her father. She is a person wrapped not so much in silence as in mystery. Beautiful, talented, outgoing, adaptable, affectionate, courageous, enthusiastic, she was totally human. Like Jesus, she was a mystery of paradoxes: wise, yet practical; intelligent, yet much in tune with her experience; a mystic, yet an energetic reformer. A holy woman, a womanly woman.

Teresa was a woman "for God," a woman of prayer, discipline and compassion. Her heart belonged to God. Her own conversion was no overnight affair; it was an arduous lifelong struggle, involving ongoing purification and suffering. She was misunderstood, misjudged, opposed in her efforts at reform. Yet she struggled on, courageous and faithful; she struggled with her own mediocrity, her illness, her opposition. And in the midst of all this she clung to God in life and in prayer. Her writings on prayer and contemplation are drawn from her experience: powerful, practical and graceful. A woman of prayer; a woman for God.

Teresa was a woman "for others." Though a contemplative, she spent much of her time and energy seeking to reform herself and the Carmelites, to lead them back to the full observance of the primitive Rule. She founded over a half-dozen new monasteries. She traveled, wrote, fought—always to renew, to reform. In her self, in her prayer, in her life, in her efforts to reform, in all the people she touched, she was a woman for others, a woman who inspired and gave life.

In 1970 the Church gave her the title she had long held in the popular mind: Doctor of the Church. She and St. Catherine of Siena were the first women so honored.

Today we live in a time of turmoil, a time of reform and a time of liberation. Modern women have in Teresa a challenging example. Promoters of renewal, promoters of prayer, all have in Teresa a woman to reckon with, one whom they can admire and imitate.

Teresa knew well the continued presence and value of suffering (physical illness, opposition to reform, difficulties in prayer), but she grew to be able to embrace suffering, even desire it: "Lord, either to suffer or to die." Toward the end of her life she exclaimed: "Oh, my Lord! How true it is that whoever works for you is paid in troubles! And what a precious price to those who love you if we understand its value."

I sent a couple of friends a Saint-of-the-Day greeting with a great quotation by Teresa that I really liked:
"The Lord does not look so much at the magnitude of anything we do as at the love with which we do it."

Another quotation of hers that I really like, and one that I'm trying hard to apply to myself:
"Be gentle to all and stern with yourself."

So today we celebrate the memory of a woman of God who walked a fine line between the active and the contemplative, the philosophical and the spiritual, the practical and the mystical. She's an intriguing woman who interested me because of her attitude regarding her illness and suffering undergone by the saints.

The Catholic view of suffering has been of great solace for me as I have undergone over six years of chronic pain and fatigue. Catholics see suffering as being a gift from God, presented to those saints who will shine for Him through their trials. It's considered a privilege to suffer for Christ's sake and to allow Him to work through their frailties. The evangelical outlook on suffering is not extremely helpful for those who are undergoing the suffering as the ones undergoing trials are often accused of "having unconfessed sin in their lives," "not praying enough," or "not having enough faith." I've heard these accusations against me, some from people in my church and others from evangelicals I've come to know online.

So St. Teresa's views of suffering as a blessing and a privilege have encouraged me and helped to give me the strength to "keep on truckin'" even when my body seems to be grinding to a halt. And that's the main reason I would like to celebrate and remember St. Teresa of Avila.

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