On this, the ‘ides’ of October, the fifteenth, mid-month, we celebrate the great mystic and doctor of the Church, Teresa of Avila (+1582) who, along with her male contemporary Saint John of the Cross, helped to reform the ancient Carmelite Order. This very human Spaniard, whose vivid personality shines through her writings and the ages, was like a female Elijah, casting a ‘fire’ upon the earth, reforming not just the way of Carmel, but the way of all of us.
Saint Teresa who described prayer quite simply as a ‘conversation with God’, especially through the humanity of Christ, with Whom we are meant to build a friendship, based more on love than duty, as friendship should be. Yet as she once said to the Lord, at least half in jest, after a more-than-usual bout of suffering and dryness ‘If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!’ Yet Christ would also fill her soul with the most sublime spiritual ecstasies, a joy unsurpassed in the human milieu, a veritable glimpse of beatitude. As Saint Paul avers, once you have a taste of that definitive joy, all else seems like dross.
If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend. And I clearly see that if we expect to please him and receive an abundance of his graces, God desires that these graces must come to us from the hands of Christ, through his most sacred humanity, in which God takes delight.
Teresa wrote somewhere that if a soul spends but fifteen minutes a day in such ‘conversation with Christ’, that soul will be granted eternal life. Not a bad exchange at all, and more than most of our friends will do for us.
All in all, the Carmelite, who used to quip that she be spared of glum saints, comes across through her marvellous and engaging writings as a very attractive, warm, humorous, self-deprecating soul, filled with the love of God and a desire for perfection, strict with herself, but gentle with others, with profound insights on the human soul and its condition. Her treatises on prayer are amongst the finest in the Church’s tradition, along with those of her fellow Carmelite, John of the Cross. It was the latter who led Karol Wojtyla on the path to holiness (whose original intention was to join the Carmelites), as it was Teresa, particularly her autobiography, that inspired the conversion of the Jewish philosopher and future martyr Edith Stein, who adopted her name in joining the Carmelite Order, as Teresa Benedicta a Cruce. There truly is an interconnected community between earth and heaven, past and present, souls in via and souls in gloria, and, in that perspective, we are not all that far from each other. The saints are still very real indeed.
Teresa went to her eternal reward either on the eve of October 4th, 1582, or the morning of the 15th, as the Church, and most of the world, were switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, abolishing two weeks of the year to accommodate inaccuracies. She was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, and declared a Doctor of the Church along with Catherine of Siena – the first women – in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. In 1989, Cardinal Ratzinger chose this day to promulgate his letter, On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, a reflection on prayer in the modern era, and a very worthy read.