On Thursday, the Church celebrated the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite mystic and Doctor of the Church. 2015 marks the fifth centenary of the birth of this great saint, who was born on March 28, 1515. The Church rejoices this year to celebrate her 500th birthday!
Teresa is a true treasure of the Church. She grew up in a fairly comfortable Spanish family. Her father was very holy and her mother, who died when Teresa was 14, also formed her in the Catholic faith. Her decision to enter religious life came after she read her father’s copy of the “Letters of St. Jerome.” In his letters, Jerome gives the traditional teaching that the contemplative life of religion is the safest path to salvation. Seeking this secure path, Teresa entered Carmel, leaving home without her father’s permission, at the age of 20.
Teresa was a young woman of extremely high voltage. She was intelligent and talented and charming and relatively worldly as a young Carmelite nun. She would visit regularly with family and stay current on worldly affairs. However, God had other plans for this impressive bride of His. Even in the midst of her sinfulness and imperfections, God began to favor her with special locutions and visions. She received spiritual assistance from St. Francis Borgia and St. Peter of Alcantara, who helped her to discern that these experiences were from God.
In one of her visions, God showed Teresa the place prepared for her in Hell if she were to be unfaithful to Him. This was a turning point in her life. At the age of 47, Teresa began her life’s work of reforming the Carmelite Order. She would found many new monasteries throughout Spain, all of them dedicated to living the ancient Carmelite Rule in its fullness. In this reform, she would also be the spiritual mother of St. John of the Cross, who would enact similar reforms among the Carmelite friars.
From age 46 until her death at 77, Teresa wrote several ingenious works on prayer and the spiritual life. Her fundamental insight is that true perfection means perfect union with God, whereby the soul has nothing in it that is not explicitly and entirely of God. This doctrine of transforming union with God has solid roots in the theology of the great St. Thomas Aquinas, evidence of the influence on her of her Dominican confessors. For her outstanding doctrine on prayer, St. Teresa was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
Teresa fundamentally and finally understood herself as the humble bride of the King of Kings. She sought only to please Him. This is her true genius. As we continue to celebrate her 500th birthday, we ask her intercession for this same grace, that we may be entirely wounded and healed by Divine Love.
Fr. Joseph Previtali