15 October 2009

Saint Teresa of Jesus, virgin and doctor of the Church

15 OCTOBER 2009. Today the Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Teresa of Jesus. Saint Teresa was born into a Spanish noble family in 1515, just after Columbus opened the Western Hemisphere and just before the Protestant Reformation.

Saint Teresa lived a life, as a young woman, far from the ideals of sainthood. She enjoyed parties, boys, and flirting. but Saint Teresa's father was a very strict and pious man. Saint Teresa's mother was a fan of books, which in those days were the equivalent of our contemporary romance novels. Saint Teresa' father did not approve of his wife's reading materials. However, Saint Teresa also enjoyed reading her mother's books. To read them, though, Saint Teresa, had to sneak around her father's watchful eye.

As a teenager, it is said that Saint Teresa was assured that she was a horrible sinner. Many of us that rebel in our teenage years, through whatever means, can certainly relate to this self-critique.

Thinking that his daughter needed more discipline in her life, Saint Teresa's father sent her to a convent at the age of 16. At first Saint Teresa hated the convent. However, after a couple of years, Saint Teresa actually grew to enjoy the convent, as it seemed to be full of women who lived comfortably, had little worldly cares, and cared for one another. Besides, the convent was less strict than her father.

As Saint Teresa came of age she had to choose between marriage and the convent. Convinced of her own sinfulness, Saint Teresa ultimately embraced the life of the convent--deciding it was the best place for a sinner such as herself.

However, after a period of time, Saint Teresa began to hear the voice of God asking her to examine her convent life. Saint Teresa became convinced that the convent life needed more structure and, most importantly, needed to be focused on devotion to Christ--not comfortable living. In those days, women who had nowhere else to go often ended up in convents, regardless of vocation. Saint Teresa's convent often had parties where she engaged in gossip and flirting. And, Saint Teresa was an outgoing person whom everyone liked. While not serious sins, as far as we know, these sins kept her from really developing a relationship with God.

This lack of a relationship with Our Lord was born out in the fruitless years of Saint Teresa's mental prayer. For eighteen years, off and on, Saint Teresa engaged in mental prayer, without ever feeling the spiritual results of her prayer.

Then Saint Teresa fell ill with malaria. Saint Teresa was so sick that a grave was dug for her. But, she eventually recovered to a point. Afterwards, she was paralyzed for three years and never completely recovered. However, instead of strengthening her prayer, her illness led Saint Teresa to practically stop praying. She went years hardly praying at all. At the age of 41, a priest convinced Saint Teresa to return to prayer, but she did so with great difficulty. However, as she struggled with prayer, God began to bless her with the fruits of that prayer, including raptures which began to cause others around her to question her and poke fun.

Though her prayer life was growing, Saint Teresa still maintained many friendships until one day the Lord spoke to her: "No longer do I want you to converse with human beings but with angels." From that point onward, Christ was the first person in Saint Teresa's life. Now Saint Teresa's journey from a point that was very distant from God to and intimate relationship with Christ was completed, but the hardships had only begun.

There was a great deal of hostility toward Saint Teresa and gossip about her. Once, complaining to Christ, Jesus told her: "Teresa, that's how I treat my friends" Teresa responded, "No wonder you have so few friends."

However, at this point Saint Teresa came to truly unit herself to the will of Our Lord. And, in this union, she decided to reform her convent, in fact, the whole Carmelite order.Saint Teresa started a new convent, St. Joseph's, based upon a simple life of poverty devoted to prayer. However, there was open hostility, even from within the Church, to her new convent. To this, Saint Teresa replied: "May God protect me from gloomy saints."

Undaunted, and trusting in the Lord, Saint Teresa continued in her efforts. Saint Teresa believed and taught that the spiritual life is an attitude of love, not rules. Indeed, she believed in penance less than obedience to God. For Saint Teresa, if you did something wrong, one should not focus on punishing one's self--instead, change.

At St. Joseph's, Saint Teresa spent most of her time outside of prayer writing her life story. Saint Teresa was ordered to write about her Life by Christ. However, she had to camouflage much of her writings with text that would pass the intense scrutiny of those who were hostile to her. For example, after a profound statement, she would write: "But what do I know. I'm just a wretched woman." Though she was brought before the Inquisition, she was ultimately cleared.

At the age of 51 Saint Teresa decided it was time to spread her reform movement. Through a great deal of difficulty and hardships, Saint Teresa went about sowing the seeds of reform, admitting postulants, and founding convents for a reformed life of simple poverty and prayer.

In poor health, Saint Teresa died at the age of 67 on 4 October 1582.

Saint Teresa is the founder of the Discalced Carmelites. She was canonized on 12 March 1622 by Pope Gregory XV and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.

There is much more that could be written here about Saint Teresa of Jesus. This post offers only the briefest sketch of Saint Teresa.

What can be said, however, is that Saint Teresa is a wonderful example of two principles that each of us can take into our daily lives. First, do not despair at your sin, but continue to fervently grow in your love of Christ. Nothing is too big for the Lord. Even a person who considers herself a loathsome sinner can be raised to the heights of glory with Our Lord. Second, the path of Christ is not an easy one, but one that must be walked faithfully. In many ways, the great Pope John Paul II showed the sanctification of illness and hardship. So to, did Saint Teresa show that perseverance through hardship is a path to Christ. So, no one should wallow in self-pity, but thank the Lord for the hardships that come our way in life.

Pray that by the intercession of Saint Teresa of Jesus, our hardships will be a blessing of sanctification of our lives to Christ!

IMAGE: by Peter Paul Rubens. On display in the Museum of Art History, Vienna Austria.

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