Throughout 2015, the Order of Discalced Carmelites commemorated the 500th anniversary of the birth of its foundress, St. Teresa of Ávila. Communities across the world concluded the jubilee year honoring the saint’s fifth centenary on her Oct. 15 feast day.
Recent popes have showered praise on St. Teresa. In 1970, Blessed Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Church, and in 1982, St. John Paul II traveled to Spain to commemorate the 400th anniversary of her death. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI described her as “one of the peaks of Christian spirituality of all time” and “a true teacher of Christian life for the faithful of every time.” Pope Francis called her “a sure guide and attractive model of total donation to God” in a message to Father Saverio Cannistrà, the Discalced Carmelites’ superior general, on March 28, her 500th birthday.
During the celebration of her birthday, the bishop of Ávila, Spain, joined by Carmelite superiors, celebrated Mass and led a large procession of the faithful to the first convent she founded. Father Cannistrà wished his order’s foundress happy birthday from “your daughters and sons, your large family that recognizes you as mother and teacher; those Christians whom you have caused to discover what a good friend Jesus is and how our life is changed by learning to be with him in simplicity and love, limiting ourselves to gazing on him who gazes at us.”
Entering religious life
Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was born in Ávila, Spain, in 1515. Teresa’s father had three children by his first marriage. After he was widowed, he remarried, and Teresa was the third of nine children of the new marriage.
|Cloistered Carmelites react to visitors at the Church of St. Joseph and St. Teresa of Avila in Havana Sept. 21. CNS photo
“I had a father and mother who were devout and feared God,” the saint wrote in her autobiography. “My father was a man of great charity toward the poor, and compassion for the sick, and also for servants; so much so that he never could be persuaded to keep slaves ... My mother also was a woman of great goodness, and her life was spent in great infirmities.”
When Teresa was a child, she loved to read the lives of saints, and one day she and her brother decided to run away in order to seek martyrdom among the Moors in Africa — only to be stopped by an uncle who took them home. When she was 13, her mother died, and at 16, her father sent her to an Augustinian convent school. After a little over a year away, she returned home, ill.
Desiring the safest way to avoid hell, she resolved to enter religious life when she was 18. After her father refused his consent, she and a brother ran away from home one night — he to seek admission to a Dominican friary and she to enter a Carmelite convent. The Carmelites sent her father word that she was with them, and he finally gave his consent.
The early years of Teresa’s religious life were years of joy, interior struggle and serious illness. In the years that followed, she received many interior graces that led her to a deeper practice of prayer. The convent was not cloistered; visitors frequently came, and the sisters sometimes were asked to visit others outside.
At the age of 39, Teresa experienced a deeper conversion to the Lord. “It came to pass one day, when I went into the oratory, that I saw a picture,” she recalled. “It was a representation of Christ most grievously wounded ... So keenly did I feel the evil return I had made for those wounds, that I thought my heart was breaking. I threw myself on the ground beside it, my tears flowing plenteously, and implored him to strengthen me once for all, so that I might never offend him anymore.”
A new order
Four years later, St. Teresa was granted a vision of the place she deserved in hell, and she began to desire a stricter observance of the Carmelite life, noting that in her convent “the rule also was kept, not in its original exactness, but according to the custom of the whole order, authorized by the bull of mitigation” of Pope Eugene IV (1432), who relaxed the original 13th-century Carmelite rule.
One day, as she received holy Communion, she sensed a command from the Lord to proceed with the founding of a new convent that followed the original rule. She found much opposition to her plan among her convent’s nearly 200 sisters.
“I was now very much disliked throughout the whole monastery, because I wished to found another with stricter enclosure,” she recalled. “It was said I insulted my sisters, that I could serve God among them as well as elsewhere.”
In 1562, with the permission of the bishop and joined by two other sisters, she founded the Convent of St. Joseph in Ávila. With the support of some churchmen and the opposition of others, she founded 17 convents during the remaining two decades of her life and worked with St. John of the Cross to promote reform among the Carmelite friars as well.
During her last decades, she also wrote books through which she has exercised a lasting influence on Catholic spirituality: the autobiographical “Life” (1565); “The Way of Perfection” (1566), written for novices; her classic “Interior Castle” (1577); and the “Book of Foundations” (1573-82), in which she discussed the founding of her reformed convents.
Teresa of Jesus died on Oct. 4, 1582, and was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV.
A sure guide
In celebration of the opening of the jubilee year honoring St. Teresa on Oct. 15, 2014, Pope Francis sent a message to the bishop of Ávila, in which he said, “At the school of the saintly traveler, we learn how to be pilgrims.”
The saint “understood life as a way of perfection, along which God leads man, from task to task, up to him and, at the same time, puts him on a journey toward mankind,” the pope continued, as he named four of the saint’s “paths” that “do me much good.”
The first path, said Pope Francis, is the path of joy. Because she knew the Lord loved her, St. Teresa was a woman with a “contagious and unconcealable joy.” This joy, the pope noted, “is not reached by an easy shortcut that bypasses sacrifice, suffering or the cross but is found by enduring labor and pain, looking to the crucifix and seeking the Risen One.”
St. Teresa described the second path, the path of prayer, as “being on terms of friendship with God, frequently conversing in secret with him who, we know, loves us.” St. Teresa’s emphasis on the absolute necessity of prayer “is of perennial relevance,” Pope Francis said. “Thus, go forth along the path of prayer, with determination, without stopping, until the end!”
The saint’s third path, the pope continued, is “the way of fraternity,” or brotherhood and sisterhood, “in the bosom of the Mother Church.” In response to immense problems in the Church and society of her time, St. Teresa saw the importance of creating small communities in which women could together journey toward Christ as sisters, in mutual charity, detachment and humility.
The final path is that of time, of recognizing that the Lord meets us moment by moment, even “amidst the pots and pans,” as St. Teresa put it. In response to difficulties, she did not give in “to bitter complaining,” the pope observed, but accepted them “in faith as an opportunity to take a step forward on the journey.”
“Teresian realism,” Pope Francis said in summary, thus “requires work instead of emotions, and love instead of dreams”; it is “the realism of humble love,” rather than “anxious asceticism.”
Five centuries after her birth, we can ask this Carmelite reformer to help us travel the paths of joy, prayer, fraternity and time in our own pilgrimage to God.
J.J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.