Today is the Feast Day of St. Teresa of Avila who was a 16th Century Spanish, Discalced Carmelite mystic and foundress. Pope Paul VI named St. Teresa of Avila the first woman Doctor of the Church in 1970 for her great writings on prayer and the spiritual life including such classics as The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle.
St. Teresa of Avila was born in 1515 in Avila, Spain and was professed as a Carmelite nun in 1536. She was disturbed by the spiritual laxity in her convent and founded St. Joseph Convent in Avila in 1562 and was joined by other woman who wished to live a stricter observance of the Rule. She founded 16 other convents and, with the help of St. John of the Cross, founded reformed Carmelite monasteries for men. These two saints are considered the great reformers of the Carmelite Tradition, the same tradition that St. Therese of Lisieux lived three centuries later.
In an age when men dominated every sphere of life, St. Teresa of Avila displayed such a towering intellect, personal charisma, common sense judgment, humor, natural beauty, and depth of prayer that she was consulted by many men both in the Church and in society at large. She enjoyed both deep contemplation of God and was known for her tireless energy with founding and guiding monasteries. St. Teresa so influenced every aspect of the Carmelite Life and Rule that she was truly a spiritual mother to all Discalced Carmelites that came after her, including our very own St. Therese. She died in Avila in 1582.
A great barrier was broken by St. Teresa of Avila when she was declared the first woman Doctor of the Church on September 27, 1970. Surely her immense influence on spiritual theology was recognized way before this time, but her official recognition opened the door for other great female spiritual teachers. As a matter of fact, just one week after Teresa was declared a Doctor, St. Catherine of Siena was declared a Doctor of the Church on October 4, 1970. Our Little Therese became the third female Doctor on October 19, 1997. Just one week ago on October 7th Pope Benedict XVI declared St. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th Century German mystic, the fourth woman Doctor of the Church.
St. John of Avila, a 16th Century Spanish preacher and contemporary of St. Teresa of Avila, was also declared a Doctor of the Church last week on October 7th. He was such a luminary that he acted as the spritual advisor of four canonized saints – St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis Borgia, and St. Peter of Alcantara. That is some resume! Also, since St. Teresa can be said to be St. Therese’s spiritual mother, then I guess St. John of Avila could be said to be her spiritual granddaddy!
St. Therese was proud to call St. Teresa of Avila her spiritual mother from an early age. When just a little child she heard about St. Teresa in church for the first time. She related in her Autobiography that, “When the preacher spoke about St. Teresa, Papa leaned over and whispered: ‘Listen carefully, little Queen, he’s talking about your Patroness.’ I did listen carefully, but I looked more frequently at Papa than at the preacher, for his handsome face said so much to me!” (Story of A Soul, p. 42) In a letter to one of her two priest ‘brothers’, Fr. Adolphe Roulland, Therese wrote that, “I shall be truly happy to work with you for the salvation of souls. It is for this purpose I became a Carmelite nun; being unable to be an active missionary, I wanted to be one through love and penance just like St. Teresa, my seraphic Mother…” (Letters of St. Therese of Lisieux, Vol. II, p. 956)
Happy Feast Day of St. Teresa of Avila!
On another topic, congratulations to Felix Baumgartner for his record-breaking jump from over 24 miles high on October 14th! More than 7 million people watched on live stream as the Austrian exited his pressurized capsule in the stratosphere and rode the force of gravity into the record books. He broke at least five records including traveling the greatest freefall distance and becoming the first person to break the sound barrier with his body at 833 mph. Now that’s fast! Move over Usain Bolt.