Today in our Catholic tradition, we are celebrating the life of one of the four women the Church honors as Doctors of the Church. The other three are Saints Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux (the youngest of all the Doctors of the Church), and Hildegard of Bingen.
A Doctor of the Church is not an academic award. It is a church recognition of a saint whose writings (words) are profound and give deep insight into the mysteries of our faith. Also, the relevance of those words has a universal appeal.
Saint Teresa of Jesus, popularly known as Saint Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite mystic from Spain (March 28, 1515 – October 4, 1582), is honored by the Church as a Doctor of Prayer for good reasons. Pope Paul VI announced this elevation in 1970, marking it’s first for a woman saint in Church history a woman. We need more women doctors of the Church. There is so much depth we learn from them.
Saint Teresa’s Interior Castle is a must-read for anyone who wants to connect with her spiritual depth. In the book, she describes the spiritual journey from the first stage of spiritual growth (First mansion) to the seventh mansion of mystical union.
I am fascinated by her story and would love to reflect on how she overcame spiritual roadblocks to reach “perfection” in response to God’s grace. Her life story is a message of hope to many who feel, “spiritual union isn’t possible for me.”
Teresa was a strikingly, beautiful daughter of relatively wealthy parents. She learned the ways of the Lord when she was young. To protect her from intruding men, her dad sent her to study and live in the convent, where she received her vocation to be a nun. While at the convent, she noticed how worldly many of the nuns were. It was a time when some in the religious life were quite worldly, comparable to our time. Before long, she started to copy their way of life. The materialism of the time also influenced her.
From her autobiography, Her Life, published posthumously, we learn some lessons about the dangers of worldliness to the spiritual life and how to overcome it. She wrote the work in obedience to her spiritual director. She was candid about her struggles with worldliness in her twenties, even while she was in the monastery. She also shares how the grace of God helped her overcome worldliness when she was about 41 years.
Please pay attention to what she said that hindered her spiritual growth.
First was being careless about sin. Saint Teresa said she started explaining sin away. In part, it was because of the liberal and permissive advice by priests who told her that some of what the Church teaches to be sinful weren’t. It is sad to see this happen from time to time, a painful reality. She started to imbibe erroneous ideas and develop a lax mindset. It cost her a lot of spiritual health.
Second, she said, not avoiding the occasion of sin caused her to fall back to the same sins over and over again. She then advised that for one to grow in the spiritual life, the person must avoid people, places, and situations associated with sinning as much as possible.
Third, Teresa believed that dependence on her ability to grow or practice virtue was another thing that blocked her growth in the spiritual life. “This self-reliance was what destroyed me,” she said. (See Her Life, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriques, OCD, 2nd edition, vol. 1, Washington D.C.: ICS Publications 1987), chapter 19, no.15, p.171). She believed that many people backslide because they get tired and frustrated and give up. They rely on themselves. Her spiritual growth took a different turn when she entirely relied on God’s grace and trusted God to lead her to perfection. “With God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
Connected to this factor is the fourth, which is the necessity of valuing and depending on God’s grace. Saint Teresa said God continually gives us a sense of His presence through prayer and the simple things around us. It can come through prayer burdens, simple events around us, and, by those silent voices directing us to do something good, to respond to God’s call. The more we respond to this call of grace, the more we grow spiritually. When we ignore them, we gradually become less aware of God’s Presence and hear less of God’s voice.
I can go on and on about this great woman who has inspired generations of Catholic spirituality. For today, let’s take home the following four-point summary from her life and works. They are: not being careless about sin, avoiding the occasions of sin, not relying on ourselves to be holy, and responding to the promptings of grace. The practice of these could be an excellent way to start.
Growth in the spiritual life is for everyone. Keep at it or give it a try. Grace is sufficient.
Saint Teresa of Avila, pray for us.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu