For the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila: 15 October
Cosmo Francesco Ruppi
Archbishop of Lecce, Italy
Honoring a Friendly and Firm 'Revolutionary for God'
The 16th century was not an easy century for the Church. Indeed, it was one of the most turbulent and painful of periods.
This was not only because of the crisis in the Church and the birth of Protestantism, but there were also thousands of contradictions, only some of which the Council of Trent sought to remedy. These have remained, however, and still endure in the abrasive modern world.
Reform and counter reform, mystical tension and the new evangelization: the heroism of charity and the advancement of women in the Church are summed up in a holy woman who astonished her century. She still astonishes the world today with her ventures, her doctrine and her courage in promoting consecrated life and witnessing to the most absolute fidelity to the Pope and the Pastors of the Church.
On 27 September 1970, in proclaiming Teresa of Avila a doctor of the Church, that is, a Master of Christian life, Pope Paul VI recognized that this saint carried out "extraordinary tasks, prompted by her genius and a certain natural disposition of the will"; and he thus added: "She may have a more authoritative mission to perform in her Religious Family in the Church and in the world", requiring of the members of the Carmelite Order a higher standard of discipline in their life.
Paul VI not only praises St. Teresa of Avila's virtues but also the exceptional human qualities that shone out in her life: "She strove with determination to tell the truth, to keep her word, to abide by her promises, to use a language which, although colloquial, was full of joy and friendliness...", but at the same time she was austere, severe with herself and with the nuns and very demanding in all things.
The hour of God
Teresa came from a well-to-do and distinguished family and was destined for life in the world with the prospect of a substantial worldly fortune. Nonetheless, when she was 21 years old, she entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila. It was from here that she set out to implement the reform for which she was largely responsible, together with St. John of the Cross.
As for the other Teresa, Teresa of the Child Jesus, and Bernadette Soubirous, the time of grace did not arrive immediately for her, either. It came when she was 38 years old, at the peak of her maturity, when she felt in the midst of the reform the need to enter the life of the Church directly so as to make her own contribution to it.
The results form a long historical list, beginning with the reform of Carmel: on 24 August 1562 in Avila, she opened the first reformed Carmel in which the ancient observance was restored. It consisted of absolute poverty, prayer, hiddenness and silence. The cloister became the shade that was to envelop the nuns to enable them to speak to God better and to contemplate him in anticipation from this earth.
With solitude and prayer, the saint conceived of contributing actively to the reform of the Church and offered her support to the innovations that were being deliberated at the sessions of the Council of Trent.
With a companion as well as Fr. Julian of Avila, Teresa set out on foot to a poor little abandoned house in the country where she was to establish the new Carmel: "Night was falling when we arrived", she herself recounts. "I entered the house, which was in such a state that we did not think it would be right to spend the night there, as it was so dirty and full of rodents. It had a tiny porch, one room divided in two, a loft and a small kitchen. The whole building of our convent consisted of no more than this!".
It marked the beginning of the history of the reform of Carmel that spread throughout the world.
Today, there are more than 800 Carmelite monasteries, approximately 12,000 nuns and a multitude of religious institutes of active life scattered in every corner of the earth.
An arduous journey
St. Teresa's undertaking was far from easy. Her work of reform met with deep hostility and polemics. There was no lack of disagreement and misunderstanding, threats and calumny, but she was undaunted, braver and more tenacious than an army general.
She traveled all over Spain by any means chance afforded her, more often on foot than on wobbly carts. She brought her efforts to a successful conclusion by founding 16 new monasteries and gathering a multitude of disciples and followers who shared in her ideals of austerity and poverty.
With her, the Carmel became a centre of prayer, asceticism, austerity and Christian celebration: anyone who has caught a glimpse of a Carmelite parlour, even once, as happened to the author of this article the day after Neil Armstrong reached the moon, will certainly be struck by the calmness and joy that pervades the Carmelite Sisters.
A revolutionary for God, friendly and firm in governance, not only did St Teresa found monasteries and direct them with her head and her heart, but she also regularly corresponded with them. Chroniclers mention about 15,000 letters, of which 459 have come down to us, more than enough to describe both her spiritual and physical features.
Her writing is flat, plain and sometimes ungrammatical; but it is always clear, spontaneous and incisive.
In the Way of Perfection, for example, she complains of having only two hands, because if she had had more, she would certainly have doubled her letter-writing output.
Rich in faith, imagination
Her mystic life and her immense love for Christ were transfused in her writings, as Paul VI perceptively observed in his Apostolic Letter Multiformis Sapientia Dei, with which he proclaimed her a Doctor of the Church.
"Her teaching was important, not only for the life of the faithful especially in a practical way, for the area chosen that is of great theological value and known today as spiritual theology. Indeed, the writings of St Teresa are a plentiful source of multiple experiences, witnesses and spiritual insights, from which all scholars in this branch of theology draw in abundance...".
Among her many works, which have earned her the title of "Teacher" of the Christian people, in addition to The Interior Castle, her most important and best-known work, we can recall: the Librode la Vida [her autobiography], the Way of Perfection, the Book of the Foundations, the Relations, and the Letters that are a gold mine of historical information and contemplative spirituality.
The great saints of her day, such as John of the Cross, Peter of Alcântara, John of Ribera and others, considered her an expert in contemplation, enlightened by God to guide an interminable host of souls.
Everyone rejoiced when Paul VI "with true recognition, with a carefully considered decision and because of the fullness of his Apostolic Authority". declared St. Teresa of Jesus, the Virgin of Avila, Doctor of the universal Church.
The theological and mystic magisterium of this saint is so vast and luminous that not only do the Sisters of Carmel and the Carmelite Order draw from it by the handful, but also the entire Church. Theologians declare that her doctrine comes from heaven.
It comes from heaven and it leads to heaven!
Weekly Edition in English
12 October 2005, page 2
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