Monday, October 15

Feast of St. Teresa of Avila

What a woman. Brilliant, articulate, passionate and, above all, deeply in love with God. St. Teresa of Avila is one of the most powerful answers we have to the accusation that the Church is irredeemably sexist at its core, both in terms of her life and in the devotion accorded to her over the past five hundred years.

She's also a pretty vivid answer to the accusation that the spiritual life of Christians somehow strips us of our humanity and uniqueness. In fact, when you look at all the great saints, made so what the faithful have sensed God has accomplished in them, one of the things that will strike you is their utter humanity. Of course, there's such a thing as hagiography and myths and legends that spring up around figures that render them rather other-worldly. But for the most part, the most revered saints are those who have nothing to hide: St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Therese of Lisieux, and, of course, Teresa are all keenly aware of their faults, so the way they open themselves to the power of God working in their lives becomes all the more inspiring and accessible for it.

One of the most interesting aspects of Teresa's life is that she really didn't get rolling, spiritually speaking, until mid-life. She was over forty when, after years of life in the convent, years during which she prayed with varying degrees of interest and commitment, she finally began to give herself over to God in meditation and contemplation, and it bore fruit....the fruit was, of course, her spiritual writings as well as her reform of religious life. While Cathleen Medwick's biography of Teresa has its faults - not enough exploration of her mysticism - I found it a rather good introduction to her life and exploration of the wretched politics she had to wade through in order to follow her call to reform the Carmelites.

A brief aside: Teresa's story, like the story of every other great figure in the Church, reminds me of a truth. As a critic of many church institutions, especially schools and religious ed programs, I get a lot of well-meaning people telling me that it's all okay, we just need to work on fixing these institutions from the inside ...you know...get on the school boards, get involved, and so on. Well, that works sometimes, but when things really get terrible, the history of the church tells us, over and over, that working from the inside has its definite limits. Most real, positive change in the Church and its institutions has come from doing something brand new.

That's what Teresa did. The Carmelite convents of her day had become little more than boarding houses for wealthy unmarried women. The "cloister" was a joke, and "poverty" was what happened when your family's gift of sweets ran out for the month. Teresa tried to fix this from the inside, but it didn't take her long to realize that something else was really needed: starting new convents dedicated to simplicity, asceticism, and contemplation. So she did.

For more information on St. Teresa of Avila, go here , and for a list of sites devoted to her, go here.

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