St. Teresa of Avila and Her Glorious Carmelite Reform
“Let nothing trouble you. Let nothing make you afraid. All things pass away. God never changes. Patience obtains everything. God alone is enough.” – St. Teresa of Avila
On October 15th, the church remembers one of the most profound spiritual teachers in Christian history, St. Teresa of Avila. What can we learn from this inspiring patron saint of those who are ridiculed for their piety? Teresa, born into nobility in a Spain that was at the height of its power, knew from her childhood that her path would be to follow God. She was raised in a devout household; her parents were models of piety and compassion. As a girl, Teresa was drawn to the prospect of religious life; she avidly read about the lives of saints and would play in the garden at being a nun. After the death of her mother, Teresa was sent to be educated by a group of Augustinian nuns in Avila, a time and experience that only strengthened her desire to answer the call to religious life. At the age of 20, Teresa left home to enter a Carmelite monastery; her father had initially rejected the idea of Teresa living the religious life but soon accepted Teresa’s calling, and within two years she enthusiastically made her profession.
It would not be the last opposition the Carmelite nun would face, however. Much of her next 20 years were spent in discontent; she was plagued by illness as well a struggle to integrate her relationships with the world and with God. She described her struggles in this way:
“On the one hand, God was calling me. On the other, I was following the way of the world. Doing what God wanted made me happy; but I felt bound by the things of this world. The two seemed contrary to each other: spiritual joys, and sensory pleasures. And so, I was not able to concentrate on prayer, because my mind was filled up with a thousand vanities.”
It was when she was nearly 40 that a series of experiences led her to carry out the reform she is so well-remembered for today. She was the recipient of mystical visions of Christ and of the Blessed Trinity. In particular, after receiving the Holy Eucharist one morning, she was called by God to found a new monastery, and name it after St. Joseph. She had been well aware of laxity in her own house, and the way that it’s atmosphere hindered time for contemplative prayer. Many other nuns in her community were also yearning for a place conducive to prayer. And so she did found a new house, and in fact over time founded seventeen monasteries for women and several networks for men.
The foundation of new monasteries and the reform of the Carmelite order were met with opposition as well, even resulting in an attempt to bring the Inquisition against her. However, Teresa had received a patent from the Carmelite General to establish the houses, and then later a brief from Pope Gregory XIII which allowed a special provincial for Teresa’s younger branch of Carmelites. As part of her reform, Teresa also reaffirmed and strengthened the Constitutions of the Carmelite Order, bringing new life and joy to an order that had lost its vigor throughout the 13th to 16th centuries.
By the time of Teresa’s death in 1582, the saintly woman had left the Catholic world with a wealth of spiritual information and direction. Beyond her reform of the Carmelite Order, her life and writings are an inspiration to all Catholics. Her profound writings led to her being proclaimed a doctor of the Church, and her life should be an inspiration to us all. She was persevering and obedient, even returning for a time to her old monastery when ordered to do so, confident that God would bring her where she needed to be. So often we are afraid to appear weak, but the life of St. Teresa reminds us that obedience to and reliance on God are not signs of weakness but of doing God’s will, and the witness of her life calls us to remember that all good we do comes from Him.
“If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend. And I clearly see that if we expect to please him and receive an abundance of his graces, God desires that these graces must come to us from the hands of Christ, through his most sacred humanity, in which God takes delight.
All blessings come to us through our Lord. He will teach us, for in beholding his life we find that he is the best example.
What more do we desire from such a good friend at our side? Unlike our friends in the world, he will never abandon us when we are troubled or distressed. Blessed is the one who truly loves him and always keeps him near.
Whenever we think of Christ we should recall the love that led him to bestow on us so many graces and favors, and also the great love God showed in giving us in Christ a pledge of his love; for love calls for love in return. Let us strive to keep this always before our eyes and to rouse ourselves to love him. For at some time the Lord should grant us the grace of impressing his love on our hearts, all will become easy for us and we shall accomplish great things quickly and without effort.” – St. Teresa of Avila