She was, by all accounts a captivating woman, not only when she was young and beautiful but even in later years when she had bad teeth and blemished skin.
Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada could charm the birds off the trees from her earliest years. “We were three sisters and nine brothers; all of them, by the goodness of God resembled their parents in virtue, except myself, though I was my father’s favorite.” Today St. Teresa of Avila, that favorite child, is the favorite saint of thousands of men and women all over the world.
“The Lord gave me the grace of pleasing,” she said. As one writer observed, no one has matched her for her dazzling combination of holiness, genius and charm. Not that it made for an easy life. Her “Life,” one of the most riveting autobiographies ever written, is a profound spiritual treatise on God’s working in her soul. This, along with her The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle is an inexhaustible treasury for anyone searching for God. With brilliant metaphors – the soul as a garden to be irrigated, the soul as an interior castle in the center of which dwells the Trinity – Teresa teaches the riches of contemplation. The extraordinary graces given her, her abandonment to, and overwhelming love for “His Majesty,” her growth in holiness, have drawn innumerable people to a deeper prayer life.
“I’ve no time to pray,” is the complaint of many hard-working, multi-tasking men and women of today. Read St. Teresa. How did this woman, an unrivalled authority on contemplative prayer, find any time to pray in the midst of her extraordinarily busy days? In poor health, at odds with many Church dignitaries, harassed by the Spanish Inquisition, she founded over a dozen convents in Spain despite opposition, disappointments and endless uncomfortable journeys over poor roads in the sun and in the rain. But pray she did.
In her Life she tells us that for years she used to wish the clock would strike the hour so that she could quit the chapel, but by persevering she learned that mental prayer is nothing else than an intimate conversation with someone who, we know, loves us. “I can say what I know by experience – no one who has begun this practice (of prayer), however many sins he may commit, should ever forsake it.” How many have been inspired and encouraged by her words!
Witty and full of common sense, Teresa had no time for false pieties. “From foolish devotions, O Lord deliver us!” To a certain nun who resolved to cultivate humility by never expressing any clever thought that she might have during recreation, Teresa gave short shrift; “it is bad enough”, she said, “to be stupid by nature without trying to be stupid by grace.” And she prayed, “God save us from gloomy saints!”
Teresa died in 1582, aged 67. In 1970 Pope Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Church, the first woman to be so honored. Her feast day is celebrated on September 15th each year. “The important thing is not to think much but to love much.” May she help us to look to Jesus and do just that.
Sr. Redempta Twomey is Assistant Editor of the Far East at St. Columban’s, Navan, Ireland.