In our ongoing series on the great Christian mystics, I chose to write about Theresa of Avila, the Spanish 16th century Carmelite nun, author of spiritual works, and founder of several monasteries. She was beatified by Pope Paul V in 1614, & named a Doctor of the Church in 1970, one of only four women so honoured.
But hers was not an easy road: she joined the Carmelite convent at 20 against the wishes of her father. Yet at first she despaired of ever being holy enough. She suffered from severe, at times debilitating illnesses (possibly temporal lobe epilepsy) for many years, during which her famous visions and bouts of religious ecstasy occurred. One in particular prompted the famous statue by Bernini, “The Ecstasy of St Theresa,” seen by many as highly erotic yet exemplifying the strong love she felt for Jesus, whom she called “the Beloved.” Following her recovery from illness she was inspired to teach contemplative prayer to her fellow nuns, and even to found reformed Carmelite convents & monasteries based on social service, poverty and prayer. She was aided in this by the younger mystic St. John of the Cross. She wrote several books, the most famous being the “The Interior Castle”, and her autobiography. But she faced severe opposition throughout her life from the Spanish Inquisition and the conservative members of her order. She died age 67, revered by many.
So what can we learn from St Theresa? One of her most famous sayings is “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion into the world. Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world”.
How can we have the strength to be as Christ to the world? She reminds us “Let nothing perturb you, nothing frighten you. All things pass. God does not change. Patience achieves everything.” She also wrote, “The closer one approaches to God, the simpler one becomes.” Trusting in God helps us let our many worries fall away. She emphasizes that we can find peace only if we can learn to love. She said “Accustom yourself continually to make many acts of love, for they enkindle and melt the soul.”
Finally, her blessing to her nuns, and to us all: “May today there be peace within. May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.”