The title “Doctor of the Church” refers to those who have contributed greatly to our understanding of the Christian faith. The original four are St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. Jerome. Throughout time, more have been added and in 1970 Teresa of Ávila was added to the list. She is the first and only one of two women to be honored with the title. Although we know much about her through her letters, her greatest contributions are the mystical contemplative works, The Way of Perfection and Interior Castle. I recommend them both to you, but they will take some work to get through.
She was born in 1515 and it would seem that she desired to be a saint all her life. At the ripe old age of nine, she and her brother determined that the easiest way to attain heaven was to die a martyr (martyrs, baptized or not are allowed immediate entry into heaven), so they set off for Morocco in hopes of being put to death for their faith at the hands of the Moors. Fortunately an uncle put an end to that little adventure, yet Teresa would continue in her life of faith and would later become a professed Carmelite nun. However, finding the order too lax, she went about a campaign of reform and for 25 years travelled throughout Spain, establishing 17 convents of the Reformed Carmelites. She died in 1582.
She is described as being “stubborn as an ox, thick-skinned as an elephant, and sly as a fox.” Not exactly what you would expect of a saint, but there are more than a few ways to accomplish the Lord’s work. In addition, she is associated with another of the great saints, St. John of the Cross who is celebrated in December. Her life is impressive, but it is truly in her writings that we can gain much knowledge, particularly with regard to our life of prayer. On this topic, “Her writing has been called ‘epoch-making’ because she was the first Christian writer to give what amounts to a scientific and experience-based description of the entire spectrum of the life of prayer.” (Fr. John Julian, Stars in the Dark)
In her book Interior Castle, she talks about the sisters who began to complain that they had to leave their time of prayer and meditation in order to go about their daily chores. Teresa responded, “Well, come now, my daughters, don’t be sad when obedience draws you to involvement in exterior matters. Know that if it is in the kitchen, the Lord walks among the pots and pans helping you both interiorly and exteriorly. True lovers love everywhere and are always thinking of the Beloved! It would be a thing hard to bear if we were able to pray only when off in some corner.”
Legend has it that one of her favorite sayings was found printed on a bookmark in her prayerbook. It is known simply as “St. Teresa’s Bookmark”:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.
From our Gospel reading, Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” The light that shown forth from St. Teresa Ávila still reaches us today.