Eleven years ago, way before I was a priest, I did a month-long walking pilgrimage through Spain called the Camino Santiago Compostela or “Way of St James”. It was a religious pilgrimage, but there were many distractions along the way that threatened to make me lose focus on what I was there for. Thankfully someone gave me a book right before leaving, the Life of St Teresa of Jesus (Avila). Reading this book taught me so much about the reality of what it means to be in a relationship with God and helped make the pilgrimage an incredible experience. I am so grateful to this amazing woman who has much to teach us even 500 years after her life. She helps put us on the right path, to know that God is calling each of us to have a deep, personal and life-giving relationship with him.
St Teresa lived in the golden age of Spain in the latter half of the 16th century. She is the foundress of the Discalced Carmelites, both the female and male branch. In fact, she is the only woman founder of an order of men. And she did this at a time when women had few rights in society and were often looked at with suspicion in the Church. In 1970 St Teresa became the first woman doctor of the Church. She was given the title Mater Spiritualium or the Mother of Spirituality in the Catholic Church.
Teresa loved the gospel of the woman at the well because she saw herself in a similar light. She related to the woman’s sinful past and the way that this meeting with Jesus changed everything about her life. Teresa was beautiful, had a vivacious personality and a very affectionate heart. From her autobiography we see that as a teenager she had certain friends who were not a great influence. While her words are not exactly clear, it seems she also developed a love interest with a view to possible marriage, but in secret and not according to the traditional systems in place. Her ever vigilant father sensed the danger to her honor and took steps so that she had to make a break with these persons and placed her in a religious boarding school nearby. There she met a sister was a good example to her of a happy, holy nun. This, plus the experience of the bitterness which her former life brought her and her own fear that she might not make it to heaven if she continued the way she was going helped motivate Teresa to make a dramatic decision: she too would become a nun.
After a lot of back and forth she eventually joined the nearby Carmelite convent of the Incarnation. There she was well-loved because of her warm and jovial personality. Her sensitive feminine heart yearned for connections with others though, and she let herself get distracted by the many visitors she had, some of whom were noblemen who felt drawn to her, perhaps not always with the best motives. She admits that when she knew someone liked her, she could not stop thinking about them.
Teresa was torn. She knew she vowed her life to Jesus and wanted him to be her priority but also felt very needy towards others. She experienced great inner tension which even made her sick for long periods of time. She never stopped hoping though that God would rescue her from this painful state. One day, after an agonizing period of prayer asking God to help her belong completely to Him, Jesus gave her some of the living water he promised to the Samaritan woman. Teresa heard an inner voice declare: “Do not be afraid my daughter, from now on you will no longer converse with men but with angels” (Life 24,5).
This word from God brought her the emotional healing and strong conviction for Christ that she had yearned for. She was able to break from the things that were holding her back. Jesus became everything. He was no longer a faraway God who would simply reward or punish her in the afterlife. He became the love of her life, her best friend, her spouse. She now could see that Christ was always with her, that God lived in the deepest part of her soul. Her whole way of prayer became less of trying to think about God or ask him for things, and more about simply being in the presence of Christ and loving Him. Her definition of prayer that she later wrote down became “an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us” (Life 8,5).
Eventually, she would take her spiritual gifts and bring them to others. She was asked by her priest-friends to write accounts of her life and prayer and these have become goldmines of spiritual teaching. She lived what it says in the book of Wisdom, “What I learned without Self-interest, I pass on without reserve, I do not intend to hide her riches (Wis 7:13).” She founded convents of nuns and monasteries of friars who would live in this same spirit. All of us friars here at Holy Hill affectionately call her our Holy Mother. Life as a novice is centered on learning and living out her way of prayer and spirituality.
The question Teresa asks all of us today Is: Do you feel wearied at times by the burdens of earthly relationships? Do you thirst for something greater? Is it possible that God might be calling you? Not simply to say some prayers each night and come to church on Sunday, but to be open to His healing love which he wants to pour out into your life; to let go of those things that you know are holding you back from him? Maybe Teresa’s relationship with God is for you too. We can always have hope for this. God is so patient with us. The more we falter, like Teresa did for many years, the more he invites us to come to Him.
If St Teresa were here right now I think she might say, do not be afraid of this! Why not start now?