Today we celebrate the feast of St. Teresa of Jesus, also known as Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church, mystic, and reformer of the Carmelite order. Her best known writing is The Interior Castle, where she teaches on the progression in the life of prayer and the effects it has upon every other phase one’s life.
Born in 1515 to a Spanish family of nobility, she suffered a crippling illness as a child which caused her to be educated at home, or as I like to say, home schooled, where her faith grew and was nurtured. She was cured of the disease through the intercession of St. Joseph. At the age of 17, against her father’s wishes she entered a Carmelite convent. In time, after seeing her devotion and dedication to God’s call, her father gave his consent.
St. Teresa was born shortly before the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Like Martin Luther, she saw the wrongs in the Church and the ways that they must be righted. But unlike Martin Luther, she reformed from within. She often met fierce opposition, but her great courage and conviction preserved her commitment to the mission of her call. With St. John of the Cross, she brought new life and restored spirituality to the Carmel.
In researching her, I found it very interesting that this woman of deep spirituality and intimacy with God, for many years found it hard to pray.
She contracted malaria and was so ill, that a grave was dug for her. After 4 days she woke up, but suffered paralysis for 3 years. Now, you’d think that this must have been the turning point for her – the place where her prayer life took off. After all, she was given another chance.
She just made excuses for why she couldn’t pray. Go figure!
At the age of 41, a priest counseled her to return to prayer, but she found difficult, “I was more anxious for the hour of prayer to be over than I was to remain there. I don’t know what heavy penance I would not have gladly undertaken rather than practice prayer.” She found distraction a constant battle, “All the trials we endure cannot be compared to these interior battles.”
I don’t know about you, but this comforts me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been praying at home really trying to meditate when the chicken in the freezer calls out, “Defrost me!” or the clothes in the dryer beckon, “Fold me!” And that doesn’t even count the times I hear, “Mom?”
She started to pray again and in time, she experienced deep union with God. She was known to spend extended periods of time in spiritual ecstasy and even experienced levitation.
At the top of this page is a picture of Bernini’s famous sculpture of St. Teresa. I’ve actually saw it 20 years ago in Rome and have seen it many times in photos since. I never really understood it…until today. The sculpture shows St. Teresa in ecstasy and an angel standing over her with an arrow in his hand. This is the transverberation of St. Teresa.
“Trans-what?” you say. Transverberation: a mystical grace whereby an angel pierces the heart with a dart of love. St. John of the Cross says, “It will happen that while the soul is inflamed with the Love of God, it will feel that a seraph is assailing it by means of an arrow or dart which is all afire with love. And the seraph pierces and in an instant cauterizes this soul, which, like a red-hot coal, or better a flame, is already enkindled. The soul is converted into an immense fire of Love. Few persons have reached these heights.” I had never heard of this until today.
At the age of 67, St. Teresa died and in that same year was declared a “daughter of the Church.” Nine months after she was buried in a wooden coffin, her body was exhumed. Her clothes had started to deteriorate, but her body was incorrupt, and while her body was being re-clothed in the Carmel, a perfumed scent filled the monastery. When her heart was later removed and placed in a crystal reliquary, a wound from the angel’s dart was visible. It can still be seen today at the Carmelite Monastery in Alba de Tormes. Her heart has maintained its color and three sharp thorns at the base of the heart have been visible since the nineteenth century.
I’d like to leave you with two thoughts today.
First: never give up on prayer. No matter how many distractions, interruptions, dry periods, or unanswered prayers, never stop praying. Here is this woman, a spiritual giant, who really didn’t seem to get serious about prayer until her 40s, even after years in the convent! Just look at how God used her. No matter what your “convent” might be – the home, the office, the car – “Pray without ceasing.” (1Thess 5:17)
Second: The Catholic Church is full of miracles – incorrupt saints, incorrupt body parts, transverberation, levitation, Eucharistic miracles. Quite honestly, from the outside, it must seem a bit outrageous. I often wonder what our non-Catholic brothers and sisters think about such things. Do they reject it as fabrication or do they look at it and say, “Nothing is impossible with God.” (Lk 1:37)? The book of Acts tell us “God will not suffer his faithful ones to undergo corruption” (Acts 2:27). Jesus instructed his apostles, “You will see greater things than this” (Jn 1:50) I think it’s important for us to learn more about these un-worldly, that is supernatural, occurrences. We do see these in the Catholic Church, and we defer to the authority of the Church to judge their veracity. Seek them out and share them, especially with your children. Just like the miracle of the raising of Lazarus from the dead strengthened those present, these miracles can help us today.
Saint Teresa of Jesus, pray for us! Anne
For your further reading enjoyment. I found an interesting article about her life.