Today is the feast day of one of my favorite mystics and saints, St. Teresa of Avila, Visionary and Renewer of the Church.
St. Teresa was born in 1515 into an old Spanish family of note, and had nine brothers and sisters all told. Her mother died when she was fifteen, and Teresa was sent off to school at a convent where she read the letters of St. Jerome (whose saint day was not too long ago!). Inspired by his writing, St. Teresa decided to take vows and become a nun.
Her father, though, had other ideas, and forbade her from pursuing a life in the church. So, Teresa did what every teen does: she ran away from home and joined the Carmelites in Avila.
Soon after joining the convent, however, young Teresa fell deathly ill and lapsed into a deep coma which, after she recovered from it, left her paralyzed from the waist down for three years.
It was then that she began to receive her visions, though she was quite lax with her spiritual practices. It didn’t seem to matter, though, because she began to physically feel the presence of the Divine quite acutely, eventually prompting her to recommit to her vows and take the name, “Teresa of Jesus.”
In 1560 she decided she needed to reform the monastery, as she felt it had become too austere. Facing great opposition she found a way to have a new monastery built, and dedicated it to St. Joseph.
In a page that could have been ripped from today’s headlines, lawsuits ensued. Her nuns were shamed and called names, and their numbers remained quite small. St. Teresa, in her wisdom, actually limited the number of nuns she would take to 21 in sum total, believing a smaller cohort had more chance to create community.
Eventually the Pope blessed the order, now called the Discalced Carmelites (because they wore sandals and not shoes), and St. Teresa set about starting other reformed monastic communities, calling them from pretention and austerity to a more humble way of being.
Throughout Spain St. Teresa established seventeen other communities. They were always small, intentionally poor, and extremely disciplined.
St. Teresa of Avila eventually fell ill and died in 1582, having struggled her whole life to call the church to greater humility.
St. Teresa is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes small pockets of apocalyptic (that is, reforming) people can change the world and be remembered in the annals of history. No one recalls the large convents of her day, booming with money, golden candlesticks (or, as we might say today, screens and technology), but we all recall this slight visionary who struggled and led a handful of folks.
I mean, that story kind of sounds like Jesus, right?
Let those with ears to hear, hear.
-historical notes from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
-icon written by Theophillia
-critiques of megachurches all me