Friday, March 23, 2012

Forgotten Women in Church History: Teresa of Avila (1515-82)

Teresa of Avila shares with Catherine of Siena the honor of being the first women named Doctors of the Church by the Catholic Church in 1970. This is a title given by the Catholic Church to persons whose writings are deemed in accordance with Catholic doctrine and appropriate for teaching. Teresa was born in Spain two years before the Protestant Reformation began. She was a Carmelite nun who dedicated herself to reforming that Order, and she founded many Carmelite convents throughout Spain. Thus she is considered a figure of the Catholic Reformation, which was a movement for spiritual renewal and against corruption within the Roman Church, by those who did not wish to abandon it as the Protestants were doing. She was canonized shortly after her death, and thus joins St. Lioba and St. Catherine as women the Catholic Church remembers, but who are still forgotten by many modern Protestants.

It is interesting that a papal official investigating St. Teresa’s activities once described her as “a restless gadabout, disobedient, contumacious woman who. . . is ambitious and teaches theology as if she were a doctor of the Church in spite of St. Paul’s prohibition.”

Teresa, however, summarized her own work as follows:

Since I was only a woman, and a base one at that. . . I resolved to do the little that was in me: namely, to follow the evangelical precepts as fully as I could, and endeavor that those nuns who were with me should do likewise, dedicating ourselves to prayer for the preachers and learned men who are defending the church.

Most of Teresa’s writings, which are now viewed as good for teaching by the Church, she wrote not because she was "ambitious," but because she was directed to by her superiors, in order to prove that she was not a heretic. But St. Teresa really is now a Doctor of the Church, a fact which might now cause her to smile at the papal official's words, which certainly would have wounded her at the time— for she was a loyal and devoted Catholic despite the suspicion and opposition she received.  The endurance of her words, when the words against her have long since faded away, I believe shows the hand of divine Providence in lifting up His daughters in spite of what humans have thought Paul was prohibiting.

Teresa was a warm and outgoing person who made friends easily. She was also deeply religious even as a young child, and felt a conflict within herself between the two in her teen years, as she considered whether to marry or take the veil. She endured periods of serious illness and pain, including a bout with malaria that left her paralyzed in the legs for three years (the healing of which was considered a miracle). But she found consolation in prayer, and after a heartfelt experience of the grace and forgiveness of God while reading Augustine's Confessions, she began to experience the presence of God in visions and what she called “raptures." Her famous written work Interior Castle is a spiritual guide to union with God through seven stages of prayer. The Christian Classics Ethereal Library has called this work “a spiritually challenging book” containing “much literary merit as a piece of Spanish Renaissance literature. . . on a par with other great works of [its] time.”

Her other writings, including her autobiography, focus  primarily on prayer and contemplation. However, she also insisted on practical service, writing:

Let everyone understand that real love of God does not consist in tear-shedding, nor in that sweetness and tenderness for which we usually long, just because they console us, but in serving God in justice, fortitude of soul and humility.

But St. Teresa is perhaps best known for the establishment of Carmelite houses: sixteen or seventeen in all. She wrote The Way of Perfection to teach the nuns in her houses to live in greater holiness and devotion to Christ. Many church authorities were threatened by her efforts at reform-- and she had the misfortune of ministering during the heyday of the Spanish Inquisition. When her close associate, St. John of the Cross, was imprisoned, Teresa went into hiding. But in the end the pope ruled in her favor by permitting her reformed convents to continue functioning.

Teresa of Avila was a wise, personable and very influential leader and reformer. As Biographies Online puts it:

She had an endearing, natural quality; her life energy attracted and inspired many who were close. They admired her for both her outer charm and inner serenity. . . She guided the nuns not just through strict disciplines, but also through the power of love, and common sense. Her way was not the way of rigid asceticism and self denial. Although she underwent many tribulations herself, to others she stressed the importance of experiencing God’s love.

St. Teresa’s feast day is October 15. She was canonized in 1622.

Sources: Women's History

Biography Online

The Teresian Carmel

Christian Classics Ethereal Library

Tucker and Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan Publishing House (1987), pp. 202-204.


Anonymous said...

She is only forgotten if you aren't Catholic and in particular never went to Catholic school. She was brought up often in my theological education in Catholic school grades 7-12. And I know that the theology teachers at the Catholic school I later taught at used her works and taught about her as well.

Much later when I became Catholic, she was brought up in conversion classes and materials. The Catholic Church has not forgotten her!

Kristen said...

Anonymous, you're right, and I did say that in my post. I'll quote:

She was canonized shortly after her death, and thus joins St. Lioba and St. Catherine as women the Catholic Church remembers, but who are still forgotten by many modern Protestants.

I was raised Protestant and never heard about any of these women. And I know I'm not the only one.

Kay said...

I heard about her... when I studied the mystics on my own. I ran into the ruins of St. John of the Cross' Carmelite monestary in Spain on accident a few years back. The first time I visited it, I had no idea what it was. The second time, I purposefully went since I knew John and Teresa's back story. It meant a lot more, then. :) Teresa alwasys struck me as a tortured soul.

Anonymous said...

I was raised Catholic and I am very proud to be named after Teresa of Avila. She has always been a source of inspiration to me. I am also inspired by St. Therese (the Little Flower) and Mother Theresa of India.

I am now Lutheran. I agree that Protestants seem to be unaware of important women of the church. My church does not even mention Mary, the mother of Jesus.