In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI provided a role model for evangelization, writing, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
Pre-eminent among role models for our time is St. Teresa of Avila, who shines as a teacher and witness to prayer. The Church celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Carmelite mystic’s birth tomorrow.
Through her writings, St. Teresa teaches prayer by testifying to her own inner journey. Her pedagogical approach becomes even more convincing as she admits shortcomings, which began early on in her monastic life. She wrote, “Since I thus began to go from pastime to pastime, from vanity to vanity, from one occasion to another ... I was then ashamed to return to the search for God by means of a friendship as special as is that found in the intimate exchange of prayer.”
Finally moved to conversion at the sight of an image of Jesus in his passion, St. Teresa returned to prayer. But challenges remained. She suffered a lifetime of trials, including illness and, in the Spiritual Testimonies, recounted a particularly poignant episode: “When I had begun prayer, I had such a bad headache I thought it would be almost impossible to pray. The Lord said to me: ‘In this way, you will see the reward that comes from suffering, for since you did not have the health to speak to me, I had spoken with you and favored you.’”
As a violin teacher, to encourage my students to practice daily, I often tell them, “Make friends with your fingerboard.” Daily practice, I explain, requires discipline but will eventually lead to greater familiarity with the instrument. In a similar way, in The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa teaches that daily prayer requires discipline but leads to the greatest satisfaction. She wrote:
“Represent the Lord himself as close to you. Believe me, you should remain with so good a friend as long as you can. If you grow accustomed to having him present at your side, and he sees that you do so with love and that you go about striving to please him, you will not be able … to get away from him; he will never fail you; he will help you in all your trials; you will find him everywhere.”
In 1970, Pope Paul VI named St. Teresa of Avila a doctor of the Church, explaining, “We are undoubtedly before a soul in which extraordinary divine initiative was active and was perceived and described by Teresa simply.”
Articulating the current value of her teachings, the Holy Father said, “Her message comes to us children of the Church at a time marked by a great effort at reform and renewal of liturgical prayer. It comes to us who are tempted by the great noise and business of the outside world to yield to the frenzy of modern life and to lose the real treasures of our souls in the effort to win earth’s seductive treasures. It comes to us, children of our time, when we are losing, not only the habit of conversation with God, but also the sense of the need and duty to worship and call on him. ... Psychoanalytical exploration is breaking down the frail and complicated instrument that we are, in such a way that all that can be heard is not the sound of mankind in its suffering and its redemption, but, rather, the troubled mutterings of man’s animal subconscious, the cries of his disordered passions and his desperate anguish.”
Following her example, I am sure that St. Teresa would like us to celebrate her life by witnessing to the joy of God’s life within us, the fruit of all prayer.
Jennifer Sokol writes from