5 Important Lessons From St. Teresa of Ávila

Timeless wisdom from the first female doctor of the Church

François Gérard, “Teresa of Ávila” (detail), 1827
François Gérard, “Teresa of Ávila” (detail), 1827 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

We are fast approaching the 400th anniversary of the most impressive canonization in the history of the Church, which took place March 12, 1622. 

Pope Gregory XV had the honors. Canonizations in this period of history were relatively rare events. Even though the Council of Trent taught that the example and intercession of the saints was a great help to the faithful, it took 25 years after the close of the Council for anyone to be canonized. In fact, between 1492 and 1587, only three people had been canonized, one at a time. Pope Gregory changed that, canonizing at once four great saints of the Counter-Reformation, who were alive over the span of his own life, who not only symbolized what the Church is about but played major roles in helping her turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. 

The four were St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits; his former college roommate and, after St. Paul, the greatest missionary of all time, St. Francis Xavier; the re-evangelizer of Rome in the 16th century and founder of the Oratorians, St. Philip Neri; and the great reformer of religious life and foundress of the Discalced Carmelites, St. Teresa of Ávila. 

Ten days after their canonization, Gregory likewise canonized St. Isidore the Farmer, patron of Madrid. The Italians of the era, proud of their “Pippo Buono” (Neri), famously said that 1622 featured the canonization of “four Spaniards and a saint.” 

The significance of what happened on March 12 of that year has only grown in importance not just for Italy and Spain, but the Church universal, as the example of Ignatius, Francis, Philip and Teresa continues to inspire faithful in every walk of life and the institutions they and their spiritual children have established — the Church in whole countries, universities, convents and so much more — have become foundational for the Church ever since. 

We have so much to learn from each of them. Insofar as this Friday is the Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila, who died Oct. 15, 1582 (the very day the Julian calendar changed to the Gregorian), it’s fitting to focus on her. 

This summer, thanks to a few days of vacation in Madrid, I had a chance to take a day trip with priest friends to Ávila, where St. Teresa was born and entered religious life, and then to Alba de Tormes, where she passed into eternity. Because one of my companions has special responsibilities in the Church in Spain, we were privileged to enter into the cloistered parts of three Carmels, where, up close, we able to retrace St. Teresa’s sandaled footsteps and pray in the very places she contemplated, confessed, lived and died. 

We were able to venerate her relics, including her incorrupt heart that had mystically once been pierced — “transverberated” — by the love of the Lord. We were also able to witness her unfading zeal in conversations with her spiritual daughters, experience their great love and intercession for the needs of the Church, and congratulate them on the upcoming celebration.

On Sept. 27, 1970, Pope St. Paul VI named her the first female doctor of the Church. I’d like to highlight five lessons she teaches us. 

The first is a huge hunger for heaven. I was impressed that when I visited in Alba de Tormes the cell in which she died, I saw painted above her bed a mural of a scene that happened when she was 7 years old. She had precociously built a little hermitage in the backyard of her house. 

One day there she and her 5-year-old brother Rodrigo began to converse about the happiness of the saints in heaven. They were transfixed by the thought of living “forever and ever.” Rodrigo asked how they could get to God in heaven fastest, and Teresa replied through martyrdom. He asked how they could become martyrs and Teresa told them Muslims were killing Christians in Morocco. 

And so off they impetuously began to walk south toward Morocco, forgetting the geographical complication of the Mediterranean between Spain and North Africa! They got outside the city walls as far as the ancient Roman Adaja Bridge where their Uncle Francisco, returning from a hunt, saw them and asked where they were going. When they told him they were heading to Africa to be martyred by the Moors, he cleverly volunteered to give them a ride. After they hopped on his horse, he galloped them back to a different type of martyrdom awaiting them at home. 

The story is one of the most beautiful in hagiography, attesting to the childlike love we ought to have for God, for heaven, for eternity. That love still radiated from within her as her hopes were finally fulfilled in 1582. 

The second lesson is about the importance and art of prayer. She is a doctor of the Church precisely because, with her fellow Carmelite reformer St. John the Cross, she is one of the most important cartographers of the interior life in the history of the Church. 

She used a vivid writing style and the image of an Interior Castle with seven “mansions” (each containing many rooms) to communicate deep truths about prayer and the spiritual life. St. Teresa invited all her sisters — and others — through each of these stages of spiritual progress by opening themselves up more fully to the work of the Holy Spirit. 

The third lesson is about continual conversion. She entered the Carmelite monastery when she was 20, but the house was in a spiritual malaise. Some nuns had suites of rooms, with servants and pets. Eventually she succumbed to the worldliness herself, spending vast amounts of time entertaining visitors and friends in the parlor, giving herself over to various compromises with mundane vanity. When she was 39, God reawakened her from her lukewarm life in which she was tolerating venial sins and revivified her desire for holiness, for happiness. 

That experience of conversion leads to the fourth lesson, which is ecclesial conversion. She witnessed and experienced what can happen to people even in places where people profess total dedication to God. She became aware of how much Church institutions, beginning with Carmelite convents, needed profound reform, and, despite great personal suffering, spent the rest of her life trying to be an instrument to bring her fellow Carmelites, and through them the Church, back to her first love. 

The Church is always in need of reform and of holy reformers, who are instruments of God to bring us back to what Jesus in Bethany called the “better part” and “one thing necessary.” 

Finally, in this Year of St. Joseph, she shows us all to grow in devotion to him. Her love for the man God the Father chose to raise his Son according to his humanity and to protect and provide for the Holy Family began when, at the age of 26, she was cured of a physical illness after praying to St. Joseph. 

“Finding myself so crippled while still so young and earthly doctors having failed to cure me,” she wrote, “I took the glorious St. Joseph for my advocate and protector, and commended myself earnestly to him. … His aid has brought me more good than I could ever hope for from him. I do not remember once having asked anything of him that was not granted.” 

She tried to spread a contagious love for the spouse of the virgin. 

“I wish I could persuade everybody to be devoted to this glorious saint, for long experience has taught me what blessings he can obtain from God for us. Of all the people I have known with a true devotion and particular veneration for St. Joseph, not one has failed to advance in virtue; he helps those who turn to him to make real progress. … All I ask, for the love of God, is that anyone who does not believe me will put what I say to the test, and he will then learn for himself how advantageous it is to commend oneself to this glorious patriarch Joseph and to have a special devotion for him. Prayerful persons, in particular, should love him like a father.”

As we mark her feast day and prepare for the quatercentenary of her canonization, we ask her to intercede for us that we may share her hunger for heaven, for prayer, for continuous conversion, for the reform of ecclesial institutions and for the universal Church entrusted to St. Joseph. 

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The Nairobi-based Vatican diplomat, who has also been representing the Holy Father in South Sudan, highlighted the need to seek God’s mercy as important and implored: “Let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”