Celebrating 400 Years of St. Teresa of Ávila’s Canonization
St. Teresa taught us that whether our life is short or long, we must determine to serve the Lord today.
In 1568, Teresa of Ávila was well into her life as a Carmelite as she forged onward, continuing to suffer physical and spiritual trials while traveling the rugged roads of Spain to establish new monasteries in second-hand buildings, often in desperate need of repair. At the same time, she was enduring ongoing opposition from those threatened by her mission from the Lord to reform the Carmelite Order. Now, seated at the desk within the austere surroundings of her monastic cell, I imagine it was with a small smile that she lifted her well-worn quill, dipped in ink and, in obedience to her confessors, continued the writing of her autobiography and the account of her misdirected idea at age 7 of sanctity. The concept was sown while reading books on the lives of the saints with her older brother, Rodrigo.
“When I considered the martyrdoms the saints suffered for God,” she began, “it seemed to me that the price they paid for going to enjoy God was very cheap, and I greatly desired to die in the same way. I did not want this on account of the love I felt for God but to get to enjoy very quickly the wonderful things I read there were in heaven.” Martyrdom’s seemingly “sale price” deal toward swift enjoyment of heavenly bliss was so attractive to young Teresa, that she and Rodrigo soon devised a plan to run away from home to the land of the Moors, who at that time were murdering Christians, and to beg them, please, Teresa wrote, “to cut off our heads.”
On March 12, the Church celebrated the 400th anniversary of the canonization of St. Teresa of Ávila by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. Although her attempted escape toward martyrdom was quickly thwarted, this childhood episode from Teresa’s Life is key in demonstrating not only her great desires and courage, but also her immense determination from birth, a quality the Lord would purify and strengthen in preparation for her future task of guiding others along the sacred, though sometimes perilous paths of prayer. For Teresa, authentic prayer was not possible without determination, especially in the beginning stages.
She spoke from experience. “For more than 18 of the 28 years since I began prayer,” she explained, referring to her first years in Carmel as she struggled to let go of vain pleasures, “I suffered this battle and conflict between friendship with God and friendship with the world.” She preferred spending time seeking a favorable impression from her superiors and confessors, and spending time in worldly conversations with friends in the parlor. During the required two hours allotted to private prayer each day, she confessed:
Very often, I was more anxious that the hour I had determined to remain there be over, and more anxious to listen for the striking of the clock than to attend to other good things. And I don't know what heavy penance could have come to mind that frequently I would not have gladly undertaken rather than to recollect myself in the practice of prayer.
It was only in retrospect that Teresa realized the role that determination had played in helping her to persevere through the laborious years of prayer, which at last led to the turning point in her journey when, upon entering the oratory one day, her eyes fell upon a statue of Jesus scourged at the pillar and she dropped to her knees as tears of repentance began streaming down her face. Gazing at Jesus, as never before, she suddenly understood the suffering that he endured out of love for us and felt keenly her lack of gratitude to him in return. “I asked him to strengthen me once and for all,” she explained, “that I might not offend him” again.
Her prayer was answered as she rose to her feet, fortified in determination and, like the repetitive thundering of a deep, pedal-point motif in an organ fugue of Bach, repeated the same “motif” of determination through the example of her actions and in all of her writings for the rest of her life.
“Give with complete determination, for determination is what He desires,” she wrote, encouraging us, in spite of our weakness, to persevere in prayer with the Lord. “For His Majesty already knows our human misery and wretched nature better than we do ourselves, and He knows that these souls now desire to think of Him and love Him always.” She exhorted those tempted to abandon prayer in the early stages of the spiritual life to persevere with confidence. For Jesus, she explained from her own experience, is a friend to all that walk with humility and do not trust in self. In times of temptation, she punctuated the matter by exhorting us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus with “determined determination,” the virtue of which is a solid foundation against the wiles and hatred of the devil who is powerless against those determined to carry the cross without consolation. As Jesus commanded of all true disciples, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
How different Teresa’s concept of sanctity was by the end of her life. If in childhood she desired martyrdom as an “express lane” into heaven, now, as the fruit of determination and after a lifetime of trials, work for the Carmelite Order, and persevering in prayer, she now enjoyed the “living waters” of union with God in her soul of which Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman at the well. She shared her wisdom with her Carmelite daughters and all of us, and wrote, “It is clear that you are a true religious or a true person of prayer and aim to enjoy the delights of God and suffer martyrdom. But don’t you know that the life of one who desires to be one of God’s close friends is a long martyrdom?”
Teresa taught us that whether our life is short or long, we must determine to serve the Lord today. Then, gradually, she promised, “without knowing how, you will find yourself at the summit.”
As she is forever. Happy Anniversary, St. Teresa!
- st. teresa of avila