October 15: Teresa of Avila, Nun, 1582

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, and then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Teresa of Avila, 1827, by Francois Pascal Simon Gerard, Infirmerie Marie-Thérèse, Paris

About this commemoration

Teresa was one of two women declared a “Doctor of the Church” in 1970, primarily because of her two mystical contemplative works, The Way of Perfection and Interior Castle. She was a close spiritual and personal friend of St. John of the Cross.

Teresa was born near Avila. Even in her childhood, she took much pleasure in the study of saints’ lives, and she used to delight in spending times of contemplation, repeating over and over “For ever, for ever, for ever, for ever, they shall see God.”

In her autobiography Teresa tells that, following her mother’s death, she became quite worldly. To offset this, her father placed her in an Augustinian convent to be educated, but serious illness ended her studies. During convalescence, she determined to enter the religious life; and, though opposed by her father, she became a postulant at a Carmelite convent. Again, illness forced her to return home. After three years, she returned to the convent.

The easygoing life of the “mitigated” Carmelite rule distracted her from her customary prayer life, to which she returned. Taking recourse in two great penitents, Augustine of Hippo and Mary Magdalene, she became increasingly meditative. She began to receive visions—whether from God or the Devil she could not know—and struggled to reject them.

Teresa set out to establish a reformed Carmelite order of the “discalced” religious, who wore sandals or went unshod. Despite many setbacks she traveled for 25 years through Spain. Energetic, practical, efficient, as well as being a mystic and ascetic, she established 17 convents of Reformed Carmelites. Even imprisonment did not deter her.

Despite the demands of her administrative and missionary work, Teresa found time to write the numerous letters that give us rare insights into her personality and concerns. She shows us a practical organizer, a writer of native genius, a warm devoted friend, and, above all, a lover of and the beloved of God.

Her death, following two years of illness, was peaceful. Her last sight was of the Sacrament brought for her comfort; her last words, “O my Lord! Now is the time that we may see each other.”

Collects

I  O God, who by the Holy Spirit didst move Teresa of Avila to manifest to thy Church the way of perfection: Grant us, we beseech thee, to be nourished by her excellent teaching, and enkindle within us a lively and unquenchable longing for true holiness; through Jesus Christ, the joy of loving hearts, who with thee and the same Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II  O God, by your Holy Spirit you moved Teresa of Avila to manifest to your Church the way of perfection: Grant us, we pray, to be nourished by her excellent teaching, and enkindle within us a keen and unquenchable longing for true holiness; through Jesus Christ, the joy of loving hearts, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Psalm 42:1-7

Lessons:  Song of Songs 4:12–16, Romans 8:22–27, and Matthew 5:13–16

Preface of Baptism

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

Also of interest

Link to a free digital edition of The Way of Perfection

http://books.google.com/booksid=62yZID0WbEIC&lpg=PP1&ots=7rkR_viv_Y&dq=Teresa%20of%20Avila%20the%20way%20of%20perfection&pg=PR27#v=onepage&q&f=false

Link to a free digital edition of Interior Castle

http://books.google.com/booksid=hNmMCNYCpQcC&lpg=PP1&dq=Teresa%20of%20Avila%20Interior%20Castle&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q=Teresa%20of%20Avila%20Interior%20Castle&f=false

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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13 Responses to October 15: Teresa of Avila, Nun, 1582

  1. Michael Hartney says:

    New Hebrew reading: Somehow this picture: ‘ … pomegranates, henna, nard, saffron, calamus, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, aloes … blow upon my garden that its fragrance may be wafted abroad’ seems odd.

    I don’t know.

    Call me old-fashioned but it doesn’t sound quite right for Teresa the discalced Carmelite.

  2. Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    What are the guidelines here about how we ackowledge titkes given to people by the Roman Catholic Church? Do we mentiion that that’s who gave her the title? Would knowing who the other one was an dwhen this happened be helpful? Surely her writing is how many people know her.

    I find the last sentence in the 4th paragraph about her troubling visions, well, troubling. More clarity, please.

    I suppose most people know Avila isin Spain, but then again, I’ve recently rettred from teaching college English, and was often appaled to find out how little geographic knowledge most students have.

  3. Philip Wainwright says:

    The fact that the Roman church has given her a particular title is not intrinsically interesting to members of other churches, and it could mislead people about our relationship with that church to mention it here. It also takes up space that is needed for other points.

    The collect was probably written by a fan of the mystical approach, but the result is a prayer to which I, for one, find myself hesitant to say ‘Amen’. I don’t believe that the mystical approach deserves the phrase ‘way of perfection’ as far as all Christians are concerned. If Teresa suggested in her book that it does, then she was mistaken. It is one of many approaches to the question of how we strengthen our relationship with Christ, and I don’t see how any approach can claim to be perfect or to seek a perfection that others are not also seeking by their different approaches.

    Having been so critical already, I would not have repeated my often-labored point that we do better to pray for the grace that helped the commemorated person to follow the teachings and example of Christ to a heroic degree than for the grace to follow the commemorated person’s teachings or example, but it’s especially necessary in this case because the bio tells us nothing about her teachings. I’ve attended many commemorations at which the officiant reads the bio in LFF and leaves it at that, so anything we pray for in the collect really needs to be established in the bio.

    Finally, having said ‘whether [her visions were] from God or the Devil she could not know’, the bio also needs to explain how it became clear (at least to her and preferably to any careful reader of her works) that they were from God.

    • John LaVoe says:

      I have to agree with every single point Philip Wainright made today.

      1. About not citing the Roman Church as if its actions were authoritative for, or speak for, us.

      2. About not blithely and naively assuming that if it’s mystical then it’s good, or from God. (William James, in Varieties of Religious Experience, treated mystical claims at face value, whether credible or incredible, Christian or non-Christian. Either way, they’re certainly not inherently superior to non-mystical expressions of prayer, nor an unquestionable path to a faithful living of the Baptismal Covenant and the gospel.

      3. “The Way of Perfection” should at least be printed (if used at all) in a way that indicates it is a book title, not an “imprimatur” (of an Anglican sort) on a superior brand of esoteric spirituality. Personally, I can’t get over the title of one of her chapter headingsnamely, “Chapter 9 — Treats of the great blessing that shunning their relatives brings to those who have left the world and shows how by doing so they will find truer friends.”

      Without going into a detailed tailspin, mysticism can have serious problems associated with it, and lead in directions very much at odds with, or disconnected from, the Baptismal Covenant and full-bodied incarnational life in Christ. Like Philip, I also don’t want to say “Amen” to a collect that works against my sense of forgiven/forgiving wholeness (rather than perfection) rooted in the Gospel of a God who sees original redeemable goodness in all of creation, as distinct from a narrow solipsistic expression of removal from life. Along with that, I DO VERY MUCH want to say “Amen” to a collect that can affirm any Christian’s authentic context of living, serving, and being connected with God’s larger immediate and eschatological concern (i.e., transformation of all of creation, including other people’s experience of the mystery of life), as opposed to mere visionary devotion and self-satisfied “perfection” per se.

      4. Philip, we know her visions were from God because she’s listed in HWHM, and because she was given an honorary Doctorate by you-know-who. (In other words, Philip, I doubt you’ll get answers on how anyone determined the visions weren’t from the Devil.)

      • John Robison says:

        Coming into this late I feel like I need to clear some of these unwarrantedly dismissive and nasty comments.
        I agree that wither or not she is one of the three women named a Doctor of the Church by rome is inconsequential to the commemoration we have, other than as an acknowledgment of her sanctity.

        The titles of her chapters were supplied by one of her later editors after her death, s you can’t hold them against her. The book was written as advice to her nuns for how to live their lives. In a culture obsessed with blood, family and honor she was telling her sisters to not hold only their families concerns foremost in their prayers but to pray for all who came to them, and for the world in general, equally. She was also advising that sisters who allowed their families to dominate them, even in the enclosure, were not free to follow their vocations.

        As someone who has read her works and studied with scholars of her life and works I simply cannot see the accusation of gnostic dualism made so blatantly here.

    • It’s not Teresa who’s being criticised here, but the bio and the collect. If she is misunderstood as much as you say, the argument for re-writing them is strengthened, and I encourage you to contribute to that.

      Many of the persons commemorated in HWHM are important only to a minority in the church, but they are commemorated on occasions at which any member of the church (not to mention non-Christians) might be present. The bio should explain the commemorand’s importance in terms that all can understand and appreciate, and the collect should be one to which even those whom the bio still leaves disinclined to mysticism, or evangelism, or hymn-writing, or theological debate, can say ‘amen’.

      • John Robison says:

        Now I see the problem. It’s the trite use of “Way of perfection.” I suppose I’m just used to it since the collect for John of the Cross is so way off the mark with the Dark Night I was just glad they got someplace close to the way Teresa used the term. What she meant by “Way of Perfection” was her observations of not only her own life, but those of others and the common struggles we all seem to face while engaged in a life of prayer. Things like consolations, visions, locutions and such like occur early on in anybodies Spiritual journey, and serve as encouragement, but are not an end in themselves. She doesn’t go as far John in rejecting them completely, but she’s quick to say that they are in no way a sign of special holiness.
        A way of reading the tittle could be “The Way to be the Most Perfect You God Intends You to Be.” For Teresa not consciously engaging in Prayer and avoiding silence and quiet was a quick recipe for futility. Not everybody is a Carmelite for Teresa, but everybody is called to prayer. Her importance to the whole Church could be her insistence that you, or I, could be holy in our everyday lives, not just “saints” or Religious or Priests. that was the source of her early doubts, by the way. After all, she was a woman, and God just didn’t talk to women in her culture.

      • John Robison says:

        I suppose it would be helpful if we all try and be a bit more upfront about what we mean by “mystical.” I am assuming that you don’t mean the same thing I do.

      • Philip Wainwright says:

        Yes–it’s an elusive enough concept that every bio referring to a mystic should remind the reader what it means, or explain why it is the appropriate term to use in a particular commemoration.

  4. William H Petersen says:

    The Gerard portrait is, of course, fine. My guess, however, is that when Theresa is mentioned most people will see in their mind’s eye Bernini’s sculpture “Theresa in Ecstacy” that is housed at Santa Maria in Vittorio, Rome. Perhaps this was considered too graphic for HWHM. Cheers.

  5. Nigel Renton says:

    The subheading is inadequate. She is not in the calendar because she was a nun. I suggest “Writer and Mystic”, but if it is considered important to mention that she was a Religious, i would find “Nun, Writer, and Mystic” acceptable.

    Her date of birth (March 28, 1515) should be shown.

    Line 5 of the third paragraph would read better if, after the semicolon, the text continued “…although opposed by her father, she…”, eliminating the redundant “and”, and the clumsy “; and,” construction.

    In line 3 of the fifth paragraph, substitute “throughout” for “through”. (Note the difference between traveling on a certain route “through” a country, and making the many journeys she undertook.)

  6. Leonel L. Mitchell says:

    Certainly a worthy commemoration. I thought the propers were most suitable.
    The bio could use something to make her seem more real to contemporary people.
    I agree that the RCs have named her a doctor of the church is useless information, Some apt quotations from Theresa would be more useful and appropriate, sunch as her believe that Jews and Moslems who followed the Scripture could be saved.
    There was a good piece about her in Episcopal Cafe theother day in the series called “Do you desire to be baptised?”.

  7. My goodness! All this energetic exchange and not a single mention of Teresa’s groundbreaking approach to prayer as unstructured, rather than dictated verbatim by the Church. Women in particular were told to “stick to their beads” in prayer. Given the commotion over the collect for Teresa, it seems that her message still evades many people.

    The Gerard portrait, actually, is not a good choice; Bernini’s sculpture would have been worse. There is a surviving portrait of Teresa that is regarded as a likeness; she was neither sexy nor seductive in appearance. Discerning the real saint under centuries of PR is apparently a slippery business.

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