Grace to you!
Today in our Catholic tradition we are celebrating the life of one of the four women who are honored as Doctors of the Church, the other three are Saints Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux (the youngest of all the Doctors of the Church) and Hildegard of Bingen.
A Doctor of the Church is not an academic award. It is a church recognition to a saint whose writings are so profound that they give deep insight into the mysteries of our faith; and their relevance has a universal appeal.
Saint Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite mystic from Spain (March 28, 1515 - October 4, 1582), is honored by the Church as a Doctor of Prayer (named by Pope Paul VI) for good reasons. Reading her Interior Castle, wherein she describes the spiritual journey from the first stage of spiritual growth (First mansion) to the seventh mansion of mystical union, is a must read for anyone who wants to connect with the depth of her spirituality.
I am fascinated by her story and would love to reflect on how she overcame spiritual roadblocks to reach “perfection” in response to God’s grace. Her story is a message of hope to many who feel, “spiritual union isn’t possible for me.”
Teresa was a strikingly beautiful daughter of fairly wealthy parents. She learned the ways of the Lord when she was young; and to protect her from intruding men, her dad sent her to study and live in the convent, where she received her vocation to be a nun. But the worldliness of some of the nuns – a time when some in the religious life were quite worldly – coupled with the materialism of the time, influenced her so much so that she became worldly too.
From her autobiography, Her Life, published posthumously, which she wrote in obedience to her spiritual director, we learn some lessons about the dangers of worldliness to the spiritual life and how to overcome it. She was candid about her struggles with worldliness in her twenties (even in the monastery) and how the grace of God helped her overcome when she was about 41 years.
Pay attention to what she said hindered her spiritual growth.
First was being careless about sin. Saint Teresa said she started explaining sin away because of the liberal and permissive advice given to her by priests who told her some of what the Church teaches were sin weren’t. She started to imbibe erroneous ideas, and develop a lax mindset. This cost her a lot.
Second, she said not avoiding the occasion of sin caused her to fall back to the same sins over and over again. She then advised that for one to grow in the spiritual life, the person must avoid people, places and situations associated with sinning, as much as possible.
Third, Teresa was of the view that dependence on her ability to grow or practice virtue was another thing that blocked her growth in the spiritual life. “This self-reliance was what destroyed me,” she said. (See Her Life, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriques, OCD, 2nd edition, vol. 1, Washington D.C.: ICS Publications 1987), chapter 19, no.15, p.171). She believed that many people backslide because they get tired and frustrated and give up. They rely on themselves. Her spiritual growth took a different turn when she completely relied on God’s grace and trusted God to lead her to perfection. “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
Connected to this factor is the fourth, which is the necessity of valuing and depending on the grace of God. Saint Teresa said God constantly gives us a sense of His presence through prayer and the simple things around us. It can come through prayer burdens, through simple events around us, and, by those silent voices directing us to do something good, to respond to God’s call. The more we respond to this call of grace, the more we grow spiritually. When we ignore them, we gradually become less and less aware of God’s Presence and hear less of God’s voice.
I can go on and on about this great woman who has inspired generations of Catholic spirituality. For today, focusing on these four points – not being careless about sin, avoiding the occasions of sin, not relying on ourselves to be holy and responding to the promptings of grace, could be a good way to start for those who think that a deeper life in Spirit isn’t for them.
Saint Teresa of Avila, pray for us.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
Fr. Maurice Emelu, Ph.D.
Father Maurice provides a daily blog of reflections based on Scriptural readings of the day from the Catholic liturgical calendar. You will find these reflections helpful for your spiritual growth, inspiration and developing your own thoughts. It may also be helpful for ministers in preparing their sermons for liturgical celebrations.