The Patron Saint of Sassy Women
A game I like to play with people sometimes is asking the following question: “If you could be the patron saint of anything, what would it be?” For me, it varies between the patron saint of impatient drivers or the patron saint of doing hard things in life.
Today we remember Teresa of Avila. I like to imagine she could be the patron saint of sassy, fiery women. A well known story about Teresa captures her fiery spirit. While journeying once to visit one of her convents, she fell off her donkey - causing her to land in the mud dirtying her habit. Complaining, she moaned to Jesus in frustration, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you don’t have many.”
The 16th century was a time of great turmoil and reform. Teresa was born before the Protestant Reformation and died almost 20 years after the Council of Trent. Born in Avila, Spain on March 28, 1515, her mother died at age 15, leaving behind 10 children. A spirited, extroverted personality, Teresa was known for her direct nature and passion.
Entering the Carmelite order at 20 years old despite her father’s disapproval, she was her own woman. Teresa, like each of us, is a woman of complexity and paradox; there are many different parts to her as it is with each of us. For 17 long years she led a life of spiritual mediocrity and in many ways was a somewhat lax contemplative nun. At 38 she experienced a second conversion, which led to deep spiritual renewal both personally and within her community.
Teresa was a woman “for God,” even though imperfectly so. Her ongoing conversion was a lifelong struggle, involving purification and physical suffering. She was both misunderstood and opposed in her many efforts to reform the Carmelite order. Faithful and brave, she struggled on. In the midst of all her struggles, she clung to God in life and through prayer. Her many writings on prayer and contemplation are drawn from her experience and are some of the most classic works in Western Christian spirituality; especially the Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle. She was a woman of prayer; a woman for God.
Teresa was a woman “for others.” Though she had a deep contemplative prayer life, she dedicated much of her time to reforming the Carmelite order, to lead them back to the full observance of the Rule of Life. From her renewal, she founded over a half-dozen new monasteries. She traveled, wrote, advocated, fought - always for renewal and reform within herself first and her religious community. In the many lives she touched and ways she impacted the life of the Church, Teresa was a woman for others, a woman who inspired and gave life.
She died on October 4, 1582. In 1970 Pope Paul VI declared her the first woman Doctor of the Church based on her life and her prolific writings on prayer and the spiritual life.
Reflecting on the life of Teresa of Avila, we can clearly see the lasting impact she made upon the Church and the world around her. A threefold offering of self: She was a woman; she was a contemplative; she was an active reformer.
In many ways, I see a lot of myself in the spirit of Teresa. More importantly, each of us can find ourselves in her story. Why? Because we are women and because we are called to be active contemplatives in the world around us, just like she was. To find God doesn’t mean we run away from the current culture or are destined to become a nun. However, we can find God and experience the Divine presence in everything around us.
How is God calling you to deeper contemplation in your life right now? Where can you help build reform and renewal around you, just like Teresa did?
May we embody the lasting legacy of this sassy, spirited woman by embracing our unique call to be contemplative reformers just like Teresa.