We celebrate a great saint, the first woman declared a Doctor of the Church by St. Pope Paul VI, who was just canonized yesterday. Her teachings on prayer and spirituality continue to nourish the church on her pilgrimage in time. She was a woman way ahead of her time, brilliant in her understanding of the spiritual life and her legacy extends to many cultures beyond the Spain of her birth.
She found herself despised by many if her own Carmelite Sisters, even being expelled from one of the convents by a mob of angry nuns. The Church of the Inquisition questioned her orthodoxy, believing her teaching preached the heresy of “quietism,” which basically taught that contemplative prayer was superior to the prayer of mediation. And that passivity, being passive to the point of indifference, was superior to the active life, engaging in acts of outreach and justice. In short, the heresy of quietism separated contemplative prayer, at the heart of Teresa’s teaching on prayer, from life and its struggles. If anything, Teresa taught that our prayer MUST lead to action in the world.
If truth be told, the real reason for all the opposition of the Inquisition was that women during this time were not thought capable of deep, contemplative prayer. Women were taught to just pray “vocally,” meaning memorized prayers with established words. Leave the deep prayer of the heart for the monks!! Well, she refused, and was given much encouragement by some key men, including St. John of the Cross. Speaking of St. John, he, too, was despised by many of the friars in his Carmelite community. They locked him up in a closet like room for months and months. He had to flee, escape, from the hatred of his own brothers!!!!! And these were vowed religious men, as were Teresa’s nuns who gave her such hell. Let’s face it, when all is said and done, hell hath no fury than a jealous friar, priest, nun, or bishop! And it’s no less true today.
The reform of the Carmelites, begun by Teresa and John, was another bone of contention. Reform means change, a conversion or re-conversion to gospel living, meaning a life of prayer, sacrifice and helping the poor. Which brings us to the present. Reform of the Church today, in her structures of power, will be vehemently opposed by the very priests and bishops who are in positions of power. But the Holy Spirit will be the force and the source of the reform, regardless of those clinging to antiquated structures.
Teresa was a woman of the Spirit. May she give us encouragement during these turbulent times of reform and renewal. To the People of St. Teresa of Avila Community in Chicago: Happy Feast Day!!! I’m praying for you all today by going on a mini pilgrimage in Rome to the magic basilicas. Teresa and Oscar will lead me and you. Peace. Padre Francesco