Today we continue our regular series called “Learning from the Saints.” Our guide is expert Bert Ghezzi, a dear friend of mine and the author of numerous books including Voices of the Saints, Saints at Heart, and Discover Christ: Developing a Personal Relationship with Jesus.
Today, Bert profiles St. Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth-century Doctor of the Church.
A friend was once surprised to find St. Teresa gorging herself on a partridge. “What would people think?” she asked. “Let them think whatever they want,” said Teresa. “There’s a time for penance, and there’s a time for partridge.” Endearing stories like this reveal the secret of Teresa’s life: Heaven invaded her heart, but she never lost her head in the clouds.
Teresa was a spiritual late-bloomer. She said she was a “gad-about” nun for 20 years, not getting serious about her spirituality until she was 40. Then a series of extraordinary encounters with Christ launched her Christian growth. Once while she was praying the Veni Creator Spiritus, she seemed to hear him say, “I will not have you hold conversations with men, but with angels.” From that time, St. Teresa enjoyed frequent heaven-sent experiences of God’s presence. She wrote about a recurring divine invasion of her soul in this famous passage from her Autobiography:
What the Lord desires is works. If you see a sick woman to whom you can give some help, never be affected by the fear that your devotions will suffer, but take pity on her: if she is in pain, you should feel pain too; if necessary, fast so that she may have your food, not so much for her sake as because you know it to be your Lord’s will. That is true union with his will.
“I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form–a type of vision that I am not in the habit of seeing, except very rarely….
“It pleased the Lord that I should see this angel in the following way. He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire….
“In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God. It is not bodily pain, but spiritual, though the body has a share in it–indeed, a great share. So sweet are the colloquies of love which pass between the soul and God that if anyone thinks I am lying I beseech God, in His goodness, to give him the same experience.”
Teresa encourages us to climb the heights of prayer, but at the same time instructs us to stay in touch with the realities of Christian living. Prayer that displaces charity, said the saint, does not please God, and her own care for others was the proof of her spirituality. She was an activist who helped thousands live their daily lives more Christianly. From 1560 until her death in 1582, she founded 17 renewed Carmelite convents in Spain and spearheaded a general renewal of Catholic life. Because of her profound and practical books on prayer and her work as a leader of the Catholic Reformation, St. Teresa of Avila has been recognized as a Doctor of the Church.
“What the Lord desires is works. If you see a sick woman to whom you can give some help, never be affected by the fear that your devotions will suffer, but take pity on her: if she is in pain, you should feel pain too; if necessary, fast so that she may have your food, not so much for her sake as because you know it to be your Lord’s will. That is true union with his will.”
— St. Teresa of Avila
(Image Credit: New Theological Movement)