If Saint Teresa of Avila lived in this day and age, her teenage obsession would be taking selfies, but she would later frown upon too much of it. Five hundred years ago, the teenage Teresa’s primary concerns were her appearance, dancing and getting boys’ attention, although at five years old, she convinced her brother to run up to the moors and be martyred for the love of God. She was known to be beautiful, and her feistiness was arguably very Spanish.
Wait, Spanish? Wasn’t she French? And child-like?
Here in Bacolod City, the Carmelite saint, Therese of the Child Jesus, occupies a special place in our hearts, and in our calendars, too. On her October 1 feast day, we flock to the Carmelite Monastery with roses and reclaim the “spiritual childhood” our favorite Saint Therese has modeled for us. When world-weary, we take inspiration from her simple, cloistered life, seemingly uneventful, but rapt with meaning as she fixed her gaze upon Jesus. We aspire for her sweetness, optimism and innocence. And never did it occur to us that she was once boy-crazy.
Well, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus never was, but Saint Teresa of Avila, another great Carmelite who lived centuries before her, once had those crazed fangirl tendencies.
We’re often confused between Saint Therese of the Child Jesus from Lisieux, France, and Saint Teresa of Avila, Spain. Or if we can tell them apart, we don’t know what saintly “brand” Teresa of Avila comes with, like how we know Saint Therese to be child-like in faith. For sure, both Saint Teresa and Saint Therese would laugh this confusion off – with a quick joke from the Spanish mystic, and a gleeful blush from the French nun – then they’d resume talking to the Father.
But as we are about to celebrate the 500th birth anniversary of Saint Teresa of Avila, we can’t miss the opportunity to know her more, too. She lived way ahead of Saint Therese, but they mirrored each other in their unwavering devotion to Christ, and in the importance they placed on prayer.
Teresa and Telenovelas
Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was born in 1515 at a time when Spain was a superpower and the Catholic Church actively sought out and dealt with heretics. What a difficult time to be spiritual with tempting wealth coming in from Spanish conquests on one hand, and unrest in the religious community on the other. In Teresa’s home, it was also equally difficult to strike a balance between her father, a strict, morally rigid landowner, and her mother, who, though pious, secretly regaled in reading romance novels and popular fiction which her husband abhorred. Our young, exploring saint took after her mother’s fondness for these drugstore paperbacks (read: not literature, but more like Precious Hearts Romance, telenovelas on paper). Thinking her vanity and flirting “out of control,” her stern father had her enter the convent at 16. It wasn’t a total acceptance of convent life like Saint Therese as Saint Teresa had entertained marriage.
But God had planted a special seed in Teresa’s heart that would make her shun the worldliness of her youth, reform the Carmelite order and found convents, and later become the first woman named Doctor of the Church. At 20, she permanently became a Carmelite nun.
Ecstasy in Prayer
Teresa spent her early years at the convent practicing prayer and seriously deepening her spiritual life. She admitted that there were dry spells when her prayers would go nowhere, but her perseverance was one that flowed out of her great love for Jesus. “Be gentle to all but stern to yourself,” goes one quote attributed to her. Unbeknownst to Teresa, God’s grace would later wash over and quench her dryness – she experienced ecstasy in prayer, visions of Christ, and angels and spiritual things, the most famous of which was when she felt sharp pains in her chest caused by the piercings of an angel’s lance. Her trances intrigued and unsettled the religious and unbelieving alike; some followed suit with self-induced visions and exaggerations as if to make a spectacle out of these episodes. “The pain (of the lance) was so severe that it made me utter moans. If anyone thinks I am lying, I pray God, in his goodness, to grant him some experience of it,” Teresa wrote.
The convent seemed to be a mismatch to Teresa’s discipline and seriousness in enriching her relationship with God. It was not as prayerful and solemn as our Carmelite monasteries today. People, especially the privileged, came to visit for “tutorials” on Teresa’s mental prayer, as if this were some fashionable skill like today’s yoga or meditation fad. Also, so much idle chatter and gossip had prayer time derailed. This “distance” from God had urged Teresa to set up a new convent that turned its back on the world and faced God more intimately. In “The Way of Perfection,” the book of instructions she wrote for her nuns, she reminded them to pray without ceasing, with fasting, disciplines and periods of silence. “If prayer is to be genuine, it must be reinforced with these things – prayer cannot be accompanied by self-indulgence,” she advised.
Saintly yet Reassuringly Human
Teresa’s plan to found this new convent dedicated to Saint Joseph (and many more throughout her life) tread an arduous path barricaded by suspicious confessors, suspended support and limited resources. But with God on her side, the single-minded Teresa was not deterred, and so the Discalced Carmelites, the reformed order whose way of life is adapted to this day, was born.
Forty years after her death in 1582, Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was sainted.
Saint Teresa’s life is an interesting portrait of a woman who was very human as she was saintly. She kept her charm—that charm which the world covets—and yet stood her ground and risked connections for the love of God. Much has been written about Saint Teresa not only by religious scholars but by secular writers, too, who see her writings (The Way of Perfection, The Interior Castle, among others) as extensive and keen observations of human psychology. Even for leisurely reading, one would find Saint Teresa’s autobiographical works delightful for her humble and candid tone (“I do not remember what I had begun to say for I have strayed from my subject!”) and self-deprecating humor (In “The Way of Perfection,” she often referred to herself as a “wretched,” or “wicked woman”). Saint Teresa also poses a challenge still so relevant, “May God protect me from gloomy saints!”
Therese mirrors Teresa
There are so many fascinating parallels in the lives of Saint Teresa and Saint Therese. Though Saint Therese may be Saint Teresa’s meeker counterpart, our French darling was also a go-getter for the love of God. At an audience with Pope Leo XIII in Rome, Saint Therese broke protocol to ask the pontiff if she could enter Carmelite at 15. “Oh, Holy Father, if you say yes, everybody will agree,” exclaimed the young Therese.
Both saints also had the profound understanding of detaching themselves from worldly affairs if they seek to please God. If only to console her cloistered nuns at their new convent, Saint Teresa wrote about how difficult it is to live in rich palaces, and act like men who live in rich palaces “yet to be inwardly strangers to the world…to be, not men, but angels.” Saint Therese, too, as a young girl apparently knew about real joy when she wished her father to be king but quickly took it back: “For if he (Papa) became King of France and Navarre, I knew he would be unhappy because this is the lot of all monarchs…”
Most important of all, prayer was central in the lives of Saint Teresa and Saint Therese – genuine prayer which Saint Teresa rigorously practiced to keep her ways aright and pleasing to God; genuine prayer which Saint Therese extended out of love. In her autobiography, “Story of a Soul,” Therese recounted how she prayed for the repentance of a man named Henri Pranzini condemned to death by the guillotine for horrible crimes. For a stranger, her prayer was not a fleeting murmur but a selfless act of great effort and love. The day after the execution, a newspaper reported to Therese God’s answer: “…seized by an inspiration, he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wound three times.” She called Pranzini her First Child.
These two Carmelite women’s stories are a refreshing contrast to the world’s jaded history of wars and bitter deaths. Saint Teresa and Saint Therese still sound so alive and vibrant in their memoirs. Indeed, a life lived in God’s love is a life that never ends.
**A concelebrated mass in honor of Saint Teresa of Avila’s feast day will be held on October 15, Monday, 6:30 AM at the Carmelite Monastery.
The Way of Perfection by Saint Teresa of Avila
Saint Teresa: A Woman for All Ages by Ernest Hauser (Reader’s Digest)
Sister Teresa by Barbara Mujica
Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux
My Vocation is Love: Saint Therese of Lisieux’s Calling to Cloistered Evangelization
by Joseph Schmidt, FSC (The Word Among Us: Daily Meditations for Catholics, July/August 2013)