Honoring a Friendly and Firm
'Revolutionary for God'
The 16th century was not an easy century for the Church. Indeed, it was
one of the most turbulent and painful of periods.
This was not only because of the crisis in the Church and the birth of
Protestantism, but there were also thousands of contradictions, only some
of which the Council of Trent sought to remedy. These have remained,
however, and still endure in the abrasive modern world.
Reform and counter reform, mystical tension and the new evangelization:
the heroism of charity and the advancement of women in the Church are
summed up in a holy woman who astonished her century. She still astonishes
the world today with her ventures, her doctrine and her courage in
promoting consecrated life and witnessing to the most absolute fidelity to
the Pope and the Pastors of the Church.
On 27 September 1970, in proclaiming Teresa of Avila a doctor of the
Church, that is, a Master of Christian life, Pope Paul VI recognized that
this saint carried out "extraordinary tasks, prompted by her genius and a
certain natural disposition of the will"; and he thus added: "She may have
a more authoritative mission to perform in her Religious Family in the
Church and in the world", requiring of the members of the Carmelite Order
a higher standard of discipline in their life.
Paul VI not only praises St. Teresa of Avila's virtues but also the
exceptional human qualities that shone out in her life: "She strove with
determination to tell the truth, to keep her word, to abide by her
promises, to use a language which, although colloquial, was full of joy
and friendliness...", but at the same time she was austere, severe with
herself and with the nuns and very demanding in all things.
The hour of God
Teresa came from a well-to-do and distinguished family and was destined
for life in the world with the prospect of a substantial worldly fortune.
Nonetheless, when she was 21 years old, she entered the Carmelite
Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila. It was from here that she set out
to implement the reform for which she was largely responsible, together
with St. John of the Cross.
As for the other Teresa, Teresa of the Child Jesus, and Bernadette
Soubirous, the time of grace did not arrive immediately for her, either.
It came when she was 38 years old, at the peak of her maturity, when she
felt in the midst of the reform the need to enter the life of the Church
directly so as to make her own contribution to it.
The results form a long historical list, beginning with the reform of
Carmel: on 24 August 1562 in Avila, she opened the first reformed Carmel
in which the ancient observance was restored. It consisted of absolute
poverty, prayer, hiddenness and silence. The cloister became the shade
that was to envelop the nuns to enable them to speak to God better and to
contemplate him in anticipation from this earth.
With solitude and prayer, the saint conceived of contributing actively
to the reform of the Church and offered her support to the innovations
that were being deliberated at the sessions of the Council of Trent.
With a companion as well as Fr. Julian of Avila, Teresa set out on foot
to a poor little abandoned house in the country where she was to establish
the new Carmel: "Night was falling when we arrived", she herself recounts.
"I entered the house, which was in such a state that we did not think it
would be right to spend the night there, as it was so dirty and full of
rodents. It had a tiny porch, one room divided in two, a loft and a small
kitchen. The whole building of our convent consisted of no more than
It marked the beginning of the history of the reform of Carmel that
spread throughout the world.
Today, there are more than 800 Carmelite monasteries, approximately
12,000 nuns and a multitude of religious institutes of active life
scattered in every corner of the earth.
An arduous journey
St. Teresa's undertaking was far from easy. Her work of reform met with
deep hostility and polemics. There was no lack of disagreement and
misunderstanding, threats and calumny, but she was undaunted, braver and
more tenacious than an army general.
She traveled all over Spain by any means chance afforded her, more
often on foot than on wobbly carts. She brought her efforts to a
successful conclusion by founding 16 new monasteries and gathering a
multitude of disciples and followers who shared in her ideals of austerity
With her, the Carmel became a centre of prayer, asceticism, austerity
and Christian celebration: anyone who has caught a glimpse of a Carmelite
parlour, even once, as happened to the author of this article the day
after Neil Armstrong reached the moon, will certainly be struck by the
calmness and joy that pervades the Carmelite Sisters.
A revolutionary for God, friendly and firm in governance, not only did
St Teresa found monasteries and direct them with her head and her heart,
but she also regularly corresponded with them. Chroniclers mention about
15,000 letters, of which 459 have come down to us, more than enough to
describe both her spiritual and physical features.
Her writing is flat, plain and sometimes ungrammatical; but it is
always clear, spontaneous and incisive.
In the Way of Perfection, for example, she complains of having only two
hands, because if she had had more, she would certainly have doubled her
Rich in faith, imagination
Her mystic life and her immense love for Christ were transfused in her
writings, as Paul VI perceptively observed in his Apostolic Letter
Multiformis Sapientia Dei, with which he proclaimed her a Doctor of
"Her teaching was important, not only for the life of the faithful
especially in a practical way, for the area chosen that is of great
theological value and known today as spiritual theology. Indeed, the
writings of St Teresa are a plentiful source of multiple experiences,
witnesses and spiritual insights, from which all scholars in this branch
of theology draw in abundance...".
Among her many works, which have earned her the title of "Teacher" of
the Christian people, in addition to The Interior Castle, her most
important and best-known work, we can recall: the Libro de la
Vida [her autobiography], the Way of Perfection, the
Book of the Foundations, the Relations, and the Letters
that are a gold mine of historical information and contemplative
The great saints of her day, such as John of the Cross, Peter of
Alc‚ntara, John of Ribera and others, considered her an expert in
contemplation, enlightened by God to guide an interminable host of souls.
Everyone rejoiced when Paul VI "with true recognition, with a carefully
considered decision and because of the fullness of his Apostolic
Authority". declared St. Teresa of Jesus, the Virgin of Avila, Doctor of
the universal Church.
The theological and mystic magisterium of this saint is so vast and
luminous that not only do the Sisters of Carmel and the Carmelite Order
draw from it by the handful, but also the entire Church. Theologians
declare that her doctrine comes from heaven.
It comes from heaven and it leads to heaven!