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St. Teresa of Ávila: Virgin, Mystic, Author, Reformer, Foundress, First Female Doctor of the Church

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Susan E. Wills - published on 10/15/14

And a woman who got things done by determined determination

I had planned to write about St. Teresa of Ávila, whose memorial we celebrate on October 15 — not to go over her biographical details, which can be found on dozens of Catholic sites, but — to note how relevant her life is to women in the 21st century. This in itself is astonishing because March 28, 2015 will mark the 500th anniversary of her birth.

In the life of every saint we can find markers to guide our frustratingly slow and steep ascent toward holiness. Pope Emeritus Benedict more than once noted the indispensable role of saints in defending the faith. One of Aleteia’s regular contributors, Professor Catherine Pakaluk, recently quoted this passage from a 2008 Q&A session Pope Benedict had with clergy in Bressanone, Italy:

… to me, art and the Saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith. The arguments contributed by reason are unquestionably important and indispensable, but then there is always dissent somewhere. On the other hand, if we look at the Saints, this great luminous trail on which God passed through history, we see that there truly is a force of good which resists the millennia; there truly is the light of light.

Teresa is a favorite of secular feminists for what she called her “determined determination” in practical matters, to get her way (sooner or later) in all her plans and to answer (so they think) to no man. Simone de Beauvoir, existential philosopher and author of “The Second Sex,” held up Teresa of Ávila as the only woman in history to have attained “the heights that few men ever reached.” In that assertion, de Beauvoir is not referring to Teresa’s mystical “heights” of being engulfed by God, nor to her frequent levitations while in prayer. She almost certainly means Teresa’s successes as a Carmelite reformer, foundress and overseer of 17 cloistered communities, author and influence on St. John of the Cross who introduced similar reforms and found discalced communities for men. In “The Second Sex,” de Beauvoir describes Teresa as a woman who lived her life for herself, and was perhaps the only one to have done so.

That may have been true in her first 20 years as a romantic, headstrong, exuberant, flirtatious young woman from a wealthy family. Her flight to the Carmelite convent at 20 seems to have been more “for herself” than for God. She saw it as an escape from the boredom and banality of the domestic life her mother led. And by her own account, in her early years in this lax community, she was able to indulge herself almost daily in frivolous conversations with guests. But she gradually began to live only for Christ, recognizing that humility, mortification, self-abnegation and the loss of oneself to become one spirit with God is the path to joy in this life and the next.

So, as I said, I was planning to reflect on what Teresa can teach women today about contemplative prayer, humility, faith, endurance and finding peace in a stressful world and then I stumbled across Charlotte Allen’s brilliant review in “First Things” of Cathleen Medwick’s 1999 biography – “Teresa of  Ávila: The Progress of a Soul.“ The review alone says everything I wanted to express (and more). So I’ll stop here and give you time to read it. You’re welcome.

Susan E. Wills is spirituality editor of Aleteia’s English-language edition.   

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