Reforming the World with St. Teresa of Avila

This year, the Vincent Library will celebrate the four female Doctors of the Church. A book display will be put up before their feast day. A sweet, creative treat and prayer cards will also be available.

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Born in 1515, St. Teresa of Avila entered the Carmelite Monastery Incarnation at the age of twenty. Nineteen years later, she began her reform of the Carmelite Order. Calling her new communities Discalced Carmelites for their simple dress and straw sandals, she founded sixteen Discalced Carmelite communities, twelve for women and four for men.

Over her lifetime, she produced a prolific corpus of writings on mystical experiences and the spiritual life. In addition, she was one of the first women to write an autobiography.
Forty years after her death, the Catholic Church made her a saint. In 1970, St. Teresa became the first woman to be declared a Doctor of the Church. Her feast day is October 15th. Carlene Demiany, one of our chaplains, reflects on the life and work of St. Teresa:

Reforming the World with St. Teresa of Avila
A thumb covered in oil makes the sign of a cross on my forehead. The touch of the thumb remains as the priest proclaims, “I seal you with the name St. Teresa of Avila.”
St. Teresa of Avila, I repeat to myself. Hers is the name I have chosen for my confirmation. Hers is the life I seek to emulate in my own spiritual journey.

The oil drips down my forehead, and I am taken back to a moment two years prior, when I stood under the hot Spanish sun and felt beads of sweat drip down my forehead. I was waiting to enter St. Joseph’s convent in Avila, Spain, the first Discalced Carmelite convent founded by St. Teresa.

Although she is primarily known for her prolific corpus of spiritual writings, what inspires me most about St. Teresa was her life as a reformer. This is what compelled me to make a pilgrimage to Avila and visit her first foundation—St. Joseph’s convent.

When St. Teresa founded St. Joseph’s convent in 1562, it stood in sharp contrast to Incarnation Monastery, the Carmelite community she had entered at age twenty. At Incarnation, a woman’s life inside the monastery was determined by her family wealth and social status. Wealthy women lived in luxurious apartments, while poor women lived in a common dorm.

The daughter of a wealthy merchant in Avila, St. Teresa initially benefited from a monastic structure that mirrored societal status. Known for her beauty and charm, St. Teresa enjoyed a privileged life, spending most of her time entertaining in her spacious apartment.

But shortly after she entered Incarnation, St. Teresa became deathly ill. She left the monastery and went to convalesce at her uncle’s home. While there, she read books on prayer and slowly began to develop her prayer life. Mystical experiences of God’s love began to unfold deep within her soul. She began to change.

When she returned to Incarnation, St. Teresa could not tolerate the hierarchical structure of the monastery and began to experience a desire to reform the Carmelite Order. Poured into her soul through contemplative prayer, the love of God was seeping out and calling her to make her community a more loving place.

And so, St. Teresa began her reform. Grounded in prayer, she felt God calling her to establish a Carmelite monastery dedicated to the original focus of the order: poverty and prayer. She called her new Carmelite community Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelites because of their straw sandals. No nuns would enter with family wealth. All would be equal in their shared poverty.

St. Joseph’s was her first Discalced Carmelite convent. Over her lifetime, she founded sixteen Discalced Carmelite communities. She constantly faced suspicion from the Inquisition, a Church hierarchy demanding that a cloistered nun stay cloistered. She also faced times of house arrest and severe illness.

But she persevered. She grounded her reform in something greater than all the obstacles she faced. She was rooted in a desire deeper than the injustices and misogyny of her day; she was rooted in God’s love and God’s call to make her community a manifestation of the kingdom.

I close my eyes and feel the oil drip down my forehead. St. Teresa of Avila, I say silently to my confirmation saint, pray for me. Pray that my desire to reform the systemic injustices in my own community may always be grounded in a hope and love greater than the problems and challenges I face. Pray for all reformers.

~Carlene Demiany