October 15th is the Feast of Saint Teresa of Avila, the Spanish mystic who helped revitalize the Catholic faith in the 16th century. Declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970, she is particularly known as the Doctor of Prayer for the amazing insights her writings provide on how we can grow closer to God through prayer.
Teresa once wrote, “Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”
This statement cuts to the heart of Saint Teresa’s insights on contemplative prayer, which she understood as an activity that should be geared towards cultivating friendship with Jesus Christ. It is a way to understand prayer that leads to great rewards. Once we come to see our relationship with Christ as the most important part of our lives, we naturally want to grow closer to Him. Saint Teresa’s spirituality gives us a roadmap to journey to a point where we can experience that closeness.
In her autobiography, The Book of My Life, Saint Teresa explains that engaging in mystical prayer is like watering a garden due to the life-giving effect it has on the soul. Identifying four stages in the practice of mystical prayer, Teresa highlights a process whereby we gradually surrender our will to God. Her writings are particularly moving for their deeply personal nature as she demonstrates, through the specifics of her own experiences, the path she took to achieve the greatest moments of spiritual ecstasy.
Saint Teresa’s writings are so important for our time because they show us the way to true and lasting joy. Often today, the pursuit of happiness is viewed as a self-centered endeavor devoid of attachments and obligations, but Teresa shows us how binding ourselves to God’s will is the true path to freedom and the greatest joy we can attain.
After suffering through serious illness in her early religious life, Teresa became an important leader in the Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation. She called her own Carmelite Order to return to the austere form of monasticism rooted in their original rule. In close collaboration with Saint John of the Cross, Teresa helped to start the Order of Discalced Carmelites. The word discalced, meaning barefoot, defines the simplicity of their approach to religious life, in contrast to the corruption the order had become known for.
Saint Catherine of Siena was declared a Doctor of the Church on the same day as Saint Teresa, making them the first two women to ever achieve that distinction. Teresa’s life demonstrates for us all how the cultivation of a close friendship with Christ through prayer can lead to the most amazing accomplishments. Though she faced opposition to her efforts at reform, she ultimately received support within the Church and went on to found 30 monasteries in her lifetime.
Christ raises up reformers like Teresa in every age to revitalize the faith and lead people to greater spiritual devotion. Many of us may already see leaders emerging in our midst who are on fire with a love for God just like Teresa was. Let us pray for Saint Teresa to intercede for their efforts so that they are truly inspired by the workings of the Holy Spirit and empowered to guide people into the kind of friendship with Christ that cultivates peace in our hearts and brings joy to every aspect of our lives.
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