There’s a lovely story told about the life of Saint Teresa, one handed down to us by tradition. One day as she was making her way along the corridor in the convent of the Incarnation, in Avila, she saw a small boy standing at the foot of the stairs.
‘Who are you?’ the child asked her
‘I am Teresa of Jesus’, she told him
‘And who are you?
‘I am Jesus of Teresa’, the child replied, and vanished.
The story beautifully illustrates the deep love and friendship that existed between Teresa and the one she liked to call ‘the Good Jesus’
Indeed it was this passionate love for Jesus that filled her whole life. Despite bitter opposition, misunderstandings and poor health, she faithfully followed a divine call, filled with a burning love for the Lord.
Teresa was a woman of exceptional human qualities: warm and sociable, charming and intelligent. She had a great gift for friendship and had many friends. She loved life and all things human and she said herself she had little time for sour-faced saints. It’s little wonder that she has become one of the most endearing of all Christian saints and the most approachable of the mystics.
Saint Teresa was born in 1515, five hundred years ago, in the walled city of Avila in Spain. At the age of twenty-one she entered the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation. She spent twenty years, she tells us ‘on a stormy sea’, torn by countless distractions and the endless comings and goings of the convent. But she always tried to be faithful to prayer and, in the end, it was prayer that enabled her to make a total surrender of herself to God. She fell in love with Jesus and there was no turning back. A new life and a new world opened up for her.
The resulting explosion of love and her desire to do ‘great things for God’ could not be contained within the enclosed walls of a convent but overflowed in action and love for the Church, namely, the foundation of the Carmelite reform.
Teresa spent the last twenty years of her life establishing the Carmelite reform throughout the length and breadth of Spain, from Burgos in the north to Seville in the south, a distance of three hundred miles. Each foundation brought its own hardship: negotiations with civil and ecclesiastical authorities, local opposition, misunderstanding, financial worries and exhausting journeys along winding roads and rough terrain. Before she died in 1582 there were seventeen convents of nuns and fifteen monasteries of friars stretching from one end of Spain to the other.
One of the other great legacies of Saint Teresa is her writings. These have enriched the Church for the past five hundred years. She was a reluctant writer at first but once she set her pen to paper she was on fire with inspiration. Her writings reflect, in a very personal way, the richness of her own spiritual journey and are a faithful witness to her own dynamic spirit. The ease and down-to-earth quality of her writing has made her one of best and surest guides in the restless searching of the human spirit. Little wonder that she was declared Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970 – the first woman to be given that title. She is one of the great mystical figures of the Church, not simply on account of the extraordinary graces she received, but more so because of her gift of being able to communicate and put into words what is almost beyond words.
Prayer is what she talks about most of all in her writings. For her, prayer was about friendship, friendship with the Lord. Like any friendship it grows by communication, and that’s what prayer was for her; a heart-to-heart conversation with someone she knew loved her.
So attractive is her message that many still follow her Carmelite way of life. Indeed, there may be some young women or young men tuned in to our broadcast this morning who feel called to a life of total dedication to God and to the Church in a Carmelite convent or monastery. Let them not be afraid to take the step.
But the greatness of Teresa is not in her achievements or in her writings, but in her own love of God. It is not what she tells us about herself that matters most but what she tells us of God. The essential witness of Teresa is to the reality of the spiritual world, a world in which God is encountered as real and personal, as someone who loves each one of us unconditionally and is intimately involved in the everyday realities of our lives.
God, she tells us, has so many enemies and so few friends that these friends should be good ones. She certainly was a friend of God, a daughter of the Church and a servant of love. And she invites and encourages us to share that journey with her.
Bishop Philip Boyce is the Bishop of Raphoe
- This homily was delivered on Sunday 12 October 2014
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Brenda Drumm 00353 (0) 87 310 4444