Tomorrow, on October 15th, the Church celebrates the holiness of St. Teresa of Avila, a doctor of the Church and a master of the Christian spiritual life.
Teresa was born in the year 1515 and her life spanned the great tumult and upheaval of the historical epoch known as the Reformation: the tenuous unity of a fractious Europe, called Christendom, had been divided by the Protestant movement and suspicion of heresy kept the Church on the defensive. Spain was rising as a world power and its monarchy would not permit religious rancor and debate to curtail their ambitions for a global empire.
And yet, the Church was in need of reform. The faithful were under-catechized and beleaguered by theological debates. Some of the great monasteries and religious houses seemed far too worldly in their concerns.
Teresa had accepted a vocation as a vowed religious and lived this vocation as a member of the Carmelite Order. These communities of men and women accepted the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, but also sought to live them in great austerity and simplicity of life. Through the extremity of their asceticism, the Carmelites would become living images of Christ who emptied himself of Divine Glory and accepted a human nature with all its limitations and sufferings. This was the Carmelite ideal.
Teresa discerned that the Carmelite ideal of austerity and simplicity was being subverted by many men and women in her community. She burned with a passion to live the Carmelite way as she believed it had been intended at its beginning.
This passion became action and Teresa launched a reform of the Carmelite Order that insisted on a return to the foundational principles of their rule of life and which emphasized a radical witness of austerity and simplicity. Her efforts were controversial and her attempts at reform were resisted.
Teresa persisted. Even commenting at one low point to the Lord that if her experiences were indicative of how Christ treated his friends it was no wonder he had so few!
The saint’s persistence would ultimately have positive effect as new and reformed houses of men and women were established that manifested the radicality of Carmelite spirituality.
Times change and yet much remains constant throughout the ages. The reform and renewal of religious life belongs to the Church today as much as it belonged to the Church of the past. Rather than merely gripe and wring our hands about the challenges of the times into which the Lord has placed us, let us pray the Christ might raise up from our own families saints like Teresa of Avila who will through their witness and example bring about a reform and renewal of vowed religious life.
But let us remember as we pray for these saints to arrive that we might be ready to meet them when they come. If they are the least bit like Teresa of Avila they are going to come to us with great expectations, insist that we make sacrifices and compel us to accept the demands of the Gospel without hesitation or complaint.