Teresa of Avila (1515 – 1582)
Teresa was the first female doctor of the church, named in 1970. A non-ordained woman was a departure from tradition, but Pope Paul VI said she exercised the priesthood of all the baptized. Thirty-five years earlier, under Inquisition scrutiny, the papal nuncio called her “a restless gadabout, a disobedient and contumacious woman who invented wicked doctrines.” Teresa seemed to inspire extreme responses.
The Influence of the Italian renaissance on Spain produced a golden age of literature, and the Bible translated into the vernacular. Study groups led by women were like the Vatican II renewal. But the challenge to the clerical monopoly on God incensed the Inquisition, which became a doctrinal watchdog, forbade women teachers, and destroyed vernacular Bibles.
In a rigid hierarchy and dangerous climate of suspicion and fear, Teresa danced nimbly around her critics. She became expert with coy disclaimers she didn’t know what she was talking about. How could others condemn when she beat them to it?
Teresa’s grandpa was a Jew, forced to convert to Christianity. Punished and humiliated in Toledo, Spain, he moved the family to Avila and became successful again.
Her youth was frivolous and flirtatious and she deeply regretted 20 years of indifference. But they were a “happy fault”—giving reason to praise God’s infinite mercies. In convents then, the wealthy had freedom to come and go, an entourage of family, friends, and servants, good wine, food and social life. Illness brought Teresa to deeper spirituality and by 1562, she founded her first reformed convent. Despite lawsuits, she established 17 convents separated by muddy roads and terrible traveling conditions. These may have prompted her metaphor: “Whoever truly loves you, my God, travels by a broad and a royal road.”
At the time, prayer meant rote formulas; Teresa shifted it to intimate conversation with a friend. She introduced metaphors like the spiritual life as garden. We work hard at watering, but grace brings rain. One of her most popular books The Interior Castle shows Christ within, the soul’s radiant light. She reminded her sisters, “We are not hollow inside.” “The soul’s amplitude cannot be exaggerated.”
Among her endearing sayings: “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord deliver us!” She learned to avoid scruples, and once digging into a feast, chortled, “there is a time for fasting and a time for partridge. THIS is the time for partridge!” Brisk, practical and fun, she admitted she was a sucker for affection: “I could be bought for a herring.”
From “Extraordinary Influencers” by Kathy Coffey, Liguorian.org, Oct. ’22, 866-848-2492, p. 13.