St. Teresa of Avila (1515 - 1582) shows us how to be holy and how to be ourselves. And, those two things are connected. We are called to be holy. We are called to be saints. And, we are also called to be ourselves--our true selves. Our true selves are the persons that the Lord created us to be with our personalities.
Yes, we must change because we have areas that need to be improved upon and faults to be removed. But, we are called to be the unique saints God made us to be.
A Popular Saint
St. Teresa of Avila is a popular saint. Many people have heard of her and might even know some things about her life.
Perhaps St. Teresa of Avila is a popular saint because she comes across as a very real person. Most biographers of saints make them out to be so holy, we cannot relate to them as real people In the case of Sr. Teresa, it can be difficult to do that because she was very down-to-earth. And, what you saw is what you got. She was not one for pretenses, putting on airs, or engaing in false humility.
It is not that she was not holy. Of course, she was, but being holy and being real are not separate things. And, that is an important lesson we can learn from Sr. Teresa about how to be holy. We must be real because that is true humility. Humility is knowing who we really are and then letting the Lord in to our hearts to change what He wants to change.
In her autobiography, Sr. Teresa is candid about her own life when she admits that for the first twenty years of her religious life she was not very much of a nun. She was not leading a sinful life by any measure. She said the assigned prayers and was faithful to the daily schedule of her Carmelite life.
However, she felt perfectly comfortable in the lax lifestyle of her Carmelite convent. The nuns could hardly said to be cloistered as they were often in contact with people outside the convent. And, there was not too much emphasis on growing in the spiritual life. In other words, there was too much attachment to things that were not the Lord and not enough emphasis on belonging completely to the Lord.
Then one day, she was walking through the garden of her convent and Sr. Teresa looked at a statute which she had seen many times before as she passed through the courtyard. However, on this occassion, she saw the statute with a different pair of eyes, so to speak.
The statue was one that showed Our Lord being flogged as he was tied to a pillar. When she saw this representation of Jesus being scouraged during His Passion, she had a conversion experience. And, from the day forward in her life, she kept that image of the Lord before her.
The statue portrayed the immense and intense love that Jesus has for each one us. It is not a love for the masses. Instead, that love of the Lord's is strongly focused on each one of us as if you or I were the only person in the whole world.
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Renewal is Overdue
The result was a renewal of her own spiritual life, and ultimately, a renewal of the Carmelite nuns.
Her work of renewing the Carmelites began with an offhand comment from her niece in the midst of a conversation decrying the spiritual laziness of the convent. Her niece suggest that perhaps those who were dissatisfied should start a new convent.
Sr. Teresa took the words as coming from the Lord and began to plan for a new convent which would adhere to the Carmelite rule.
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Even after her conversion to follow a holier life, Sr. Teresa did not stop being herself. She believed in common sense and she taught her nuns that it was essential for the spiritual life.
Her tongue was not afraid to make use of sharing her common sense. Once a visitor to one of her convents was dismayed to find Sr. Teresa enjoying a roasted patridge because they did not think it became an ascetic. Sr. Teresa replied, "That there is a time for partridge and a time for penance."
She also was known for her gentle teasing. To one priest, who was known for not being a good rider, she wrote in a letter to him that perhaps someone should tie him to his saddle in order that he might not fall off his mule.
Although she had great reverence for the Lord, she was not afraid to tell Him what was on her mind. One time Sr. Teresa was traveling to a convent. A terrific rainstorm made the travel quite difficult. In addition, when she got out of the small donkey-pulled cart, she slipped down the hill and landed in the thick mud. She apparently said to the Lord, "If this is how Your treat Your friends, it is no wonder that You have so few of them."
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The Start of the Reform
From her new relationship with Christ after her conversion, Sr. Teresa was fully devoted to the Lord. As soon as she thought He was calling her to open a new convent where the ancient rule of the Carmelites would be the guide of the sisters' lives, she moved forward with zeal. Sr. Teresa shows us that how to be holy involves taking action and trusting the Lord.
When wind of Sr. Teresa's plan to open a new convent reached the people of Avila, they were furious because they thought they could not possibly support a second monastary with their alms. Sr. Teresa was insisting that in this new convent the nuns would live a life of strict poverty, and the townspeople knew what that meant--they would be requested to give money to these reformed Carmelites. As a result of the uproar, she suffered as people protested and even priests railed from the pulpit about how nuns should stay where they were.
Meanwhile, in what appeared to others, as the building of a home for her married sister Juana, Sr. Teresa was having the first of what would be many new convents built. Money came in for the building as God provided what St. Teresa needed.
Confirmed by a Miracle
As progress was made on this new convent, tragedy struck. On the construction site of the house, a wall collapsed and fell on her sister Juana's young son Gonzalez. The mother of the child frantically helped as others cleared away the debris to uncover her son. The child appeared dead, but the father of the child took action and carried Gonzalez to Sr. Teresa.
Putting her veil over her head and over her nephew as she held him in her arms, she prayed. The child began to move and reached out his small hands to play with his aunt's face. Sr. Teresa gave the child back to her relieved and grateful parents. Everyone rejoiced in the miracle that God had performed.
Through this tragedy and miracle, it seemed that the Lord had confirmed that this was His project. He would provide the money and protect those who were helping Sr. Teresa and her sisters to begin the work to reform the Carmelites.
The young man who was saved, Gonzalez, seems to have shared his aunt's sense of humor. When he was older, he would tell his holy aunt Sr. Teresa that she had better say many prayers for him because after all, if were not for her, he would already be in Heaven.
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