14 October, 2010

Teresa of Avila - a Doctor for our times

The Doctor's office.

That is usually the first stop whenever we feel under the weather and believe that we need  help to overcome our latest ailment. Sometimes it is a prescription. Sometimes it is a regime of lifestyle changes that will bring the sought after relief. Either way, we count on the doctor to direct to us the path that will lead to the recovery of health. The Catholic Church also benefits from the direction of its 'Doctors', men and women whose teachings and examples are sufficiently enlightened that, if followed will lead to the recovery of vitality.

St. Teresa of Avila is one such person upon whom the Church has bestowed the title 'Doctor'.

There is a certain irony to her receiving this honorific as Teresa was often in need of a physician throughout her life. Born in Spain in 1515, she was often ill. It was during one illness that she began to experience moments of spiritual ecstasies, a phenomena that continued throughout her life. From this fount of divine wisdom, she began to build a corpus of spiritual knowledge that was published as a spiritual guide book for others.

One of the fruits of her deep, intimate relationship with Christ was a commitment to  live strictly the marks of religious life: poverty, chastity and obedience. Together with St. John of the Cross (a contemporary and fellow mystic) she founded the Discalced Carmelites, a religious community that embraced this rule as a way of living as earthly brides of Christ. Before her death, she was credited with founding 17 convents. Through her efforts, she helped to revitalize the whole Church as older religious communities which had drifted away from remaining focused on engendering the spiritual fruits of grace and had become too concerned with the accumulation of worldly goods, were inspired to follow the example she set.

While mystics often seem to inhabit a state of grace that seemingly sets them above their rest of the world, Teresa always seemed to demonstrate the ability to reflect a decidedly 'human' relationship with Christ. It is written that one day, while travelling between convents in a thunderstorm, the donkey she was riding  startled by a nearby lightning strike, threw her off into the muddy ditch. She responded by shaking her fist at the heavens and exclaiming “If this is the way you treat your friends no wonder you have so many enemies!” Anyone who has suffered a similar misfortune at the hands of a spouse can hear in her rebuke to God a sentiment often expressed between loving couples.

It is pretty easy to relate to someone who had such a profound familiarity with God. This was perhaps her greatest gift to the Church: to explain how intimately close God is to us that we can communicate with him as we would a family member. This explains why Pope Paul VI declared her to be a Doctor of Prayer for the Church in 1970.

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