Saturday, February 27, 2010

For All the Saints: Teresa of Avila

On the trail of St. Joseph, because he is my patron and because his feast day is approaching (March 19), I stumbled across Teresa of Avila. And when I did, I sat down for a spell, and after I had sat in her presence, I didn’t want to leave. That’s what the saints will do for you—so convince you of the truth of the Christian claim that you want to spend the rest of your life at their feet.

Teresa’s devotion to St. Joseph, and so mine to her, began in 1538, when she was 25 years old. A Carmelite nun in the throes of a complete physical breakdown that she laid to heart trouble, Teresa despaired of conventional medical treatments and “decided to seek a cure from ‘heavenly doctors,’” according to biographer Shirley du Boulay:

She had Masses said for her—strictly in accordance with the church’s teaching, for she had no patience with unorthodox ceremonies—and she commended herself to someone who was to become her favorite saint, St. Joseph. Strong-willed by temperament, yet determined to be obedient, she found she could submit to the image of one to whom Christ himself was subject on earth. She attributed her improvement—it could not be called a cure, because she was at no time completely well—entirely to him and never ceased to commend him to others. She would make requests of him every year on his festival, claiming that they were always granted, even that “if my petition is in any way ill directed, he directs it aright for my greatest good.”

From then on, Teresa would always observe Joseph’s feast day with particular devotion. In her Life, she would write of St. Joseph:

I wish I could persuade everyone to be devoted to this glorious saint, for I have great experience of the blessings which he can obtain from God. I have never known anyone to be truly devoted to him and render him particular services who did not notably advance in virtue, for he gives very real help to souls who commend themselves to him. For some years now, I think, I have made some request of him every year on his festival and I have always had it granted. If my petition is in any way ill directed, he directs it aright for my greater good.

I only beg, for the love of God, that anyone who does not believe me will put what I say to the test, and he will see by experience what great advantages come from his commending himself to this glorious patriarch and having devotion to him. . . .

In her forties, Teresa began to experience visions, raptures, locutions—the mystic experiences for which she is perhaps best known—though she was one hard-boiled, down-to-earth mystic, who founded seventeen reformed Discalced (Barefoot) “Carmels” in her lifetime, working like a modern-day businesswoman on a fast track. St. Joseph sometimes appeared to her in visions. When in 1562, at age 47, she founded her first Carmel, she named it St. Joseph’s. She viewed her new reformed foundation as being like the home of the Holy Family in Nazareth, “a heaven, if one can be had on this earth.”

His Majesty earnestly commanded me to strive for this new monastery with all my powers, and He made great promises that it would be founded and that He would be highly servied in it. He said it should be called St. Joseph and that this saint would keep watch over us at one door, and our Lady at the other, that Christ would remain with us, and that it would be a star shining with great splendor.

From then on, no matter where she traveled through Spain in a covered wagon that maintained her enclosure from the world, St. Joseph’s would be Teresa’s home. St. Joseph himself was always at the ready, always nearby. In 1575, en route to founding one of her Carmels, according to du Boulay, Teresa’s party—

took the wrong turn, realized they were lost, and, at Teresa’s injunction, began to pray to St. Joseph. At once they heard a distant voice calling out that they must stop immediately, otherwise they would fall over a precipice. They obeyed the invisible command and discovered they were indeed in a perilous position, a chasm yawning beneath the wagon wheels, but what could they do? How could they turn round in the narrow path? The voice told them to go gently backward for a hundred turns of the wheels; they would come to no harm and would find the track again. It was just as the voice said.

In an essay on “The Historical Development of the Holy Family Devotion,” Joseph F. Chorpenning, OSFS, writes that Teresa’s devotion to St. Joseph is one of the key reasons that we honor him and, indeed, the Holy Family as such today. Chorpenning traces this devotion from the late Middle Ages, through Teresa’s time in the sixteenth century, right down to our times, when Pope John Paul II wrote Redemptoris Custos, his Apostolic Exhortation “on the person and mission of Saint Joseph in the life of Christ and in the Church.”

But I’ll leave that for another post. I’ll end simply with the last line from du Boulay’s biography of the Carmelite saint and the first female Doctor of the Church, Teresa of Avila:

To anyone asking for proof of the existence of God, anyone saying, “Is God there?” Teresa’s whole life offers a resounding “Yes.”