Sunday, March 13, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Teresa of Avila, on the Pledge of God’s Love)

“Whenever we think of Christ, we should remember the love with which He has bestowed these favours on us, and what great love our Lord God has revealed to us also in giving us this pledge of His love for us, for love calls out love.” —Doctoris Ecclesiae (Doctor of the Church) St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Spanish nun, mystic and reformer The Life of St. Teresa of Avila by Herself (ca. 1567)

Four centuries ago yesterday, Pope Gregory XV canonized one of the most extraordinary sets of holy people in the long history of the Roman Catholic Church: Isidore the Farmer, Philip Neri, Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, and Teresa of Avila.

Four of these figures were members of religious communities. I am especially fond of the pioneering Jesuits Ignatius and Francis. But among this quintet, the most unusual might be St. Teresa of Avila.

Some 30 years after her canonization, the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini finished Ecstasy of St. Teresa. In the portion of that masterpiece I’ve reproduced here, you can fully understand the sense of spiritual transport that this Carmelite saint sought to convey in her autobiography:

"I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying."

Not surprisingly, that passage demonstrates why the symbols associated with her are a heart, an arrow and a book. Because she also wrote of the migraines she experienced in episodes similar to this, St. Teresa is also the patron saint of migraine sufferers, making her a figure of special interest to those afflicted with chronic pain.

Figures ranging from the American philosopher William James and Catholic radical activist Dorothy Day (now herself being considered for canonization) have been fascinated by both her writing and her life. And no wonder: Among her Carmelite nuns, she promoted a renewed emphasis on detachment, prayer, fasting, self-denial and works of penance, and contemplation during the Counter Reformation.

For her troubles, Teresa was investigated by the Spanish Inquisition. Her canonization, two generations after her death, represented her posthumous victory.

It would take still longer, however, for the full dimensions of her spiritual achievement to be realized. 

In 1970, Pope Paul VI named her the first female Doctor of the Church, a designation that Rome reserves for saints who have significantly contributed to theology or doctrine. Even now, she is among only four females out of 37 of these figures. (The other women in this group are Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, and Hildegard of Bingen.)

St. Teresa is more than an exemplar of astounding holiness. In its enduring faithfulness, her life represents a standing rebuke to a Church hierarchy where strong vestiges of misogyny linger to this day.

(For an interesting brief consideration of this saint’s views on prayer, I urge you to read Gina Loehr’s October 2018 post on the “Franciscan Spirit” blog.)

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