The genius of my sister: St. Teresa of Avila

This is the latest installment of the series, “The genius of my sister.” Read other articles in the series to learn more about Catholic women throughout history and how they can inspire us today.

“Hold fast, daughters, for they cannot take from you the Our Father and the Hail Mary.” — St. Teresa of Avila

One of my professors in grad school, Dr. Timothy O’Malley, once commented on people’s state of busyness. “Hey, how are you?” someone will ask. And we often reply, “I’m good, I’ve been really busy.” Somehow, “being really busy’’ has become a status symbol, a means for quantifying our life. Why? Well, busy people are successful, busy people do not lead boring lives, busy people have drive and ambition. Or so we’ve been led to believe. “What would happen,” O’Malley asked, “if we stopped answering people in this way? What would happen if we stopped basing our worth, and the worth of others, on busyness?” And then he moved on with his lesson. It was a tangent to the bigger discussion we were having, yet four years later, it has stayed with me.

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A little over a year ago everything we know about our daily routines and life came to a crashing halt. The busyness was stripped from our lives, from our homes. A month into our stay-at-home orders, I talked to my students about this (via Zoom). We were trying to find the light in the darkness, asking what graces have come out of this time. Over and over again, each of them commented on things that were grounded in a repeated theme — stillness, slowness is good. There was time for family dinners, time for family game nights. There were runs with siblings, conversations with neighbors, an increased appreciation for nature. The slowness of Sunday (which was usually packed with traveling around to sports games) was restored and families were watching Mass or praying together. Another thing my students often commented on was that they didn’t distract themselves from their emotions; they had time to think and feel, time for meaningful conversations, time for prayer. With the ceasing of busyness came a restoration of sabbath, of holy rest.

St. Teresa of Ávila, a 16th-century Carmelite nun and one of four female Doctors of the Church, commented on the importance of rest, peace and the detachment from busyness in what is arguably her greatest masterpiece and one of the greatest spiritual guides of all time: “The Interior Castle.” Born in Ávila, Spain, on March 28, 1515, St. Teresa lived during the height of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation period, and she offered the world a deep theology of prayer. Reminiscent of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” St. Teresa describes her vision of the road to God, the journey to heaven. For her, the spiritual journey is depicted as the soul traveling through a series of mansions, ridding one of particular vices and growing in prayer. Each mansion draws ever nearer to the center of the castle — where God dwells. The closer the soul gets to the center of the castle, the more perfectly virtuous it has become.

In the first mansion, one is focused on increasing one’s prayer life and growing in self-knowledge. But how difficult is this to do when we are constantly filling every moment of our time? For anyone who desires to progress onward and enter the second mansion, Teresa writes they “will be well advised, as far as his state of life permits, to try to put aside all unnecessary affairs and business.” The busier we are, the more likely we are to become attached to unnecessary affairs, to become distracted by the ways of the world. Perpetual busyness hinders us from pausing, resting and gazing upon the beauty of the world God has created.

Still, Teresa was not a foreigner to the tasks of daily life. She worked hard to reform her Carmelite order, wrote several books, traveled to various places to speak to people, and maintained the order of her convent. She desired slowness, stillness, yet also recognized the necessity to serve those in front of her. Sitting and reading Scripture and praying in silence all day was not an option. But internal and mental prayer was something Teresa encouraged all of her sisters to do, regardless of their circumstances. Fascinatingly, this was a radical belief. For at that point in time, many in the Church did not believe women were capable of accessing God through their own prayer. But Teresa did not concede. In her book “The Way of Perfection,” she writes, “yes, indeed, the day will come, my King, when all will be known for what they are. … I see that these are times in which it would be wrong to undervalue virtuous and strong souls, even though they are women.”

As our lives begin to return to normal, and the pace of life increases, may we always remember that our truest measure of success will be a life in heaven. To live for God, to grow in charity and love of neighbor, is our only purpose in this life. I share with you, my fellow sisters, the words St. Teresa shared with her own sisters: “Should anyone tell you that prayer is dangerous, consider him the real danger and run from him.” Persevere in prayer, even when the world tells you there is no time to pray, and your reward will be great in heaven.

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