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Femine Genius, Holiness and St. Teresa of Avila

Everyone of us is called to the same kind of intimate communion with the Lord which characterizes the lives of the canonized Saints such as Teresa of Avila.

If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend. And I clearly see that if we expect to please him and receive an abundance of his graces, God desires that these graces must come to us from the hands of Christ, through his most sacred humanity, in which God takes delight. - Teresa of Avila

CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - In his wonderful apostolic exhortation entitled On the Dignity of Women (Mulieris Dignatatem)  He wrote:

"The Church's two-thousand-year history, for all its historical conditioning, has truly experienced the "genius of woman"; from the heart of the Church there have emerged women of the highest calibre who have left an impressive and beneficial mark in history. I think of the great line of woman martyrs, saints and famous mystics.

Enjoy this exquisite medal dedicated to St. Theresa of Avila.

"In a particular way I think of Saint Catherine of Siena and of Saint Teresa of Avila, whom Pope Paul VI of happy memory granted the title of Doctors of the Church. And how can we overlook the many women, inspired by faith, who were responsible for initiatives of extraordinary social importance, especially in serving the poorest of the poor? The life of the Church in the Third Millennium will certainly not be lacking in new and surprising manifestations of "the feminine genius".

On this day when the liturgical calendar remembers Teresa of Avila, we need both her example and her prayers. One of the things I enjoy doing as a Christian writer is telling the stories of our heroes of the faith, the saints of the Church. This practice is referred to as hagiography. Telling these family stories helps us to keep alive their memory, imitate their example, and call upon their assistance.

As I like to say, the saints put legs on the Christian faith.

They are ordinary men and women who ended up doing extraordinary things for the Lord, precisely because of their deep and abiding intimate communion with Him in prayer. They walk the talk. All of us are called to the same manner of life. We are also given the same Holy Spirit, access to the same wonderful saving Word of God and the graces which are mediated from Jesus Christ through His Body, in the Sacraments of His Church.

It is how we respond which makes all the difference - in us and in the world into which we are all sent to continue the redemptive mission of the Lord Jesus Christ who now lives his life in and through us. 

Teresa was born in Avila, Spain, on March 28, 1515 to an influential and devoutly Catholic family. Known as an affectionate and friendly child, she lived what appears to have been a happy and normal childhood.

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She was attracted to a deep practice of the Catholic faith very early on. Some accounts of her life indicate that young Teresa would share stories with her younger brother about the lives of the Saints and heroes of the faith.

They reportedly once tried to leave home to die for the faith among the Moors of Africa. Her frightened mother soon found them and they were safely returned home. Little did anyone in Avila know, this child of Spain would become one of the most revered Saints and heroes in the Catholic Church and a Patroness of Spain.

As anyone who has raised children knows, it is not uncommon for even religious children to lose some interest in the things of faith in their teenage years. So it was with Teresa. In her early teenage years her interest in the things of God seemed to wane.

That was until 1531, when at the age of sixteen her mother died. Both of her parents were deeply devout Catholics and gave a wonderful witness to Teresa of the life of prayer.

She was sent to a convent school where the sense of a calling to religious life was rekindled. She sought to enter the Monastery in town. Her father strongly objected. Teresa continued to pursue her vocation and the call of the Lord persisted.

She eventually professed her vows and chose to follow Jesus Christ in the Carmelite religious life in 1538.

The young sisters' life in the convent seemed uneventful, except for frequent bouts with illness. It was after an extended illness that she began to experience great graces and breakthroughs in her life of prayer. Trained to be suspect of such consolations, she mistrusted them and regularly submitted them to spiritual direction.

This was the beginning of what would become a lifetime of her experiencing mystical graces. She writes of her intimacy with the Lord as well as her times of travail in works of great spirituality that are now classics of the Western Church.

Her Autobiography, entitled The Way of Perfection  and her incredible work of contemplative spirituality entitled The Interior Castle have inspired and guided millions of the Christian faithful to a deeper life in the Lord through prayer by living in the heart of the Church.

Teresa's deep prayer life led her to seek a fuller expression of her own religious vocation. In 1562, in the face of strong opposition and misunderstanding, she obeyed a call she sensed from the Holy Spirit to found a new convent of religious women who would live a deeper life of devotion and radical adherence to the Way of Life which lay at the root of the Carmelite charism.

The "Discalced" (the word means "shoeless") Carmelite nuns who gathered with her, sought to live a life of deeper poverty and adhere more closely to the Rule of Life of the Carmelites, rejecting any compromise or lightening of the radical nature of the vocation. The General of the Carmelite Order eventually approved Teresa's effort and asked her to found new convents and monasteries.

However, again as is so often a part of the lives of the saints, the opposition later intensified from within her own religious community. In 1575 the Order decided to dissolve the foundations she had begun.

For five years Teresa faced intense persecution, including efforts to destroy the reforms she had begun - right from within the Church she loved with such single-hearted devotion. Many of those who had joined with her, including St John of the Cross and St. Peter of Alcantara, were also persecuted, imprisoned and cruelly treated.

Finally, with the help of King Philip II, the Discalced Carmelites were made an independent foundation and Teresa was able to found more new convents and monasteries. She died on October 15, 1582.

Teresa of Avila was a mystic as well as an active and effective disciple of Jesus Christ. She demonstrates that the two expressions of the one Christian Way of Life can and should work together in our own experience - no matter what out vocation or state in life. This insight lies at the heart of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council's on the Universal Call to Holiness.

Everyone of us is called to the same kind of intimate communion with the Lord which characterizes the lives of canonized Saints - such as Teresa of Avila. Everyone of us is called to be a saint. Not only are we called, but such a way of life is possible, by and through the grace of God. Our age needs saints.

The true contemplative life, the life of intimate communion with the Lord, overflows into charity and action. One of the holy Bishops of our day,Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, whose cause for canonization is well underway, once wrote these words:

"The so-called "practical people" are not really the most useful in the service of Christ's Church, nor are those who merely expound theories. Rather it is the true contemplatives who best serve her; those with the steady, generous and passionate desire of transfiguring and divinizing all creation with Christ and in Christ. It may sound paradoxical, but in the Church of Jesus Christ, the mystic is the only practical person."

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Teresa was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Here is an excerpt from one of her wonderful writings:

Let us always be mindful of Christ's love

If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend. And I clearly see that if we expect to please him and receive an abundance of his graces, God desires that these graces must come to us from the hands of Christ, through his most sacred humanity, in which God takes delight.

Many, many times I have perceived this through experience. The Lord has told it to me. I have definitely seen that we must enter by this gate if we wish his Sovereign Majesty to reveal to us great and hidden mysteries. A person should desire no other path, even if he is at the summit of contemplation; on this road he walks safely. All blessings come to us through our Lord. He will teach us, for in beholding his life we find that he is the best example.

What more do we desire from such a good friend at our side? Unlike our friends in the world, he will never abandon us when we are troubled or distressed. Blessed is the one who truly loves him and always keeps him near. Let us consider the glorious Saint Paul: it seems that no other name fell from his lips than that of Jesus, because the name of Jesus was fixed and embedded in his heart.

Once I had come to understand this truth, I carefully considered the lives of some of the saints, the great contemplatives, and found that they took no other path: Francis, Anthony of Padua, Bernard, Catherine of Siena. A person must walk along this path in freedom, placing himself in God's hands. If God should desire to raise us to the position of one who is an intimate and shares his secrets, we ought to accept this gladly.

Whenever we think of Christ we should recall the love that led him to bestow on us so many graces and favors, and also the great love God showed in giving us in Christ a pledge of his love; for love calls for love in return. Let us strive to keep this always before our eyes and to rouse ourselves to love him. For if at some time the Lord should grant us the grace of impressing his love on our hearts, all will become easy for us and we shall accomplish great things quickly and without effort.


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Deacon Keith Fournier is Founder and Chairman of Common Good Foundation and Common Good Alliance. A married Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, he and his wife Laurine have five grown children and six grandchildren, He serves as the Director of Adult Faith Formation at St. Stephen, Martyr Parish in Chesapeake, VA. He is also a human rights lawyer and public policy advocate.


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