Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Still a Beloved Friend: St. Teresa's Revolutionary Spirituality Inspires Women after 500 Years

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Still a Beloved Friend: St. Teresa's Revolutionary Spirituality Inspires Women after 500 Years

Article excerpt

Though she had been a well-known partier in her own times, St. Teresa of Avila would likely raise her dark eyebrows in surprise. This year, all over the world, people have been celebrating the 500th anniversary of her birth on March 28,1515.

Birthday festivities for her certainly make Catholic sense. Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was a profoundly influential Spanish mystic, a Carmelite reformer, the first woman doctor of the church, and the author of best-selling spiritual classics, including her masterpiece, The Interior Castle (1577).

Nonetheless, some wonder what a 16th-century mystic can say to 21st-century people of faith.

Theologians, Carmelite historians, and women who teach or act as spiritual directors insist that Teresa of Avila is a marvel. In talking about her impact, they seem to run out of superlatives.

"Teresa revolutionized spirituality by teaching that God deeply wants relationship with us," said Gillian Ahlgren, professor of theology and director of the Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

According to Ahlgren, author of several books on Teresa, the 16th-century Carmelite did what no one before her had ever thought of doing: "Teresa describes coherently a God who desires intimate companionship and collaboration from us and with us."

When contacted about this article, Ahlgren was in Avila, Spain, leading a summer study group in the footsteps of Teresa.

"She taught (and modeled) what a genuine partnership with God looks like, and she affirmed that each one of us is called to that kind of partnership, no matter what our state or condition in life," Ahlgren said. "In that sense, she was one of the most 'self-actualized'--to use a modern term--people in human history She tried to share with people--especially women--how to move toward self-actualization." Sacred Heart Sr. Mary Frohlich said it was remarkable "the way Teresa gained her voice, a voice that was very influential in her own time and one that has continued to be influential."

According to Frohlich, an associate professor of spirituality at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, the obstacles Teresa faced would have silenced anyone else.

"First of all, she was a woman," Frohlich said. Even though Teresa deeply loved her father, Alfonso, and was his favorite among the family's 12 children, women were totally dependent upon men in 16th-century Spain. It was no different in religious life. Women were to stay put and keep quiet.

Teresa also had to walk a very fine line in what she said and did because of her Jewish heritage, Frohlich added.

Spanish converts from Judaism to Catholicism--conversos--were never fully trusted by Catholics who could trace back their Catholicism for many generations. Prejudice against conversos was open and unrelenting. Teresa's family did what they could to hide their Jewish roots.

"This constrained Teresa in many ways," said Frohlich, who says Teresa's writing hints at her Jewish ancestry "She had to protect her nine brothers since it would have influenced [damaged] their careers. Teresa clearly was grieved that Jewish people were considered inferior."

Frohlich and others suggest that these crucibles of persecution helped shape--and strengthen--Teresa. Over time, and especially after she felt Christ's call to reform the Carmelites, she grew more sensitive to the heartaches and wounds of others. She recognized how social attitudes imprison people, and how much this displeases God.

"One of her greatest contribution to us, I think, is her Christian anthropology," said Elizabeth Dreyer, professor of religious studies at Fairfield University "That's the way she understands the human person."

In Teresa's day, Dreyer said, Catholics whose families had been in the church for many generations were called "purebloods." That should remind us, Dreyer said, "of other examples of religious or ethnic arrogance we've heard about through history"

An authority on medieval theology and women's spirituality, Dreyer said that Teresa had once been just as caught up in a superficial, social life as many other women of her day After she learned to pray and had visions of Jesus, her view of the privileged world changed completely

Enduring influence

Teresa's search to do God's will and the compelling way she taught others has moved many women. …

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