“Forever and ever and ever,” St. Teresa of Avila and her brother used to repeat to each other when they were little. For them, the saying was a reminder that the joys of heaven last forever, but the joys of earth are fleeting.
This week we celebrate two important moments in history—the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Teresa of Avila and the beginning of Holy Week 2015. As I look ahead at the events that marked Christ’s path to Calvary and remember the story of St. Teresa of Avila, I am struck by how they mirror the path of conversion that each of us is called to walk.
St. Teresa of Avila was born Teresa de Ahumada on March 28, 1515 in Avila, Spain. The fifth of 12 children, she displayed a strong faith in her early childhood, even plotting with her brother to find a way to become martyrs.
Palm Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, reminds me of this kind of faith. When Christ first enters into our lives, forgives us of our sins, and claims us as his own, we welcome him with joy. We respond with childlike faith similar to St. Teresa’s and sing God’s praises. And each time our hearts undergo conversion, we are called back to that kind of love and devotion.
But life is not always easy. When Teresa was 13 years old her mother died, dealing a blow to her faith. Her worried father intervened and sent her to a convent school run by the Augustinians, where a kind nun befriended her and helped her return to a deeper faith. The pivotal moment for St. Teresa came when she was reading the “Letters of Saint Jerome,” which convinced her to stop resisting the calling she heard to be a nun. At the age of 20, she entered the Carmelite order and two years later made her perpetual vows.
Like St. Teresa of Avila, we might also stray from the path leading to the Father, but for these times he gives us himself in the Eucharist and forgives us in reconciliation. He accompanies us in our every-day life with grace and mercy. On Holy Thursday, we participate in this reality when we celebrate the institution of the holy Eucharist.
Because of our fallen nature, Good Friday comes to us all. Soon after she professed her vows, St. Teresa became sick with a fever and had fainting episodes. The doctors couldn’t determine the cause or find a cure. In a last ditch effort, her father sent her to an herbalist, but this intervention made things drastically worse, putting St. Teresa in a coma for four days. When she emerged from the coma, St. Teresa was paralyzed. She didn’t regain full mobility for almost three years, and from that point on her health was poor. This was her Good Friday.
When we suffer and unite our sufferings to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross we experience it too. In these trials, we can be purified and our love can grow. Father Kieran Kavanaugh observed in “Teresa of Avila: The Way of Prayer” that “one of the amazing features of her life was her ability to rise above her illnesses and carry out her many and complicated affairs with exceptional diligence and enthusiasm.” She was driven by her love for Christ, just as Jesus’ love for us compelled him to embrace the cross.
Those of you familiar with St. Teresa will realize that I haven’t mentioned the two things she is most known for: her spiritual writings about prayer and the numerous Carmelite monasteries she founded.
During her religious life there were many “Holy Saturdays”—times when God seemed silent. At one point, she was caught in the middle of a power struggle between the King of Spain and the superior of the Carmelite order. For a time, St. Teresa’s superior required her to leave the communities she had founded and return to the convent where she first became a nun. On the spiritual front, she also experienced periods when God seemed absent. As we mature spiritually, there are always “Holy Saturdays,” periods when God seems far away.
St. Teresa of Avila’s most famous work, “The Interior Castle,” presents us with the path to Easter Sunday that she experienced in her prayer life. Within the interior castle there are seven spiritual dwelling places, and in the final one, the soul experiences the intimate communion of the Holy Trinity. This communion of life and love is the seat of the power that raised Jesus from the dead.
In our Christian walk, each of us is destined for eternity; we are made to live “forever and ever and ever” in communion with God. As you move through Holy Week, I encourage you to reflect on where you are on the lifelong path of conversion and turn to God for the grace to seek him more fervently and grow in intimacy with his son.