Perseverance made Teresa of Avila a master of prayer

St. Teresa of Avila became the first woman to be named a Doctor of the Church in 1970.

A 16th century mystic, contemplative, writer and reformer, she founded the Discalced Carmelites, established 17 convents, wrote three spiritual classics, and is esteemed as a master of prayer.

“Her writing is filled with beautiful and profound teachings on the practice of mental (or contemplative) prayer,” said seminary professor Anthony Lilles, an expert on Carmelite mysticism who co-authored “30 Days with Teresa of Avila” (Emmaus, 2015).

Mental prayer, he explained, is where one learns to listen to the Lord with their heart.

“Her descriptions are filled with a genius use of images that everyone, no matter where they are in the spiritual life, can relate to,” Lilles added. “In the beginning she describes prayer as drawing water from a well, ‘it’s a lot of hard work,’ but as she matures, she experiences prayer as ‘a rainfall that you simply receive into your heart.’”

Prayer leads to action

That Teresa of Avila was both a prayerful mystic and an active reformer dispels a common misperception that people of prayer don’t have time to do other things.

“Her witness is that the deeper you go in prayer, the more strength you have from the Lord to do beautiful things in your life,” Lilles said. “We see in her life and in her writings that prayer makes us more fruitful.”

Recognized as having achieved the heights of spiritual knowledge, her contributions to mystical theology and Christian spirituality are based on her own struggles with mediocrity and conversion. That the quincentennial of her birth falls at the threshold of Holy Week seems appropriate, noted Lilles.

“Sometimes in our spiritual life we struggle with attachments and difficult habits of sin. Teresa of Avila was no stranger to this struggle,” he said. “Her writings tell about how the Lord raised her up while she prayed and freed her from these attachments as she made an act of trust in him.

“What we can learn from her is to trust in the Lord in everything, like she did.”

Patient persistence

The Spanish saint renowned for prayer is also a model of perseverance, as for the first 20 years of her religious life she found it challenging to pray. At age 39, however, she experienced conversion when during prayer one day she gazed at an Ecce homo (“Behold the man”) statue of the scourged, suffering Christ and saw his face filled with love for her. Gripped with intense grief at the poorness of her spiritual life, she vowed to change. Suddenly she felt the sensation of Christ’s love transforming her, which moved her to reform the Carmelites to return to their original spirit of poverty, enclosure and rigorous prayer.

“After she describes this encounter (in her autobiography) where Jesus’ look of love pierced her to the heart, she talks about development of prayer as different kinds of water that irrigate her soul,” Lilles said. “She distinguishes forms of prayer she used when she was first beginning to pray from forms that she experienced as she matured.”

Legacy

Beatified in 1614 and canonized in 1622, the saint’s legacy includes her insightful writings on mysticism and prayer—the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses her definition of contemplative prayer—and a spiritual family of Carmelites.

“This legacy of Carmelites and other religious communities inspired by them has become part of the universal patrimony of the Church,” Lilles said.

A woman of courage and compassion, Teresa of Avila offers much encouragement for Christians at every stage of their spiritual journey.

“She helps us understand the hard work of beginning prayer and the determination it requires,” Lilles observed. “She helps us understand the spark of mystical contemplation that is ignited as a pure gift in the heart and can become a fire that consumes our whole being. And she helps us understand the transforming union with Christ that he invites us to embrace when we reach full spiritual maturity.”

Ultimately, Lilles said, Teresa of Avila teaches us that the pathway of spiritual growth and prayer that draws us into communion with Christ enlarges our heart and enriches every aspect of our life.

“(It) makes the friendships that we have in the Lord (with others and with the saints) all the more beautiful and our life all the more full.”

 

Books by Teresa of Avila

“Autobiography” (or “Life”)

“The Way of Perfection”

“The Interior Castle”

Quotes by Teresa of Avila

On prayer: “Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.”

On trust in God: “Let nothing disturb you, nothing dismay you. All things are passing, God never changes. Patient endurance attains all things….God alone suffices.”

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”