15 October 2021

Lessons in Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield,
from the life of Saint Teresa of Avila

Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield, and Stowe Pool … lessons this week on the life of Saint Teresa of Avila (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Feast of Saint Teresa of Avila (15 October), the great Carmelite mystic and a Doctor of the Church.

During my visit to Saint Chad’s Church in Lichfield this week, I picked up the parish weekly magazine, which has chosen Saint Teresa as the ‘Saint of the Week, and summarises some of her key teachings in this way:

1. Prayer

One of the key hallmarks of the spiritual heights of Saint Teresa of Avila is the importance of prayer. Even though she struggled for many years, she teaches us this basic but indispensable spiritual truth – Perseverance in prayer! Meditate on her immortal words of wisdom and memorise: ‘We must have a determined determination to never give up prayer.’

Jesus taught us the supremely important truth in the Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Judge. The widow, due to her dogged and tenacious insistence, finally gained the assistance of this cold-hearted judge (Luke 18: 1-8). Saint Teresa insists that we must never give up in prayer. If you like an analogy: what air is to the lungs so is prayer to the soul. Healthy lungs need constant and pure air; a healthy soul must constantly be breathing through prayer – the oxygen of the soul.

2. Definition of Prayer

Saint Thomas Aquinas gives us simple but very solid advice: define your topic before you start to talk about it. By doing this you can avoid much confusion. Saint Teresa of Avila gives us one of the classical definitions of prayer: ‘Prayer is nothing more than spending a long time alone with the one I know loves me.

A short summary? Two friends love each other! Jesus himself called the Apostles friends – so are you called to be a friend with Jesus!

3. Love for Jesus, and his sufferings

Saint Teresa gives us a hint to prayer growth – meditating upon the humanity of Jesus. Spending time Jesus, the Son of God made man and entering into colloquy with him is a sure path to growth in prayer. Try it!

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in the Spiritual Exercises, insists on us begging for this grace: ‘Intimate knowledge of Jesus that we love him more ardently and follow him more closely.

4. Holy Spirit: The Divine Teacher in Prayer

On one occasion, the saint was really struggling with prayer and she talked to a Jesuit priest for advice on overcoming her struggle. His advice was simple and to the point, but changed her life! The priest insisted on praying to the Holy Spirit. From that point on, following this great advice to rely on the Holy Spirit, Teresa’s prayer life improved markedly.

Saint Paul to the Romans reiterates the same point: ‘In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings’ (Romans 8: 26). Let us be led by the best of all teachers, the Interior Master of prayer, the Holy Spirit.

5. Spiritual Direction.

To attain constant growth in the spiritual life, we must have some form of spiritual direction. Spiritual blindness, we all experience. The devil can disguise or camouflage as an angel of light. And the higher we climb in the spiritual life the more subtle are the tactics and seductions of the devil – ‘who is searching for us a roaring lion ready to devour us’ (I Peter 5: 8-9).

Saint John of the Cross put it bluntly: ‘He who has himself as guide has an idiot as a disciple.’

6. Spiritual Masterpieces – Her Writings

Without doubt, one of the major contributions to the Church as well as to the world at large are the writings or spiritual masterpieces of Saint Teresa of Avila. One of her basic themes is that of the importance of prayer, and striving to grow deeper and deeper in prayer until one arrives at the Mystical Union of the spouse with Jesus the Heavenly Spouse.

Anybody who takes his or her prayer life seriously should know of Teresa’s writings and spend some time in reading some of her anointed writings. What are her classics? Here they are: Her Life, The Way of Perfection, The Interior Castle, Foundations. In addition to these texts/books, she also wrote many inspiring letters. Want to become a saint? Read and drink from the writings of the saints, especially the Doctors of the Church!

7. The Cross as the Bridge to Heaven

Jesus said, ‘Anyone who wants to be my follower must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.’ Another common denominator in the lives of the saints is the reality of the cross. Saint Louis de Montfort would bless his friends as such: ‘May God bless you and give you many small crosses.’

Saint Teresa lived with a constant friend – the cross of Jesus. Her health was always very fragile; she almost died while very young. Furthermore, for Saint Teresa of Avila to carry out the Reforms of the Carmelite order, she suffered constant attacks and persecutions from many nuns in the convent who preferred a more comfortable lifestyle, from priests (Carmelites) and from other ecclesiastics. Instead of becoming discouraged and losing heart, she joyfully trusted in the Lord all the more – anyway, it was his doing.

In conclusion, may the great woman Doctor of the Church – the Doctor of prayer – Saint Teresa of Avila, be a constant inspiration to you in your own spiritual pilgrimage to heaven. May she encourage you to pray more and with great depth, arrive at deeper conversion of heart, and finally love Jesus as the very centre and well-spring of your life!

The three spires of Lichfield Cathedral and Stowe Pool seen from Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield, this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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