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St Teresa of Avila was a charming, droll and tough-minded reformer

St Teresa of Avila

Five hundred years ago, on March 28 1515, an upper middle-class Spaniard, Doña Beatriz, held her baby daughter Teresa in her arms. Doña Beatriz did not know then, of course, that her daughter would become a Carmelite nun, reform her order, become known as a miracle worker and mystic, be canonised a saint and, finally, be recognised as a Doctor of the Church.

Teresa entered Carmel at 15. At the time she joined, the Carmelites had become quite lax in their prayer life and had servants attending them. Teresa had always been charming, chatty and droll, and in the early years of her vocation she was a socialite, entertaining lots of guests in the parlour.

But in her 40s she felt compelled to reform her order, so they could return to their roots as Carmelites by adopting more austere rules and spending more time in mental prayer. In 1562, she started a new convent in Avila. She would go on to found 17 others.

In some ways, St Teresa was like a Pope Francis of her time. She challenged her fellow religious not to be caught up with creature comforts, to be true to their vocation and to dedicate hours each day to contemplative Carmelite prayer, as opposed to pleasure-seeking.

One famous mud-splattered example is when she was travelling by horse and trap to see a convent of nuns who were getting sloppy. The vehicle had an accident and she was thrown into a puddle of mud. Feeling embarrassed that she would greet the nuns in a muddy habit, she looked up to the heavens and said: “God, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”

Teresa was of Jewish descent, and inherited a keen wit that would not be out of place in a Seinfeld script. But her humour also saw her through some tough times. She met a lot of conflict when she was reforming the Carmelites. Once, she travelled a long way to see a bishop in heavy rain. When she arrived at the bishop’s residence he had changed his mind. Saying to her that she was not welcome, he left her outside in the downpour. Without missing a beat, she said: “And the weather so lovely, too!”

Teresa may have been born half a millennium ago, but in recent centuries we have seen the fruits of her hard work in fighting for the authentic Carmelite vocation to be lived by the priests and nuns of Carmel.

At least two other major saints with her name have been moulded in the Carmel that St Teresa of Avila reformed. There is St Thérèse of Lisieux, obviously. But there is also the martyr St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, or Edith Stein, who was so moved by St Teresa’s autobiography that it sparked her conversion to Catholicism.

Had St Teresa of Avila not restored the true nature of a Carmelite vocation we may not have had such great saints as the Little Flower and St Edith Stein.