Saint Teresa of Avila, also called Saint Teresa of Jesus, baptized as Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada (March 28, 1515, at Gotarrendura (Avila), Old Castile, Spain – October 4, 1582, at Alba de Tormes, Salamanca, Spain) was a prominent Spanish mystic, Carmelite nun, and writer of the Counter Reformation, and theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer. She was a reformer of the Carmelite Order and is considered to be, along with John of the Cross, a founder of the Discalced Carmelites.
Forty years after her death, she was canonized, in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, and in 1970 named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI. Her books, which include her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus, and her seminal work, El Castillo Interior (The Interior Castle), are integral part of the Spanish Renaissance literature as well as Christian mysticism and Christian meditation practices as she entails in her other important work Camino de Perfección (The Way of Perfection).
Had there been rock stars around in Spain in the 1500s, Saint Teresa of Avila would have been a major one.
She suffered greatly throughout her life. Her symbols were a heart, a cross, and a pen. She was a prolific writer, hence the pen, a fervent humanitarian, the heart, and one who suffered constant and agonizing physical pain, represented by the cross. She is also known as the patron saint of headache sufferers, a symbolization of outer turmoil causing inner pain.
“I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth.” She lived by these words even when she was suffering.
She wrote many books. She was spunky, indefatigable, and constantly at odds with those who considered her to be rebellious and dangerous. Teresa was a real activist as well. Many times, she’d have to sneak in and out of villages in the middle of the night, lest her presence cause a riot! One time, she and her fellow nuns were ordered to clean the floors of a nobleman on their hands and knees. Teresa refused on behalf of the sisters. The nobleman banished them out of their convent and they had to move on.
Recently a friend of mine was at a swap meet when she came upon an ancient Mexican guy who had a beat up wooden tray full of very old holy medals, crosses, and rosaries — some quite lovely. However, she was drawn to a beat-up, old medal on a blackened silver chain. The medal was so tarnished she couldn’t even tell what it said. But she had to have it! She took it home and polished it up. Lo and behold it turned out to be Saint Teresa!
Finding the beat-to-death medal at such a terminal is representative of faith and hope. For no matter how bashed in or beaten down, her little spirit is alive on this earth bringing solace to my friend and myself — not to mention the multitudes around the world who hold the same eternal love and respect for this powerhouse of love and endurance
Believing Catholics share an unseen bond of faith. To quote a famous song writer, “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom. Let it be.” In the darkest of hours, emotionally moving prayers like: Our Father, Hail Mary, or the chanting Gregorian monks’ solemn but beautiful hymns bring solace to the suffering.
A poignant coda to our story is steeped in the joy of sharing something precious. My friend, who found the blackened medal, heard of a woman Abigail Ortega of El Cajon who has been in chronic pain since childhood. Knowing the power of faith and the power of the spirit of Saint Teresa, she gave the precious medallion to her. The ailing woman was overwhelmed by the generosity and the level of caring from a stranger. The awesome power of this tiny saint from 500 years ago is salubrious to all believers as displayed by this selfless and caring gesture.
Another source of relief was about to occur in Abigail’s life. It came via the benevolence of a Catholic priest by the name of Father Brian Hayes of Holy Trinity Church in El Cajon, California.
After hearing of Abigail’s plight, the priest went to visit her. Father Brian listened to her story of horrendous pain and her need for support and assistance. He was moved to take action immediately.
Holy Trinity Catholic Parish traces its roots to self sacrifice, hard work, and a firm faith. The church was first served by a pioneering Spanish priest, Father Anthony Urbach, who once a month road the three hours on horseback from San Diego to the parish. For forty years, he served a 4,255 square mile area with such devotion that when he died in 1907, his funeral drew the “greatest outpouring of people San Diego has ever seen.” Father Brian soldiers on with the same benevolence and compassion to this day.