Written by Steven Liechty
"I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations." Psalm 89:1
Once upon a time, a young woman with a restless intellect, a dread of marriage, and an unfocused attraction to God, slipped out of her father's house to a convent outside Avila's walls. There she became a troublesome nun, some might say an unstable one. It wasn't until she was forty that she finally gained confidence in her spiritual authority and mission. After that, she was even more troublesome.
In a time when the Church thought women incapable of sustaining an inner life without contracting madness or heresy, she created communities of women contemplatives, teaching them not to be afraid, even of Satan, and especially not of alarmist clerics. "I don't fear Satan half as much," she said, "as I fear people who fear Satan."
In a kingdom that had pressured Jews like her grandfather to be baptized or else, then discriminated against them because of their "impure'' blood and dubious orthodoxy, Teresa bucked the common practice of excluding such converts from religious orders. She took all comers.
In a church where holy people were supposed to be perfect, austere, and forbidding, she prayed to be delivered from sour saints. An admirer once remarked on her voracious appetite: "For such a holy woman, you sure pack it in." "Listen," Teresa shot back, "when I pray, I pray; when I eat, I eat!"
She was a woman of her times who saw the conquest of the Americas as a providential opportunity for evangelism. She characterized the Reformation as a "re-crucifying" of Christ. Yet she thought people should be praying for Lutherans and Indians, not slaughtering them, and she complained to God about obtuse churchmen who squandered "his" gifts by outlawing women preachers.
An indefatigable founder, businesswoman, and administrator, she was also a determined writer, writing several important books in unruly, captivating prose and thousands of revealing letters.
She suffered all sorts of debilitating illnesses, and her death was a misery. But she was glad, she said, to die "a daughter of the Church." The Church canonized her, molding her into a disembodied paragon of orthodoxy. We remember her today mostly as an ecstatic visionary, a great mystical soul. In a way, that's too bad; it might be the least interesting thing about her.
Grant us the same courage to grow in grace as you gave your servant, Teresa, O God; the same determination to do your will, the same delight in your endless mercies, and the same sane realism for living a grounded life in a complicated world.
Mary Luti is Visiting Professor of Christian History and Worship at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton, Massachusetts.