For All the Saints: Teresa of Avila

On the trail of St. Joseph, because he is my patron and because his feast day is approaching (March 19), I stumbled across Teresa of Avila. And when I did, I sat down for a spell, and after I had sat in her presence, I didn’t want to leave. That’s what the saints will do for you—so convince you of the truth of the Christian claim that you want to spend the rest of your life at their feet.

Teresa’s devotion to St. Joseph, and so mine to her, began in 1538, when she was 25 years old. A Carmelite nun in the throes of a complete physical breakdown that she laid to heart trouble, Teresa despaired of conventional medical treatments and “decided to seek a cure from ‘heavenly doctors,’” according to biographer Shirley du Boulay:

She had Masses said for her—strictly in accordance with the church’s teaching, for she had no patience with unorthodox ceremonies—and she commended herself to someone who was to become her favorite saint, St. Joseph. Strong-willed by temperament, yet determined to be obedient, she found she could submit to the image of one to whom Christ himself was subject on earth. She attributed her improvement—it could not be called a cure, because she was at no time completely well—entirely to him and never ceased to commend him to others. She would make requests of him every year on his festival, claiming that they were always granted, even that “if my petition is in any way ill directed, he directs it aright for my greatest good.”

From then on, Teresa would always observe Joseph’s feast day with particular devotion. In her Life, she would write of St. Joseph:

I wish I could persuade everyone to be devoted to this glorious saint, for I have great experience of the blessings which he can obtain from God. I have never known anyone to be truly devoted to him and render him particular services who did not notably advance in virtue, for he gives very real help to souls who commend themselves to him. For some years now, I think, I have made some request of him every year on his festival and I have always had it granted. If my petition is in any way ill directed, he directs it aright for my greater good.

I only beg, for the love of God, that anyone who does not believe me will put what I say to the test, and he will see by experience what great advantages come from his commending himself to this glorious patriarch and having devotion to him. . . .

In her forties, Teresa began to experience visions, raptures, locutions—the mystic experiences for which she is perhaps best known—though she was one hard-boiled, down-to-earth mystic, who founded seventeen reformed Discalced (Barefoot) “Carmels” in her lifetime, working like a modern-day businesswoman on a fast track. St. Joseph sometimes appeared to her in visions. When in 1562, at age 47, she founded her first Carmel, she named it St. Joseph’s. She viewed her new reformed foundation as being like the home of the Holy Family in Nazareth, “a heaven, if one can be had on this earth.”

His Majesty earnestly commanded me to strive for this new monastery with all my powers, and He made great promises that it would be founded and that He would be highly servied in it. He said it should be called St. Joseph and that this saint would keep watch over us at one door, and our Lady at the other, that Christ would remain with us, and that it would be a star shining with great splendor.

From then on, no matter where she traveled through Spain in a covered wagon that maintained her enclosure from the world, St. Joseph’s would be Teresa’s home. St. Joseph himself was always at the ready, always nearby. In 1575, en route to founding one of her Carmels, according to du Boulay, Teresa’s party—

took the wrong turn, realized they were lost, and, at Teresa’s injunction, began to pray to St. Joseph. At once they heard a distant voice calling out that they must stop immediately, otherwise they would fall over a precipice. They obeyed the invisible command and discovered they were indeed in a perilous position, a chasm yawning beneath the wagon wheels, but what could they do? How could they turn round in the narrow path? The voice told them to go gently backward for a hundred turns of the wheels; they would come to no harm and would find the track again. It was just as the voice said.

In an essay on “The Historical Development of the Holy Family Devotion,” Joseph F. Chorpenning, OSFS, writes that Teresa’s devotion to St. Joseph is one of the key reasons that we honor him and, indeed, the Holy Family as such today. Chorpenning traces this devotion from the late Middle Ages, through Teresa’s time in the sixteenth century, right down to our times, when Pope John Paul II wrote Redemptoris Custos, his Apostolic Exhortation “on the person and mission of Saint Joseph in the life of Christ and in the Church.”

But I’ll leave that for another post. I’ll end simply with the last line from du Boulay’s biography of the Carmelite saint and the first female Doctor of the Church, Teresa of Avila:

To anyone asking for proof of the existence of God, anyone saying, “Is God there?” Teresa’s whole life offers a resounding “Yes.”

  • Allison Salerno

    WOW! Thanks for this. I have read "The Interior Castle" Have you, Webster? What a work!

  • Matthew

    @WebsterI am always amazed how modern saints venerated earlier saints. When we look at how interconnected they were and how we are to them by our own personal devotions it brings the concept of "communion of the saints" into a much greater light. I for one am grateful for such wonderful examples who have lived the faith and gone before us to light the path to heaven.

  • Allison Salerno

    @Matthew: love your line "light the path to heaven" Maria Esperanza said humility is the bridge to heaven…Also, you make a really interesting point – modern saints venerating earlier saints. When I researched my blog earlier this week on Servant of God Maria Esperanza, I was intrigued to discover she had been an acquaintance of St. Padre Pio.

  • El Bolillo Tejano

    Beautiful post. I visited Avila twice last year and found that historical city to be one of Spain's greatest gems. Amazingly, Theresa's presence is STILL enormous there today.The church that stands at her convent is truly special and has some of the most unique ceilings in the world. The art in her church is beautiful!Perhaps even more beautiful were the scores of children who attend catholic school just up the road from Theresa's convent. The faith is still alive in Avila, and the children there are still impacted by her presence.

  • cathyf

    You see, heaven is a large walled compound, with gates of pearl at the entrance, where St. Peter takes his post with his keys. When the newly departed arrive at those pearly gates, St. Peter looks them up in his book, and either lets them in, or sends them down the road.So one day it is St. Pete's day off, and he is wandering about, and he sees some folks that he is pretty sure he sent down the road — but there they are inside heaven. He doesn't think too much of it, though. He's not paying all that close attention to faces, and after all they do tend to all run together anyway. But he does spend the next days paying closer attention to exactly who is being let in and who is being sent down the road. And on his next day off, he sees 3 different people who were definitely sent along their way.St. Pete decides to do some investigating. He marches out the pearly gates and down the road. Around the corner, down a little ways, around another corner, where he is brought up utterly dumbfounded by the sight. There is St. Joseph, and he is boosting people over the wall! St. Pete marches over to St. Joseph and starts haranguing him. He says that this is utterly against the rules, absolutely unacceptable, and that there will be consequences! St. Joseph doesn't say anything. Finally St. Pete finishes up his harangue by telling St. Joseph that he will not mention this little incident to anyone as long as St. Joseph makes sure that it never happens again.Thinking that he has dealt with this outrage very well, St. Pete then spins on his heel, marches back up around the two corners and down the road and through the pearly gates. He resumes his job, but is still being careful to remember faces and who got let in and who got sent down the road. On his next day off, again, there are the Wrong People in heaven!So again St. Pete marches out in high dudgeon; again he comes around the corner; again St. Joseph is boosting people over the wall. This time Pete is utterly apoplectic. He rages on and on about how unacceptable, wrong, not be tolerated, Pete is going to report this straight to God, terrible things will happen, maybe even Joe will get thrown out of heaven. Around this time Pete needs to pause for a second to take a breath. At which point St. Joseph, shrugging, says, "Hey, I go I take da wife & kid wit me…"And turns and walks back up the road.

  • Webster Bull

    @Allison, Haven't read The Interior Castle, but it's on my list now!@Bolillo Tejano,And Avila is definitely on my list, next time I get to Europe.

  • Moses

    Hi WebsterThanks for the post. It certainly raised my awareness of St Joseph for which he was normally overlook being in the company of Jesus and Mary.In that sense this post also brings to my mind how we need the witnessing of others to bring our thoughts and understanding of the Christian faith.Coming back to St. Joseph, it struck me that he is a role model for husband too to head the family having chosen by God to take care of Jesus and Mary.RegardsMoses

  • Webster Bull

    Thank you Moses! Nice to hear from you again. As I've written elsewhere, I had planned to take Thomas More as my name upon reception into the Church, but about four days before that Easter came the Feast of St. Joseph and I changed my mind! I have never regretted it. When my own father became deathly ill, St. Joseph was a great comfort, and now that I am a father without an earthly father, I try to keep my heart close to his.