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Happy Birthday, Teresa!

Today is the 503rd birthday of one of history’s remarkable women, Teresa of Avila. Successfully spearheading the reform of the Carmelite order and articulating some of the most profound expressions of the mystical life, despite the inhospitable climate fostered by the Spanish Inquisition, Teresa has much to teach us today. She teaches us the virtue of tenacity, or, as she would put it “una muy determinada determinación.” I think some today express it with the phrase “And still, she persisted.” Moving about Spain by mule to found over a dozen convents, organizing a center for formation for women who would take her reforms into the next generation, and modeling what active, collaborative partnership with God looks like in the real world–in her accomplishments, it is easy to see both the vision and the strength of character and will necessary to bring a vision into being.

Where did all that strategic vision come from? Another thing we can learn from Teresa is how to grow into a functional partnership with the divine. Teresa spent considerable time in prayer, and her prayer took many creative forms. She was not born knowing how to pray, but she, like all of us, was born with an inner instinct toward the divine–an instinct that she re-discovered, as a young adult, because she became deathly ill. As her inner dialogue with God deepened and expanded, new forms of prayer emerged, and gradually she learned to see and listen to the world around her with God, sensitized by the indwelling presence of God that she nurtured and fed with her attention and solicitude. Her writings teach us that all of us have that vocation–a vocation to listen, to be present, to extend love into the world, and to allow God to continually re-create us as our partnership with God grows and bears fruit.

Teresa’s counsel, “The important thing is not to think much but to love much; do, then, what most stirs you to love…” underscores Pope Francis’s clarity in Joy of the Gospel, that we are all called to be “missionary disciples.” We are all “agents of evangelization” as we extend God’s love into a weary world, knowing that a loveless world is not the same as a loving one and acting in the strength of that conviction. “What you have come to realize, what has helped you to live and given you hope, is what you also need to communicate to others,” writes Pope Francis. “Our falling short of perfection should be no excuse; on the contrary, mission is a constant stimulus not to remain mired in mediocrity but to continue growing.” (Joy of the Gospel, par. 121) With Teresa’s counsels to guide us, let us aspire to that growth and be visionary agents of change, aware that “whoever does not grow, shrinks” (Teresa, Interior Castle) and that “every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us.” (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, par. 9)

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About the author
Gillian Ahlgren
Dr. Ahlgren has been teaching the Christian mystical tradition to college-age students, graduate students, and adult learners for over 26 years. She is an internationally-recognized scholar of the tradition, an experienced spiritual director, and engages a regular practice of contemplative prayer. A popular teacher, public speaker and writer, she also gives several retreats per year. She is the Founding Director of Xavier University’s Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice.

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