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October 2, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 123




Pat Morrison Multi-taskers have a heavenly mentor

Pat Morrison, NCR managing editor

Nothing is certain, the saying goes, except death and taxes. But on Oct. 4, 1582, even the date of one's death was subject to change. The next day the Gregorian calendar kicked in throughout the Western world and fast-forwarded dates by 10 days. One of the people who died on Oct. 4, or Oct. 14 that year, was a 67-year-old Spanish woman named Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda, Teresa of Jesus.

Yesterday (An ordinary life sparks an unlikely revolution ) I focused on Therese of Lisieux, the young French Carmelite nun whose "little way" of spirituality captivated the Catholic world and made the "Little Flower" a household name. But without her 16th-century patroness, Therese of Lisieux would not have been who she was; it was the first Teresa's single-minded quest for God that made possible the Discalced Carmelite convent Therese Martin entered and the way of life its nuns followed.

Teresa of Jesus died in a borrowed bed in a convent in Alba de Tormes. This monastery wasn't her "home base"; that was in Avila, whose name has been interwoven with her own these 500-plus years. Unlike her young namesake who never left her French cloister after she entered it at 15, the Spanish Teresa lived much of her would-be cloistered life "on the road." She had become ill while making the equivalent of a 16th-century business trip to the reformed convents she had founded, including this one.

With her last gasps, Teresa said, "I die a daughter of the church." Commentators for years interpreted those words as a triumphant credo professing her loyalty. But Teresian scholars today are in agreement that the dying woman probably had quite another last thought in mind - more like "whew!": relief that she had made it to the end of her life's journey without getting herself excommunicated for heresy. For Teresa, today recognized as one of the church's greatest mystics, had been hounded by the Inquisition for years for her "unorthodox" teaching on prayer and contemplation.

The "little" and "great" saints Therese/Teresa could not have been more different. The centuries and cultures in which they lived, their family backgrounds, their personalities, even their styles of spirituality in some ways, were light years apart. But what both women had in common, besides a passionate love for Jesus Christ and depths of prayer, were gifts the church and her people still so sorely need: a sense of being totally at home in the "skin" of the human condition, warts and all, and common sense.

Teresa of Avila was intelligent, witty, stubborn, a bit of a flirt, and too enmeshed at times with family and friends. But she was also a consummate expert in human psychology. "Today I don't pray because I have a headache," she wrote, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "Tomorrow I don't pray because I might get a headache. And the day after, I can't pray because I had a headache."

When a prioress worried about a nun whose fainting spells were supposedly due to ecstasy, the practical foundress told her to make sure the woman was eating enough and to keep her busy. For those who would have preferred a prayerful stroll in the garden to kitchen duty, Teresa wrote tersely (from firsthand experience as well) that "God walks among the pots and pans."

During the period of her life when she was in the deepest stages of union with God, Teresa was simultaneously juggling down-to-earth duties that would challenge the most inveterate multi-tasker.

Her whirlwind of activity, recorded in her Foundations, sounds like notes from a contemporary executive's PDA: While re-editing her manuscript on prayer (to placate her censor-editor), she was corresponding with superiors of her convents about issues ranging from personnel problems to property lines. One bishop was reneging on his promises to her about a convent; Teresa had called in the lawyer on the matter. And in the meantime, she noted, college students who had taken over the building had trashed the place.

If this doesn't mesh with your idea of what a mystic's life is about, that is precisely Teresa's lesson. She wanted to sweep away the cobwebbed notions that holiness only happens when life is tranquil and untroubled. Our job, to paraphrase her, is simply to keep earnestly seeking God through the messiness of life. God's job is to keep finding us and loving us. And, she reminds us, even when we don't keep our end of the bargain, God does God's job quite well, 24/7.

In 1970, the church declared Teresa of Avila a doctor of the church, recognizing the sublimity of her spiritual teaching. She was the first woman in church history so honored. Not bad for an uppity woman who almost got herself thrown out of the church.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

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