October 15th the Church celebrates the feast of the Doctor of the Church, Teresa of Avila. Teresa was born in 1515 and by the age of twenty entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation. The ancient Carmelite order of men and women traces its origins to hermits on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. The Carmelite way is a way of prayer, seeking union with God in mind, heart, and will.
The Carmelite community Teresa entered numbered about 150 sisters. There was a semblance of religious life among them, but too much time was given to idle talk, visitors, gossip, and vanity. Teresa, following an illness and experiences of intimacy with the Lord in prayer, desired a more recollected life of prayer, holy poverty, austerity, and greater silence. She encountered difficulties, but in 1562 succeeded in forming a community of more intense observance entrusting it to the foster father of Jesus, St. Joseph.
Teresa is famous for her reform of the Carmelites and for her writings: Autobiography, Way of Perfection, and Interior Castle. In her Autobiography we learn something about her esteem and respect for her natural father, Don Alonso Sánchez de Ceped and for St. Joseph whom she continually refers to as both her father and the father of her community. Of her natural father she writes:
“My father was a man of great charity towards the poor, who was good to the sick and also to his servants — so much so that he could never be brought to keep slaves, because of his compassion for them. On one occasion, when he had a slave of a brother of his in the house, he was as good to her as to his own children. He used to say that it caused him intolerable distress that she was not free. He was strictly truthful: nobody ever heard him swear or speak evil. He was a man of the most rigid chastity.”
However slack Teresa may have been in the first years of her own religious life, she had the virtuous example of her natural father to remember. He was a man of action where the sick and the needy were concerned. He refused to keep slaves even though this was tolerated among men of his class and even showed them fatherly love while hoping for their freedom. Teresa indicates too that her father was pure of heart; straightforward in word and disciplined.
Her beloved St. Joseph to whom Teresa dedicated her first reformed monastery was also a man of action whose example is given to us in silence. In the gospels we find no recorded words of Joseph, but deeds in which he protects and cares for Mary and the child Jesus. Jesus drew his humanity from the Virgin Mary and God desired that his only son should have a human father on earth. Teresa recommends to all this righteous man whom God found worthy to be guardian of the Redeemer.
“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.”
Teresa finds the practical man in St. Joseph. She testifies that this carpenter from Nazareth gives real help in helping the devout to grow in virtue. Virtues are those good habits that allow us to move toward the good. We recall Joseph guarding Jesus and Mary from the attacks of Herod who slaughtered the innocents in order to find the newborn Savior. The Church invokes Joseph as guardian and protector against evil. He is the strong virtuous man. Above all Teresa recommends that we pray to St. Joseph to ask him to teach us how to pray, he who was privileged to see the Lord Jesus and the Virgin Mary, to see and share their confidence in our Heavenly Father even in the midst of danger.
The Carmelite tradition is vibrant in the Church thanks to St. Teresa who followed the promptings of the Holy Spirit to go deeper in contemplation so as to love God more. This tradition has given spiritual masters to the Church: St. John of the Cross—Teresa’s friend and co-worker who began the reform of the men’s community as well as St. Therese of Lisieux, BL. Elizabeth of the Trinity, St. Edith Stein and many others.
Today Carmelite nuns continue devotion to St. Joseph, contemplative prayer, intercession for the priests of the Church, and for countless others. Let us also pray to and with St. Joseph, asking for a deeper spirit of prayer and for a renewal of fatherhood among married men and priests; that both become men of prayer so as to become better men.