Happy Birthday to Saint Teresa of Jesus, the great Carmelite saint of Avila!
Born today five-hundred years ago on March 28, 1515, she let God make her into a true instrument for His Glory as a reformer, spiritual author, and Doctor of the Church. Her strength of character, humor and penetrating insight has made her a friend to many over the years.
Joining our voices with Carmelites and all those who celebrate her today (see official site in English honoring the anniversary, links from Spain to many other pages about the 500th Anniversary), we wish to honor her by highlighting this posthumous friendship and powerful intercession in the lives of two unlikely converts within just a few years of each other in the 1920’s: St. Edith Stein (1891-1942) and Servant of God Dorothy Day (1897-1980).
St. Teresa and the Jewish Intellectual in 1921
Already in the throws of spiritual searching, St. Edith Stein came to know St. Teresa of Jesus in 1921 through her friend Hedwig Conrad-Martius. These two scholarly women first met sometime in 1913 at Göttingen where Hedwig and her husband Hans Theodor Conrad had both been part of the philosophical circles surrounding Edmund Husserl. Following their marriage, the Conrads lived alternately in Munich and Bergzabern.
During a vacation with the Conrads at their large fruit farm in Bergzabern in 1921, Edith Stein enjoyed days outdoors with them. “Edith, who never shrank from practical work, found the fruit-picking, packing, and grading a valuable mental relaxation. She threw herself into whatever was going on. During the day they worked; in the evening they talked philosophy.” (Teresia Renata Posselt, OCD, Edith Stein: The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite (1947, trans. and reprint 2005, ICS), p.63)
Because both husband and wife needed to be away from the farm during part of this visit, Hedwig showed Edith the bookshelf and encouraged her to pick something to pass the time. Edith Stein describes the episode this way:
“I picked at random and took out a large volume. It bore the title The Life of Teresa of Avila, written by herself. I began to read, was at once captivated, and did not stop until I reached the end. As I closed the book, I said, ‘That is the truth.'” [G 4]
Stein scholars note that in the final chapter of The Life (especially paragraph 22) St. Teresa shows a “vision of the truth” which must have particularly resonated with the philosophical and spiritual conversion that Edith Stein was seeking (Posselt, p.292, notes to G 4; from the editorial work of Susanne M. Batzdorff, Josephine Koeppel and John Sullivan).
That night of reading in 1921 was a decisive step in her journey into the Catholic Church. St. Edith Stein was baptized on January 1, 1922 in the Church of St. Martin’s in Bad Bergzabern where the edition of The Life of Teresa of Avila that Edith Stein read that night is kept in the parish museum.
Her vocation as a Carmelite was also tied directly to this encounter with St. Teresa as it has been noted: “From that moment on, Edith was strongly aware that an attraction to live out her baptismal commitment as a member of the Discalced Carmelite Order, and so as a daughter of Teresa of Jesus, was inseparable from her resolve to enter the Church.” (p.420, editorial “Chronology” in Life in a Jewish Family: Her Unfinished Autobiographical Account, The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Volume One (1986, ICS Publications, Washington, DC)
St. Edith Stein finally entered Carmel on October 14, 1933, the vigil of the Feast of St. Teresa of Jesus (October 15). On April 15, 1934 she received the religious habit and took as her new religious name: Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. When Edmund Hussrel inquired about the ceremony and new life of Edith Stein, his former star student and academic assistant, he was given an image of St. Teresa of Jesus so as to imagine Edith’s new appearance as a nun. (see the touching details and additional comments of Hussrel concerning St. Teresa, Scholasticism, mystism, and Edith herself, pp. 154-155, Posselt)
Among her many scholarly and spiritual writings composed within Carmel, we find an early booklet of sixty-pages dedicated to the biography of St. Teresa “rightly called a gem precisely because of its brevity, while at the same time it presents all the essential features of the saint and her work. Kanisiusverlag published it in 1934.” (Posselt, p. 155) In English this work is called “Love for Love—the Life and Works of St. Teresa of Jesus” found in Hidden Life: Essays, Meditations, Spiritual Texts, The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Vol. 4, pp. 67-75.
St. Teresa and the Social Radical in 1926
Through an unlikely route, Servant of God Dorothy Day (1897-1980) discovered and “befriended” St. Teresa of Jesus by reading Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902) by William James. In his extensive analysis, James offers a conflictual portrait of the saint, both humanly flattering and yet so utterly anti-Catholic as to miss her completely. He writes:
“Take Saint Teresa, for example, one of the ablest women, in many respects, of whose life we have the record. She had a powerful intellect of the practical order. She wrote admirable descriptive psychology, possessed a will equal to any emergency, great talent for politics and business, a buoyant disposition, and a first-rate literary style. She was tenaciously aspiring, and put her whole life at the service of her religious ideals. Yet so paltry were these, according to our present way of thinking, that (although I know that others have been moved differently) I confess that my only feeling in reading her has been pity that so much vitality of soul should have found such poor employment.” (Lectures XIV And XV. The Value Of Saintliness., pp. 340-341 of PDF edition of the Guttenburg Project)
James describes her and St. John of the Cross further in Lectures XVI and XVII on Mysticism which also include large excerpts of her own writings. What he intended as derisive and a mere case study of emotional and psychological disturbances were for Dorothy Day in the 1920’s a charming portrait of someone who was extremely compelling. Some time before 1925, she went on to read the The Life of Teresa of Jesus, a sort of parallel experience shared St. Edith Stein just a few years before.
While Dorothy Day’s own journey to the Catholic Church had been closely tied to her love for the poor, and to the compelling non-violence of authentic Christianity, ultimately the life of prayer is what lead her to the “Other” whom she sought. She describes her love for St. Teresa of Jesus in “Love Overflows” of “Part Two: Natural Happiness” in her autobiography The Long Loneliness (1980):
“…I had read the life of St. Teresa of Avila and fallen in love with her. She was a mystic and a practical woman, a recluse and a traveler, a cloistered nun and yet most active. She liked to read novels when she was a young girl, and she wore a bright red dress when she entered the convent….”
Dorothy Day came to know and love St. Teresa during the period of her life with Forester Batterham, a committed relationship between free thinkers (Batterham was an anarchist) who both rejected the formal structure of marriage. Living outside of New York in a seasonal bungalow on Staten Island, Dorothy Day found herself pregnant just as she was also leaning towards the radical possibility of entrance into the Catholic Church…a move which she rightfully feared would end her life with Forester since he would not follow her even to the minimal conditions of a sacramental marriage.
In receiving the life of her child and the movements towards conversion, she writes: “There had been the physical struggle, the mortal combat almost, of giving birth to a child, and now there was coming the struggle for my own soul. Tamar would be baptized, and I knew the rending it would cause in human relations around me.”
Describing this period of her life the Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day enumerates a number of the most famous humerous expressions and bold anecdotes about St. Teresa and how this relationship influenced the name she gave to her baby in March 1926:
“there were other delightful little touches to the story of her life which made me love her and feel close to her. I have since heard a priest friend of ours remark gloomily that one could go to hell imitating the imperfections of the saints, but these little incidents brought out in her biography made her delightfully near to me. So I decided to name my daughter after her.”
On December 28, 1927, Dorothy Day was conditionally baptized and received her first Holy Communion the following day. Her new home in the Catholic Church and a life with Christ had just begun…and would take on the rest of her life in service of the poor and love for God.
The road of God’s grace is one that He alone directs, and yet He also invites us to share it with our fellow travelers. The example and strength of the saints is redoubled by their intercessory prayers from Heaven. Fr. Buela, our founder, often teaches how the saints are witnesses of the fruitfulness of the Cross through time and how their lives offer us real encouragement that lets us say, “they did it, so can we!”
On this her Five Hundredth Birthday Anniversary, we give thanks for St. Teresa of Jesus who has lead so many souls to Christ by her willingness to let Him be her all. We thank her especially as patroness of the International Juniorate in Italy and as special guide and friend to all the contemplative members in our monasteries around the world.
Prayer of St. Teresa found in her breviary
Nada te turbe,
nada te espante,
todo se pasa;
Dios no se muda.
todo lo alcanza;
Quien a Dios tiene,
nada le falta;
Solo Dios basta.
Translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
In nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth.
FURTHER READING / VIDEOS:
Pope Francis remarks on the Anniversary, March 28, 2015.
Pope Benedict’s General Audience about the life and influence of St. Teresa of Avila (February 2, 2011)
Archived videos the high quality mini-series “Teresa de Jesus” (with Concha Velasco) made in Spain in the 1970’s, from RTVE.es.
“Dictionary” of St. Teresa of Jesus in Spanish, a remarkable gathering of terms, names, places, and their meaning in the life of St. Teresa.