I went to St. Teresa’s Secondary School, Kidderpore, Kolkata. (See here for my earlier post on nostalgia for Kolkata.) I felt a link with St. Teresa as October 15th, the day the school celebrated the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila, happened to be my birthday. This post has received tremendous response particularly from the students of this wonderful school from all over the world. It has helped me reconnect with some of my classmates, no small deed! Some were kind enough to comment, appreciate and also correct some of the facts. Thank you dear friends. So a small correction from the earlier version.
St. Teresa was canonized in 1622, that is declared a Saint in the Catholic church. She was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970, when her writings were recognized as mystical literature of the church. There are very few women declared as saints by the church, and St. Teresa of Avila is one of them.
In India of course the more well known St. Teresa is Mother Teresa of the Missionaries of Charity, Kolkata. She was beatified in 2003, the first step towards sainthood, and Pope Francis declared her a saint, St. Teresa of Calcutta, in 2016.
St. Teresa of Avila was born into a noble family in Spain in 1515. She died in 1582 and was canonized, declared a saint, in 1970. To be declared a saint, some form of ‘miracle’ has to be reported and ‘verified’. I definitely do not believe in miracles and am a rationalist to the core.
What I discovered and what struck me was not her sainthood, but how in that era she stood up for, and went about doing what she thought was right. One might even term her an old world feminist. “Just being a woman is enough for my wings to fall off,” as written in her autobiography. How truly she understood and faced the circumstances that stood in her way for ‘just being a woman’.
She was a voracious reader, one of my favourite hobbies. She is said to have been part of a network of women who exchanged books. Sounds like a very innocuous activity, but in that time when women were seen as an ‘insignificant species’ even this for of networking would have been viewed with suspicion. In fact it appeared she was watched closely as she was suspected of dissent by the authorities of the church perhaps because she did not necessarily conform. She wrote about her experiences and her way of ‘meditation’, the interior castle. While it was probably considered heresy at that time, her writings are now considered mystical literature by the Catholic church, for which she was declared Doctor of the Church in 1970. She established convents through out Spain and was known as the ‘Walking Nun’ as she traveled on foot. See reference here to these interesting facts about St. Teresa of Avila:
“1. She felt that a day when she couldn’t read a new book was a day lost.
2. With the complicity of her mother and behind the back of her strict father, she read books about the great deeds of knights, which were very popular at the time.
3. There are hypotheses that suggest that Teresa was part of a network of women who exchanged books.
4. She was independent and autonomous. When she understood that God was calling her to be a nun, and after she told her father (who rejected the idea), she decided to leave her parents’ house, and she went to the monastery of the Incarnation (in Avila).
5. The day she entered the monastery (November 2, 1535), the bells were ringing for All Souls day.
6. She overcame bureaucratic and economic obstacles—and, Dobner says, also the male chauvinism of the time—and managed to found new convents.
7. She established small convents throughout Spain. She traveled on foot, and thus became called the “walking” (“andariega”) saint.
8. She taught her nuns to think and pray on their own, and to concentrate in order to hear the Lord in their interior, in what she called the “Interior Castle.”
9. She was closely watched because she was suspected of heresy, but they couldn’t find anything that contradicted the idea that she was obeying God’s will.
10. She always abandoned herself to God’s will, and was a very determined woman who knew where she was going. She often used to say, “I am yours, Lord; I was born for You. What do you want from me?”
11. In 1970, together with Saint Catherine of Siena, she was declared a Doctor of the Church.
12. As she herself admitted, sometimes she felt like “a lion,” and other times like “an ant.”
St. Teresa of Avila was a truly remarkable woman, unsung and unheard of for a couple of centuries after her time. Am happy to unearth these interesting facts about her, the namesake of my alma mater, St. Teresa’s Secondary School, Kolkata.