Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

St Teresa of Avila

Today has been the feast day of St Teresa of Avila, and this evening at our meeting of the lay Brothers of the Oratory Fr Jerome marked the occasion by going through just one of her letters to explore her personality and spirituality. In that one letter she engaged in humorous banter with her correspondent, passed on news of her latest foundation, retailed news of her own health, enquired after his and also gave several succinct and pertinent points about the life of prayer and how to foster and develop it - and all in a forthright, uncomplicated and very accessible way. This was in Fr Jerome's view quintessential St Teresa, and I am in entire agreement with his interpretation.

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St Teresa of Avila

Image:tradition in action

I have read both some of her letters and also some of her books. They all have a slightly breathless practicality and good humour that makes you want to read more, and whenever I do look at her works I do indeed intend to find the time to read more of her writings or books about her - but then, and I am sure she would understand, I get distracted and do not follow through with my intention. Maybe next Advent or Lent...?

You want to read more because St Teresa is so comfortably human and humane, full of practical common sense alongside sublime spiritual insights. Her humanity makes her seem to be a true companion, someone whom it would be good fun to meet, and yet also someone who in a few phrases can convey the deepest truths.

Her Autobiography, which clearly owes quite a bit to St Augustine's Confessions, despite her protestations of feminine inadequacy, is a wonderfully self-aware portrait.

As a historian I find such a self-portrait of a sixteenth century woman, or the bustling busy nun of the Letters, who can find time to scribble down The Interior Castle between the office, cooking and founding new Carmels on her travels along the bumpy, mountainous and flooded roads of the Spain of her day a quite fascinating historical source. You hear the authentic voice of a sixteenth century Spanish woman - the fact that she is a Saint and a Doctor of the Church is a huge bonus - but she is a vibrant and intriguing personality. 

As a result I am tempted to say that I tend to find her more immediately accessible as a flesh and blood human being than the equally great fellow Carmelite Doctor and namesake St Therese of Lisieux from the much more recent nineteenth century - the world of the Martin family in some way appears less immediately understandable than the more remote world of Philip II's Spain.

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