Teresa of Ávila: A Patron Saint for Bookworms?
“I do not believe I was ever happy if I had not a new book.”
My interest in and devotion to St. Teresa of Ávila began, fittingly enough, with the turn of a page.
Of course, I knew of the great Carmelite saint by reputation: mystic, doctor of the Church, author of such spiritual classics as The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle. I admit that St. Teresa’s renown as a spiritual master daunted me a bit, but I felt a call to investigate her writings. So, after years of delay, I ordered a copy of her autobiography.
I was expecting high and ethereal theological meditations. And while St. Teresa’s reflections on spirituality are certainly beautiful and profound, her frank assessments of her life and times are also winsomely earnest and often humorously self-deprecating. Even four centuries later, her words are engaging, enlightening, and relatable. One confession in particular struck a chord with me. When recounting her childhood and early life, Teresa reports: “I do not believe I was ever happy if I had not a new book.”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a voracious reader! I developed a passion for collecting and reading books of all kinds: science fiction and fantasy novels, comic books, and nonfiction books about a diverse array of topics. As a teenager I used to venture on foot about my hometown in the afternoons after I had finished my homeschool studies. My ramblings would often take me to the local used book store, where I would explore the stacks with the eagerness of a treasure hunter. I’d stay for hours and eventually trudge back home with a knapsack loaded with new discoveries.
To this day, I remain a certified bibliophile. My personal library of tomes is always growing and I take pride in it. Like many collectors, I freely admit that sometimes I spend more money on my hobby than is prudent. Yet, I’m working to be more responsible and moderate when it comes to books. After all, even an innocent hobby, if unchecked by temperance, can quickly mutate into a vice.
I think that St. Teresa would have understood this predicament very well. Like many lifelong readers, her interest in books began at a young age. Her mother would often read tales of chivalry to while away the hours as she suffered from recurring bouts of chronic illness. However, she was also a conscientious woman, and never permitted her pastime to interfere with her important duties as a wife and mother. Unfortunately, the love of acquiring and reading books soon became somewhat of an obsession for her daughter. Young Teresa read incessantly, and was seldom found without a book. She confesses: “I began to become addicted to this reading, and this little fault, which I had observed in my mother, began to chill my desires and to lead me astray in other respects as well."
Although Teresa’s early frivolous reading proved to be a distraction from the things of God, as a young woman she developed a fondness for pious books. In particular, the epistles of St. Jerome inspired her to give up worldliness and follow the call to religious life. After she entered the convent, spiritual reading continued to be a solace and aid in Teresa’s contemplative prayer. She writes: "What still gave me most pleasure was the reading of good books, which was my only recreation."
Books and literacy are wonderful gifts from God and, when directed towards growth in the spiritual life, reading can be a path that draws us closer to Him. But, of course, reading and book collecting, like all forms of leisure, need to be kept in the proper proportion. We mustn’t allow them to become obsessions that eat up all our time or money, or that interfere with the duties and obligations of our state in life. I confess that I still haven’t arrived at an appropriate balance, and I often struggle to control an intemperate desire to accumulate more and more books. Luckily, I have a new friend in heaven who understands this difficulty! I suggest that all Catholic book lovers ought to adopt St. Teresa of Ávila as the unofficial patron saint of bookworms! If we pray for her intercession in humility and sincerity, I’m certain she can obtain for us many graces so that we can grow in the virtues of temperance and prudence.
St. Teresa of Ávila, pray for us!