Teresa of Avila
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St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church

 

 
Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, born in Avila, Spain on March 28, 1515, is my all-time favorite saint.  She was an adventuresome child, a teen who thought too much about her own image and was a bit vain, a religious sister who seemed to tread water for years with her vocation, one who was afflicted with a bodily illness as well as well as the discriminations toward women of the 16th century, but she was also one that Jesus chose to do great things and she embraced him and fell passionately in love with him in the process.   In her autobiography, she writes of her “final” conversion after “nearly twenty years on that stormy sea” (LVIII).  Christ drew her to his cross and she went willingly to the Crucified One.  He showed her the pains and terrors of hell, but then he raised her into his arms and captured her for periods of rapture and ecstasy.   Along the way, Teresa became a mover and a shaker during the counter-Reformation as she began to reform the Carmelite order in the church.  She was called before the Inquisition a few times, to make sure what she was doing was orthodox and actually a help in the counter reformation of the period.  She traveled extensively all throughout Spain when transportation was rudimentary and difficult.  She reformed houses of Carmel for her sisters, established new houses, and even reformed some of the men’s monasteries as well.  She befriended St. John of the Cross, 40 years her junior, and together they reshaped the Carmelite order into power houses of prayer, and became beacons for teaching prayer practices not only for the sisters and friars, but for the universal Church. 
 
St. Teresa of Avila
 
Teresa writes her autobiography at the direction of her confessor, usually referred to simply as “The Life”.  Later, she would write others, such as Foundations, Interior Castle, and The Way of Perfection, each a treasure on their own.  In Interior Castle, she describes the soul as a castle having many rooms and God would dwell in different rooms at different periods.  After an illness that brought her to death’s door in her late 20s, and after her “final” conversion, some twenty years after her entrance to Carmel, Teresa began to hear voices and experience what she called “transverberations of the heart” and her first rapture.  Teresa was also said to be so caught up in prayer that she actually elevated off the ground and other sisters witnessed these elevations, but for Teresa, they were never something she thought particularly important.  They were side effects and sort of “extras,” but not necessary for profound prayer and dialogue with God.  In her reform of Carmel, she began to teach her sisters what was really important.  She told them to choose their friends wisely. Reflecting back on her adolescent days, she especially cautioned parents to guard the company they allow their children to keep as she remembered how easily she was swayed by a cousin at that time.  She describes the “awakenings” that often accompany initial prayer practices, and credits her parents for stirring those initial impulses within her early years.  
 
She teaches her sisters about the four degrees of prayer, the second being the “Prayer of Quiet” when one learns to still oneself, and informs them that sometimes that stillness brings its own awakenings.  (The first degree is the “prayer for beginners,” in which one struggles with distractions and concentration; the third, the “prayers of praise to God,” and the fourth: “various levels of union with God”).  She tells her sisters never to give up on prayer, and to persevere in prayer, even when one doesn’t feel like it.  Her favorite saint was St. Joseph, and she encourages those who pray to cultivate a special relationship with St. Joseph.  She writes:
 
I do not know how anyone can think of the Queen of Angels, during the time she suffered so much with the Child Jesus, without giving thanks to Saint Joseph for the way he helped them.  If anyone cannot find a master to teach him how to pray, let him take this glorious saint as his master and he will not go astray. (Life, 94)
 
Perhaps one of the most radical, yet helpful changes Teresa brought to Carmel was to add another vow for the religious to take: one of enclosure.  The vow of enclosure simply meant that the sisters would remain cloistered; they would take a vow to stay within the parameters of the convent walls for the rest of their lives.  They would not engage in teaching or nursing or outside work, but would see their charism for the Church as their prayer life.  They would support the church through prayer, and in the centuries that followed, Carmelite sisters, brothers and priests became known as holy men and women who could teach others how to pray.  Their monasteries became powerhouses of prayer.  Teresa also tapped onto an important reality with this vow.  True freedom can only be enjoyed within structures and parameters.  Democracy can only be enjoyed, for instance, within the context of laws and restrictions.  Stop lights and speed limits may restrict our movements, but they also keep us safe to enjoy the freedom and joy of driving a car wherever one wanted to go.  Teresa knew that that carried over to the spiritual world as well.  Staying within one house of prayer in a particular geographical location and living with the same sisters for the rest of one’s life restricted some things, but it allowed the sisters unparalleled spiritual freedom with God.
 
Teresa was caught up in raptures and ecstasies in her prayer and had visions, but for her they were those intense theophanies, or face to face experiences of union with God.  They never lasted too long, for our mere physical natures could never handle those experiences for too long.  All of those types of experiences were brought to the soul by God.  They were never her own doing.  In a beautiful metaphor, Teresa described to her sisters the four ways one might access water to water one’s soul as if it were growing in a garden.  The more one prayed, the more it seemed that God was doing all the work:
 
The beginner must think of himself as one setting out to make a garden in which the Lord is to take delight, yet in soil most unfruitful and full of weeds.  His Majesty uproots the weeds and will set good plants in their stead.  Let us suppose that this is already done – that a soul has resolved to practice prayer and has already begun to do so.  We have now, by god’s help, like good gardeners, to make these plants grow, and so water them carefully, so that they may not perish, but may produce flowers which shall send forth great fragrance to give refreshment to this Lord of ours, so that He may often come into the garden to take His pleasure and have His delight among these virtues.
   
Let us now consider how this garden can be watered, so that we may know what we have to do, what labour it will cost us, if the gain will outweigh the labor, and for how long this labour must be borne.  It seems to me that a garden can be watered in four ways: by taking the water from a well, which costs us great labour; or by a water wheel and buckets, when the water is drawn by a windlass (I have sometimes drawn it in this way; it is less labourious than the other and gives more water); or by a stream or a brook, which waters the ground much better, for it saturates it more thoroughly and there is less need to water it often, so that the gardener’s labour is much less; or by heavy rain, when the Lord waters with no labour of ours, a way incomparably better than any of those which have been described……
 
Beginners in prayer, we may say, are those who draw up the water out of the well.  This, as I have said, is a very labourious proceeding for it will fatigue then to keep their senses recollected, which is a great labour, because they have been accustomed to a life of distraction.
 
Teresa used these and many other metaphors to teach her sisters.  She struggled with temptations and the devil was certainly real for her with his temptations.  She had her own “dry” periods and wrote that for one whole year she didn’t pray at all.   Still, one of the most important pieces of information she passed along to her fellow sisters was how important it was in the spiritual world to “know oneself”.  Teresa, like many other saints and mystics, was acutely aware of her own sinfulness.  She lived true humility.
 
She died in 1582 at 67 years of age.  In 1614, she was beatified; in 1622 Teresa became St. Teresa of Avila; in 1617, she was declared the Patroness of Spain, and in 1970, was declared a Doctor of the Church along with St. Catherine of Siena, the first two women to receive that title.  Her feast day is October 15th.  
 

 

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Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, it that direct intuition or experience of God; a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centered not merely on accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge.                    

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